Snow, rain, record warmth: U.S. gets a mix of wild weather on first full day of winter

CONCORD, N.H. (AP) -- The first full day of winter brought a wild mix of weather across the U.S. on Sunday: ice and high wind in the Great Lakes and New England areas, flooding in the South, snow in the Midwest and record-shattering temperatures in the 60s and 70s along the mid-Atlantic.

Snow and ice knocked out power to 400,000 homes and businesses in Michigan, upstate New York and northern New England, and also left more than 400,000 people without electricity in eastern Canada. It could be days before the lights are back on everywhere.

As of midafternoon, more than 500 airline flights had been canceled and about 3,800 delayed, according to aviation tracking website FlightAware.com.

The icy weather was expected to make roads hazardous through at least Monday from the upper Midwest to northern New England during one of the busiest travel times of the year.

In Arkansas, authorities said Sunday that a woman was killed after an EF2 tornado with winds of about 130 mph struck in St. Francis County on Saturday. A man found in a field was hospitalized in serious condition, while the woman’s 3-year-old granddaughter and 25-year-old daughter were treated at a hospital.

In ominous sign,
many health plan buyers are just
picking the cheapest

CHICAGO (AP) -- As a key enrollment deadline hits Monday, many people without health insurance have been sizing up policies on the new government health care marketplace and making what seems like a logical choice: They’re picking the cheapest one.

Increasingly, experts in health insurance are becoming concerned that many of these first-time buyers will be in for a shock when they get medical care next year and discover they’re on the hook for most of the initial cost.

The prospect of sticker shock after Jan. 1, when those who sign up for policies now can begin getting coverage, is seen as a looming problem for a new national system that has been plagued by trouble since the new marketplaces went online in the states in October.

For those without insurance -- about 15 percent of the population-- "the lesson is it’s important to understand the total cost of ownership of a plan," said Matt Eyles, a vice president of Avalere Health, a market analysis firm. "You just don’t want to look only at the premium."

Counselors who have been helping people choose policies say many are focused only on the upfront cost, not what the insurance companies agree to pay.

Icons of Egypt’s youth protest movement jailed in verdict seen as warning

CAIRO (AP) -- An Egyptian court handed down prison sentences to three of the country’s most prominent youth activists Sunday in the first use of a controversial new protest law, a harsh warning to the secular groups that supported the military’s ouster of Islamist president Mohammed Morsi but have since grown critical of the army-backed government that replaced him.

Ahmed Maher, Ahmed Douma and Mohammed Adel, founders of the April 6 movement, each received three years in prison on charges of holding an illegal rally and assaulting police. According to their lawyers, prosecutors said they had thrown rocks at police, but their defense disputed that they had done the throwing.

It was the first prosecution under a protest law passed last month as part of the government’s efforts to rein in near-daily street demonstrations by Morsi supporters. Rights groups say the law, which levies harsh penalties for a variety of offenses linked to protests, shows intent to suppress all dissent. The government says the statute is necessary after three years of unrest that have devastated the economy.

April 6 spearheaded the protests against longtime authoritarian leader Hosni Mubarak that began on January 25, 2011, and led to his overthrow. They also backed the military’s July 3 ouster of Morsi after another round of mass protests. But they were alarmed by the new protest law, many arguing it was more repressive than the laws in place during Mubarak’s time.

Amr Ali, coordinator for April 6, said the new statute, under which another dozen members of the group face charges, is a continuation of a Mubarak-era policy, turning to a "security solution" to deal with political problems.

U.S. credit, debit cards use easy-to-replicate magnetic strip; rest of the world has moved on

NEW YORK (AP) -- The U.S. is the juiciest target for hackers hunting credit card information. And experts say incidents like the recent data theft at Target’s stores will get worse before they get better.

That’s in part because U.S. credit and debit cards rely on an easy-to-copy magnetic strip on the back of the card, which stores account information using the same technology as cassette tapes.

"We are using 20th century cards against 21st century hackers," says Mallory Duncan, general counsel at the National Retail Federation. "The thieves have moved on but the cards have not."

In most countries outside the U.S., people carry cards that use digital chips to hold account information. The chip generates a unique code every time it’s used. That makes the cards more difficult for criminals to replicate. So difficult that they generally don’t bother.

"The U.S. is the top victim location for card counterfeit attacks like this," says Jason Oxman, chief executive of the Electronic Transactions Association.

Spain holds huge Christmas lottery, $3.4 billion going
out to many winners

MADRID (AP) -- Champagne corks popped around Spain on Sunday as jubilant winners celebrated scooping up prizes in the country’s famed Christmas lottery, the world’s richest.

One ticket-holder who slept in Sunday morning said he’d leapt up from his bed in surprise after hearing the television announce his ticket number for "El Gordo" (The Fat One) -- the lottery’s top prize, a cool 400,000-euro ($546,200) payoff.

Raul Clavero, 27, a mechanic living in the Madrid suburb of Leganes, then realized that four other members of his family had also bought tickets with the same winning numbers.

Millions of Spaniards had been glued to their televisions as 2.5 billion euros ($3.4 billion) in prize money was distributed in a four-hour TV show. Unlike lotteries that offer one large jackpot, Spain’s yuletide drawing sprinkles a variety of winnings on thousands of ticketholders.

Tales of joy and celebration were widely broadcast on TV stations, providing Spain’s struggling population a rare moment of joy after another year of a brutal financial crisis.

In Iceland, concern for elves holds up road project

REYKJAVIK, Iceland (AP) -- In this land of fire and ice, where the fog-shrouded lava fields offer a spooky landscape in which anything might lurk, stories abound of the "hidden folk" -- thousands of elves, making their homes in Iceland’s wilderness.

So perhaps it was only a matter of time before 21st-century elves got political representation.

Elf advocates have joined forces with environmentalists to urge the Icelandic Road and Coastal Commission and local authorities to abandon a highway project building a direct route from the Alftanes peninsula, where the president has a home, to the Reykjavik suburb of Gardabaer. They fear disturbing elf habitat and claim the area is particularly important because it contains an elf church.

The project has been halted until the Supreme Court of Iceland rules on a case brought by a group known as Friends of Lava, who cite both the environmental and the cultural impact -- including the impact on elves -- of the road project. The group has regularly brought hundreds of people out to block the bulldozers.

And it’s not the first time issues about "Huldufolk," Icelandic for "hidden folk," have affected planning decisions.