Current Events in February 2014

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    Microsoft picks Satya Nadella as CEO, puts him to work immediately

    Co-founder Bill Gates to take more active role in the company

    Microsoft has a new CEO -- Satya Nadella, 46, a 22-year veteran of the company. He replaces Steve Ballmer, who took over in 2000 when founder Bill Gates stepped aside after 25 years.

    And now, Gates is back. He is relinquishing the chairman's title for a new position as "founder and technology advisor" and says he will be playing a much more active role, supporting Nadella in shaping technology and product direction as Microsoft attempts to get its mojo back.

    The search for a new CEO ran past the Dec. 31, 2013 deadline but Microsoft's directors made up for it by putting Nadella to work immediatly.

    "Today is a very humbling day for me," said Nadella in an internal memo to Microsoft employees. "It is an incredible honor for me to lead and serve this great company of ours."

    "I'm thrilled that Satya has asked me to step up, substantially increasing my time at the company," Gates said. "I'll have over a third of my time available to meet with product groups and it'll be fun to define this next round of products working together."

    Microsoft has taken its licks in the consumer products field but still has an enormous share of the corporate client universe. It's expected that Nadella will work to sharpen the company's focus, possibly jettisoning service and product lines that aren't doing well.

    Nadella also takes the reins as Microsoft's acquisition of Nokia moves forward, putting it into the smartphone hardware field just as Google throws in the towel and sells Motorola Mobility.

    Satya NadellaMicrosoft has a new CEO -- Satya Nadella, 46, a 22-year veteran of the company. He replaces Steve Ballmer, who took over in 2000 when foun...

    Federal fish-eating guidelines sound fishy, says environmental group

    Guidelines might overstate benefits, understate risks

    If you come to us and ask, “What must I do to eat a healthy diet?” we can offer you several links offering all sorts of sound scientific nutritional advice. Then, because we're feeling mischievous, we'll offer you a bunch more links offering yet more sound scientific nutritional advice directly contradicting the first batch of advice we gave you.

    For example: as of presstime, we can't quite remember if eggs are currently supposed to be good for you as a low-fat source of animal protein, or bad for you as a source of high cholesterol, or good for you because even though they're full of cholesterol it's okay since it's the good cholesterol … and there's a similar conundrum surrounding the issue of fish.

    On the one hand, fish is supposed to be good for you because, compared to land-animal meat, it has less fat (or less of the “bad” fat, anyway), plus more good things like omega-3 fatty acids. The downside is that fish live in the ocean, where a lot of environmental pollution ends up.

    Dangerous neurotoxin

    So, in January 2011 the U.S. government published a white paper urging Americans to eat more fish for sundry nutritional reasons.

    Then, in January 2014, the Environmental Working Group put out a detailed release calling such advice “flawed” and alleging that “People who follow the federal government’s guidelines on seafood consumption are likely to consume too much mercury, a dangerous neurotoxin, or too few beneficial omega-3 fatty acids, according to a new EWG analysis of fish contaminant and nutrient data.”

    The EWG's complaints boil down to three counts: the government is allegedly understating mercury levels in certain species of fish and not specifying which forms of seafood are healthier than others. Possibly worst of all: even assuming the government's dietary guidelines are perfectly fine, if every American actually followed them, world fish stocks might well collapse.

    EWG’s analysis concludes that both the 2010 Dietary Guidelines and the 2004 EPA/FDA advisory are seriously flawed on three counts: 

    • The Dietary Guidelines encourage people to eat more fish and to limit consumption of a few high-mercury species but do not point out the longer list of “moderate mercury” species that would pose a mercury risk when eaten twice weekly. EWG has determined that 19 of the 35 species it reviewed would pose a mercury risk to children, and 10 could be a concern for pregnant women of average weight who eat two servings of seafood a week.

    • The Dietary Guidelines must do more to alert consumers to major differences in the omega-3 content of various types of seafood.  Only 14 of the 35 species contain enough omega-3s to meet the nutritional recommendation of 1,750 milligrams of omega-3s weekly, assuming an individual eats eight ounces of that species each week.

    • If all Americans followed  the advice of the Dietary Guidelines, seafood consumption could double or triple, exerting even more pressure on fisheries already stressed by over-fishing.

    In fairness, though, the risk of “all Americans,” or even “most Americans,” strictly adhering to any government-issued dietary guidelines -- or any other guidelines, for that matter -- is pretty slim.

    If you come to us and ask, “What must I do to eat a healthy diet?” we can offer you several links offering all sorts of sound scientific nutritional advice...

    Personal privacy and the open road: can they co-exist?

    License plate readers and vehicle-to-vehicle tech offer challenges

    The ACLU and the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) are suing the Los Angeles police and sheriff's departments, demanding to know how those agencies are using the data gleaned from Automatic License Plate Readers, or ALPRs.

    A Jan. 28 press release co-authored by EFF staffer Jennifer Lynch and ACLU attorney Peter Bibring noted that:

    Both EFF and the ACLU have argued that ALPRs — high-speed cameras mounted on poles and patrol cars that record every passing vehicle’s license plate, along with time, date and location—raise serious privacy concerns because the location data they collect reveals a great deal of personal information. ….

    We have also argued, though, that the only way to have an informed public debate about appropriate limits on ALPRs is through greater transparency about how the technology is actually being used. This is why we’ve asked for a week’s worth of data collected by all of LAPD and LASD’s ALPR cameras, in addition to policies and procedures on how the agencies say they’re using the technology. It isn’t possible to know what police are really doing until we have at least a representative slice of the data they collect ….

    police use of ALPRs has exploded in recent years. A September 2009 survey reported that 70 of 305 randomly-selected police departments nationwide (23 percent) used ALPRs. A 2011 survey of more than 70 police departments showed that 79 percent used ALPR technology and 85 percent expected to acquire or increase use in the next five years. On average, these agencies expected that 25 percent of police vehicles would be equipped with license plate readers by 2016.

    Why worry?

    Of course, proponents of ALPRs and their use by police cite all the ways these scanners prove useful while hunting criminals. So why should innocent, non-criminal types worry about it? The EFF and ACLU have an answer:

    A network of readers enables police to collect extensive location data on an individual, without his knowledge and without any level of suspicion. ALPRs can be used to scan and record vehicles at a lawful protest or house of worship; track all movement in and out of an area; specifically target certain neighborhoods or organizations; or place political activists on hot lists so that their movements trigger alerts. In U.S. v. Jones, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor noted the sensitive nature of location data and the fact that it can yield “a wealth of detail about [a person’s] familial, political, professional, religious, and sexual associations.” Taken in the aggregate, ALPR data creates a revealing history of a person’s movements, associations, and habits.

    ALPR can already be used for this purpose. In August 2012, the Minneapolis Star Tribune published a map displaying the 41 locations where license plate readers had recorded Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak’s car in the preceding year. And in Boston, investigative reporters with MuckRock and Boston Globe found that the Boston Police were tracking cars in certain neighborhoods more than others. This data is ripe for abuse; in 1998, a Washington, D.C. police officer “pleaded guilty to extortion after looking up the plates of vehicles near a gay bar and blackmailing the vehicle owners.”

    Of course, ALPRs are hardly the only new technology to raise qualms in privacy advocates. On Feb. 3, the tech blog Ars Technica discussed how the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is toying with the idea of one day introducing new regulations mandating “vehicle to vehicle” (or V2V) technology in all “light vehicles” sold.

    Cars equipped with V2V technology uses GPS, wifi and other “connective” technologies would be able to communicate with each other, in what Ars Technica described as “a digital version of the swimming pool game Marco Polo, warning drivers if another vehicle’s broadcasts show a risk of a collision.”

    The good thing about V2V tech is that it could reduce traffic accidents and fatalities by up to 80 percent. The downside, of course, is the same as with ALPRs covering more and more American roadways how can privacy rights be respected by technology whose sole purpose is to eradicate privacy?

    Thus far, the NHTSA is not considering V2V mandates for “heavy vehicles” such as buses or 18-wheelers because, as Ars Technica said, “Additional regulations on vehicle safety for commercial trucking that require the installation of additional hardware—and potentially greater government monitoring of trucking operations—are bound to face intense resistance from the trucking industry and its lobbyists if and when they are presented.”

    The possibility of privacy advocates offering equally intense resistance for V2V “light vehicle” regulations is not to be discounted, either.

    The ACLU and the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) are suing the Los Angeles police and sheriff's departments, demanding to know how those agencies are ...

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      Home prices shoot higher in December

      CoreLogic says annual price growth is the strongest since 2005

      Home prices posted their 22nd consecutive monthly year-over-year increase in in December, according to CoreLogic.

      The residential property information, analytics and services provider's Home Price Index (HPI) report shows home prices nationwide -- including distressed sales -- jumped 11% in December from the same period the year before. On a month-over-month basis, home prices dipped 0.1% from November.

      If distressed sales, which include include short sales and real estate owned (REO) transaction,s are excluded, home prices increased were up 9.9% in year-over-year and 0.2% month-over-month.

      "Last year, home prices rose 11%, the highest rate of annual increase since 2005, and 10 states and the District of Columbia reached new all-time price peaks," said Dr. Mark Fleming, chief economist for CoreLogic. "We expect the rising prices to attract more sellers, unlocking this pent-up supply, which will have a moderating effect on prices in 2014."

      December highlights

      • Including distressed sales, the five states with the highest home price appreciation were Nevada (+23.9%), California (+19.7%), Michigan (+14.0%), Oregon (+13.7%) and Georgia (+12.8%).
      • Including distressed sales, Arkansas (-1.5%), New Mexico (-1.3%) and Mississippi (-.2%) posted home price depreciation in December 2013.
      • Excluding distressed sales, the five states with the highest home price appreciation were Nevada (+20%), California (+16.2%), Idaho (+12.8%), Oregon (+11.6%) and Florida (+11.5%).
      • Excluding distressed sales, no states posted home price depreciation in December.
      • Including distressed transactions, the peak-to-current change in the national HPI (from April 2006 to December 2013) was -18.0%. Excluding distressed transactions, the peak-to-current change in the HPI for the same period was -13.6%.
      • The five states with the largest peak-to-current declines -- including distressed transactions -- were Nevada (-40.6%), Florida (-37.6%), Arizona (-31.8%), Rhode Island (-30.3%) and West Virginia (-25.6%).
      • Ninety-five of the top 100 Core Based Statistical Areas measured by population showed year-over-year increases in December 2013.

      Home prices posted their 22nd consecutive monthly year-over-year increase in in December, according to CoreLogic. The residential property information, a...

      Valentine’s Day: The head or the heart?

      A new survey says consumers will keep their budgets in check

      Will consumers let their hearts rule this Valentine’s Day and splurge, or following a modest Christmas shopping season, pay attention to what their head are telling them.

      According to the National Retail Federation’s (NRF) 2014 Valentine’s Day spending survey conducted by Prosper Insights and Analytics, it's the latter.

      The survey finds 54% Americans will celebrate with their loved ones this year, down 6% from 2013, with the average person planing to spend $133.91 on candy, cards, gifts, dinner and more, up less than $3 from $130.97 last year. Total spending is expected to reach $17.3 billion.

      “Valentine’s Day will continue to be a popular gift-giving event, even when consumers are frugal with their budgets. This is the one day of the year when millions find a way to show their loved ones they care,” said NRF President and CEO Matthew Shay. “Consumers can expect Cupid’s holiday to resemble the promotional holiday season we saw just a few months ago, as retailers recognize that their customers are still looking for the biggest bang for their buck.”

      Perfection on a budget

      Gift-givers will find the perfect gift for their loved ones that fits their budget, whether it’s candy, flowers, jewelry, clothing, an evening out or simply a greeting card. Nearly half (48.7%) will buy candy, a third will give flowers (37.3%) and over half (51.2%) will send greeting cards.

      Nineteen percent will treat their significant other to something sparkly -- jewelry spending will total $3.9 billion, and 37% will celebrate with an evening out, spending an estimated total of $3.5 billion. Others will give more practical gifts like clothing (15.8%) or gift cards (14%) so their loved ones can have that item they’ve been eyeing in the store.

      Big spenders

      Men will spend $108.38 on gifts for their significant others -- twice as much as women who will lay out $49.41 on their special someone. But Valentine’s Day isn’t just for couples; people will show their appreciation for family members (59.4%) friends (21.7%) teachers (20.4%) and colleagues (12.1%). And like every holiday, people won’t forget about their pets. More than 19% will buy gifts for their furry friends, spending an average of $5.51.

      “While fewer are planning to celebrate Valentine’s Day this year, millions of shoppers will still make room in their discretionary budgets to send cards and gifts to loved ones or enjoy a special evening out,” says Prosper Insights and Analytics Director Pam Goodfellow. “Consumers can expect promotions on everything from flowers to date night dinner packages in the coming days, leaving plenty of ideas for those looking to spoil their Valentines.”

      Cautious consumers do their research when it comes to shopping, and many will purchase gifts online. The survey found that 26.1% plan to shop online this Valentine’s Day, virtually the same as last year. Many will turn to their tablets or smartphones before making their final gift decisions; 24% will research products or compare prices on their smartphones and 32.2% will do so on their tablets.

      Will consumers let their hearts rule this Valentine’s Day and splurge, or following a modest Christmas shopping season, pay attention to what their head ar...

      Feds launch youth anti-smoking campaign

      The $115 million effort is just the first of many yet to come

      As part of a national effort to prevent youth tobacco use and reduce the number of kids ages 12 to 17 who become regular smokers, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has kicked off a national public education campaign.

      Tobacco use remains the leading preventable cause of disease, disability and death in the U.S., causing more than 480,000 deaths each year. Each day, more than 3,200 youth under age 18 in the United States try their first cigarette and more than 700 kids under age 18 become daily smokers.

      Specific audience

      “The Real Cost” campaign targets the 10 million young people ages 12-17 who have never smoked a cigarette but are open to it, and those who are already trying cigarettes and are at risk of becoming regular smokers.

      “We know that early intervention is critical, with almost nine out of every ten regular adult smokers picking up their first cigarette by age 18,” said FDA Commissioner Margaret A. Hamburg, M.D.

      “The Real Cost” campaign uses a comprehensive multimedia approach, compelling facts and vivid imagery designed to change beliefs and behaviors over time. The ads were developed to educate youth about the dangers of tobacco use and to encourage them to be tobacco-free. The campaign uses several social media platforms to create space for teens to engage in peer-to-peer conversations about the issue in ways that are authentic to who they are.

      Multifaceted campaign

      Supported by the best available science, the campaign will be evaluated to measure its effectiveness over time. It is the first of several campaigns that the FDA will launch over the next few years. Subsequent campaigns will target additional distinct audiences, including multicultural youth, rural youth, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) youth.

      “The FDA has collaborated with some of the brightest and most creative minds to develop a multimedia initiative designed to make the target audience acutely aware of the risk from every cigarette by highlighting consequences that young people are really concerned about,” said Mitchell Zeller, director of the FDA’s Center for Tobacco Products.

      Graphic depictions

      One approach in “The Real Cost” campaign dramatizes the health consequences of smoking by graphically depicting health consequences such as tooth loss and skin damage to demonstrate that every cigarette comes with a “cost” that is more than just financial. Another approach reframes addiction to cigarettes as a loss of control to disrupt the beliefs of youth who think they will not get addicted or feel they can quit at any time.

      In addition, some ads highlight the fact that menthol cigarettes cause the same health consequences as regular cigarettes, as youth are more likely to report smoking menthol cigarettes.

      Ads will run in more than 200 markets throughout the U. S. for at least 12 months. The $115 million campaign is funded by industry user fees and launches nationwide on Feb. 11. The Tobacco Control Act authorized the FDA to collect tobacco user fees from manufacturers and importers of tobacco products to implement the law.

      As part of a national effort to prevent youth tobacco use and reduce the number of kids ages 12 to 17 who become regular smokers, the Food and Drug Adminis...

      The 2014 tax season is off and running

      Individual returns can be filed now and free online services are available

      If you've been champing at the bit to file your 2013 federal income tax return, feel free to do so.

      The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) has opened the filing season by highlighting a growing array of online services and encouraging taxpayers to check out a variety of tax benefits, such as the often-overlooked Earned Income Tax Credit.

      You have until Tuesday, April 15, 2014, to file your 2013 tax returns and pay any tax due. More than 148 million individual tax returns are expected to be filed this year, with more than four out of five now filed electronically.

      About three out of four filers typically get refunds because they've had more withheld than they need to, and more than 90% of these refunds are received in less than 21 days, according to the IRS. Last year, taxpayers received an average refund of $2,744.

      E-file, when combined with direct deposit, is the fastest way to get a refund, with more than 75% of refund recipients choosing direct deposit.

      “Tens of millions of people will file their taxes in the next few weeks, and we encourage taxpayers to visit IRS.gov as the best place to get quick help,” said IRS Commissioner John Koskinen. “We continue to add features and make it more user-friendly to help taxpayers. People can get everything from answers to tax questions about preparing their tax return to checking the status of their refund after they file.”

      The IRS began accepting and processing individual tax returns on January 31 after updating tax forms and completing programming and testing of its systems. The agency says it also has updated and strengthened its systems to help protect against refund fraud and identity theft. This annual updating process saw delays in October following the 16-day federal government shutdown.

      EITC awareness

      Although an estimated four out of five eligible workers and families get the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), which helps working families with low and moderate incomes, one in five miss out on it. That’s because either they don’t claim it when filing or they don’t file a tax return at all because their income is below the filing threshold. One-third of the population eligible for EITC shifts each year as their personal circumstances, such as work status or family situation, change and can affect eligibility.

      “We urge people to look into EITC. Many people don’t realize they are eligible and simply overlook this credit,” Koskinen said. “There are easy ways to find out more about this credit, either by visiting IRS.gov, or using Free File or a software package. The IRS is working hard to educate people about EITC while also putting in place processes that identify and prevent improper payments.”

      Online tools available

      Aimed at individuals and families who made $51,567 or less last year, the EITC varies by income, family size and filing status. People can see if they qualify by answering a few questions using the EITC Assistant, a special online tool. Eligible taxpayers can also use another helpful online resource, the VITA Site Locator tool to locate one of nearly 13,000 community-based volunteer tax sites consisting of over 90,000 volunteers that can help them file their return for free.

      The EITC Assistant and VITA Site Locator are just two of a growing array of online and automated IRS services that can help taxpayers get the information they need to file their returns and get their refunds quickly.

      Tele-Tax, for example, helps taxpayers see if they qualify for various tax benefits, such as the Child Tax Credit and Additional Child Tax Credit for eligible families, the American Opportunity Tax Credit for parents and college students, the saver’s credit for low-and moderate-income workers saving for retirement and energy credits for homeowners making qualifying energy-saving home improvements.

      The automated IRS services can also help home-based businesses check out the new simplified option for claiming the home office deduction, a straightforward computation that allows eligible taxpayers to claim $5 per square foot, up to a maximum of $1,500, instead of filling out a 43-line form (Form 8829) with often complex calculations.


      Free File

      When taxpayers are ready to fill out and file their returns, another online option enables anyone to e-file their returns for free. Free File offers two free electronic filing options: brand-name tax software or online Fillable Forms. Taxpayers who make $58,000 or less can choose free options from 14 commercial software providers. There’s no income limit for the second option, Free File Fillable Forms, the electronic version of IRS paper forms, which is best suited to people who are comfortable preparing their own tax return.

      Even after taxpayers file, there are more online tools that can provide them with valuable assistance long after tax season ends. One of the most popular is Where’s My Refund?, a tool that enables taxpayers to track the status of their refund. Initial information will normally be available within 24 hours after the IRS receives the taxpayer’s e-filed return or four weeks after the taxpayer mails a paper return to the IRS. The system updates every 24 hours, usually overnight, so there’s no need to check more often.

      Can't pay?

      For taxpayers whose concern isn’t a refund, but rather, a tax bill they can’t pay, the Online Payment Agreement tool can help them determine whether they qualify for an installment agreement with the IRS. And those whose tax obligation is even more serious, the Offer in Compromise Pre-Qualifier can help them determine if they qualify for an offer in compromise, an agreement with the IRS that settles their tax liability for less than the full amount owed.

      Another useful year-round tool, the IRS Withholding Calculator, helps employees make sure the amount of income tax taken out of their pay is neither too high nor too low. This tool can be particularly useful to taxpayers who, after filling out their tax returns, find that the refund or balance due was higher than expected.

      Other help available

      The IRS also offers more than 100 short instructional videos, tax tips and other useful resources year-round through a variety of social media platforms. They include:

      YouTube, available in English, Spanish, and American Sign Language.

      Several twitter feeds in English and Spanish at @IRSnews, @IRSenEspanol and @IRStaxpros.

      Tumblr at www.internalrevenueservice.tumblr.com.

      The IRS uses social media tools only to share information with the public, not to answer personal tax or account questions. And the agency reminds taxpayers to never post confidential information, such as a Social Security number, on social media sites.

      If you've been champing at the bit to file your 2013 federal income tax return, feel free to do so. The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) has opened the fili...

      Bad GPS plus a temporary slip of memory leads to international gun-smuggling charges

      A legal gun in the US becomes felonious when you're in Canada

      “Bad GPS navigation” stories are downright commonplace these days, and rare is the week when you can't find a news story on the theme “Drivers blamed their GPS after they drove into a lake, onto an airport runway, north in a southbound lane, or similar bad-end shenanigans.”

      But Kentucky resident Louis DiNatale might have the worst bad-GPS story to date: while driving through upstate New York, he took a wrong turn and ended up in Canada — which wouldn't be a problem if not for the loaded weapon in the trunk of DiNatale's car. The gun was perfectly legal in the United States but became an illegally smuggled weapon the second it crossed the border — even though DiNatale had no intention of a.) going to Canada and b.) taking a gun with him.

      Worse yet, according to the Los Angeles Times, when the Canadian border guard asked DiNatale if he had any weapons, DiNatale (who forgot the gun was there) said no, which turned out badly after guards searched his car and found the gun. DiNatale was arrested and spent four days in a Canadian jail before he could post bail:

      DiNatale, 46, a retired Army sergeant major, says he stored the gun in his wife's car a few days earlier because he didn't want it in his car when he drove onto Ft. Knox, Ky., for a dental appointment.

      The gun was still in his wife's car when she picked him up from work in Louisville, Ky., to drive to a weekend getaway in Vermont, he says. He remembered it all too well, of course, when Canadian agents confronted him with the weapon after they searched the car at the Thousand Islands Bridge border crossing between New York state and Ontario province.

      The agents were unmoved by his explanations even after his wife, Cathy, verified his story.

      DiNatale, a former Army legal expert who is now a paralegal in Kentucky, faces three years in jail if convicted; a Canadian court date is scheduled for June. [His Canadian lawyer] says he will vigorously fight the charges.

      Bad GPS directions plus a temporary slip of the memory were all it took to turn an honest man into an official international criminal. DiNatale said he plants to fight the charges in hope of clearing his name.

      “Drivers blamed their GPS after they drove into a lake, onto an airport runway, north in a southbound lane, or similar bad-end shenanigans.”...

      Feds drafting rules for "Internet of Cars"

      "Connected cars" would communicate with each other to prevent mishaps

      You can talk about brakes, steering, airbags and so forth, but there's little debate that the biggest safety defect in today's cars is the carbon unit behind the steering wheel.

      Google and car manufacturers are hoping that self-driving cars will eventually take over the nation's highways but federal safety regulators are beginning to draw up the rules for their own solution -- one based on what's called V2V, vehicle-to-vehicle communications.

      U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx today said the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) will soon start drawing up regulations that would require cars and light trucks to be equipped with wireless chips that would enable them to communicate with nearby vehicles.

      NHTSA Administrator David Friedman compared it to the development of the Interstate highway system in its impact on everyday driving and safety, calling it a "moon shot" that could prevent up to 80% of crashes involving unimpaired drivers.

      A consortium of automakers including General Motors, Toyota and Volkswagen have been working for years to prepare preliminary rules for the system.

      Basically, the system would amount to a sort of wi-fi network that enables cars to broadcast their speed and direction to other cars. If two vehicles were on a collision course, alarms would sound to alert the drivers.

      Oh, and pedestrians would be safer because their cell phones would broadcast their locations to nearby cars, the feds added confidently. 

      Of course, many cars are already equipped with cameras and sensors that perform similar functions but by requiring the installation of the chips in all new cars, the feds hope to achieve a nearly universal penetration rate over time.

      Oh, really?

      How likely is this to happen?

      Well, considering that NHTSA has been unable to implement something as simple as a required back-up camera in cars and light trucks more than five years after Congress ordered it to do so, there's plenty of room for skepticism.

      More than 100 people -- many of them children -- are killed each year in so-called "backover" accidents. Nearly everyone agrees that a simple camera connected to the screens that now display music, phone calls and navigation would save a lot of lives but auto manufacturers have managed to keep the process -- which involves a camera, some wire and a few screws -- firmly in Park for years.

      The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, the automakers' lobbying group, is already starting to let the air out of this proposal as well.

      "We need to address security and privacy, along with consumer acceptance, affordability, achieving the critical mass to enable the 'network effect' and establishment of the necessary legal and regulatory framework," the group said in a statement today.

      Critics say it's more likely the Googles and GMs of the world will be well into the third or fourth generaiton of their systems while NHTSA continues its attempt to write a set of regulations that will keep cars from running not only into each other but also over any sensitive toes.

      You can talk about brakes, steering, airbags and so forth, but there's little debate that the biggest safety defect in today's cars is the carbon unit behi...

      Tobacco giant Altria buying e-cig maker Green Smoke

      Big Tobacco expands its beachhead in the "vaping" business

      Tobacco giant Altria Group, Inc., is buying the e-cigarette business of Green Smoke, Inc., for about $110 million, the latest in a series of moves by big tobacco companies to stake a claim in the electronic cigarette business.

      It also is the latest example of Big Tobacco's strategy to re-christen e-cigs as "e-vapor" products, in an effort to escape some of the stigma associated with cigarettes. The corporatespeak apparatchiks also prefer the verb "vaping" as opposed to "smoking." 

      “Nu Mark’s entry into the e-vapor category with its MarkTen product was an important development in Altria’s innovation strategy. Adding Green Smoke’s significant e-vapor expertise and experience, along with its supply chain, product lines and customer service, will complement Nu Mark’s capabilities and enhance its competitive position,” said Marty Barrington, Altria’s Chairman and CEO. 

      Green Smoke was founded in 2008 and has operations in the United States and Israel. Green Smoke has sold e-cigs since 2009, mostly in the U.S. Green Smoke's product lines, which are sold under the Green Smoke e-vapor brand, include both rechargeable and disposable versions.

      Up in smoke

      Tobacco companies have faced declining sales in the U.S. for years although sales remain strong in some international markets. Altria, based in Richmond, Va., has increased market share for Marlboro and some of its other brands through aggressive pricing.

      Altria said last year that it would seek an entry into the e-cigarette business was it became clear that the electroinc devices were beginning to erode sales of traditional cigarettes.

      Other major tobacco companies have also gotten into the e-vapor business. Lorillard, which makes Newport cigarettes, bought the blu e-cig brand in 2012. It is currently the top e-cig seller in the U.S.  Reynolds, which makes Camels, launched its Vuse brand last year.

      E-cigs work by heating nicotine-laced liquir into vapor. Their adherents say they are more healthful than tobacco products and can be an aid to those trying to quit smoking. Critics say they encourage smoking and charge that their health effects are unknown.

      The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has for years been saying that it is about to issue regulations for e-cigarettes but has not yet done so, leaving them unregulated except in a few cities where their public use has been outlawed.

      Tobacco giant Altria Group, Inc., is buying the e-cigarette business of Green Smoke, Inc., for about $110 million, the latest in a series of moves by big t...

      Dreamworks Vacation Club owner sentenced to seven years in prison

      Daryl Turner stole millions from consumers, New Jersey prosecutors charged

      The owner of Dreamworks Vacation Club has been sentenced to seven years in prison by a New Jersey judge. Daryl Turner, 42, stole millions of dollars from customers of his travel club, Acting New Jersey Attorney General John J. Hoffman charged.

      Turner, who pleaded guilty August 7, 2013, admitted that he pitched phony vacation travel membership packages to customers. He executed a consent judgment to pay restitution of approximately $2.6 million to his victims.

      Turner’s wife, Robyn Bernstein, 44, who helped run his travel companies, was sentenced to five years of probation. She had also pleaded guilty to theft by deception. Under their plea agreements, Turner and Bernstein agreed to forfeit their home in Marlton and other assets seized in the investigation, including bank accounts, cars and a boat.

      “Turner carried out one fraudulent scheme after another, stealing from hundreds of unsuspecting customers who thought he would make traveling more affordable for them,” Hoffman said. “Instead, he ruthlessly stole the money they had set aside for their vacations. This sentence puts Turner safely behind bars, where he can no longer deliver his devious sales pitches, and it requires him to pay full restitution to his victims.”

      The state’s investigation revealed that Turner and Bernstein falsely promised large discounts and benefits to those who bought vacation packages, which typically cost between $2,200 and $6,500. They knew that the promised discounts and benefits were not available. In addition, they failed to deliver “free” round-trip airline tickets and cruises after customers paid them hundreds of dollars in “fees and surcharges” to qualify for the “free” promotional trips. They laundered more than $700,000 in criminal proceeds through their personal bank accounts and used the money to buy their luxury home in Marlton, according to testimony and court documents.

      Back to his old tricks

      “After law enforcement shut down Turner’s shady travel companies, he opened a new one and went back to his old tricks,” said Director Elie Honig of the Division of Criminal Justice. “By sending Turner to prison, we have ended his fraud spree and warned the public that this is not a man you want to trust with your money.”

      “We remain committed to getting money back to the consumers who were defrauded, through liquidation of the ill-gotten assets seized from Turner and Bernstein,” said Eric T. Kanefsky, Director of the State Division of Consumer Affairs. “The civil and criminal cases are concluded but we do not consider this matter closed until restitution is in the hands of these consumers.”

      The state’s investigation revealed that Turner and Bernstein recruited customers using mass postcard mailings that offered recipients a “complimentary cruise for two” and/or “complimentary airfare for two.”

      When recipients called the toll-free number on the card, they were told they must visit one of defendants’ business locations for a 90-minute presentation, which turned out to be a high-pressure sales pitch to purchase vacation packages. 

      Daryl Turner (Photo: NJ Attorney General)The owner of Dreamworks Vacation Club has been sentenced to seven years in prison by a New Jersey judge. Daryl...

      Study: home births more dangerous than hospital deliveries

      Study blames unfriendly hospital environments, but could cost be a bigger factor?

      Babies delivered at home by midwives are four times more likely to suffer neonatal death than babies delivered in a hospital by midwives, according to a forthcoming study to be presented this week at the annual meeting of the Society for Maternal-Fetal Medicine. The difference appears to center around where the births actually take place — hospital or home — rather than who attended the birth.

      Researchers analyzed data from 14 million births and determined that the absolute risk of neonatal mortality was 3.2 deaths out of every 10,000 births for hospital midwife births, compared to 12.6 out of 10,000 for home midwife births.

      Statistically speaking, 12 deaths out of 10,000 is still extremely low—though this would be cold comfort if your baby were one of those twelve. In both cases, of course, the vast majority of babies turned out fine; the higher death rate for home deliveries presumably involves complications of the sort that are fairly simple to treat with the modern medical technologies hospitals have available, yet can be fatal without intervention.

      The SMFM press release said this:

      Given the study’s findings, Amos Grunebaum, M.D. and Frank Chervenak, M.D., the main authors of the study, said that obstetric practitioners have an ethical obligation to disclose the increased absolute and relative risks associated with planned home birth to expectant parents who express an interest in this delivery setting, and to recommend strongly against it.

      The authors also continued to say that hospitals should create a welcoming and comfortable birthing environment, as well as address unnecessary obstetric interventions, both of which are often a primary motivation for planned homebirth.

      Cost a factor

      This is no doubt true, but there's another possible motivation behind the rise of interest in home births—the high, and pretty much impossible to predict, cost of an American hospital delivery. Two weeks ago, we told you about a different study analyzing the costs of giving birth:

      Researchers at the University of California San Francisco (UCSF) conducted a wide-ranging study of hospitals in the state, finding that patients could be charged as little as $3,296 or as much as $37,227 for an uncomplicated vaginal delivery. It all depended on the hospital they chose. 

      For a C-section, the costs were much higher, ranging anywhere from $8,312 to nearly $71,000. And these were uncomplicated births – few of the women in the study had serious health issues and most were discharged within six days of admission.

      Based on their findings, the researchers conclude that it is almost impossible for a woman to predict how much it will cost to have a baby.

      For that matter, it can be impossible for anybody to predict how much any medical procedure will cost; the answer varies depending on whether or not you have insurance, which provider you have if you do, which hospital you visit, and other factors we can't even guess at because medical billing procedures are so opaque.

      And, while we are strong advocates of such fiscal-responsibility techniques as “determining the total cost of an item or service before you decide to buy it,” this only works when the total cost is actually made available to you.

      Perhaps expectant mothers would be more willing to give birth in hospitals if they weren't required to pay with a blank check liable to be filled out with an amount in the high five figures.

      Babies delivered at home by midwives are four times more likely to suffer neonatal death than babies delivered in a hospital by midwives...

      Trying to lose weight? It's the weekdays that count

      Just as there are sleep cycles, there are weight loss cycles

      A new study finds that naturally occurring weight loss cycles have a lot to do with whether we're slim or chubby. Just as there are natural sleep cycles, so are there natural weight loss cycles, which can be used to the advantage of those trying to shed extra pounds.

      Dr. Brian Wansink of Cornell University said almost everyone loses weight on weekdays and gains weight on weekends. What separates the slim from the heavy isn’t how much more they gain on weekends. It’s how much they lose during the weekdays.

      Wansink studied the cycles in collaboration with researchers from the VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland and Tampere University of Technology, trying to find what impact the seven-days-a-week human cycle has on weight.

      What they found was that, in general, the test subjected weighed more on Sunday and Monday, while their weight steadily decreased through the week, reaching its lowest point on Friday.

      However, the results weren't universal. Of the 80 adults studied, some were weight gainers, meaning they tended to gain weight over time. Some were weight losers, who tended to lose weight and some were weight "maintainers," who tended to maintain a constant weight.

      In studying the weekly results, the researchers were surprised to find that longterm weight losers tended to display sharper reactions, with their weekly weight decrease starting right after the weekend. Weight gainers, on the the other hand, were slower to react.

      Based on these results, Wansink said weight variations between weekdays and weekends should be considered normal. On the weekends people have more time to go out and eat. Some indulging during weekends makes no harm but for successful weight loss it is important to notice these rhythms and take steps to reverse the upward trends after the weekend, even if it has to wait until Monday.

      Successful weight control is more likely to happen for the long run if one is not too strict with one’s diet but allows for short-term splurges, Wansink said.

      A new study finds that naturally occurring weight loss cycles have a lot to do with whether we're slim or chubby. Just as there are natural sleep cycles, s...

      Vets see faster turnaround time for education claims

      The improvement came even as the number of requests increased

      Processing requests for GI Bill benefits for returning students has been speeded up considerably.

      The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) says the time it takes to process requests has been cut by nearly 50% compared with fiscal year 2012. The agency credits the faster process in large part to improved claims automation that uses rules-based, industry-standard technologies to deliver veterans’ benefits.

      “We are happy to report that our students are seeing a reduction in the amount of time it takes to process their education claims thanks to an automated, digital process making it easier for veterans, servicemembers and their families to attend post-secondary education and enroll for continuing semesters,” said Under Secretary for Benefits Allison A. Hickey. “This automation has not only improved education benefits processing, it has allowed us to shift resources to other priorities, like improving timeliness of disability compensation decisions. It’s a great example of how technology is helping us to transform the way we do business and better serve veterans.”

      'Long Term Solution'

      The Post-9/11 GI Bill gives Iraq and Afghanistan vets and their families the opportunity to reach their educational goals, find a good job and improve their lives. The automation technology, part of VA’s Post-9/11GI Bill processing system called “Long Term Solution” (LTS), was implemented in September 2012.

      This technology has more than 1,700 calculations and rules that support benefits delivery for eligible veterans, servicemembers and dependents. Up to six distinct payments per beneficiary can be calculated automatically per term, including housing, books and supplies stipend, tuition and fees, and Yellow Ribbon payments.

      In addition, different types of education and training programs are supported by the automated technology, including graduate, undergraduate, non-college degree, correspondence, licensing and certification, apprenticeship and on-the-job training.

      Heavier load

      The improvement in timeliness was achieved despite a 27% increase in incoming education claims -- 3.4 million in fiscal year 2013 versus to 2.7 million the prior year. Currently, VA is processing initial claims for new students in an average of less than 20 days, and supplemental claims for returning students in less than 8 days, down from 33 days and 16 days respectively since LTS was first fielded.

      VA has provided more than $35.6 billion in Post-9/11 GI Bill benefit payments to over 1.1 million veterans, servicemembers, and their families, and to the universities, colleges, and trade schools they attend.

      VA says it will continue to improve education benefits delivery this year through additional automation, tracking of beneficiary graduation rates, and the release of new tools to help beneficiaries best utilize VA education benefits, including the Choosing a School Guide and CareerScope.

      Processing requests for GI Bill benefits for returning students has been speeded up considerably. The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) says the time it...

      Court fines telemarketers $14.75 million on contempt citation

      Defendants "showed complete contempt" for consumers and the court, FTC charges

      A U.S. district court judge in Florida has issued a contempt order against two individuals who allegedly violated a December 2008 injunction that barred them from billing consumers without authorization and making misrepresentations to consumers.

      Bryon Wolf and Roy Eliasson have been operating a deceptive marketing scheme since 2009, despite the 2008 injunction that barred them from doing so, the Federal Trade Commission charged .

      The contempt order imposes a judgment of $14.75 million against the defendants, which is the amount they illegally took from consumers in their second scheme.

      “This pair of defendants showed complete contempt, both for consumers and for a court order,” said Jessica Rich, Director of the Federal Trade Commission’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “And this action shows that if you violate an FTC order, you’ll pay for that violation. We put orders in place to protect consumers, and we make sure that companies follow them.”

      The FTC said it monitors every FTC order for compliance, and quickly deals with those wrongdoers who defy its orders. In the last 12 months alone, the FTC successfully tried five contempt cases. The defendants in these actions face tens of millions of dollars in judgments and are banned from various commercial activities.

      Suntasia Marketing

      In the Wolf-Eliasson case, the FTC sued Suntasia Marketing, Inc., in 2007, charging the operation with deceptively marketing negative-option programs to consumers nationwide. The defendants allegedly defrauded consumers and charged their bank accounts without their consent for a variety of programs, including memberships in discount buyer’s and travel clubs.

      Suntasia was named as one of the Top 10 Scams of 2007 by ConsumerAffairs.

      In 2008, 14 defendants agreed to an order settling the FTC’s charges, and were required to pay more than $16 million to provide refunds to defrauded consumers. Bryon Wolf and Roy Eliasson were ordered to pay over $11 million for their role in the scheme, and were barred from a variety of unlawful acts in the future, including misrepresenting material facts regarding an offer, failing to clearly disclose material terms during a sale, and debiting consumers’ accounts without their consent.

      But according to the FTC’s motion for contempt, within months of the 2008 order, Wolf and Eliasson devised a new plan to defraud consumers through Membership Services, LLC, a firm they controlled.

      In this scheme, the FTC said, they used deceptive phone and internet solicitations to target recent loan applicants and misled them into believing they would provide them with cash advances, loans, or lines of credit. Instead, the defendants debited the consumers’ accounts for membership in a continuity program. Very few consumers used the program, and many cancelled when they found out the defendants had debited their accounts and planned to take additional payments from them in future months.

      At the request of the Federal Trade Commission, a U.S. district court judge in Florida has issued a contempt order against Bryon Wolf and Roy Eliasso...

      Colds in pregnancy may lead to childhood asthma

      Genetics also a factor, but colds and viral infections can heighten the risk

      Here's another reason it's important for pregnant women to stay healthy: a new study finds that the more common colds and viral infections a woman has during pregnancy, the higher the risk her baby will have asthma.

      The study, published in the February issue of Annals of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology, found a mother's infections and bacterial exposure during pregnancy affect the in utero environment, thus increasing a baby's risk of developing allergy and asthma in childhood.

      "In addition, these same children that had early exposure to allergens, such as house dust and pet dander, had increased odds of becoming sensitized by age five," said allergist Mitch Grayson, MD, Annals deputy editor and fellow of the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology (ACAAI). "When dust mites from the mother and child's mattresses were examined, children with high dust mite exposure yet low bacteria exposure were more likely to be allergic to dust mites than those with low mite exposure and high bacteria contact."

      According to the ACAAI, asthma and allergy can be hereditary. If both of a child's parents have allergies, the child has a 75 percent chance of being allergic. If one of the parents is allergic, or if a close relative has allergies, the child has a 30 to 40 percent chance of having some form of allergy. If neither parent has allergy, the chance is only 10 to 15 percent.

      Genetics a factor

      "We know that allergy and asthma can develop in the womb since genetics play a factor in both diseases," said allergist Michael Foggs, MD, ACAAI president. "But this study sheds light about how a mother's environment during pregnancy can begin affecting the child before birth."

      Asthma is the most common potentially serious medical condition to complicate pregnancy, according to the ACAAI. In fact, asthma affects approximately 8 percent of women in their childbearing years. When women with asthma become pregnant, one-third of the patients improve, one-third worsen and one-third remain unchanged.

      Here's another reason it's important for pregnant women to stay healthy: a new study finds that the more common colds and viral infections a woman has...

      House of Smoke recalls various meat products

      The products contain soy, an allergen not listed on the label

      House of Smoke of Fort Lupton, Colo., is recalling approximately 144,000 pounds of meat and poultry products (including bratwurst / brotwurst, fully cooked sausage-type products, and raw fresh products).

      The products were processed with a releasing agent containing soy lecithin, a known allergen that is not declared on the label.

      There have been no reports of adverse reactions due to consumption of these products.

      The following products are subject to recall:

      Brotwurst and bratwurst, produced between January 24, 2013, and January 24, 2014, packaged in 1-pound packages, 12 per case. The following products are included:

      • Code 9050 Hickory Smoked Bison Brotwurst little smokies
      • Code 9051 Hickory Smoked Elk Brotwurst little smokies
      • Code 9100 Hickory Smoked Buffalo Brotwurst
      • Code 9101 Hickory Smoked Buffalo Brotwurst Cheddar & Jalapeno
      • Code 9116 Hickory Smoked Elk Brotwurst Pork Added
      • Code 9117 Hickory Smoked Elk Brotworst Cheddar & Jalapeno
      • Code 9118 Hickory Smoked Elk Brotwurst With Jalapeno
      • Code 9139 Hickory Smoked Brotwurst
      • Code 9141 Hickory Smoked Coopersmith Brat Wild Boar
      • Code 9144 Hickory Smoked Coopersmith Brat Elk w/ Cheddar
      • Code 9156 Hickory Smoked Boulder Sausage Brotwurst
      • Code 9171 Hickory Smoked Mountain Man Brotwurst
      • Code 9246 Bison Breakfast Brats 4/1

      Fully cooked sausage-type products, produced between January 24, 2013, and January 24, 2014. The products may be packaged in one the following manners: 1-ounce packages, 40 per case; 6-ounce packages, 24 per case; or 1-pound packages, 20 per case. The following products are included:

      • Code 9052 Hickory Smoked Wild Boar Sausage Little Smokies
      • Code 9053 Smoked Rabbit Sausage Rattlesnake & Jalapeno Chardonnay Wine “little smokies”
      • Code 9054 Hickory Smoked Andouille Smokies (Pork, Potato, and Onion Product)
      • Code 9102 Hickory Smoked Bison Frankfurter
      • Code 9103 Hickory Smoked Andouille Sausage (Pork, Potato, and Onion Product)
      • Code 9115 Hickory Smoked Duck Sausage w/ Cilantro
      • Code 9130 Hickory Smoked Venison Sausage (Pork Added)
      • Code 9140 Wild Boar Sausage Hickory Smoked
      • Code 9142 Smoked Wild Boar Sausage Made from Feral Swine Blueberries, Merlot Wine
      • Code 9145 Hickory Smoked German Style Sausage
      • Code 9184 Hickory Smoked Chorizo
      • Code 9345 Hickory Smoked Norwegian Sausage
      • Hickory Smoked Elk Salami Beef Added
      • Hickory Smoked Elk Sticks Beef Added
      • Hickory Smoked Norwegian Brand Summer Sausage
      • Hickory Smoked Beef Sausage
      • Hickory Smoked Beef Sausage (contains monosodium glutamate)
      • Hickory Smoked Beef Sticks
      • Hickory Smoked Buffalo Sausage Beef Added
      • Hickory Smoked Buffalo Sticks Beef Added
      • Hickory Smoked Mountain Man Salami (Made With Buffalo, Venison, Elk, Wild Boar, Antelope, and Caribou Added)
      • Hickory Smoked Mountain Man Salami (Made With Buffalo, Venison, Elk, Wild Boar, Antelope, and Bear Added)
      • Hickory Smoked Venison Sausage Beef Added
      • Hickory Smoked Wild Boar* Sausage *Meat from Feral Swine

      Raw fresh products, produced between July 24, 2013, and January 24, 2014. The products may be packaged in one the following manners: patties/three per pound, in 12 pound cases; 6-pound bags, 12-pound cases; or 12 pound boxes. The following products are included:

      • Code 4860 Wild Boar* Meat from Feral Swine Ground Bulk
      • Code 6752 Cold Smoked Ground Turkey Thigh Meat
      • Code 9016 Elk Breakfast Sausage with Apple Slices
      • Code 6366 Ground Duck
      • Code 9202 Swedish Potato Sausage
      • Code 9203 Bison Maple Breakfast Brats 4/1
      • Code 9215 Duck Sausage w/ Cilantro
      • Code 9223 Rabbit Sausage Rattlesnake & Jalapeno Chardonnay Wine
      • Code 9240 Wild Boar Sausage Made from Feral Swine
      • Code 9241 Wild Boar Italian Sausage Made from Feral Swine
      • Code 9242 Wild Boar Sausage Made from Feral Swine Blueberries, Merlot Wine
      • Code 9245 Wild Boar Maple Breakfast Sausage
      • Code 9248 Norwegian Breakfast Sausage
      • Code 6751 Ground Turkey Bratwurst
      • Code 13820 Mountain Man Sausage Ground 2/6
      • Code 13721 Buffalo Patties Beef Added 2/1
      • Code 13831 Mountain Man Patties 3/1

      The products subject to recall bear the establishment number “EST 6273” or “P-6273” inside the USDA Mark of Inspection, and were sold nationwide to distributors, restaurants, and over the Internet.

      Consumers with questions regarding the recall can contact James Barsness, President of House of Smoke, at 303-857-2750.

      House of Smoke of Fort Lupton, Colo., is recalling approximately 144,000 pounds of meat and poultry products (including bratwurst / brotwurst, fully cooked...