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Antigua voted tops for travel

February 15, 2009|Deborah Bonello, Jon Healey and Catherine Ho

Readers of the British travel magazine Wanderlust voted the Guatemalan city of Antigua tops for travel in the magazine's annual awards. The Central American city bested Luang Prabang in Laos, winner for the previous two years, to the title.

The decision by the magazine's readers and voters was noted with pride by the Guatemala Times, in which Barbara Schieber wrote that it "is a great pride for Guatemala that La Antigua has been chosen as number one city in the world to visit. Number two is Kyoto in Japan, that is a tough one to beat. Paris and New York did not make it to the top ten."

Latin America has been doing well in travel awards of late. Mexico City was declared the world's top religious tourist destination in January, and Peru and Mexico's Michoacan were named two of the top 10 cultural destinations in the world by Forbes magazine.

Latin American countries dominated the Ethical Traveler's top 10 travel destinations and Conde Nast Traveler's readers' choice awards voted Mexico's San Miguel de Allende and Oaxaca among the hemisphere's top 10 cities to visit.

-- Deborah Bonello in Mexico City

From: La Plaza: News, links & observations about Latin America from Times correspondents

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Book retailer takes on Kindle

Not long after Amazon releases the new version of its Kindle e-book reader late this month, a Canadian counterpart of Barnes & Noble is slated to launch a competing digital book platform. Called Shortcovers, it aims for a much faster-growing group of consumers than Amazon, whose $359 price tag for the Kindle is a deal-breaker for many. The Shortcovers crew is targeting people with smartphones, starting with BlackBerrys, iPhones and G1s, then Windows Mobile devices. Shortcovers will work on laptops and Netbooks as well.

Amazon hasn't said how many Kindles have been sold; analysts estimate a up to half a million. That number is dwarfed by the amount of iPhones, BlackBerrys and G1s in circulation. So the market opportunity for Shortcovers is huge; the question is whether the owners of those devices will be comfortable reading books, magazines, newspapers and other items sold by Shortcovers on their comparatively small screens.

Indigo Books & Music, the Toronto-based retailer behind Shortcovers, is trying to differentiate itself in at least a couple of ways. The "overarching" message from surveys was that consumers like to sample things before deciding whether to buy, said Mike Serbinis, executive vice president of Shortcovers. So Shortcovers will let customers read, free of charge, the first chapter of the downloadable books it sells; additional chapters will cost 99 cents each, and books will sell for the same price as their physical counterparts. Other items distributed through the platform will also come with free tastes.

A second important element of Shortcovers is, as Serbinis put it, "finding your next great read." The service tries to do that through a combination of staff picks, algorithm-driven recommendations and social-media tools. For example, it allows people to share the free samples they download, as well as to upload content for others to read (with filters to deter piracy). Users will also be able to compile and share lists of books, articles and other items in the Shortcovers catalog.

The goal, Serbinis said, is to give people the chance to act on an impulse to buy a book or an article as soon as the impulse strikes. That's why Shortcovers is starting with popular smartphones instead of dedicated e-book displays, although he said the company was talking to a number of manufacturers developing such devices.

Personally, I can't see reading hundreds of pages of a book on a screen the size of a credit card, but I could see getting news and magazine articles that way. But I may not be the target market; I don't have a smartphone.

-- Jon Healey

From: Technology: The business and culture of our digital lives

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Infertility linked to chemicals

Pregnant women in the U.S. are at greater risk than previously thought for infertility and reproductive problems from exposure to chemicals found in many consumer products including food wrappers, cookware and clothing.

According to scientists at the UCLA School of Public Health, women with high levels of perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) in their blood had a harder time conceiving and were twice as likely to be diagnosed with infertility as women with lower levels of the chemicals in their systems.

The study, published Jan. 29 in the European medicine journal Human Reproduction, analyzed data from 1,240 women from a 1996 Danish study. Women with more than 3.9 ppb (parts per billion) of PFOA in their bodies had a dramatically reduced chance of conceiving, the study found.

The study is one of the few to examine how the chemicals affect humans.

"Recently animal studies have shown that these chemicals may have a variety of toxic effects on the liver, immune system and developmental and reproductive organs," said Chunyuan Fei, the study's first author. "Very few human studies have been done, but one of our earlier studies showed that PFOA, although not PFOS, may impair the growth of babies in the womb."

PFOA, a synthetic chemical, can lead to developmental problems in lab animals and pose a risk to the environment, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

PFOA is useful because it has fire-resistant and water-repellent qualities, which are useful in making in non-stick cookware, all-weather clothing and food packaging.

-- Catherine Ho

From: Greenspace: Environmental news from California and beyond

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