- The Washington Times - Monday, July 6, 2009

NEW YORK | If shopping for household essentials like toilet paper and soap isn’t your favorite activity, a new Web site might eliminate the task — while saving you cash.

The recently launched Alice.com lets people buy all manner of necessities from different manufacturers. There are about 6,000 items to choose from, so far. The site keeps an eye on the products you use and reminds you when it’s time to replenish your stock.

Because Alice is run as a platform for manufacturers to connect directly to consumers, rather than as a traditional online retailer, founders Brian Wiegand and Mark McGuire say they can keep prices low and ship all items for free.

Of course, Alice benefits, too. Manufacturers pay the company for prime placement on Alice.com and to have samples, coupons and other marketing pitches offered to customers.

The idea for Alice sprung from what they saw as the lack of easy ways to buy household necessities online. As Mr. McGuire jokingly tells it, “We really wanted to sell toilet paper on the Internet.”

Satellite launched for cell-phone service

NEW YORK | The world’s largest commercial satellite was launched last week, with a mission to provide phone service to cellular “dead zones” in North America.

The satellite, owned by TerreStar Corp. of Reston, blasted off from Kourou in the South American territory of French Guiana on Wednesday.

Half an hour later, French satellite launcher Arianespace announced that the TerreStar-1 had separated successfully from the rocket, on its way to an orbit 22,000 miles above Earth.

There, the satellite is designed to unfurl an umbrella-like antenna of gold mesh 60 feet across, so it can pick up and relay signals from phones that are not much larger than regular cell phones.

TerreStar has shown prototypes of the phones, which are similar to BlackBerrys, and would also have access to data and e-mail. The phones aren’t on sale yet. TerreStar plans to have the system running before the end of the year.

Group may win $1M Netflix prize

NEW YORK | A multinational group of researchers, scientists and engineers are close to winning a $1 million challenge to improve Netflix Inc.’s system of recommending movies that its subscribers might like.

The online movie rental company had launched the Netflix Prize contest in 2006 to improve its predictions by at least 10 percent. The idea was to farm out valuable research to thousands of enthusiastic participants.

A team called BellKor’s Pragmatic Chaos submitted its solution last week, saying it has improved the predictions for what movies people will enjoy by 10.05 percent.

But the group must wait before being declared winners. The team’s solution kicked off a 30-day period during which other contestants can enter their best work and possibly beat the BellKor team’s threshold. Netflix spokesman Steve Swasey said, however, that the company had yet to receive any other submission breaking the 10 percent threshold.

There are currently 49,430 participants from 184 countries taking part in what Mr. Swasey called a “fierce global competition.”

BellKor’s Pragmatic Chaos consists of two researchers at AT&T Inc., two engineers from Montreal, a research scientist at Yahoo Inc. and two machine-learning researchers from Austria. If this team wins, each of the seven members will get $142,857.

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