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Limits lifted on bringing in Cuban rum, cigars

The Obama administration announced Friday that it is eliminating a $100 limit on the value of Cuban rum and cigars that American travelers can bring back from the island.

The administration is also lifting limits on cargo ship travel between the U.S. and Cuba and easing U.S. and Cuban researchers’ ability to conduct joint medical research. The measures are contained in a package of relatively small-scale regulatory changes meant to ease U.S. trade with Cuba.

The Obama administration has now made six sets of changes loosening the U.S. trade embargo on Cuba in the hopes that the normalization of relations with the island will not be reversed by a future administration. This round is expected to be the last before President Barack Obama leaves office.

Cuban rum and cigars will now be subject to the same duties as alcohol and tobacco from other countries, meaning most travelers will be able to bring back as many as 100 cigars and several bottles of rum. Because high-end Cuban cigars can sell for more than $100 apiece outside Cuba, every U.S. traveler can now legally bring back many thousands of dollars of Cuban products, potentially generating hundreds of millions of dollars in new annual revenue for the Cuban state.

The change does not mean that Cuban rum and cigars will be available for sale in the U.S. — the change is aimed at tobacco and alcohol brought home for personal use.

The previous limit restricted travelers to a combined value of $100 in rum and cigars, although enforcement of the limit notably declined after President Barack Obama declared detente with Cuba on Dec. 17, 2014.

The administration has described its policy goal as aimed at helping the Cuban people improve their lives by winning greater economic and political freedom from the single-party state.

“Challenges remain – and very real differences between our governments persist on issues of democracy and human rights – but I believe that engagement is the best way to address those differences and make progress on behalf of our interests and values,” Obama said in a statement announcing the changes.

Rum and cigar production is entirely government-run under Cuba’s centrally planned communist economy. While the first regulatory changes focused narrowly on helping Cuba’s growing private sector, Friday’s new rules are almost entirely aimed at similarly state-run industries including shipping and medical products.

The package of regulatory changes announced Friday also allows cargo ships to visit U.S. ports directly after docking in Cuba. They had been barred from U.S. ports for 180 days after visiting Cuba. Cuba blamed that measure for harming its ability to import and export and dampening hopes that a new military-run port in the city of Mariel could serve as a major link in the regional cargo shipping system.

A senior Obama administration official said the new regulations’ focus on Cuban state enterprise should not be interpreted as a shift away from helping ordinary Cubans.

“We have designed the policy very much to have the maximum benefit to the Cuban people, broadly, but in so doing we are not restricting engagement with the Cuban state. That has been clear since Dec. 17, 2014,” the official said in a conference call with reporters held on condition of anonymity. “The Cuban people continue to be at the center of everything we’re doing.”

More than 160,000 American travelers visited Cuba last year and that figure is expected to double this year. Hundreds of thousands of Cuban-Americans visit family on the island each year and will also be able to take advantage of the new measure, which comes a month and a half before the restart of commercial flights to Havana after more than 50 years.

From food to makeup, ‘Star Wars’ stuff is out of this world

Right now, in a store not too far away, there is a galaxy of new merchandise connected to “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.”

Beyond the usual action figures and apparel, the seventh installment in the space franchise (and the first from merchandise-driven Disney) boasts a broader array of branded products than ever before: from Chewbacca Coffee-Mate creamer (Wookiees drink coffee?) and “Star Wars” mascara to $400 designer Death Star shoes and a $4,000 Millennium Falcon bed.

“It’s wider and broader and deeper and covers more age ranges and is less gender specific than anything I have ever seen for ‘Star Wars,”” said Steve Sansweet, Lucasfilm’s former director of fan relations and Guinness world record holder for the largest collection of “Star Wars” memorabilia.

Expanding the universe of “Star Wars” merchandise internationally was part of Disney’s original vision when it acquired Lucasfilm, he said: “It was very clear from the front, and they have followed their game plan.”

The result is an amazingly diverse range of products, from the unexpected (light-up lightsaber chopsticks) to the unbelievable (haute couture Stormtrooper wear). International offerings have grown in scope and distinction, too, with local licensees and artisans interpreting the iconic characters for their cultures.

Sansweet recently added some Japanese items to his collection, including soy sauce plates and “little kokeshi dolls, which are typical of a small community in Japan,” he said. “They’re usually carved in traditional format of samurai or geisha or something like that, and now there’s a whole series of ‘Star Wars’ (characters).”

Retired from Lucasfilm, Sansweet now shares his “Star Wars” collection with the public through his nonprofit Rancho Obi-Wan museum in Petaluma, California, where he offers educational tours and hosts private events, including two weddings.

Here’s a look at some of the more unusual items keyed to “The Force Awakens,” some of which Sansweet has already added to his collection:

FOOD: Chewbacca isn’t the only one with his own Coffee-Mate creamer. Darth Vader, C-3PO, R2-D2 and Boba Fett also got the creamer treatment, and each is a different flavor. (Chewie is spiced latte.) New York’s Ample Hills Creamery introduced two new flavors in “Star Wars” packaging: The Light Side is marshmallow ice cream with crispy clusters, and The Dark Side is dark chocolate with espresso fudge brownies.

Other branded food items include special General Mills cereal boxes (one shows the Trix rabbit as Princess Leia) with plastic “droid viewers” inside and Kraft macaroni and cheese with pasta in “Star Wars shapes.”

“I’m chasing around trying to find bags of Darth Vader apples,” Sansweet said. “It’s crazy! But it’s fun-crazy.”

MAKEUP: CoverGirl’s limited-edition “Star Wars” collection includes nail polish, mascara and lipstick in such shades as Droid, Jedi and Dark Apprentice.

CLOTHING: Beyond the typical T-shirts and PJs, there are one-of-a-kind designer outfits based on “The Force Awakens” characters, such as Halston’s gown inspired by villain Kylo Ren, up for auction this month (www.charitybuzz.com ) to benefit the Child Mind Institute. American watch maker Devon has a limited-edition “Star Wars” model available for $28,500. The outrageous “Star Wars” collection from British footwear company Irregular Choice is more affordable but may be harder to wear. The C-3PO flats are cute and low-key, but the Death Star platform booties with the Stormtrooper- and Darth Vader-shaped heels are out of this world.

LIFESTYLE: Adult collectors might covet Pottery Barn Kids’ Millennium Falcon bed, modeled after the legendary starship (and only available in twin size). American Tourister has a line of “Star Wars” luggage, and the Disney Store has a backpack shaped like a Stormtrooper helmet. There’s a Darth Vader toaster that brands your breakfast bread with the “Star Wars” logo and the aforementioned light-up lightsaber chopsticks, plus an X-Wing knife block and many other household items.

Is there anything that can’t be branded “Star Wars?”

“There are limits,” Sansweet said. “I’m not sure we’ve seen the end of the limits yet.”

Soggy Doggy, Puppy Pot: inventions by and for pet owners

Joanna Rein knew there was a way to prevent her rambunctious Labrador-collie mix from tracking in mud, water and drool from the soggy outdoors.

“The kids thought it was funny. They’d chase the dog,” said Rein, of Larchmont, New York. “I’d run behind them all with towels. Buddy thought it was a game.”

She used her dirty floors to her advantage, creating a line of dog-drying doormats and special towels called Soggy Doggy.

With people putting more money into products for pets — whether for pampering, aiding aging animals or just keeping the house clean — some entrepreneurial owners have invented their own helpful devices. And some, like Rein, have turned them into multimillion-dollar ventures.

“Most of the small companies that enter the industry do it because they have a pet and identified a need that wasn’t being addressed,” said Andrew Darmohraj, executive vice president of the American Pet Products Association.

Smaller companies make up more than half of the group’s membership. They form the core of the industry, which is expected to account for more than $42 billion in U.S. spending this year, he said.

Here are some popular pet-owner inventions:

SOGGY DOGGY

Rein started her product line by trying to make her own doormat to soak up the slop when Buddy got drenched in rain or rolled around in the mud.

She paid a tailor to sew hundreds of orange shammy cloths over a thin layer of foam, put it at the back door and waited for her dog.

“He took one look and jumped over it,” she said. “He would not step on it, wouldn’t go near it.”

Then, Rein found microfiber shammies made with parachute nylon, which her dog didn’t mind stopping on for a shake.

Her business got a break when rain and snow started in November 2010 and seemingly didn’t stop until the next June. She sold the mats from her car trunk but ran out of them in weeks, while more orders came in.

Since then, she’s sold hundreds of thousands of mats and created “slopmats,” which sop up slobber and water under dog bowls, and “Slobber Swabbers,” a handled fabric brush that collects drool from pets’ faces or from windows and car seats.

GROOM GENIE

Rikki Mor of Denver converted her hair detangler for kids into a popular pet brush.

Shaped like a dog paw, the Groom Genie works on long or short coats and spreads natural oils through the fur, she said.

“It’s turned my life upside down in ways I never expected,” Mor said. “I love that it’s tested on humans and good enough for pets.”

It emerged from the Knot Genie, a million-dollar online empire started six years ago and inspired by her three long-haired daughters.

Mor promised them to try to end the daily detangling nightmare that always ended with tears. She met with consultants and ran tests.

She eliminated the balls on the end of bristles and reshaped the bristles and base, which eliminated pain.

Mor got appreciative letters from parents, then received notes from pet owners saying the brushes calmed their dogs and cats.

PUP POT

These bright-orange products to make, serve and store meals for dogs emerged from the pup-centric minds of Kris Rotonda and Denise Fernandez, creators of the online dating service YouMustLoveDogsDating.com.

After launching the matchmaking site in 2013, they started the Doggy Cooking Network on YouTube last year.

Their Pup Pot line comes with a 3.8-quart stainless steel cooking pot, a paw-shaped serving base, and two serving and storage bowls that are microwave-safe. As a bonus, there’s an e-book of the couple’s favorite recipes.

On the Web …

www.soggydoggydoormat.com

www.groomgenie.com

www.puppot.com

Tracking patents not steps: Jawbone sues Fitbit in fight over patents

How many steps to the courthouse?

Fitness tracker maker Jawbone has filed its second lawsuit in two weeks against competitor Fitbit.

The complaint filed Wednesday says that essentially all of Fitbit’s products violate patents belonging to Jawbone, and asks the court to stop Fitbit from making and selling those products. Jawbone wants a jury trial to resolve the issue, and it is also seeking compensatory damages, attorney’s fees, and other payments if the court deems them appropriate.

Fitbit, based in San Francisco, said it will defend itself against the lawsuits. It said its products are independently developed and that the company has more than 200 patents and patent applications.

In late May, Jawbone filed a lawsuit in Superior Court in San Francisco saying Fitbit and a group of employees who quit Jawbone to work for Fitbit stole trade secrets, business plans, market research, and other information. 

Both companies make watch-sized devices that capture fitness data like how many steps a wearer takes and estimate how many calories they are burning, how far they’ve traveled, and how long they’ve been active. Some of them also capture heart rate and running speed and sleep duration and quality, among other things. They can be synced up with smartphone apps.

Jawbone’s fitness trackers are called the Up Move, Up2 and Up3, and it also makes Jambox wireless speakers and headsets. Fitbit’s product lineup includes a group of “everyday” fitness trackers called Zip, One, Flex, and Charge, the heart rate-tracking Charge HR, its high-end Surge model, and a Wi-Fi-connected scale called Aria that records data like body fat in addition to weight. Jawbone’s lawsuit said each of those devices violates at least one of three patents belonging to the company.

Fitbit Inc. filed for an initial public offering in May and recently said it expects the offering to raise about $450 million. It reported $745 million in revenue in 2014.

Bill to ban microbeads advances

The Wisconsin Senate has advanced legislation aimed at protecting the Great Lakes by scrubbing out personal care products containing microbeads.

The bill — introduced by Republican state Sens. Rob Cowles and Mary Czaja — passed by unanimous voice vote in the Senate, and, as WiG went to press, was awaiting consideration in the Assembly.

The measure would stop the manufacture and stocking for sale of personal care products that contain microbeads, tiny plastic bits found in body scrubs and toothpastes that get rinsed down the drain, wash through water treatment systems and reach Wisconsin waters. 

One bottle of facial scrub with microbeads can contain more than 300,000 plastic particles. These particles do not quickly break down. Instead, they contaminate water and can be ingested by fish and other wildlife.

Clean Wisconsin, an environmental advocacy group, says the chemicals in the plastic or soaked up by the microbeads can cause much greater concentrations of chemicals in animals higher up the food chain.

“It’s imperative that we do all we can to protect our waters and reduce the use of unnecessary microbeads,” said Tyson Cook, Clean Wisconsin director of science and research.

He praised bipartisan support for the bill. 

Other proponents include the Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters, which issued a statement encouraging members to contact lawmakers in support of the bill. The league’s action notice warned that microbeads “absorb pollutants such as DDT and PCBs, posing a risk to fish communities and human health when they are ingested.”

Wisconsin would join Illinois, New Jersey and several other states that are currently considering banning the beads. Many of the largest personal care companies have already agreed to phase out their use.

WIGWIRED: Out and Active

Extreme Selfie. The prestigious Tillywig Award for “best toy” has gone to Lexibook’s Wi-Fi Move Cam, a sports camera made for action and adventure — pedaling down a mountain bike trail, hiking around the bend, snorkeling on the lake’s bottom and swimming out to the float.

Seek & find. Pricey boats are equipped with pricey fish finders and depth plotters. For anglers just paddling away from shore in a kayak, or even standing on shore or a pier, Deeper’s Smart Fishfinder is a more moderately priced alternative at $250. The fishfinder is cast using a rod and reel to send an image of what lies beneath the water to a companion app. Be sure to double-check the clasp before casting.

Spot on. For those heading into remote or rural areas and not expecting reliable cell signals, the Spot satellite messenger can be used to let social media friends know when you’ve reached the summit of the mountain or the bottom of the canyon but, more importantly, transmit an SOS when an emergency strikes.

Pocket trainer. Train for more than a game with the free Mountain Athletics app, which contains an instant goal tracker, training for endurance and strength, a timer and rep counter and athlete tips.

On break. Take the phone but turn off email. A recent survey found that work email is encroaching into the personal lives and downtime of many laborers. About 44.8 percent of those surveyed for the poll say they check work email at least once a day in their personal time.About 63.6 percent of those surveyed admit to checking work email while on holiday, and:

• 6.7% have gone through work email during a child’s school event.

• 5% have checked work email during a wedding ceremony.

• 3.8% have checked work mail during a funeral.

• 3.8% owned up to checking their work email while their spouse was in labor.

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