It's tough to argue that the economy is in a recovery stage at this point. Holiday spending was up in late-2010, and most retailers - from auto dealerships to grocery stores - are reporting increased revenue compared to the same period last year. And if that's not enough convince you, IBM is about to mass market a multi-million-dollar supercomputer to corporations. But before it does, the computer must face our generation's brightest mind - Alex Trebek. (These tips will have you singing "Joy to the World" well into the New Year. See 8 Tips To Help You Control Holiday Spending.)
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Shopping for a Sign
There was some good news following 2010's holiday shopping season. The Commerce Department reported last week that 2010's holiday sales in retail stores were up 7.9% from last year's numbers. The increase spans all types of retail sellers, and represents one of the most solid indicators of economic turnaround yet.

This increase marks the largest holiday sales surge in six years, and continuation of this trend could lead to increased hiring in the retail and services industries in the near future - another solid recovery sign. But for now, the seeming stagnant nature of retail hiring represents low overall annual sales and a reluctance by the retail sector to increase the workforce, for fear of a recessionary repeat. (You don't have to go into debt to have a happy and memorable holiday season. Use these tips for a bountiful Yuletide on a Scrooge-like budget. Check out Tips For Avoiding A Holiday Spending Hangover.)

Bypassing the Box
Remember Redbox? Those soft drink dispenser-looking DVD vendors that people began overlooking as soon as Netflix began offering streaming movie rentals? Well, they're still alive and kicking, despite fourth-quarter 2010 sales coming in far below estimates. The sales report caused a 25% decline in stock price late last week. But, CNN reports that the decline in sales and steep drop in stock price are not due to a lack of interest in DVD rentals. In fact, Coinstar, Redbox's parent company, is reporting that visits to the kiosks remained strong in during the last months of the year.

The low DVD rental numbers, it's being reported, come at the heels of an agreement between rental companies and movie studios, in which DVDs are not to be rented for 28 days after they become available for sale. This is to encourage sales of DVDs to customers before the rental phase sets in, and the stipulation has affected rentals from both Redbox and Nexflix. Still, Redbox is trailing Nexflix in sales, and it's estimated that this trend will continue as more consumers become familiar with Netflix's streaming options.

In Canada, Netflix also recently launched its $7.99 streaming service to customers, complete with PS3, Wii and Xbox360 support.

Working Through Your Golden Years

Employers in the U.K. can no longer force their employees into retirement at age 65, without justifiable dismissal.

It was announced last week that the policy of forced retirement at 65 has been abolished, in an effort to reduce the amount of pension payouts made to retirees. With the average lifespan of Britons becoming longer, the government hopes this will ease its financial duty in citizens' golden years. Human rights activists and non-profit organizations have praised the decision, as it creates a better life experience for aging workers. However, many businesses are critical of the policy, as it increases the amount and length of time that employee benefits must be paid by the employer.

News of the change in the U.K.'s forced retirement policy comes only a few days after Miriam O'Reilly, an on-air BBC reporter, successfully sued her former employer for wrongful dismissal, citing that the television network warned her about her aging features and suggested the use of Botox in order to keep the show "refreshed," USA Today reported.

Thought in Jeopardy
Step aside, Paul Bunyan. IBM took the Man vs. Machine struggle to a new level when its Watson DeepQA-based supercomputer won over human contestants by $1,000 on a friendly practice round of the long-running game show, "Jeopardy." The computer beat noted "Jeopardy" alums Ken Jennings (the game show's longest winning streak record holder) and Brad Rutter (the show's biggest prize winner) last week, and the three will be competing again in a series scheduled to air mid-February.

Watson has been a project for the IBM company for over four years, and is billed as a self-sustaining computer than can analyze and process information built into its 15 terabytes of RAM. The computer also boasts 2,880 processor cores and has the ability to perform 80 trillion operations per second. (Find out the difference between mega-, large-, mid- and small-cap stocks. We show how each suits particular investing styles. Refer to Market Capitalization Defined.)

The viewing audience will only see a glowing screen in the place of a human contestant on the shows, but the actual computer, Wired Magazine reports, is as large as four refrigerators. During the competition, the computer is not connected to the internet, and utilizes no human control. The key to its success in the preliminary Jeopardy rounds is its "natural language processing" capabilities, which allow the computer to decipher multiple phrasings, tonality and suggested themes.

This also marks the first time that the term "supercomputer" has been used in public without ridicule since 1982.

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IBM says the price tag of Watson will significantly drop in the years to come as technology improves, so we may still be a few years from seeing exactly what it is capable of. In the meantime, the good news surrounding holiday shopping is an indicator that we can hold high. And if the unemployment rate continues to dip, we're in good shape for a full recovery in the future. (Miss last week's financial news highlights? Check out Water Cooler Finance: Conflicting Job Reports And A Facebook IPO.)

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