5 Steps to declare your financial independence

— This Fourth of July, let freedom ring. Financial freedom, that is. Whatever your vision is of financial independence, having strong credit is fundamental, potentially impacting borrowing, and even routine matters, such as having utilities connected, getting a cell phone or even applying for a job.

The experts at Wells Fargo are offering five ways you can take control of your credit:

1. Monitor credit reports.

Review your credit reports at least once a year with all three national credit bureaus: Equifax, Experian and TransUnion. Reviewing your credit reports may help you catch errors or fraud and correct them before they could impact your credit history. Some banks, like Wells Fargo, provide eligible customers free access to your FICO Score through mobile apps.

2. Pay bills on time.

Your payment history makes up approximately 35 percent of your credit score, so making timely payments is important. One way to stay on top of your bills is to prioritize and schedule monthly payments, and to pay at least the minimum balance every month on all your accounts.

3. Keep track of your credit balances.

Always try to stay on top of how much you’ve borrowed against your credit and make sure to stay within your budget and credit limits. One way to manage your balances is to use online banking to view your monthly statements.

4. Manage your debt-to-income ratio.

Lenders use your debt-to-income (DTI) ratio to assess your ability to pay back any new debt. By keeping your payments much lower than your income, it can help ensure a lower DTI ratio, which can make it easier for you to qualify for new credit.

5. Avoid maxing out credit accounts.

Don’t exceed or max out your credit line. It can reflect negatively on your credit report. Most lenders offer different types of alerts (such as email and mobile) and other services to remember upcoming payments.

For more credit tips and free resources, visit www.WellsFargo.com. As you celebrate our nation’s independence, think about small steps you can take to declare your own financial independence.

Walmart is giving everyone a month of free shipping

— Walmart’s Amazon Prime competitor just got more competitive.

The mega retailer’s ShippingPass program is now available for a free 30-day trial. Even existing ShippingPass customers can partake in the deal — Walmart will automatically tack on an extra month to their subscriptions, gratis.

Looking to take a slice out of Amazon’s online retail dominance, Walmart introduced the $50-a-year ShippingPass subscription service last year.

Initially, ShippingPass only offered free three-day shipping. But in May, Walmart matched Amazon Prime with unlimited two-day shipping — while trimming the price to $49 a year. That’s less than half Amazon’s $99 price for Prime.

In addition to unlimited two-day shipping, ShippingPass also lets Walmart customers purchase items with no minimum order requirements, and returns are free — both online and in store.

The program’s free one-month trial offer matches Amazon’s similar 30-day free trial for Prime.

Unlike ShippingPass, Prime includes many services beyond two-day shipping, including Amazon Instant Video, Amazon Music, unlimited photo storage and free e-books.

Free shipping subscription services have been a big boon to retailers. In a press release, Fernando Madeira, CEO of Walmart U.S., noted that ShippingPass customers shop on Walmart.com more often than non-subscribers. Amazon has said that Prime subscribers are far more likely to purchase items on Amazon, even if they just purchase the subscription for the video or music services.

As brick-and-mortar retail sales swoon, Walmart has been ramping up its online efforts. The company bought a stake in Chinese e-retailer JD last week, and Madeira said that Walmart will be introducing new ways to connect the Walmart app, site and store in the coming weeks.

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West Virginia floods: How to help

— Massive flooding has devastated parts of West Virginia, killing 23 people and damaging or destroying more than 1,200 homes.

Several organizations are on the ground offering assistance:

The Salvation Army has disaster response teams providing food, clean water, emergency shelter and aid. The group says 100% of monetary donations will go toward those affected by the floods.

The United Way of Southern West Virginia is asking for non-perishable foods, cleaning supplies and boots of all sizes. At this time, no clothing is being accepted. Donations can be dropped off at 110 Croft Street in Beckley, West Virginia.

The United Way of Greenbrier Valley is accepting monetary donations to support flood victims in Greenbrier, Pocahontas and Monroe counties.

Save the Children is providing emergency assistance and ongoing support to children and families affected by floods.

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To improve your memory, get moving … or take a nap

— Scientists have unlocked new secrets for boosting memory retention: One involves breaking a sweat, and the other involves taking a snooze.

Exercising about four hours after you learn something can improve how well you remember it, according to a small study published in the journal Current Biology this month.

Of course, working out on the regular has long been associated with enhanced memory and thinking skills. The new findings, however, offer a specific time window for taking an acute advantage of this association, said Guillén Fernández, a co-author of the study and professor of cognitive neuroscience at the Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition and Behaviour in the Netherlands.

“In addition, it might lead to additional studies optimizing the delay and intensity of post-learning exercise to achieve best study success, which might be relevant for education,” Fernández said. In other words, the study supports the idea that after-school sports can help students retain what was learned in the classroom.

For the study, 72 men and women completed a task in which they watched 90 photos appear one-by-one on a screen for about 40 minutes. The participants were instructed to remember exactly where on the screen the pictures appeared.

Next, the participants were separated into three groups. One group exercised immediately after completing the task. The second group exercised four hours after completing the task, and the third didn’t exercise at all. The groups that exercised took part in a 35-minute interval training session on an exercise bike.

Two days later, all of the participants completed a test measuring how well they remembered the picture locations. They did so while hooked up to an MRI scanner.

What did the researchers find? It turned out that exercising immediately after learning the picture locations had no effect on memory retention, but waiting four hours resulted in a 10% increase in memory retention, on average.

That’s not all. The MRI scans revealed that, during the recall test, those who exercised after waiting a few hours had increased activity in their brains’ hippocampus, a region associated with learning and memory.

“We have no conclusive answer why the immediate exercise didn’t enhance memory,” Fernández said, but he added that a follow-up study is underway to examine the influence that exercise has on memory in greater detail.

If you’d rather nap than work out, you’re in luck. Separate studies have shown that sleeping soon after learning something can also help you remember it.

“Sleep helps transform short-term memories into long-term memories by helping make stronger connections between these new experiences and our old memories, that allows the new experiences to be integrated with our general knowledge and understanding of the world,” said Sara Mednick, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Riverside.

Mednick led research, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences this month, that describes the role the body’s autonomic nervous system plays during sleep in memory consolidation, a process that many previously thought was just the work of the central nervous system.

For the research, 81 men and women were asked to complete word problems in the morning. They also were “primed” with unrelated words in a separate exercise. Shortly after completing the task, 60 of the participants took a 90-minute nap while the rest watched a video. The researchers tracked the heart rate activity of the napping participants while they experienced rapid eye movement sleep to gauge the involvement of the autonomic nervous system. The autonomic nervous system regulates heartbeat.

Later in the day, all of the participants were asked to complete word problems for a second time. These problems were either identical to the previous task or completely new, or the answers had been primed.

The researchers noticed that the participants who had a nap were more likely than those who didn’t nap to use the primed words to answer the problems, which suggests that they were thinking more “flexibly” to use the primed words in new ways. In fact, the researchers could account for up to 73% of the performance increase from the morning task to the second task by considering the REM and heart rate activity that was recorded during napping.

Thus, the autonomic nervous system may be an unexplored contributor to how sleep can boost memory.

“Other studies have shown that delaying sleep after learning is not good for retention,” Mednick said. “The current study suggests that both the mind and body are working together to improve memory.”

When it comes to exercise, however, the finding that delaying a workout after learning can improve retention is most intriguing, said Sandra Chapman, founder and chief director of the Center for Brain Health at the University of Texas at Dallas.

“The study highlights that elevating metabolic rate at a later stage, when information is moving from short-term memory to long-term memory, has more impact than immediately after information has been encoded,” said Chapman, who was not involved in the study. “The design was elegant, suggesting that the benefit of exercise was still measurable in the hippocampi two days later.”

For now, the researchers concluded that delayed exercise may improve memory retention because working out can lead to the release of neurotransmitters in the brain called dopamine and noradrenaline.

Previous studies have shown that these neurotransmitters, through a series of biochemical-related events, can help the brain more easily consolidate memories.

“Research shows that exercise increases the size of the brain’s memory center, known as the hippocampus,” Chapman said. “Aerobic exercise in particular appears to increase levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor, a protein that supports memory and is also linked to neurogenesis, the birth of new brain cells.”

This isn’t the first time that such neurotransmitters (and certain activities) have been linked to enhancing memory. Separate research has found that having more sex may help promote better memory retention, and yes, dopamine is released when you’re “getting busy.”

And coffee drinkers, this one’s for you: Caffeine has been linked to enhanced memory, as well as the release of dopamine.

Research has also shown that exercise can reduce insulin resistance and inflammation, as well as stimulate the release of neurotransmitters that support the health of brain cells.

A study published this month in the journal Cell Metabolism found that blood levels of a protein associated with memory, called cathepsin B, increase after running. This finding ties running in particular to memory function.

Dr. Thomas Wisniewski, professor of neurology at the NYU Langone Medical Center, also noted that exercise is good for both heart health and brain health, especially in older adults.

“Whatever is good for your heart is good for your brain. The general basis for that is that the brain is 1% to 2% of our body weight, but it takes 20% of cardiac output,” said Wisniewski, who was not involved in the new study. “It’s the most oxygen-hungry part of the body. So, if your cardiovascular system is fit, your brain is more fit.”

How families and teachers are prepping for school this summer

— It may be summertime, but parents and educators alike are beginning to look ahead towards the 2016-2017 school year. Here are three ways they are getting prepared.

Check-Up

The school year brings with it a lot of contact with a lot of kids. An annual physical, scheduled before the school year begins is an excellent way to make sure children are up-to-date with vaccinations and in good general health. Parents of young athletes may want to speak to their pediatrician about injury prevention and other related concerns.

This is also an ideal time to schedule an appointment with an optometrist if kids are complaining of any near or farsightedness. Whether it’s the blackboard, a book or a projected image in the classroom, wearing needed glasses on day one will make the transition to a new school year much smoother.

New Tech Tools

New technology has the power to create strong engagement in learning this fall and beyond. Educators are busy securing tools that aid students in learning key skills needed for their futures, while benefitting the school. For example, Casio’s portfolio of LampFree classroom projectors combine a laser and LED light source to provide a unique, high-brightness, mercury-free tool that uses half the power per unit than its traditional lamp-based counterparts. A 20,000-hour lifespan, the equivalent of approximately 18 years of school use, means that schools can save nearly $2,500 when compared to traditional mercury lamp projectors.

Reading Season

Whether poolside or on a road trip, all those hours of free time make summer the ideal season to squeeze in recreational reading — even in the late days leading up to the new school year. While summer reading should definitely be fun, ideally it will also supplement the curriculum ahead. Whether choosing books early or late in the summer, check out age-appropriate summer reading lists published by your school and library that can keep kids entertained, and help them get a leg up on classroom learning.

Parents, students and schools alike are using the summer wisely to get prepped for a productive school year ahead.

Red Cross apologizes for ‘super racist’ safety poster

— The Red Cross is apologizing after a poster depicting pool safety rules was circulated on Twitter and flamed for being “super racist.”

The poster, which shows a crowd of cartoon children committing an array of poolside do’s and dont’s, was spotted at the Salida Pool and Recreation Department in Salida, Colorado.

A Twitter user put a picture of the poster online, where people debated whether it was, in fact, offensive or not.

Those who found the poster questionable said it showed children of color doing dangerous activities labeled as “Not Cool,” while all of the acceptable, “Cool” activities were depicted with lighter-skinned people.

“Seriously, @RedCross? Behaving white kids are ‘cool’; children of color depicted as misbehaving/’not cool’ #racism” wrote one critic.

Though there were those that thought the interpretation was a bit of an overreach, the Red Cross swiftly apologized, replying to the original tweet and later issuing a statement.

“We deeply apologize for any misunderstanding, as it was absolutely not our intent to offend anyone. As one of the nation’s oldest and largest humanitarian organizations, we are committed to diversity and inclusion in all that we do, every day,” it wrote on its website.

The organization also said it has removed the image from its website and app, and has requested the poster be removed from aquatic facilities. The Salida Rec Center also tweeted that it had removed the poster and “didn’t scrutinize it like we should have.”

The poster was originally part of the Red Cross’ 2014 “Aquatics Centennial Campaign.”

“We are focusing on areas with higher-than-average drowning rates and participants who otherwise wouldn’t have the opportunity to take swim lessons,” the Red Cross wrote.

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Ikea recall: What consumers need to know

— Ikea is offering refunds as part of a recall of 29 million chests and dressers. The furniture is prone to tipping over and has been linked to the deaths of several children.

In a statement on Tuesday, the company said it would offer full and partial refunds, as well as free home installation of wall brackets.

The full and partial refunds will be issued once customers return the furniture. They can either bring their items back to the closest store or arrange for free pick-up.

The size of the refunds will depend upon the circumstances. Here’s the breakdown:

Full refund: If the chest of drawers was manufactured between January 1, 2002 and June 28, 2016.

Store credit for 50% of original price: If the item was manufactured before January 2002.

Store credit of $50: If the manufacturing date cannot be determined.

The recall includes Malm chests and dressers with 3, 4, 5 and 6 drawers, as well as children’s chests and dressers taller than 23.5 inches and adult pieces taller than 29.5 inches.

The dressers can topple if not properly anchored to the wall.

All of the recalled furniture was sold through June 2016.

For more information, visit Ikea’s website or call Ikea at (866) 856-4532.

“Every two weeks a child in the U.S. is killed in a tip-over related incident involving furniture or TVs,” CPSC chairman Elliot Kaye said in a statement Tuesday.

Kaye urged consumers to respond to the recall quickly: “Do it now and you may save the life of a child.”

On Monday, Ikea issued a statement explaining that it was recalling the furniture “given the recent, tragic death” of a 2-year-old boy from Pennsylvania.

There have been five other deaths related to Ikea dressers since 1989.

Ikea started a repair program last July after two toddlers were killed. It issued replacement wall brackets but did not change the design of the furniture or take it off the market.

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Saving community newspapers in the age of Facebook

Hundreds of newspapers have disappeared in the last 15 years and readership is on the decline. No newspaper is immune from the migration of readership to online platforms, dwindling ad revenues, fragmented audiences and even reduced attention spans.

Even national-recognized newspapers with celebrated histories like “The New York Times” and “The Washington Post” have retrenched in the face of these mounting economic pressures. Many regional and community newspapers – including some members of the historic Black Press – are barely hanging on.

The ramifications of this can be profound. Local publications have long served as the glue that binds communities together. They have served as the microphone for voices that would otherwise be marginalized and the spotlight on the stories that seldom make it onto the front pages of major newspapers and magazines. For African-American communities, the publications that make up the National Newspaper Publishers Association (NNPA) have served as that voice across the nation.

Yet, we are being told that the silver lining is that journalism isn’t disappearing – and won’t be any time soon. Rather, it has just moved to an electronic form. Not only that, there are also more opportunities to tell more stories and express more opinions than ever before. Some have said that we should not mourn the loss of the local newspaper and that we should instead explore the myriad possibilities offered by the new media. Or so goes the mantra.

In reality, this upbeat vision obscures the threat that new media poses to community journalism. And that threat is coming from a most unlikely place – the popular social media platforms that so many of us love. Chief among them is Facebook.

Like many other publishers who have recently written on Facebook’s growing power over the media and what Americans read, we too are alarmed with one company having such dominance in news aggregation. Online hubs like Facebook are able to engineer which stories catch on. And they’re able to decide by algorithmic fiat, which bylines, viewpoints and subject matter is promoted to the masses.

This is a new kind of power. It is unlike any power a media company has ever had before. A study last year reported that Facebook drove 43 percent of all the traffic to the top 400 news sites. That’s almost half coming from one powerful source!

What’s more, we don’t know how Facebook’s operations work. The tech company isn’t transparent in its methods. So we don’t know whether the viewpoints of Black publishers are heard or if there is a bias against our views. Without knowing how Facebook’s “Trending Topics” or other algorithms are used in promoting stories, the owners of Black-owned newspapers, magazines and other media are left only to wonder why the stories our outlets produce are relegated to the margins – if they are acknowledged at all. Our readers are at the mercy of powers unheard and unseen as never before.

With 63 percent of Americans and 74 percent of millennials going to Facebook as their source of news, Facebook’s power is only likely to grow in the coming years. And there is something ironic about that. The mainstream media was once derided as unimaginative and monolithic, largely because it had long been dominated by three TV networks and a handful of newspapers in large cities. The Internet was supposed to change all that by bringing a diversity of viewpoints to the table. While this has indeed happened, the emergence of one or even a handful of powerful gatekeepers like Facebook raises profound questions about the nature of news in this country in the years to come.

With so much power in the hands of one company, we risk surrendering our own decisions about what is or isn’t newsworthy to a gatekeeper who may someday push only stories it deems worthy. And that’s a troubling possibility that should worry us all.

It is time regulators took a hard look at Facebook and its news aggregation and promotion practices in an effort to bring some much needed transparency to the new media king. The democratization of the media could be on a collision course with decidedly anti-democratic and arbitrary forces. Think of the proverbial tree that falls silently in the forest because no one is there to hear it. Will Facebook have the power to allow entire forests to fall without much notice?

The National Newspaper Publishers Association (NNPA) is a trade group that represents more than 200 Black-owned media companies in the United States. As the largest and most influential Black-owned media resource in America, the NNPA delivers news, information, and commentary to over 20 million people each week. To learn more about the NNPA, please visit NNPA.org.

Congressman John Lewis is one of a kind

— I have always had enormous admiration for Congressman John Lewis (D-Ga.) and that admiration increased exponentially when I watched him led dozens of his congressional colleagues to sit-in on the floor of Congress to force a vote on gun control. As the supercilious Paul Ryan called for “decorum” (where is the decorum in a man walking into a nightclub with an automatic weapon and gunning 49 people down), determined Democrats disrupted proceedings in the House of Representatives. I say, “Right on!”

YouTube

Democrats stage sit-in on House floor to force gun vote

Congressman Lewis tweeted, “Sometimes you have to get in the way. You have to make some noise by speaking up and speaking out against injustice & inaction.”

Congressman Lewis tweeted, “Sometimes you have to get in the way. You have to make some noise by speaking up and speaking out against injustice & inaction.” He is frustrated, as are many voters, about the fact that Congress has failed to take a position on background checks and the availability of assault weapons. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) is equally frustrated, saying, “Moments of silence aren’t substitute for the action needed on gun violence.” Republicans have attempted to deflect, suggesting that the focus should be on ISIS and terrorism, not gun violence. But the Newtown, Conn., shooter was not a terrorist connected to ISIS. Indeed, troubled White men have perpetrated many of our recent mass shootings with access to guns, not ISIS loyal terrorists. No matter. Can’t Congress walk and chew gum at the same time? Can’t they focus both on ISIS and on our out-of-control gun culture?

Nobody is talking about repealing the Second Amendment (though that might not be a bad idea). Still, the “right to bear arms” does not mean the unfettered right to bear all kinds of arms. Nobody needs an automatic weapon. And anyone deemed dangerous or mentally ill should never be allowed to purchase a gun. The National Rifle Association (NRA) is an irresponsible organization that elevates the right for any random citizen to own and bear arms over the right of other citizens to survive. Members of Congress need to cut the cord from that organization. Voters need to back them up.

One might think the congressional sit-in has yielded few results. House Speaker Paul Ryan pulled the plug on C-SPAN coverage and dismissed the sit-in as a “stunt.” Still, responding to the fact that 90 percent of Americans support background checks those who sat in showed enormous courage. Taking advantage of social media, they broadcast their sit-in using Periscope, reminding Ryan that he might control C-SPAN, but he doesn’t control all broadcast.

Ryan was insulting and condescending in calling the sit-in a “stunt,” and he reminded me of the many reasons I so admire Congressman John Lewis. Was the Atlanta Congressman’s skull fractured in a “stunt” in 1965 on Bloody Sunday, when his civil rights activity caused rabid Whites to attack him? Lewis pulled no stunt, he stood for what he believed in then. He is standing, firmly in his belief now, and using the time-honored tactic of protest to bring attention to the important cause of gun control.

Congressman Lewis and his colleagues were not successful in forcing votes on gun control. But they were successful in shutting the House down. Speaker Ryan was forced to adjourn Congress before he planned to, and Republicans sulked off like thieves in the night. Democrats held the floor hours after the Republicans scurried away, like hungry rats. No vote was forced, but a point was made.

Congress goes back to work on July 5. People should urge their representatives to take an appropriate vote to reduce access to guns, especially for those on a “no fly” list. People should also give Congressman John Lewis a “shout out” and appreciation for his leadership. He has taken the tactics of the 60s and taken them into the 21st century. He has reminded us that “stunts” have their purpose. His unassailable moral courage is admirable. Thank you, Congressman Lewis, for your activism in the 1960s and now. You are much appreciated!

Julianne Malveaux is an economist and author. Her latest offering “Are We Better Off? Race, Obama and Public Policy” is available via juliannemalveaux.com or amazon.com.

Teaching kids to accept others

While racism and bigotry continue to exist in this country, experts say that social change is not impossible.

“Just follow the news and you’ll find ugly instances of racism occurring every day,” says Stephen L. Kanne, author of the new historical novel, “The Lynching Waltz.” “But it’s never too early or too late to promote long-term change through actions and words.”

Kanne, inspired by the way Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” fueled the anti-slavery cause in the 19th century, hopes his new novel can help abolish racism in the 21st. Based on a personal childhood incident, “The Lynching Waltz” recounts the story of a town that defies a visiting stranger’s attempts to exclude black children from participating in a beloved rite of passage — a ballroom dance class called Fortnightly.

Kanne deeply affected by the 1947 incident in his hometown of Glencoe, Illinois, says that books that bring to life the cruel realities of history can help make it clear to modern readers why these events should not be repeated today, and that tales of triumph over racism can be inspiring.

Kanne, who was recently chosen as annual presenter of his novel at the National Press Club for the 106 Juneteenth Celebration, is discussing why the lesson of acceptance is still important so many years later and how to pursue this topic with young people. He offers the following suggestions to families.

• Encourage children to have varied friendships.

• Make history come alive with historical fiction. Visit museums, watch historical films and read historical books.

• Become familiar with and discuss current events together.

• Teach early on that different backgrounds and beliefs must not lead to hatred.

“By addressing these issues head-on with our youngest citizens, we can strive to end racial intolerance in this country,” says Kanne.