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Foreclosures are down but there's a long way to go

Still, it's a positive sign for an anemic housing market

Americans continue to lose their homes to foreclosure but the rate continues to fall. Slowly.CoreLogic, a company that tracks housing data, reports there...

PhotoAmericans continue to lose their homes to foreclosure but the rate continues to fall. Slowly.

CoreLogic, a company that tracks housing data, reports there were 46,000 completed foreclosures in April, down from 56,000 the previous April. Month over month, the number of homes lost to foreclosure dipped slightly between March and April.

That's all well and good but the rate is still double what it was before the start of the financial crisis. Between 2000 and 2006, completed foreclosures averaged just 21,000 per month.

The foreclosure process can be long and involved and can be measured in a number of ways, but counting completed foreclosures is instructive. That's the number of homes repossessed by the lender.

Property values take a hit

When that happens it can be highly disruptive to neighborhood property values. Homes typically sit vacant for months – even years – before they go back onto the market, usually at a heavily discounted price.

At the start of the housing crisis the Center for Responsible Lending (CRL) estimated foreclosures would cause the loss of 69.5 million in property value of homes located near foreclosed properties.

Over a 3-year period – from 2009 to 2012 – CRL estimated 92 million families would lose a combined $1.9 trillion in home values due to foreclosures.

As of 2014 the housing market has recovered from some of the damaged caused by the wave of foreclosures. Home values have risen well off their lows and in some markets are back above pre-crash levels.

Sales still slow

However, sales have not come close to their once-torrid pace and in recent months have slowed. The slowdown has occurred in part because there have been, until recently, fewer homes for sale and in part because it's harder for prospective buyers to get a mortgage.

National Association of Realtors chief economist Lawrence Yun expects existing home sales this year may be slightly below last year's level.

“We’ll continue to see a balancing act between housing inventory and price growth, which remains stronger than normal simply because there have not been enough sellers in many areas,” Yun said. More inventory and increased new-home construction will help to foster healthy market conditions.”

Impacting sales?

The lack of sellers Yun refers to may be caused, in part, by a reduction in the number of completed foreclosures. Since 2008 foreclosures have made up a sizable portion of the housing market, attracting investors who mostly paid in cash. The decline is seen a good news by everyone, with the exception perhaps of investors.

“We have now registered two and a half years of continuous decreases in the number of homeowners who are in some stage of the foreclosure process. This consistent decline means fewer Americans are experiencing the distress of delinquency and default,” said Anand Nallathambi, president and CEO of CoreLogic. “The recovery may be slow, but it is steady.”

And it still may have a long way to go.

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Ford issues massive vehicle recall

More than 1 million problem vehicles are being pulled in

Steering, rust and floor mat problems are prompting Ford to recall 1.4 million SUVs and cars in North America, according to the website Manufacturing.net. ...

PhotoSteering, rust and floor mat problems are prompting Ford to recall 1.4 million SUVs and cars in North America, according to the website Manufacturing.net.

In an announcement made on Thursday, the automaker said it is recalling 915,000 Ford Escape and Mercury Mariner small SUVs, which – according to the website -- have a problem with a torque sensor within the steering column. This could make the vehicles hard to control, increasing the risk of a crash..

Explorers recalled

In addition, Manufacturing.net says 196,000 Ford Explorer SUVs from the 2011 through 2013 model years are being recalled because an electrical problem in a steering gear can knock out power steering.

Dealers will either update software or replace the steering gear.

Additional recalls

That's not the end of it. The website says Ford is also calling back more than 196,600 model year 2010 through 2014 Taurus sedans. Rust around the license plate light can cause a short circuit and fire. The cars were sold in 20 states and Washington, D.C., where salt is used to clear roads of snow and ice.

Finally , the automaker is recalling some 82,500 Ford Fusion, Mercury Milan, Lincoln Zephyr and Lincoln MKZ cars from the 2006 through 2011 model years. Floor mats interfere with the accelerator s pedal if not installed correctly. The mats will be replaced.

A Ford spokeswoman told Manufacturing.net that these recalls are just part of the company's normal recall process.

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Europeans can now ask Google to forget about them

Does this really amount to a cataclysmic assault on the "public's right to know?"

In the United States, the First Amendment trumps just about everything and, unlike the Second, is relatively non-controversial. But every now and then, we'...

PhotoIn the United States, the First Amendment trumps just about everything and, unlike the Second, is relatively non-controversial. But every now and then, we're reminded of how rare the right to "publish and be damned" truly is.

Witness Google tying itself in knots as it struggles to comply with a European court's ruling that it must allow individuals to request that information about them be removed from Google's search results.

Google's philosophy, if it can be called that, has always been to include anything and everything in its search index. It has slowly and grudgingly removed links to child pornography and other clearly objectionable information. After all, while the First Amendment protects such activity, that doesn't necessarily mean it's admirable.

The right to publish isn't an obligation to publish in other words. 

Buck passing

Google has traditionally handled individual "take-down" requests by referring them to the publishers of the websites that contain the disputed information. If the publisher removes it, the link eventually disappears from Google.

To cite an everyday example, many local newspapers and news sites routinely publish the "police blotter" -- the official record of a local police department's action for a particular period of time.

Frequently, police officers will arrest someone for, let's say, shoplifting. That person's name then shows up in the report published the next day by the local news sites, even if the prosecutor decines to go forward with the charge and the individual is released -- having not been charged with any crime.

The accused person's name still appears indefinitely, even after the charge is dropped, possibly affecting that person's chances of getting into college, getting a job, security clearance or professional credential.

In one case I happen to know of, the publisher of a local news site -- after receiving a constant stream of such requests, every one of which he granted -- simply decided to stop publishing the police blotters from the 12 or so local jurisdictions his site covers.

"We can't follow up each case so in essence we are convicting the accused without giving them their day in court," I said to myself. Of course, we still report major crimes on my local news site but no longer publish what is essentially the daily trivia report -- barking dogs, drunken driving, thefts from cars, shoplifting allegations.

A public-service business

PhotoNote to Google: this cost me a lot of money. The police blotter pages were heavily read. Eliminating them cost me readers. 

But publishing is a public-service business, something that has not always sunk in with the digerati. Publishers have discretion and can pretty much do any damned thing they want, including making decisions that are bad for business but perhaps good for the public interest (or whatever high-blown phrase seems appropriate). It is not censorship to decide that some stories are not newsworthy and should not appear in a responsible publication. 

The European court's ruling strikes many as going too far and strikes others as being impractical. How are Google, Bing, et al supposed to make the decisions that human editors make everyday? It will cost too much money and be too much trouble, critics contend.

Well, perhaps so, but the court has spoken and today, Google has launched a new form on its European websites that residents of the European Union countries can use to request the removal of "outdated, irrelevant" information that may infringe their privacy.

There is, of course, no right to privacy spelled out in the U.S. Constitution, despite everyone seeming to think that the guarantee against illegal search and seizure sort of amounts to the same thing. What the legal basis of the European court's ruling was is likewise something of a mystery but it is now a fact of life that the search engines must deal with.

Void where prohibited

Keep in mind that the court's ruling applies only within the European Union. Therefore, disputed information that is removed from, say, Google's website in Portugal will continue to be displayed in the United States, Mexico, Brazil and, presumably, any other spot on earth that is not within the confines of the European Union.

If a disgruntled German wants to dig up the dirt on his neighbor, he can always ask his friends or relatives living abroad to Google the information and send it to him. 

If this sounds confusing, it is. To keep it all straight, Google has formed a committee to help it navigate the thicket, a task it doesn't seem to think it should be burdened with.

"The court's ruling requires Google to make difficult judgments about an individual's right to be forgotten and the public's right to know," a Google spokesman said.

Well, Google, welcome to the publishing business. 

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9 ways to increase online privacy

A new Consumer Reports survey suggests most of us need help in that area

Privacy seems to be a commodity in short supply these days. Every month there seems to be some new revelation of a data breach, in which a hacker is able t...

PhotoPrivacy seems to be a commodity in short supply these days. Every month there seems to be some new revelation of a data breach, in which a hacker is able to gain access to consumers' private information.

But not all privacy breaches result in identity theft. Information about you is constantly being collected, especially when you use a computer or other device connected to the Internet.

There are things you, as a consumer and computer user, can do to protect your online privacy but few of us do them. A new report from Consumer Reports find 62% of U.S. consumers using the Internet have done nothing to protect their privacy.

"The most effective defense against an international onslaught of shadowy hackers is being a well-informed and vigilant individual," said Glenn Derene, Electronics Editor for Consumer Reports. "It should be clear by now that consumers can't rely solely on institutions to safeguard their valuable personal information online. Our report identifies some tools that can help people shut the door on cybercriminals."

The report finds consumers are vulnerable in a number of different areas. Hospitals and doctors' offices, for example, have your medical history stored on computers that could be vulnerable to a breach. If you use any of the commercial cloud services your privacy may also be at risk.

Consumer Reports, for example, says services like Dropbox and Evernote “have a spotty security record.”

What you can do

So, what can you do to better protect your privacy? It may be impossible to provide complete protection but there are a number of things you can do to increase your protections.

If you store private information on a cloud-based service the security experts at Consumer Reports say you should encrypt it with an encryption program. In the event of a breach it will be harder for a hacker to access your data.

Your online privacy starts with your Internet Service Provider (ISP). Your ISP can track your online activity because it has your computer's IP address.

Often times the website you visit can see your IP address as well and among the information it gleans from that is your geographic location. That's why when you visit a global website you might see an ad for a business in your local area.

Reduce your visibility

According to Privacy Rights Clearinghouse you can limit this information by using a service such as Tor  that can block this information from being transmitted.

You can use a Virtual Private Network (VPN), which replaces your IP address with one from the VPN provider. A VPN subscriber can obtain an IP address from any gateway city the VPN service provides.

There are other ways to limit your ISP's tracking ability outlined here.

Your home network should be secured with a password. In public places like airports and coffee shops, remember that WiFi networks are not secure and any information you send over them is vulnerable.

Evaluate your security settings. Select options that meet your needs without putting you at increased risk.

Cookies

Be aware of your Internet cookies setting. Cookies are short pieces of data used by web servers to identify users. Some cookies may be helpful for storing images and data from websites that you frequent, but others are malicious and collect information about you.

When visiting a new website look for a privacy policy statement or seal that indicates the site abides by privacy standards.

An important step in protecting your online privacy is being very selective about what you download. While it might be tempting to download a free software application, these “freebies” almost always now come with other Potentially Unwanted Programs (PUPs).

Another step to enhance your online privacy is to install a good anti-virus software and keep it updated. The updating is important because new threats emerge all the time. Anti-virus programs aren't perfect but they can help.

You're being followed

It's worth noting that not all encroachments on your privacy have the objective to getting access to your money or identity, but there can be creepy nonetheless. Companies seeks as much information about your online habits as possible, primary in hopes of selling you something.

Others collect information about you to sell to other companies, or even share with the government. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is pushing for stronger protections.

“Protections for online privacy are justified and necessary, and the government must help draw boundaries to ensure that Americans’ privacy stays intact in the Digital Age,” the group says.

Congress can do something too. As a first step, the ACLU advocates an overhaul of the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) which was passed in 1986, before the Internet as we know it today even existed.

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Another man blames GPS after he drives into a river

Safety tip: look through your windshield, not at your GPS, while you're driving

Same story, different waterway; this time it was the Susquehanna...

Photo
Not a highway
Before discussing the latest “bad driver made worse by GPS” incident, let's take a moment to remember the history of the Panama Canal: Once upon a time, people said “The only way ships can travel from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean is by going all the way around South America. That stinks. Let's dig a canal through the narrow part of Panama.”

So they did, then altered the maps to show how a little slice of former land was now a waterway. Nobody tried that in reverse order — let's alter the map so maybe we won't need to dig a canal — because in those days everybody understood that when a map says one thing and reality says another, reality always wins.

Unfortunately, too many people do not understand this nowadays, or at least don't apply it to GPS technology, which is why you so often read news stories like “Woman drives into lake because GPS said it was a road” or “Man drives into house because GPS said it was a highway” or even “Couple lost in the wilderness for days after GPS tells them unpaved logging road is actually the Interstate.”

The Mighty Susquehanna

So it's no surprise to learn that last week, Pennsylvania State Police made the acquaintance of a man who confused a state highway with the Susquehanna River:

Jacob W. Ash, 24, of Spencer, W. Va., was driving on state Route 2025 in Wyalusing Township (Homets Ferry Road west of Ferry Road) around 7 a.m. on May 22, police said.

The road continues to the river. According to police, Ash, who was following directions from a GPS device, did not see the river and drove into it.

Maybe that was Ash's problem — even when your GPS directions are 100% accurate, and if followed will direct your car onto roadways rather than into waterways, you-the-driver need to look at your GPS in addition to looking at the road, not in lieu of looking at the road.

Even when the road is genuinely there, you still need to watch out for everything from “other drivers” to “potholes and other obstacles,” none of which a GPS can tell you about.

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Want to lose weight? Try prunes

Eating lots of prunes dampens the appetite, researchers find

Prunes don't get much respect. Aside from, or perhaps partly because of, their reputation as an unusually effective laxative, they're not something most of...

PhotoPrunes don't get much respect. Aside from, or perhaps partly because of, their reputation as an unusually effective laxative, they're not something most of us would think about as the ideal snack.

But a study by the University of Liverpool finds that those who ate dried prunes experienced greater weight loss than those who ate tastier items.

"These are the first data to demonstrate both weight loss and no negative side effects when consuming prunes as part of a weight management diet," said Liverpool psychologist Jo Harrold, who led the research. "Indeed in the long term they may be beneficial to dieters by tackling hunger and satisfying appetite; a major challenge when you are trying to maintain weight loss."

Consumption of dried fruit is not generally recommended during weight loss despite evidence it enhances feelings of fullness but the study of 100 overweight and obese subjects found that prunes may be the exception.

The study also examined whether consumers could tolerate eating substantial numbers of prunes.

Study details

To assess the effects of prunes on weight and appetite, participants in the study were divided into two groups – those who ate prunes every day and those who were merely given advice on healthy snacks.

The researchers found that members of the group which ate prunes as part of a healthy lifestyle diet lost about 4.4 pounds (2kg) in weight and shed about 1 inch (2.5cm) off their waists. However, the people in the group which was given advice on healthy snacks lost only 3.3 pounds (1.5kg) in weight and 6/10 of an inch (1.7cm) from their waists.

The study also found that the prune eaters experienced greater weight loss during the last four weeks of the study. After week eight, participants showed increased feelings of fullness in the prune group. Moreover, despite the high daily doses, prunes were well tolerated.

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Heavy airplane traffic a major source of air pollution

Cars contribute less than 5% of the pollution in the area around LAX

Heavy airplane traffic potentially a major contributor to pollution in Los AngelesCongested freeways crawling with cars and trucks are notorious for caus...

PhotoCars and trucks get most of the blame for the blanket of smog that lies over major metropolitan areas but a new study finds that heavy airplane traffic can be an even bigger source of pollution for up to 10 miles around an airport.

The report, published in the ACS journal Environmental Science & Technology, has serious implications for the health of residents near Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) and other airports around the world.

Scott Fruin and colleagues noted that past research has measured pollution from air traffic but most of these studies only sampled air within a couple of miles, at most, from airports.

Not surprisingly, these analyses have found higher levels of pollutants such as nitrogen oxides and small particles less than 0.1 micron (about one-thousandth of the width of a human hair), that scientists attributed to airplane emissions.

This added pollution is potentially a major public health issue. Ultrafine particles, which form from condensation of hot exhaust vapors, are of particular concern because they deposit deeply into the lungs and can enter the bloodstream.

The oxidative stress and resulting inflammation appear to play a role in the development of atherosclerosis (blocked arteries) and can make other health conditions worse, especially for people with existing cardiac or lung conditions including asthma.

Fruin's team at the Keck School of Medicine and the University of Southern California suspected that residents near LAX, the sixth busiest airport in the world, were being exposed to excessive doses of pollution from airplanes even farther from the runways than previous research had considered. During its busiest times, 40 to 60 jets take off and land every hour.

Pollutants measured

Over a period of 29 days, the scientists drove the area within 10 miles downwind of the airport to measure levels of air pollutants. The area included densely packed residential neighborhoods flanked by three major freeways.

They found that over a 23-square-mile area, particle number (PN) concentrations were double the background levels while over nine square miles, levels were five times higher than background. And within nearly two miles east of the airport, PN levels were nearly 10 times higher -- equivalent to 174 to 491 miles of freeway traffic. For reference, the entire area of Los Angeles County has a total of about 930 miles of freeways.

Based on their calculations, scientists concluded that within the area they found to have elevated pollution from the airport, automobiles contributed less than 5 percent of the PN levels.

"Therefore, the LAX should be considered one of the most important sources of PN in Los Angeles," the scientists state in the journal article.

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Peer-to-peer banking gains investors' interest

Short-lived fad or the shape of financial things to come? Investors betting the latter

Earlier this week we told you about how “new technology threatens old banking institutions,” at least according to a new marketing survey sugge...

PhotoEarlier this week we told you about how “new technology threatens old banking institutions,” at least according to a new marketing survey suggesting that, compared to older Americans, those younger than 34 are far more willing to consider getting their banking needs from sources other than traditional brick-and-mortar banks.

One of those non-traditional banking possibilities is peer-to-peer lending. It's not exactly a new phenomenon – in 2011, we gave advice for potential borrowers seeking a would-be loan through peer-to-peer sources – but at some point in the past year or so, it morphed from “the latest Internet niche product” to a major player in the financial landscape. Last year, for example, Google bought a stake in the peer-to-peer Lending Club.

What it is

What is peer-to-peer lending? As the name suggests, it's lending done mostly between individuals (peers) — you borrow money from an individual lender (or a group of individual lenders) as opposed to borrowing from GigantoBankCorp. Or, on the other side, you lend money as an individual investor, rather than as part of GigantoBankCorp.

The benefit is that, obviously, you're not dealing with GigantoBankCorp either way, so lenders and borrowers both can enjoy more flexibility than huge and highly regulated financial institutions generally allow.

The downside is also that you're not dealing with GigantoBankCorp, which for all its institutional flaws still enjoys benefits like FDIC insurance coverage — and the inertia left over from generations of people raised to associate “banking” with GigantoBankCorp rather than, say, some lender on the Internet.

Of course, that inertia might be fading as more people every year become adults whose entire childhoods were spent taking the Internet for granted.

Investors becoming interested

Recently, there's been a rise in news reports about peer-to-peer lending – not from a borrower's perspective, but from an investor's. (Overall opinion: investing your money in P2P lending is probably riskier than investing it in old-school banks — but the potential returns are a lot higher, too.)

On May 8, for example, the Economist ran a story about the role P2P lending plays, especially in the modern Chinese economy (where American-style banking regulations and property rights are nonexistent, of course): headline “We try harder” and subheading “Without the banks' baggage, shadow banks find it easier to oblige customers.” (That “baggage” includes such obvious things as the cost of building and maintaining actual physical bank branches, as opposed to P2P lending which requires little more than a reliable, secure Internet connections.)

On the other hand, traditional-banking advocates say the main reason P2P lending is so popular among investors right now is because interest rates remain unusually low by historical standards. As the Economist noted:

bankers often express scepticism about P2P’s staying power. As volumes grow, they say, underwriting standards are bound to fall. Investors will have no real sense of the risks they are running until the next downturn arrives. Moreover, the model’s appeal relies partly on the current low interest rates around the world, which make the extra yield from P2P especially alluring to investors. When rates begin to rise again, that advantage will dissipate.

What is the yield from P2P, anyway? Lending Memo.com (obviously promoting a pro-P2P point of view) asked this last September:

what return does peer to peer lending even offer?

It is this last question that we will devote the focus of our article today, hoping to get an answer by turning to leading voices within the industry. Interestingly, their answers widely vary. Some think a 5% return can be expected; others say 12%.

Twelve percent return on a non-loan-shark lending investment sounds too good to be true, or at least too good to be reliably counted upon. Five percent, on the other hand, sounds reasonable, and certainly better than the 1 percent or less interest rate banks give on savings now.

However, it was less than a generation ago that four or five percent was a standard, unremarkable interest rate of return for just a regular FDIC-insured savings account; only in this era of unusually low interest rates would any investor seriously consider putting money in a risky investment in hope of a mere five percent return.

So those banking advocates mentioned in the Economist, the ones who say P2P's investment advantages will disappear once interest rates return to historically normal levels, might very well be correct.

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Consumers pull back on spending in April

The decline came even though incomes moved higher

Consumers showed some reluctance to open their wallets last month, even though their incomes increased. Figures released by the Bureau of Economic Analysi...

PhotoConsumers showed some reluctance to open their wallets last month, even though their incomes increased.

Figures released by the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) show personal consumption expenditures (PCE) fell by $8.1 billion, or 0.1%. Personal income, on the other hand, increased $43.7 billion, or 0.3%, with disposable personal income (DPI) also up 0.3%. 

PCE had increased $117.6 billion, or 1.0%, in March , while personal income was up 0.5%, as was DPI.

Wages and salaries

Private wages and salaries rose in April, but not as much as they did the month before: $16.9 billion vs. of $44.6 billion in March. Payrolls of goods-producing industries fell $0.1 billion in March, while manufacturing were down $1.2 billion. Services-producing industries' payrolls jumped $16.9 billion, and government wages and salaries rose $1.4 billion.

Spending and saving

Personal outlays, which include PCE, personal interest payments, and personal current transfer payments, fell by $9.1 billion in April; they rose $120.2 billion in March. PCE was down $8.1 billion after rising $117.6 billion a month earlier.

Personal saving -- DPI less personal outlays -- was $518.1 billion in April, compared with $464.4 billion in March. The personal saving rate -- personal saving as a percentage of disposable personal income -- was 4.0% in April, compared with 3.6% in March.

The complete incomes and spending report is available on the BEA website.

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Southwest fined for violating price advertising rule -- again

The carrier advertised tickets for seats that were not available

Southwest Airlines is being fined $200,000 for violating the U.S. Department of Transportation ’s full-fare advertising rules. The carrier is also under or...

PhotoSouthwest Airlines is being fined $200,000 for violating the U.S. Department of Transportation’s (DOT) full-fare advertising rules. The carrier is also under orders to cease and desist from further violations something the carrier seems inclined to ignore.

According to DOT, by violating the full-fare advertising rule in this case, Southwest also violated a previous the cease and desist order. Thus, the airline must pay an additional $100,000, which was suspended from an order issued in July 2013.

“DOT’s full-fare advertising rules were put into place to ensure that consumers are not deceived when they search for plane tickets,” said Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said. “Consumers have rights, and DOT will continue to take enforcement action against carriers and ticket agents when our price advertising rules are violated.”

Seats unavailable

In October 2013, Southwest ran a TV ad on eight networks in the Atlanta area advertising $59 sale fares to New York, Los Angeles and Chicago on certain dates. An investigation by DOT’s Aviation Enforcement Office revealed that Southwest did not have any $59 seats available between Atlanta and any of the three quoted cities on any of the applicable travel dates.

By advertising fares for which no seats were available at all, Southwest violated the full fare advertising rule and engaged in prohibited unfair and deceptive practices.

Repeat offender

This latest order order and the one issued in 2013 both stem from violations of the same federal regulation, which requires that any advertisement or solicitation for air transportation that states a price for such transportation state the entire price to be paid. In both cases, the carrier advertised fares for which there were not a reasonable number of seats available.

By violating the same regulation again within one year, Southwest also violated the cease and desist provision of the order issued in 2013, and was immediately required to pay $100,000 -- half of the original civil penalty which was suspended from the previous order.

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Ocean’s Catch brand minced crab meat recalled

The product may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes

Rome Packing of East Providence, R.I., is recalling Ocean’s Catch brand minced crab meat. Routine product sampling has determined some of the finished pro...

PhotoRome Packing of East Providence, R.I., is recalling Ocean’s Catch brand minced crab meat.

Routine product sampling has determined some of the finished products may have been contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes bacteria.

No illnesses have been reported to date.

The recalled products, packaged in round plastic containers (tub with snap-on lid) and sold refrigerated, include:

6-ounce Ocean’s Catch Crab Meat

  • lot number 101366 with a sell by date before 5/14/14;
  • lot number 101507 with a sell by date before 5/20/14;
  • lot number 101540 with a sell by date before 5/21/14;

8-ounce Ocean’s Catch All Natural Jonah Crab Combo Meat

  • lot number 101372 with a sell by date before 5/14/14;
  • lot number 101432 with a sell by date before 5/19/14;
  • lot number 101474 with a sell by date before 5/20/14;

16-ounce Ocean’s Catch All Natural Jonah Crab Combo Meat

  • lot number 101372 with a sell by date before 5/14/14;
  • lot number 101391 with a sell by date before 5/16/14;
  • lot number 101407 with a sell by date before 5/16/14;
  • lot number 101432 with a sell by date before 5/19/14;
  • lot number 101474 with a sell by date before 5/20/14;
  • lot number 101539 with a sell by date before 5/21/14.

The products were distributed nationwide to retail stores including, but not limited to, Shaws Supermarkets, Market Basket and Dave’s Market.

Consumers who have purchased these products are urged not to consume them and return them to the place of purchase for a refund or discard them.

Consumers with questions may contact company representative, John F. Whiteside, Jr. at (508)991-3333.

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Pet Center recalls Lamb Crunchy’s dog treats

The product may be contaminated with Salmonella

Pet Center of Los Angeles, Calif., is recalling 3-oz bags of Lamb Crunchy’s dog treats (LAM-003) (UPC# 727348200038) with date code 122015. The product h...

PhotoPet Center of Los Angeles, Calif., is recalling 3-oz bags of Lamb Crunchy’s dog treats (LAM-003) (UPC# 727348200038) with date code 122015.

The product has the potential to be contaminated with Salmonella.

No illnesses have been reported to date.

The recalled product was distributed to Gelson’s Market, General Pet, Nor-Sky Pet Supply, and Independent Pet in California, Wisconsin, Colorado and Washington.

Consumers who have purchased this product should return it to the place of purchase for a full refund.

Consumers with questions may contact the company at 800-390-0575 Monday-Friday from 7:30am- 4pm PST.

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Eugene Oregon expands recall of various dietary supplements

The products may contain undeclared active pharmaceutical ingredients

Eugene Oregon of Levittown, Pa., is expanding the recall of the following products: African Black Ant, Black Ant, Mojo Risen. The original recall was issu...

PhotoEugene Oregon of Levittown, Pa., is expanding the recall of the following products: 

 Product Name Lot NumberPackaging Packaging Coloring Quantity Per Package 
 African
Black Ant
All lots Small boxes
inside large
box 
Red,
black, and
silver 
6 capsules per box, 8 boxes per display
unit. 
 Black AntAll lots Small boxes
/ tins inside
large box 
Green 4 capsules per small box, 20 boxes
display unit. Also packaged in 10 tablets
and 10 capsules in a metal tin. 
 Mojo Risen All lots 
Envelopes
inside box
 Red and white 2 capsules per envelope, 24 envelopes
per display box.

The original recall was issued in early May, and is being reissued to clarify that ALL LOTS of the products are being recalled.

Laboratory analysis shows the products contain undeclared amounts of the active pharmaceutical ingredients sildenafil and tadalafil -- FDA-approved pharmaceutical ingredients used to treat erectile dysfunction.

The company contends that conclusive testing has not been done to confirm that the recalled products do, in fact, contain sildenafil and/or tadalafil.

These products are marketed as dietary supplements for sexual enhancement and packaged in tins, envelopes, and/or boxes and were distributed to consumers nationwide at retail stores.

Consumers should stop using these products immediately and can return them to Eugene Oregon, Inc., 922 S. Woodbourne Rd. #304, Levittown, PA 19057-1001.

Consumers with questions may contact Eugene Oregon at 1-800-538-3411 Monday through Friday between 9:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m. EST.

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Trident Recalls ultraviolet sanitation systems for pools

Electrical arcing can cause the units to catch fire

Trident Ultraviolet Corp., of Marina del Rey, Calif., is recalling about 3,660 Trident Series 2 Ultraviolet Sanitation Systems for pools. Electrical arcin...

PhotoTrident Ultraviolet Corp., of Marina del Rey, Calif., is recalling about 3,660 Trident Series 2 Ultraviolet Sanitation Systems for pools.

Electrical arcing can cause the units to catch fire.

There have been 38 reports of the sanitation systems melting and or catching fire, one burn injury to a consumer’s hand and about $23,000 in property damage reported.

This recall involves all Trident Series 2 ultraviolet sanitation systems for pools. The sanitation system is a gray tube that stands 32 inches high by 11 inches in diameter. It is plumbed into the pool’s water circulation pipes and plugged in or hard-wired into an electrical system. The pool’s water runs through the unit and is sanitized by ultraviolet lamps. This is a secondary sanitation system used in conjunction with chemical sanitizers such as chlorine or bromine.

“Trident Ultraviolet Corporation,” “Series 2” and “UV Ultraviolet Sanitation System” are printed on a black label on the front of the units. “Trident Series 2 Ultraviolet Water Treatment System” and a series of letters for the date code are printed on a silver sticker on the units. Go to www.uvrecall.org to determine if the date code is included in the recall.

The systems, manufactured in the U.S. and China, were sold at pool companies nationwide from February 2009, through September 2013, for about $600.

Consumers should immediately unplug the units from the outlet, or if hard-wired, the power source should be disconnected or turned off at the circuit breaker. Contact Trident for a free repair kit.

Consumers may contact Trident toll-free at (855) 522-8200 from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. PT Monday through Friday or by email at assistance@uvrecall.org.

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Sunbeam recalls Holmes ceramic heaters

The ceramic heaters can overheat, posing a fire hazard

Sunbeam Products of Boca Raton, Fla., is recalling about 151,600 Holmes ceramic heaters. The ceramic heaters can overheat, posing a fire hazard to consume...

PhotoSunbeam Products of Boca Raton, Fla., is recalling about 151,600 Holmes ceramic heaters.

The ceramic heaters can overheat, posing a fire hazard to consumers.

The firm has received 132 reports of units that unexpectedly stopped working and/or overheated, resulting in 1 report of smoke inhalation and 10 reports of property damage involving burned flooring.

This recall involves Holmes oscillating ceramic heaters sold in black, purple, red, blue and white. The rectangular heaters included in the recall are about 12 inches tall, 8 ½ inches wide and 5 ½ inches deep and have model number HCH1823M printed on a label on the bottom of the product.

The “Holmes” logo is on the bottom front of the unit and two knobs controlling the fan and the thermostat are on the top. The heater adjusts between a high and low heat setting and a fan only setting.

The heaters, manufactured in China, were sold at Fred Meyer, Target, Walmart and other retailers nationwide from August 2013, to March 2014, for about $30.

Consumers should immediately stop using the recalled heater, unplug it and contact Sunbeam Products, for instructions on how to obtain a full refund.

Consumers may contact Sunbeam Products at (800) 834-0056 anytime.

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The richest person in history (plus or minus a few billion)

We're all rich by world historical standards, so why aren't our lives easier?

An old English-language proverb says that "The rich man has his ice in the summer, and the poor man gets his in the winter." ...

PhotoAn old proverb says that “The rich man has his ice in the summer, and the poor man gets his in the winter.”

Of course, that proverb predates the Industrial Revolution, discovery of electricity and invention of refrigeration, not to mention the other technological and economic reasons why, in early 21st-century America, things like refrigerator/freezers aren't “rich-person luxury items” but actual legal requirements — if you're a landlord renting out residential properties, local tenant and zoning codes almost certainly require that you equip those apartments with a working refrigerator and the electrical infrastructure to power it, among other things.

I first came across the “rich man's ice” saying as a little girl, during whichever summer I read Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House books. Like most young kids, even those whose parents provide all necessities, I was absolutely rock-bottom “poor” in terms of “How much money do I, personally, have to spend?” (Usual answer: None, unless I'd recently received some as a gift.)

But that summer, reading library books about American pioneer life in the 1870s and '80s, was the first time I ever felt rich. Ice in the summer? Anytime I wanted; I didn't even need to ask permission first. In one scene, Wilder described how excited she and her sisters were the day Pa came home with a very special (and expensive) present for the whole family: little panes of window glass, so natural light could enter the house and the family could see outside even when the weather was too cold or rainy to leave the window open. That was a red-letter day in the Ingalls household, even better than when Pa put smooth wooden boards down over the house's original packed-dirt floor.

Sunday best

PhotoThen I read The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and Mark Twain describing Tom's getting ready for church: “Mary got out a suit of his clothing that had been used only on Sundays during two years—they were simply called his 'other clothes' — and so by that we know the size of his wardrobe.” Laura Ingalls and her childhood friends had wardrobes roughly the same size: a regular outfit and a “Sunday best.”

By contemporary American-kid standards my financial status had always been average-to-poorish, but I'd have been the richest character by far in any of my “life in olden times” storybooks. And the further back in time I go, the richer I become. In fact, if you exclude “everyone who lives or has lived these past hundred years or so,” I'm richer than any person who has ever existed.

Consider these random facts: in late Elizabethan England (a peaceful and prosperous period by the standards of the day), a single loaf of bread cost twopence (2d), when the average unskilled laborer's income was only 3 to 4d per day, and 12d per day was the high end of a skilled laborer's pay scale.

Queen Elizabeth I had an enormous income — 60,000 pounds per year (at 240d to the pound) — but for all her wealth she had no access to basic dental care, which is why foreign ambassadors at the time noted that several of the English Queen's teeth were missing, and the remainders rotted to pure black.

As for Elizabeth's subject William Shakespeare, historians think he wrote his plays (at least his early ones) while sitting in a pub — not because writers prefer noisy, distracting environments, not even so he could eat or drink while writing, but because the pubs were illuminated, and lighting was too expensive for ordinary people, let alone struggling writers, to afford much at home.

There's some dispute over exactly when and where “glazed ceramics” and “glassware” were first invented, but everyone agrees they were extremely popular innovations mainly for eating and drinking purposes: when you eat and drink out of unglazed pottery, some of its sediments will blend in with your food.

Everyone who lived in ancient Egypt, even the rich and powerful Pharaohs, had horrible tooth problems because the food-processing methods of the time resulted in bits of sand or stone mixed in with your bread, grinding the teeth down so badly that those of most Egyptian mummies were “worn down to the pulp.”

Impossible luxuries

So, yeah — technology, cheap manufacturing, agricultural innovations and countless other advances since Ye Olden Days mean even a poor American today has what would have been literally impossible luxuries for most of history.

That slummy one-room off-campus apartment where I lived while attending Cheap State U … still bigger than the claim shanties where Laura Ingalls lived with her family of six, and equipped with everything from non-dirt floors and glass windows to indoor plumbing and all the light I wanted.

Paying for my own food was a rude shock after a lifetime of parents providing it — but even the most overpriced loaf of handmade artisan bread wouldn't cost me two-thirds of a day's pay. I bought cheaper bread, still much better than what Pharaoh had because it didn't wear down my tooth enamel.

I'm not trying to impress you by bragging about my vast wealth, here — glass windows, stone-free bread, a bathroom — because in modern terms they're not really considered “wealth” anymore; you can have all this stuff and still be poor. Your house's being infinity times nicer than any pioneer shack is irrelevant when you can't afford the payments to keep it.

Why is the cost of living so expensive, when food and clothes and so many other luxuries and necessities are so unbelievably cheap by world historical standards?

Higher standards

PhotoBecause we have higher living standards, for starters; the Ingalls' claim shanty on the American frontier would be condemned as unfit for human habitation today. And for all the ways technology has made certain things cheaper than ever before, that doesn't mean all necessities are cheap, or even affordable.

Plus there's all the ways people's finances can collapse for reasons beyond their control: if you need some expensive medical procedure your insurance won't cover, there's nothing much you can do about that.

Wages have been falling while the price of food, fuel and other necessities keep rising — not much you can do there, either. And the cost of higher education, mandatory for most career paths, has risen faster than inflation every year for more than a generation now.

Technology hasn't helped costs there. Despite all this, there's a definite subcategory of financial problems directly caused by making bad financial decisions, or overlooking the modern necessity vs. luxury distinction.

For just one example, if you want a new television, waiting until you have the cash to buy it is much cheaper in the long run than patronizing a “rent-to-own” or “lease to buy” center — even if you do have to wait rather than get the new TV right now. The cheapest, smallest new TVs are still better than anything you could get only 10 or 20 years ago. If you need a new refrigerator, a basic no-frills model from your local "scratch and dent" outlet works better than the top-of-the-line models from when you were a kid.

Still insecure

Bear in mind, I'm not trying to say, “You have more and nicer things than the average Elizabethan or frontiersman, so quit complaining.” Indeed, you must be careful not to mistake technological improvement, or historic standards of wealth, for financial or any other form of security.

In 2011, for example, the Heritage Foundation put out a study, “Understanding poverty in the United States,” which has become notorious among critics who interpreted it as saying “Poor people in America actually have it pretty good, and shouldn't complain.”

In response to the Census Bureau's report that over 46 million Americans qualified as “poor” in 2010, the Heritage Foundation noted that most poor American households do indeed own a variety of useful material possessions: “In 2005, the typical poor household, as defined by the federal government, had ... a refrigerator, an oven and stove, and a microwave.”

True. Of course, as mentioned earlier, the typical American municipal building code requires a refrigerator, oven and stove for a dwelling to be legally habitable — and a new microwave oven can be had for less than $50, roughly one day's pretax pay for a minimum-wage earner.

When Laura Ingalls and Tom Sawyer were kids, owning more than two sets of clothes was enough to make somebody rich. Nowadays a thrift-store shopper on a good day can buy an entire outfit with designer labels for less than an hour's pay — lucky thing, since modern standards of dress have risen so that “wearing the same outfit every single day until you outgrow it or it falls apart” is no longer socially acceptable anyway.

So it's true that even poor Americans are in many ways rich by historical standards, but those standards don't always apply now. During my “poor years” — college and some while thereafter, until I paid off my damnable student-loan debts — when I worried about immediate or long-term financial matters, I never once thought “How can I buy a single loaf of bread?” or “I'll never be able to afford a microwave of my very own.”

No, my concerns were bigger: debt and interest payments, health and medical costs, rent increases, hoping my rickety car held together because I couldn't afford a repair bill that month.

But during those bleak days, when I was broke, indebted and had to practice a lot more self-denial than I generally do now, I could always afford to re-visit the literary friends of my childhood and remember that Laura and Tom and the rest of the gang would still be amazed by my opulent living standards, even in that one-room college apartment.

Staying out of restaurants was easier when I viewed my home-cooked meals through other people's eyes: I ate lots of eggs because they were cheaper than meat, whereas Laura went years without seeing a single egg because her family couldn't afford chickens.

Being poor, and taking the steps to be not-poor, were both easier for me to handle when I remembered the ways I was rich.

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Yellow ribbon on leash means steer clear of dog

New symbol mean animal should be left alone

Ever since the Iran hostage crisis of 1979 a yellow ribbon has symbolized something of a welcome, or a wait for a return. In other words, a welcoming symbo...

PhotoEver since the Iran hostage crisis of 1979 a yellow ribbon has symbolized something of a welcome, or a wait for a return. In other words, a welcoming symbol.

When you see a yellow ribbon on a dog's leash, however, it means something entirely different.

According to the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) a yellow ribbon tied to a leash serves as a warning. It means the dog at the other end doesn't like to be approached and petted by strangers, and that you should keep your distance.

Always ask

AVMA says it's always proper etiquette – as well as prudent – to ask permission before petting someone's dog but not everyone understands that. They think that just because their dog adores them that all dogs do. That isn't always the case.

The association is trying to encourage owners of less-than-friendly dogs to adopt the yellow ribbon warning system when they take their pet out for a stroll. It is also trying to encourage parents to warn their children about approaching strange dogs – and in particular those with a yellow ribbon on their leash.

Dr. Ilana Reisner, a board-certified veterinary behaviorist and consultant on dog bite safety, says the threat of children being bitten by a dog can be greatly reduced with active supervision by a parent or other adults.

Aimed at reducing dog bites

State Farm Insurance and the U.S. Postal Service, two entities very concerned about dog bites, recently sponsored Reisner's appearance at the National Press Club in Washington, DC.

“Supervision is not well understood,” Reisner said at the event. “Dog owners in general are lacking knowledge about what kinds of things dogs and children do that can be a risk. For example, they might go out of the room and prepare lunch while the child is alone with the dog maybe 10-20 feet away, and that’s not active supervision. If that’s one message we can get across I think it would prevent a lot of bites.”

Then there is the whole issue of what Reisner calls “breed bias.” It works two ways.

While parents might be careful with their children around breeds with a reputation for being aggressive, they may drop their guard for breeds with a reputation for being friendly.

“Just because you happen to have a dog that’s considered to be a great family pet doesn’t mean that it would be safe for a toddler to crawl up to that dog and give him a hug when he’s sleeping,” Dr. Reisner said.

Bad body language

In addition to looking for a yellow ribbon it's also wise to observe a dog's body language. The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) says a dog will telegraph its mood and disposition. According to HSUS, here are some things to watch out for:

  • tensed body
  • stiff tail
  • pulled back head and/or ears
  • furrowed brow
  • eyes rolled so the whites are visible
  • yawning
  • flicking tongue
  • intense stare
  • backing away

Story continues below video

Even if you don't observe any of these behaviors it's never wise to approach an unfamiliar dog, in particular one who is on a leash or in a confined space. HSUS says you shouldn't even pet your own dog without letting them see and sniff you first.

Don't disturb a dog while she's sleeping, eating, chewing on a toy, or caring for puppies. Be cautious around strange dogs. According to HSUS, you should always assume that a dog who doesn't know you may see you as an intruder or a threat.

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Google settles parts of Gmail privacy-violation lawsuit

Pre-dates their current Terms of Service: they're still allowed to scan most emails

Google has settled part of the lawsuit brought against it by various adult Gmail users who claim that Google's practice of scanning email content for targe...

PhotoGoogle has settled part of the lawsuit brought against it by various adult Gmail users who claim that Google's practice of scanning email content for targeted advertising violated various privacy protection laws.

MediaPost reported that Google filed a “stipulation of dismissal” last week, but the exact details of that settlement—including whether or not any money changed hands—has not been disclosed. The settlement was made with adults, and does not apply to minors who claim Gmail violated their privacy as well.

Last month, on April 15, we warned you that Google had changed its Gmail terms of service, presumably in response to this lawsuit: ever since April 14, Google's terms of service specifically state that “Our automated systems analyze your content (including emails) to provide you personally relevant product features, such as customized search results, tailored advertising, and spam and malware detection. This analysis occurs as the content is sent, received, and when it is stored.”

Despite this, Google announced two weeks later that it would stop scanning student, government and business emails, though private, personal email accounts presumably still fall under the revised April 14 terms.

So whatever terms are hidden in this settlement between Google and various Gmail users most likely would not apply to anyone using Gmail accounts under these new terms: you can't complain that the contents of your messages are being scanned, because Google came right out and told you (provided you clicked on the link for its Terms of Service page and read or scrolled down past the first 849 words [consisting of five separate subsection headings and 16 paragraphs]). The 17th paragraph of Google's Terms of Service page clearly states that previously quoted comment about automated systems analyzing your content. So, you've been warned.

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Amazon admits contract disputes are behind its battle with Hachette

Advises customers to look elsewhere for certain books

The latest development in the Amazon vs. Hachette Book Group saga has Amazon openly admitting that contract disputes are behind the recent inability of cus...

PhotoThe latest development in the Amazon vs. Hachette Book Group saga has Amazon openly admitting that contract disputes are behind the recent inability of customers to buy certain Hachette-published titles on Amazon.com. As Amazon announced on its Kindle forum May 27:

“At Amazon, we do business with more than 70,000 suppliers, including thousands of publishers. One of our important suppliers is Hachette, which is part of a $10 billion media conglomerate. Unfortunately, despite much work from both sides, we have been unable to reach mutually-acceptable agreement on terms.”

The Amazon v. Hachette battle started slowly. Earlier this month, we first reported that Amazon was delaying shipments of certain Hachette titles: a book that would normally ship within a day or two of the order being placed instead had shipping dates listed several weeks in the future.

The New York Times had first noticed this Hachette-specific shipping delay on May 8, when it reported:

A Hachette spokeswoman said on Thursday that the publisher was striving to keep Amazon supplied but that the Internet giant was delaying shipments “for reasons of their own.” Hachette is one of the largest New York houses, publishing under the Little, Brown and Grand Central imprints, among many others.

The affected books are a mixture of new and old. A just-published memoir, “Everybody’s Got Something,” by the “Good Morning America” anchor Robin Roberts, is taking as long as three weeks to ship, customers were told. So is Stephen Colbert’s “America Again: Re-becoming the Greatness We Never Weren’t.” …. Generally, most popular books are available from Amazon within two days. An Amazon spokesman declined to comment.

No comment

One particular bit of that quote, where Amazon “declined to comment,” was repeated in pretty much every succeeding media story about the officially mysterious dispute between the bookseller and book publisher. Just this week, for example, on May 26, the Associated Press reported “Amazon escalates standoff with publisher Hachette Book Group,” summarizing the previous two weeks' events before providing the latest official responses from the two parties involved:

"We are doing everything in our power to find a solution to this difficult situation, one that best serves our authors and their work, and that preserves our ability to survive and thrive as a strong and author-centric publishing company," Hachette said in a statement Friday issued through spokeswoman Sophie Cottrell. Later Friday, Hachette released a more strongly worded statement, saying it was "sparing no effort and exploring all options."

Amazon declined to comment.

Two days earlier, a reporter for Bloomberg news put out a quick update story that “Hachette apologizes to authors caught in Amazon dispute,” and gave readers a quick summary of the situation:

Disagreements between Seattle-based Amazon and publishers have centered on digital-book prices and a reluctance by some houses to replace physical copies of older books with online versions.

Megan Fitzpatrick, a Hachette spokeswoman, didn’t immediately respond to voice-mail and e-mail messages left after business hours. Craig Berman, an Amazon spokesman, declined to comment.

So after several weeks of Amazon declining to comment, its May 27 comment in the Kindle forum was newsworthy indeed.

A cynic might suggest Amazon chose to break its comment-silence because public opinion seemed to be against it in this dispute; typical headlines included “Amazon has gone too far/ the e-book monopolist, having strong-armed Hachette, may finally get its day in court” (Fortune/CNN), and “In the standoff between Amazon and Hachette, the customer comes last” (ditto).

Vintage Bezos

On the other hand, Time's business opinion page wrote “Amazon's war on Hachette is vintage Jeff Bezos — controlling, ruthless, vicious … and probably good for consumers.”

How's that? 'The battle boils down to this: What is the optimal price for e-books? If it’s too high, fewer will be sold. Too low, profit margins will narrow even further. Bezos, head of the world’s biggest book retailer, thinks he has a better view than book publishers of what e-books should cost. He’s probably right.”

But the anonymous headline-writer at the link-aggregation blog Fark.com took a less optimistic view of the situation, linking to Slate's coverage of the story with the sardonic headline: “Amazon encourages readers of Hachette books to purchase them from one of their competitors. The online retail giant then added, 'Good luck finding one. Mwahahahahahahahahahahahaha (inhale) hahahahahahahahahahaha'”

But on the other other hand (the possibilities here represented by a being with far more hands than your typical human gets), one of the first commenters in that Fark discussion thread pointed out that Hachette is not exactly a poor innocent little put-upon bookseller either: in early 2013, Hachette was one of five publishers to agree to a settlement in a federal lawsuit that eventually found Apple and those five publishers guilty of price-fixing e-books.

So the Amazon v. Hachette battle isn't David and Goliath so much as Goliath and Goliath, and which giant you root for probably depends on which side you find more sympathetic.

But in the meanwhile, if you're an Amazon customer hoping to buy certain books published by Hachette, Amazon advises you to look elsewhere if you want to buy them online: “If you do need one of the affected titles quickly, we regret the inconvenience and encourage you to purchase a new or used version from one of our third-party sellers or from one of our competitors.”

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Apple buys Beats -- good news for music lovers? How about musicians?

Recording artists may face slow starvation as streaming services displace download sales

Maybe it's a little embarassing for Apple, the company that pretty much invented legal online music downloads, to have to pony up $3 billion to buy its way...

PhotoMaybe it's a little embarassing for Apple, the company that pretty much invented legal online music downloads, to have to pony up $3 billion to buy its way back into the business, as Apple is doing with its purchase of Beats.

Some of the talking heads are saying the purchase will make Apple cool again -- whatever that means -- while others are saying the company acted out of desperation as it watched the likes of Pandora and Spotify take large bites out of iTunes day after day.

OK, fine, so it goes out and spends $3 billion on a headphone company that bought MOG, a failing music streaming service, and changed its name to Beats. Of course, it's also buying Jimmy Iovine and Dr. Dre, who are officially cool and thereby good for Apple's brand.

And so?

But what, if anything, does all this commotion mean for music lovers? 

Well, assuming that iTunes remains more or less intact, it means they'll still be able to buy downloads of individual songs and entire albums. Of course, that's something you can also do at Amazon, Google Play Music and lots of other places.

In fact, at Amazon you can sometimes buy a physical CD and also get a download as well as the option of streaming it through Amazon's player. 

Perhaps Apple will offer some kind of bundle that combines iTunes and Beats that is a little more than the sum of its parts. It doesn't get a lot of attention but iTunes already has something iTunes Radio, which offers not just radio stations but streams of assorted musical genres. It's not quite clear how Beats differs from that except we're told it's cooler. Of course.

Trying to stay on top of things, I signed up for Beats when it displaced MOG, which was an excellent service with far better audio quality than its competitors. I was promised a few free months and a transfer of all my playlists, neither of which happened.

Beats so far has not even come close to figuring out what kind of music I like to listen to and bombards me with stuff that is wildly off-key. So maybe it's the coolest thing ever but then again, maybe not.

No gain, no pain 

So, except for those of us mourning the loss of MOG, it doesn't look like consumers lose anything in this deal, at least for the short term, and they will perhaps gain a few notes around the edges as new packages are assembled.

What about musicians? They are, after all, where the music comes from and, as a group, they regard streaming as something akin to the plague. Bloomberg today tells the tale of Zoe Keating, a cellist who made more than $70,000 last year on royalties from iTunes and other download services. That's money she uses to pay the mortgage and keep the lights on.

Pandora, Spotify and all the other streaming services paid her a total of $6,381 for the year. That's not enough to do much of anything.

The music industry as a whole is having the same experience. Revenues are falling steadily as download spending declines and streaming services fail to make up the difference.

Big-name artists are increasingly relying on concert tours to make up for declining CD and download sales. Lesser-known artists -- who, after all, make up the vast majority of the performing universe -- wind up playing in bars and on street corners, where unemployed ex-newspaper reporters may throw a few coins at them. 

One artist quoted by Bloomberg estimated that Pandora would have to play a track 312,000 times for him to make as much as a single CD sale. 

So this may wind up being the day Apple became cool again as well as the day the music died. 

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Better automatic braking means higher safety ratings

The improvement comes less than a year into a new program

More vehicles are earning top ratings from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) when it comes to front crash prevention. Less than a year int...

PhotoMore vehicles are earning top ratings from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) when it comes to front crash prevention.

Less than a year into the new IIHS rating program, auto manufacturers are making moving to adopt the most beneficial systems with automatic braking capabilities, and are offering the features on a wider variety of models.

As a result, 21 of 24 cars and SUVs -- all 2014 models unless noted -- earn an advanced or higher rating in the latest round of IIHS evaluations.

“We are already seeing improvements from automakers since the initial launch of our ratings last September,” said David Zuby, IIHS executive vice president and chief research officer. “BMW and Lexus, for example, have added more braking capability to their systems, which has paid off in higher ratings.”

Large family cars and large luxury cars make up the bulk of the test group. Four midsize luxury/near luxury cars, three midsize luxury SUVs and a midsize SUV were tested also.

Cream of the crop

Four vehicles earn perfect scores when equipped with certain options: the BMW 5 series large luxury car, BMW X5 midsize luxury SUV, 2015 Hyundai Genesis large luxury car and Mercedes-Benz E-Class large luxury car.

In all, eight models earn the highest rating of superior, 13 earn advanced, and three earn a basic rating.

In addition to familiar luxury brands, consumers will find mainstream nameplates among the newest rated vehicles, including Buick, Chevrolet, Dodge and Toyota.

The ratings

IIHS rates vehicles as basic, advanced or superior for front crash prevention depending on whether they offer autobrake and -- if so -- how effective it is in tests at 12 and 25 mph.

Forward collision warning systems that meet performance criteria set by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and autobrake systems that provide only minimal speed reduction in IIHS tests earn a basic rating.

Vehicles that combine the warning with moderate speed reductions earn an advanced rating. It is possible to qualify for an advanced rating with an autobrake system that doesn’t first warn the driver before taking action.

Models that offer a warning and provide major speed reduction in IIHS tests earn a superior rating. Some models have multiple ratings because they are available with different versions of front crash prevention systems and their test performance varies. In the current group, this is the case with the BMW 3 series, 5 series and X5.

“We know that this technology is helping drivers avoid crashes,” Zuby says. “The advantage of autobrake is that even in cases where a crash can’t be avoided entirely, the system will reduce speed. Reducing the speed reduces the amount of damage that occurs to both the striking and struck cars and reduces injuries to people in those cars.”

Front crash prevention systems use various types of sensors, such as camera, radar or laser, to detect when the vehicle is getting too close to one in front of it. Most systems issue a warning and precharge the brakes to maximize their effect if the driver responds by braking. Many systems brake the vehicle autonomously if the driver doesn’t respond. In some cases, automatic braking is activated without a preliminary warning.

Availability

Most front crash prevention systems have to be purchased as part of an optional package, but consumers will find that availability is growing, especially for autobrake. More than 20% of 2014 models in the Highway Loss Data Institute's vehicle features database offer a front crash prevention system with autobrake capabilities -- twice as many as in 2012. Forward collision warning is offered as an option on nearly 40% of 2014 models.

“Sorting through the various trade names and features can be confusing, even if you’re looking at models from the same manufacturer. Before buying, consumers should consult the IIHS ratings to find out if the specific model they are considering comes with a top-rated front crash prevention system,” Zuby advises.

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Children can suffer from high blood pressure too

And it's becoming more common

It's a grown-up affliction but an alarming number of children are beginning to feel its effects: hypertension, or high blood pressure.The typical person ...

PhotoIt's a grown-up affliction but an alarming number of children are beginning to feel its effects: hypertension, or high blood pressure.

The typical person suffering from high blood pressure is middle aged, stressed out and overweight. However, the average age of people with hypertension is steadily declining.

More than 50 million Americans are now believed to suffer from hypertension, putting them at increased risk for cardiovascular disease, end-stage renal disease, and cerebrovascular accidents.

And now doctors estimate that nearly 5% of the pediatric population has unhealthy levels of blood pressure.

Lifestyle factors

Hypertension can have many causes but it is primarily influenced by lifestyle factors. Being overweight, not eating properly and getting little or no exercise can all be contributors.

That may be why so many children are now affected. The rise in childhood hypertension coincides with the rise in childhood obesity.

“Hypertension puts a strain on the cardiovascular system, and makes children at risk for heart disease and chronic kidney disease later in life,” said Dr. Robert Woroniecki,of Stony Brook Children’s Hospital. “Conversely, sometimes chronic kidney disease leads to high blood pressure. Whatever the cause, the effects can dramatically influence a child’s health.”

High blood pressure poses a different sort of problem for children's health, but it poses a problem nonetheless. In adults, high blood pressure can mean the patient is at short-term risk of a heart attack or stroke.

Future problems

Not so with children but hypertension can still cause changes in your child’s body, putting them at risk for future complications. Once they reach middle age, these children may have even more severe health problems than do adults diagnosed during middle age.

High blood pressure has no symptoms, leading it to be sometimes called “the silent killer.” But being overweight or obese are big risk factors.

Woroniecki says children who meet this physical description should get regular blood pressure readings. Until recently pediatricians were not all that likely to screen their young patients for high blood pressure because it was so rare.

Difficult to diagnose

Diagnosing high blood pressure in children is more difficult than in adults. According to the Mayo Clinic, pediatric hypertension is defined as “blood pressure that's the same as or higher than 95% of children who are the same sex, age and height as your child.”

There isn't a simple target blood pressure reading the problem in all ages for children, because what's considered normal blood pressure changes as children grow.

But the condition in children can occur for the same reasons it shows up in adults -- being overweight, eating a poor diet and not exercising.

Other causes

While hypertension can be addressed in these children by having them make lifestyle changes, some cases are more complicated and may require medication. For example, the Mayo Clinic notes that high blood pressure in children under 10 is usually caused by an underlying medical condition.

For adolescents, the American Heart Association says age, body size and the degree of sexual maturation are major factors in determining blood pressure levels. Heavier and more sexually mature teenagers tend to have higher blood pressure.

The group cites research suggesting teens who are obese and have high blood pressure may develop thicker arteries by age 30. Fatty buildups in artery walls can lead to a variety of health problems including heart disease and stroke.  

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Text spammer fined for scam that promised free Walmart and Best Buy gift cards

Phil Flora was also found in contempt for violating a prior Federal Trade Commission order

The operator of a text message spamming operation that sent more than 29 million text messages to consumers promising “free” $1,000 Walmart and...

PhotoThe operator of a text message spamming operation that sent more than 29 million text messages to consumers promising “free” $1,000 Walmart and Best Buy gift cards, has been ordered to pay $148,309 for his involvement in the scam. Phil Flora, of Orange County, Calif., was also found in contempt for violating a prior Federal Trade Commission order.

“When scammers ignore court orders, they do so at their own peril,” said Jessica Rich, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “As this case shows, no matter how much scammers may try to hide their involvement, we will work to uncover their role and ensure they give up their ill-gotten gains.”

In March 2013, the FTC named Flora as a defendant in one of several enforcement actions brought across the country against operators of “free” gift card text messaging scams.

In November 2013, the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California entered a final order and default judgment against Flora for his involvement in the scam. The final order permanently bans Flora from sending spam text messages and imposes a judgment of $148,309 – an amount equivalent to the money he gained through his illegal scheme.

The court also found Flora in civil contempt because his conduct violated an order from a previous FTC case concerning highly similar illegal practices. In this 2011 case, the FTC alleged that Flora sent millions of unwanted text messages advertising bogus mortgage loan modifications.

The stipulated order settling the 2011 case permanently banned Flora from sending spam text messages. The court found that Flora had violated this provision through the conduct that led to the FTC’s 2013 case.

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Subprime auto lender to pay $5.5 million for using illegal tactics

Consumer Portfolio Services will "adjust" 128,000 customer accounts

Consumer Portfolio Services (CPS), a national subprime auto lender, will pay $5.5 million to settle charges that it used illegal tactics, including co...

PhotoConsumer Portfolio Services (CPS), a national subprime auto lender, will pay $5.5 million to settle charges that it used illegal tactics, including collecting money consumers did not owe, harassing consumers and third parties, and disclosing debts to friends, family, and employers.

The Federal Trade Commission said the company will refund or "adjust" 128,000 customer accounts involving more than $3.5 million and will also stop trying to collect an additional 35,000 accounts. 

CPS will pay another $2 million in civil penalties to settle FTC charges that the company violated the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) and the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA)’s Furnisher Rule.

“At the FTC, we hold loan servicers responsible for knowing their legal obligations and abiding by them,” said Jessica Rich, director, FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “The law is very clear: Loan servicers can’t charge consumers more than they owe. And they can’t threaten and harass consumers about delinquent debts.”

The company has also agreed to change its business practices and provide the FTC with independent assessments of its progress over the next 10 years.

Violations

According to the FTC’s complaint, CPS’ loan-servicing violations include:

  • Misrepresenting fees consumers owed in collection calls, monthly statements, pay-off notices, and bankruptcy filings;
  • Making unsubstantiated claims about the amounts consumers owed;
  • Improperly assessing and collecting fees or other amounts;
  • Unilaterally modifying contracts by, for example, increasing principal balances;
  • Failing to disclose financial effects of loan extensions;
  • Misrepresenting that consumers must use particular payment methods requiring service fees; and
  • Misrepresenting that the company audits verified consumer accounts balances.
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Dish Network will begin accepting bitcoin payments

With 14 million customers, it's the biggest to do so

DISH Network says it will begin accepting bitcoin payments in the third quarter. It says it's the biggest company and the only pay-TV provider to do so."...

PhotoDISH Network says it will begin accepting bitcoin payments in the third quarter. It says it's the biggest company and the only pay-TV provider to do so.

"We always want to deliver choice and convenience for our customers and that includes the method they use to pay their bills," said Bernie Han, DISH executive vice president and chief operating officer. "Bitcoin is becoming a preferred way for some people to transact and we want to accommodate those individuals."

Lots of people still don't know quite what bitcoin is, including regulators who have been looking with furrowed brow at the growth of the online virtual currency.

DISH has more than 14 million customers. How many of them are bitcoin users remains to be seen.

Bitcoin has been around since 2008, when it was designed as a secure way to move money across the Internet. It has no central issuing authority and uses a public ledger to log each transaction.

Other well-known companies accepting bitcoin include Overstock.com and Lord & Taylor.

Payment processor

DISH has selected Coinbase as the payment processor for bitcoin transactions with customers who choose to pay their bill online with the bitcoin wallet of their choice. DISH will use Coinbase's Instant Exchang feature to exchange bitcoin payments to U.S. dollars at the moment of the transaction.

"We're excited to support DISH and their current and new subscribers for their bitcoin transactions," said Coinbase co-founder Fred Ehrsam. "This is a large step forward in the growing momentum of customers paying companies in bitcoin for things we do every day, like watching premium TV."

"As a bitcoin payment processor, Coinbase will help DISH make the payment experience easy for our customers and make it easy for DISH to receive immediate credit in dollars, at an attractive cost for DISH," added Han.

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U.S. economy shifts into reverse

A second look at early 2014 shows we're losing ground

What a difference a couple of months can make. The government reports that the economy, after growing at an annual rate of 2.6% in the last three months o...

PhotoWhat a difference a couple of months can make.

The government reports that the economy, after growing at an annual rate of 2.6% in the last three months of 2013, is now shrinking at a clip of 1.0%.

Just a month ago, the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) estimated that real gross domestic product -- the output of goods and services produced by labor and property located in the United States – grew at an 0.1% annual rate for the first three months of 2014.

This "second" estimate is based on more complete source data than were available for the "advance" estimate.

The drop in real GDP reflects negative contributions from private inventory investment, exports, nonresidential fixed investment, state and local government spending, and residential fixed investment. These were partly offset by a positive contribution from personal consumption expenditures. Imports, which are a subtraction in the calculation of GDP, increased.

Inflation slows

The price index for gross domestic purchases, which measures prices paid by U.S. residents,

increased 1.3% in the first quarter -- down 0.1% from the advance estimate; the index rose 1.5% in the fourth quarter.

Excluding food and energy prices, the price index for gross domestic purchases increased 1.3% in the first quarter, compared with an increase of 1.8% in the fourth.

Sterne Agee Chief Economist Lindsey Piegza says this shows a much weaker start to the year than previously reported, meaning the subsequent "rebound" is even more lackluster in comparison.

“The good news -- if there is any in a negative GDP report,” she adds, is that the consumer “was reaffirmed as the one bright spot in the economy at the start of the year. The bad news, other sectors of

the economy, particularly investment, were much weaker than originally reported in the advanced report.”

The full GDP report is available on the BEA website.

PhotoJobless claims

In a separate report, the Labor Department (DOL) says first-time applications for unemployment benefits fell by 27,000 In the week ending May 24 to a seasonally adjusted total of 300,000.

The 4-week moving average, which is less volatile and seen as a more accurate gauge of the labor market, plunged 11,250 to 311,500 -- the lowest level since August 11, 2007 when it was 311,250.

The complete report can be found on the DOL website.

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Pending home sales head higher in April

Lower mortgage interest rates could continue the trend

Gains in the Midwest and Northeast offset declines in the West and South, pushing pending home sales higher in April for the second straight month. The Na...

PhotoGains in the Midwest and Northeast offset declines in the West and South, pushing pending home sales higher in April for the second straight month.

The National Association of Realtors (NAR) says its Pending Home Sales Index (PHSI), which is based on contract signings, inched ahead 0.4% -- to 97.8, but is 9.2% below its year-ago level of 107.7.

The PHSI in the Northeast increased 0.6% to 79.3 in April, but is 12.0% below a year ago. In the Midwest the index rose 5.0% to 99.2 last month, but is 6.9% below April 2013.

Pending home sales in the South slipped 0.6% to a reading of 111.9, and are 6.4% below a year ago. The index in the West declined 2.9% in April to 88.4, and is 15.0% below April 2013.

Looking ahead

The realtors trade organization expects a gradual uptrend in home sales. “Higher inventory levels are giving buyers more choices, and a slight decline in mortgage interest rates this spring is raising prospective home buyers’ confidence,” said NAR Chief Economist Lawrence Yun. “An uptrend in closed sales is expected, although some months will encounter a modest setback.”

Yun projects the 30-year fixed-rate mortgage to trend up and average 5.5% next year. “The extent to which higher mortgage interest rates will impact housing affordability and sales depends on income growth, ongoing improvement in the labor market and any change to mortgage underwriting conditions,” he said

With sub-par activity in the first quarter, annual existing-home sales are expected to be modestly below the nearly 5.1 million in 2013, but should be close to 5.3 million in 2015.

The national median existing-home price is projected to grow between 5 and 6% this year, and in the range of 4 to 5% in 2015.

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Federal Corporation recalls tires with shoulder cracks

The cracks could result in an unexpected loss of pressure

Federal Corporation is recalling 6,209 model Couragia A/T LT245/75R16 120/116Q 10PR tires manufactured May 2013, through April 2014, and with sidewall stam...

PhotoFederal Corporation is recalling 6,209 model Couragia A/T LT245/75R16 120/116Q 10PR tires manufactured May 2013, through April 2014, and with sidewall stampings of DOT UXA3 and calendar weeks of 1913 through 1414.

The affected tires may experience cracks in the shoulder caused by separation of the steel belt edge. Thus, they fail to to comply to the requirements of Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard No. 139, "New Pneumatic Radial Tires for Light Vehicles."

Shoulder cracks in a tire may result in an unexpected loss of tire pressure, increasing the risk of a crash.

Federal Corporation will notify owners, and dealers will replace the affected tires with new tires, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin on, or about, July 15, 2014.

Owners may contact Federal at 1-855-444-8235.

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Nissan recalls Rogue vehicles with steering issues

A bolt used to connect the intermediate shaft to the upper steering assembly could fall out

Nissan North America is recalling 1,644 model year 2014 Rogue vehicles manufactured January 10, 2014, to January 17, 2014. An incorrect bolt may have bee...

PhotoNissan North America is recalling 1,644 model year 2014 Rogue vehicles manufactured January 10, 2014, to January 17, 2014.

An incorrect bolt may have been used to connect the intermediate shaft to the upper steering assembly in the affected vehicles. The incorrect bolts could loosen and fall out, resulting in a loss of vehicle control and increasing the risk of a crash.

Nissan will notify owners and, dealers will inspect and repair all affected vehicles, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin by the end of June 2014.

Owners may contact Nissan at 1-800-647-7261.

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Survey: younger consumers believe privacy is a thing of the past

Nearly half don't object to tracking if it produces relevant offers from brands

Just one day after the Federal Trade Commission urged Congress to grant consumers more control over data gathered about them, a new study finds that 80% of...

PhotoJust one day after the Federal Trade Commission urged Congress to grant consumers more control over data gathered about them, a new study finds that 80% of younger consumers think total privacy is a thing of the past.

The FTC studied nine data brokers, representing a cross-section of the industry, and found that just one of the data brokers studied holds information on more than 1.4 billion consumer transactions and 700 billion data elements and another adds more than 3 billion new data points to its database each month.

The Washington Post said the FTC's findings would "unnerve" some consumers but the Accenture survey released today found that nearly half (49%) of the U.S. and U.K. consumers aged 20-40 say they wouldn't object to their behavior being tracked if the surveillance produced relevant offers from brands and retailers.

In fact, the survey of 2,012 consumers conducted in March and April 2014 found that nearly two-thirds of the respondents – 64% – said that when they are physically in a store, they would welcome text messages from that retailer alerting them to offers matching their buying preferences.

Concerns shared

However, reading beyond those headlines, it becomes clear that the consumers surveyed share many of the FTC's concerns about how personal data is used.

A resounding majority -- 87% -- believe, like the FTC, that adequate safeguards are not in place to protect their personal information.
And 64% say they are concerned about websites tracking their buying behavior.

More than half (56%) say they are trying to safeguard their privacy by inputting their credit card information each time they make an online purchase rather than having that data stored for future use.

The survey found that 70% of respondents believe businesses aren’t transparent about how their information is being used, again echoing the FTC's findings.

A large number of respondents – 40% – believe only 10% of their personal data is actually private.

So how do businesses strike the right balance in providing consumers with what they want while taking their concerns about privacy into consideration?

“In today’s digital age where consumers are connected and empowered and data is abundant, businesses must align their organizations, technology and strategies to deliver relevant and loyalty-enabling experiences to their consumers,” said Glen Hartman, global managing director of Digital Transformation for Accenture Interactive. 

What consumers want

Looking beyond the privacy issue, the survey found that consumers are becoming increasingly demanding.

Asked to rank the factors that would make them most likely to complete the purchase of a product or service, respondents’ top three choices were sales and competitive pricing (61%), superior products (36%) and superior customer experience – both online and in-store (35%).

Customer loyalty programs and relevant promotions followed, at 31% and 26%, respectively, but engaging advertising campaigns and celebrity endorsements trailed far behind, at 6% and 3%, respectively.

Further, the survey confirms that consumers in the 20-40 age groups are ubiquitous users of digital technology across multiple mobile platforms. Respondents own between three and four digital devices per person, on average, and 27% own more than four devices. They also spend an average of six to six and a half hours per day using a digital device for personal activities including messaging/texting (48%), emailing (39%), getting news (27%) and shopping for a product or service online (20%).

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Microsoft says Skype will soon translate "on the fly"

Beta version expected to be released later this year

A Microsoft researcher demonstrates Skype's translation software at the Code conferenceMicrosoft says Skype will soon be able to translate voice calls...

Photo
A Microsoft researcher demonstrates Skype's translation software at the Code conference

Microsoft says Skype will soon be able to translate voice calls in "near real-time," meaning that you could call someone in, say, Germany and carry on a relatively normal conversation with each person speaking in his or her native tongue.

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella demonstrated the system at the Code conference today. It uses technology developed by the company's Skype and Translator teams. 

"Ever since we started to speak, we wanted to cross the language boundary," Nadella said, promising a beta version later this year and a commercial product within the next few years.

Although the Redmond software giant’s real-time language translation tool was demonstrated a few years ago as a concept, it is finally scheduled to reach beta stage in an update of Skype some time later this year.

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How to prevent dangerous tick bites

Exposure in some areas can be hundreds an hour

Health officials in recent years have tried to increase public awareness of the serious diseases carried by ticks. But the tiny insect is usually the last ...

PhotoHealth officials in recent years have tried to increase public awareness of the serious diseases carried by ticks. But the tiny insect is usually the last thing you're thinking about when you're preparing for a hike, camping trip or picnic.

That lack of awareness can be dangerous, especially in areas of the country that are infested with ticks.

"There are areas in this part of the country that the tick exposure can truly be massive," said Michael Dryden, a professor at Kansas State University and one of the world's foremost experts on the pest. "You can walk into areas and literally encounter dozens or hundreds of ticks.”

Reducing the risk

No one is suggesting you stay inside this summer but Dryden says a few precautions can dramatically reduce your risk of a tick bite. First and foremost, try to avoid areas known to be heavily infested.

Your state agriculture extension office is likely to have this information. Otherwise, consider that ticks love areas with a heavy tree canopy with good vegetation, some type of water source, adequate humidity and wildlife, particularly whitetail deer and turkeys.

Any time you are outdoors in the summer and fall use insect repellent. Dryden suggests it will be most effective sprayed on the inside of your pant legs, on your socks, ankles and shoes. Then, roll your pant legs into your socks to reduce the amount of exposed skin. Also, conduct a daily inspection to make sure you are carrying no ticks.

"Sometimes that's the best thing we can do is to inspect ourselves because many of these diseases take a day or longer after the ticks attach to be transmitted," Dryden said.

Don't forget gear and pets

PhotoAnd don't just examine yourself and your children. Examine both gear that has been exposed to the outdoors and pets. Ticks can ride into the home on clothing and pets, then attach to a person later, so carefully examine pets, coats, and day packs.

Remember that you can attract ticks anywhere outdoors – even walking through a field of tall grass.

"Many people believe that ticks fall out of trees," he said. "They do not do that. What happens is these ticks get on us and they crawl upward until they hit bare skin. The back of the neck is often the first bare skin they find, which leads people to believe they dropped down."

Use the right repellent

The kind of tick repellent you use will also make a difference in your level of protection. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends products containing 20% to 30% DEET on exposed skin and clothing. It should provide several hours of protection.

For clothing, use products that contain Permethrin. You should treat clothing and gear, such as boots, pants, socks and tents with products containing 0.5% permethrin. It remains protective through several washings. Pre-treated clothing is available and may be protective longer.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has an online tool to help you find the right commercial repellent for your particular need.

What if you find a tick on your body that appears to be feasting on your blood? Don't panic.

The recommended removal technique, according to the CDC is to use fine-tipped tweezers to grab the tick as close to the skin as possible. Next, pull it out with a steady motion.

Once the tick has been removed, clean the skin with soap and water. The tick is probably still alive so dispose of it by placing it in alcohol or flushing it down the toilet.  

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Uber dubs itself a jobs creator

The popular ride-sharing service says it's generating 20,000 jobs per month

Crowd-sourcing is the engine that drives Uber, Airbnb and other fast-growing "peer-to-peer" businesses -- and a powerful engine it is.Just how powerful i...

PhotoCrowd-sourcing is the engine that drives Uber, Airbnb and other fast-growing "peer-to-peer" businesses -- and a powerful engine it is.

Just how powerful is illustrated in statistics from Uber, showing that the ride-sharing service has been generating an average of 20,000 new driver jobs per month.

Perhaps more startling is the median income those drivers are earning -- $90,766 in New York City, $74,191 in San Francisco for UberX drivers. 

The Uber release is in response to efforts by city and state government units around the country who have been trying to more tightly regulate, and even outlaw, Uber and its competitors, Lyft and Sidecar. 

The regulators argue that the independently-owned cars are essentially taxis and should have to jump through all the regulatory hoops that cabs do -- including city permits that can cost as much as $1 million. That's the current price of a New York City medallion that every city cab is required to have.

By contrast, an Uber driver just needs ... well, a car, a driver's license, adequate insurance and a well-charged smartphone. 

Instant entrepreneurs

"Hundreds of thousands of entrepreneurs are using the [Uber] platform to build their own small business, resulting in a huge job growth engine for cities resulting in billions of dollars being pumped into the U.S. economy," said Travis Kalanick, Uber CEO.

In contrast, Kalanick said traditional taxi drivers in most cities are barely making ends meet: 

"The nation’s taxi drivers are often below the poverty line, required to spend $3,500/month – over $40,000/year – just to lease their taxi, so that wealthy taxi company owners can reap the benefits of drivers having no other option to make a living."

Former cab drivers who switched to Uber say they are not only making more money but feel much safer, since they no longer pick up total strangers at all hours of the day and night.

Using the Uber platform, both driver and passenger's identities are known to each other and each is able to rate the other. This crowd-sourcing is more effective than any bureaucratic regulatory appartus operated by local governments, Uber enthusiasts argue.

Ah, but what does the future hold for Uber drivers?

The smartphone and Uber's algorithms effectively replaced the taxi dispatcher and it just may be that Google's self-driving car will replace Uber drivers one of these days.

"We are most certainly going to partner with other companies, possibly Uber," Google co-founder Sergey Brin said at a technology confernce, ZDNet reported

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Latest scientific discovery: cats eat more in the winter

Cat owners take note -- your feline craves more food when it's cold

Cats eat more during the winter and owners should give their pet more food during this time, University of Liverpool research has found.Researchers from ...

PhotoYou have to admire the scientific mind. It is constantly on a quest for new knowledge and insights. Just last week, researchers posited that we are fat because we eat too much.

And now another group of researchers has found that cats eat more during the winter and -- therefore -- cat owners should give their pet more food during the winter months.

Researchers from the University of Liverpool's School of Veterinary Science, in collaboration with colleagues at the Royal Canin Research Centre in France, spent four years monitoring how much cats chose to eat. They found that food intake increased in colder months and decreased during the summer. The research appears in PLOS One.

The 38 cats studied had a microchip on their collar which allowed them to take as much food as they wanted from a dispenser which only opened for them. At the same time, this microchip recorded how much the cat had eaten and when.

"Cats, like many humans are more inclined to comfort eat when it's cold outside but, in their case, it's likely to be due to the extra energy they need to keep warm when out and about," said veterinarian and study author Alex German. 

The study found that cats ate approximately 15% less food during the summer, when the temptation to rest contributed to the swing in activity levels during the year.

Seasonal food intake has also been examined in the past on farm animals, such as dairy cows, to establish new ways of increasing milk production, but this is the largest study that has yet taken place with domestic cats.

"People should consider the amount of food their cats need at different times of year as this can be part of helping them to maintain a healthy weight," German said.

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New technology threatens old banking institutions

Accenture survey suggests younger generation more open to alternative banking options

The phrase "Younger people are more likely than older people to embrace new technology and innovations" has always been true regardless of the ...

PhotoThe phrase “Younger people are more likely than older people to embrace new technology and innovations” has always been true regardless of the techno-innovation in question.

So it's not surprising to read that, according to a new survey by management-consulting firm Accenture, “Younger bank customers are nearly twice as likely as older customers to consider switching to a branchless bank and to consider banking with major technology players if those companies offered banking services.”

Or, as the Washington Post's WonkBlog put it, “Walmart and Google could steal young customers from traditional banks.”

It's the bank-specific version of a story you've read many times before: “Old, established businesses in a given industry have trouble adapting to new technology.”

Film companies had to adapt or die (well, go bankrupt) after digital cameras killed the demand for their product; the post office is still figuring out how to remain financially viable now that free email and other communication technologies have wiped out most of the market for First Class mail, and traditional brick-and-mortar bankers, in addition to dealing with the unpleasant connotations which have attached to the word “banker” after the financial problems of the past few years, now find that people who have grown up since childhood in the “24/7 connectivity” world of the Internet harbor different expectations for all service providers, including bankers.

Some of these expectations can be chalked up to technological improvements. For example, Accenture said that among consumers on the 18 to 34 age range (the younger end of which includes some people with no memories of pre-Internet life) “68% expressed interest in receiving real-time analysis of their spending from their bank,” compared to only 35% of those over 55.

Before the Internet, of course, such real-time analysis would've been impossible for banks to provide; only now can such a service even be possible, let alone expected.

However, other aspects of the survey suggest that younger consumers' changed expectations go beyond mere technology, and entail different ideas of exactly what services a “bank” is actually supposed to provide.

Among 18-to-34s, 55% “would like their bank to help with the 'heavy lifting' of car-buying and provide discounts in that process, compared with 45% of those age 35 to 55, and one-quarter (24%) of those over 55,” according to the survey.

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Allergists caution e-cigarette users

No evidence to support claims e-cigs help users cut back tobacco use, researchers caution

E-cigarettes have captured the interest of smokers, and they've also captured the interest of researchers, who are turning out a flurry of studies of the r...

PhotoE-cigarettes have captured the interest of smokers, and they've also captured the interest of researchers, who are turning out a flurry of studies of the risks and rewards of the nicotine burners.

One of the latest is an article in the June issue of Annals of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology, the scientific journal of the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology (ACAAI). It examines the risks associated with e-cigarettes, including the ongoing dependence on nicotine and the dual use of e-cigarettes and regular cigarettes.

The conclusion: caveat emptor – "buyer beware."

The article notes that while e-cigs are frequently promoted as helping smokers cut back, that theory hasn't been proven, and there's little evidence to support the claims.

"Despite the apparent optimism surrounding e-cigarettes and their purported therapeutic role in smoking cessation, there just simply is not enough evidence to suggest that consumers should use e-cigarettes for this purpose." said allergist Andrew Nickels, MD, Mayo Clinic Division of Allergy and Immunology, the lead author of the study.

Recently, however, a large survey of smokers in England found that people who use e-cigs to help them stop smoking are 60% more likely to succeed than those who use other over-the-counter therapies such as nicotine patches or gum.

The study, conducted by University College London and published in Addiction, surveyed 5,863 smokers between 2009 and 2014 who had attempted to quit smoking without the aid of prescription medication or professional support; 20% of people trying to quit with the aid of e-cigarettes reported having stopped smoking conventional cigarettes at the time of the survey.

Another cause for concern, the ACAAI report said, is that when people use e-cigarettes in public and still smoke regular cigarettes at home, they continue to expose children and asthma sufferers in the household to dangerous second hand smoke, the article cautions.

"Dual use of both e-cigarettes and regular cigarettes carries the risk of secondhand smoke exposure, causing worsening respiratory effects on children and asthma sufferers. It also promotes ongoing nicotine dependence," said Chitra Dinakar, MD, Professor of Pediatrics, Children's Mercy Hospitals.

Long-term complications

Because e-cigarettes are fairly new, there could be other long-term health complications that have yet to be discovered. Results of long-term exposure to such substances are unknown. Due to the lack of production oversight, most consumers don't know what's in the e-cigarettes they buy, the article says.

Organizations like ACAAI are calling for enhanced scrutiny and regulation by the FDA. The ACAAI's position statement on e-cigarettes recognizes that nicotine delivered by any mechanism represents a drug exposure, and that vaporization instruments are a drug delivery system, both of which are within the FDA's scope of regulation.

Inhaling irritants such as smoke and vapors has an impact on the lungs, whether it is mild or severe and could cause asthma attacks in some individuals. These attacks are responsible for some of the 4,000 asthma-related deaths per year.

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"Lice Shield" manufacturer agrees to pay $500,000, cancel deceptive ads

Feds say the company's shampoo, sticks and sprays don't perform as advertised

It would be great if a simple shampoo or spray could repel head lice but the Federal Trade Commission says that the maker of "Lice Shield" products has not...

PhotoIt would be great if a simple shampoo or spray could repel head lice but the Federal Trade Commission says that the maker of "Lice Shield" products has not presented any scientific proof that its products can do that.

Lornamead, Inc. has agreed to pay $500,000 and stop making deceptive claims about its products, which are widely advertised and sold in stores including Albertsons, CVS, Safeway, Rite Aid, ShopRite, Walgreens, and WalMart.

“As any parent knows, an outbreak of lice can wreak havoc,” said Jessica Rich, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “When marketers say their products can be used to avoid these pests, they’d better make sure they can back up their claims.” 

Misleading claims

Unlike traditional head lice treatments, or pediculicides, Lornamead markets its Lice Shield products for preventing rather than treating head lice infestations. Lornamead claimed in print ads, website and banner ads, and on product packaging, that the citronella and other essential oils in its Lice Shield products would “dramatically reduce” the risk of head lice infestations, according to the complaint.

The company claimed that the best way to treat lice was to avoid getting them, with Lice Shield products that are “scientifically shown to repel head lice.”

The proposed order requires Lornamead to have at least one well-controlled human clinical study supporting its claims that Lice Shield products and other drugs, cosmetics or pesticides it markets will shield consumers from pediculosis; reduce the risk of an infestation by a specific percentage or amount; repel all lice; or repel a specific percentage or amount of lice.

For any other claims it makes about repelling lice or reducing the risk of infestation, and for claims it makes about the health benefits of any drug, cosmetic, or pesticide, the company is required to have competent and reliable scientific evidence. The proposed order also prohibits Lornamead from misrepresenting any tests, studies, or research when marketing such products.

For consumer information about avoiding head lice, see the “Heading off Head Lice” portion of the FDA publication Treating Head Lice, which advises avoiding head-to-head contact, and not sharing items such as hats, scarves, helmets, combs, and brushes.

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Mortgage applications post first decline in 4 weeks

Refinancing applications were down as well

Applications for home mortgages fell during the week ending May 23 after posting gains during the previous 3 weeks. According to data from the Mortgage Ba...

PhotoApplications for home mortgages fell during the week ending May 23 after posting gains during the previous 3 weeks.

According to data from the Mortgage Bankers Association’s (MBA) Weekly Mortgage Applications Survey, applications were down 1.2% on a seasonally adjusted basis from one week earlier.

The Refinance Index dipped 1%, with the refinance share of mortgage activity holding steady at 52% of total applications.

The adjustable-rate mortgage (ARM) share of activity was unchanged at 8% of total applications.

Contract interest rates

  • The average contract interest rate for 30-year fixed-rate mortgages (FRMs) with conforming loan balances ($417,000 or less) fell 2 basis points -- from 4.33% to 4.31%, the lowest level since last June. Points decreased to 0.15 from 0.20 (including the origination fee) for 80% loan-to-value ratio (LTV) loans. The effective rate was down from last week.
  • The average contract interest rate for 30-year FRMs with jumbo loan balances (greater than $417,000) dipped to 4.23% -- the lowest level since June 2013 -- from 4.24%, with points increasing to 0.16 from 0.09 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate increased from last week.
  • The average contract interest rate for 30-year FRMs backed by the FHA was down 2 basis points to 4.04%, the lowest level since June of last year, with points falling to -0.45 from -0.39 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate decreased from last week.
  • The average contract interest rate for 15-year FRMs decreased to from 3.43% to 3.42%, the lowest level since October 2013, with points dropping to 0.06 from 0.15 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate decreased from last week.
  • The average contract interest rate for 5/1 ARMs slipped to 3.13% from 3.14%, with points down to 0.19 from 0.29 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate decreased from last week.

The survey covers over 75 percent of all U.S. retail residential mortgage applications.

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Belleville Farmer’s Market recalls shelled walnuts

The product may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes

Belleville Farmer’s Market of Belleville, Ill., is recalling its packages of shelled walnuts. The product may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes....

PhotoBelleville Farmer’s Market of Belleville, Ill., is recalling packages of shelled walnuts.

The product may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes.

No illnesses have been reported to date in connection with this problem.

The recalled Shelled Walnuts were distributed in Belleville retail stores.

The product comes in an 8-ounce, clear plastic package marked with a Farmer’s Market label indicating pack dates from March 2014, through May 2014.

No illnesses have been reported to date in connection with this problem.

Consumers who have purchased the recalled product should return them to 1901 N. Belt West, Belleville, Ill., for a full refund.

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Sun Tree recalls shelled walnuts

The product may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes

Sun Tree LLC is recalling 46 cases of 24-count 12-oz produce bags of California Grown Shelled Walnuts, Lot No. 42720, Best by 12/11/2014 UPC code, 69887507...

PhotoSun Tree LLC is recalling 46 cases of 24-count 12-oz produce bags of California Grown Shelled Walnuts, Lot No. 42720, Best by 12/11/2014 UPC code, 69887507806.

There is a possibility the wall nuts may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes.

No illnesses or customer complaints have been reported to date.

The recalled products were sold to retailers in Kansas City, Kan., in March 2014.

Consumers who have purchased these walnuts are urged not to consume them, but to dispose of them or return them to the place of purchase for a full refund.

Consumers with any questions may call Glen Kerby at (623)-707-5604, 8:30a.m. to 5 p.m. CST weekdays.

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FTC: consumers need more control over information collected by data brokers

The agency calls on Congress to make data brokers more transparent and accountable

It's no exaggeration to say that in some ways data brokers know us better than we know ourselves. The Federal Trade Commission, after an extensive study, s...

PhotoIt's no exaggeration to say that in some ways data brokers know us better than we know ourselves. The Federal Trade Commission, after an extensive study, says it's time for Congress to impose some transparency and accountability to the system.

“The extent of consumer profiling today means that data brokers often know as much – or even more – about us than our family and friends, including our online and in-store purchases, our political and religious affiliations, our income and socioeconomic status, and more,” said FTC Chairwoman Edith Ramirez. “It’s time to bring transparency and accountability to bear on this industry on behalf of consumers, many of whom are unaware that data brokers even exist.”

The FTC studied nine data brokers, representing a cross-section of the industry, and found that just one of the data brokers studied holds information on more than 1.4 billion consumer transactions and 700 billion data elements and another adds more than 3 billion new data points to its database each month.

The Consumer Federation of America "strongly supports the FTC’s legislative recommendations," said Susan Grant, CFA's Director of Consumer Protection. "Individuals must have the right and the means to know which data brokers have information about them for marketing purposes, see what the data is and how it is categorized, correct the data if necessary, and exercise reasonable control over its collection and use."

Anything & everything

Among the report’s findings:

  • Data brokers collect consumer data from extensive online and offline sources, largely without consumers’ knowledge, ranging from consumer purchase data, social media activity, warranty registrations, magazine subscriptions, religious and political affiliations, and other details of consumers’ everyday lives.
  • Consumer data often passes through multiple layers of data brokers sharing data with each other. In fact, seven of the nine data brokers in the Commission study had shared information with another data broker in the study.
  • Data brokers combine online and offline data to market to consumers online.
  • Data brokers combine and analyze data about consumers to make inferences about them, including potentially sensitive inferences such as those related to ethnicity, income, religion, political leanings, age, and health conditions.
  • Potentially sensitive categories from the study are “Urban Scramble” and “Mobile Mixers,” both of which include a high concentration of Latinos and African-Americans with low incomes. The category “Rural Everlasting” includes single men and women over age 66 with “low educational attainment and low net worths.” Other potentially sensitive categories include health-related topics or conditions, such as pregnancy, diabetes, and high cholesterol.

Invisible & incomplete

The study found that, to the extent data brokers currently offer consumers choices about their data, the choices are largely invisible and incomplete.

To help rectify a lack of transparency about data broker industry practices, the Commission encourages Congress to consider enacting legislation that would enable consumers to learn of the existence and activities of data brokers and provide consumers with reasonable access to information about them held by these entities.

FTC's recommendations

For data brokers that provide marketing products, the FTC recommends that Congress should consider legislation to establish a centralized Web portal, where data brokers can identify themselves, describe their information collection and use practices, and provide links to access tools and opt- outs.

Other recommendations include:

  • Access. Require data brokers to give consumers access to their data, including any sensitive data, at a reasonable level of detail;
  • Opt-Outs. Require opt-out tools, that is, a way for consumers to suppress the use of their data;
  • Inferences. Require data brokers to tell consumers that they derive certain inferences from from raw data;
  • Data Sources. Require data brokers to disclose the names and/or categories of their data sources, to enable consumers to correct wrong information with an original source;
  • Notice and Choice. Require consumer-facing entities – such as retailers – to provide prominent notice to consumers when they share information with data brokers, along with the ability to opt-out of such sharing; and
  • Sensitive Data. Further protect sensitive information, including health information, by requiring retailers and other consumer-facing entities to obtain affirmative express consent from consumers before such information is collected and shared with data brokers.

Risk mitigation

The agency also recommended legislation for brokers that provide “risk mitigation” products -- like check-approval services. 

When a company uses a data broker’s risk mitigation product to limit a consumers’ ability to complete a transaction, legislation should require the consumer-facing company to tell consumers which data broker’s information the company relied on.

For brokers that provide “people search” products, the FTC said legislation should require the brokers to allow consumers to access their own information, opt-out of having the information included in a people search product, disclose the original sources of the information so consumers can correct it, and disclose any limitations of an opt-out feature.

The nine data brokers in the study are Acxiom, CoreLogic, Datalogix, eBureau, ID Analytics, Intelius, PeekYou, Rapleaf and Recorded Future.

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Automakers asked to help get recalled rentals off the road

The auto industry has been working to defeat a bill requiring safer rental cars

An unfixed recall caused this fire. (PRNewsFoto/Carfax)Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) is asking the auto industry to get behind legislation that would o...

Photo
An unfixed recall caused this fire. (PRNewsFoto/Carfax)

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) is asking the auto industry to get behind legislation that would outlaw renting cars with outstanding safety recalls. Consumer advocates and major car rental companies support the measure but the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers -- the lobbying organization for major carmakers -- has been actively opposing it. 

Boxer last week sent letters to the CEOs of BMW Group, Chrysler Group LLC, Ford Motor Company, General Motors Company, Jaguar-Land Rover, Mazda, Mercedes-Benz USA, Mitsubishi, Porsche, Toyota, Volkswagen Group of America and Volvo Cars North America urging them to support the Raechel and Jacqueline Houck Safe Rental Act, which would keep recalled rental cars off the road until they are repaired.

Boxer recently grilled General Motors CEO Mary Barra about her position on the measure, noting that GM was offering to pay for rental cars for owners of recalled cars with defective ignition switches, even though there is no guarantee the rental cars will be safe.

Story continues below video

One year later ...

In her letter, Boxer noted that the alliance made a commitment more than a year ago to work with the Senate Commerce Committee to resolve its concerns about the legislation.

“Now, an entire year has passed since the Alliance made that commitment. I would like to know – will your company commit to supporting this legislation that would prohibit rental cars under safety recall from being rented or sold to consumers until the defect has been repaired?” Boxer asked the CEOs. 

Current law prohibits car dealerships from selling new vehicles under recall to consumers, but no law bans rental car companies selling or renting such cars to unsuspecting consumers. Boxer's bill -- the Raechel and Jacqueline Houck Safe Rental Car Act – would keep unsafe rental cars that have been recalled off the road.  

The bipartisan bill is named in honor of Raechel and Jacqueline Houck, two sisters from Santa Cruz, who were killed in 2004 while driving a rented Chrysler PT Cruiser that had been recalled for a power steering hose defect but had not been repaired. The car caught fire because of the defect while traveling on Highway 101 in Monterey County, causing a loss of steering and a head-on collision with a semi-trailer truck.  

In 2012, Hertz, Enterprise, Avis Budget, Dollar Thrifty, and National agreed to voluntarily stop the renting or selling of vehicles that have been recalled by their manufacturer and endorsed the legislation but the auto manufacturers have continued to work against the measure, Boxer said.

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4 ways to boost your credit score

And a good credit score will save you money

When you apply for a loan – such as a mortgage or auto financing – the lender runs a credit check and is required to give you a copy of your cr...

PhotoWhen you apply for a loan – such as a mortgage or auto financing – the lender runs a credit check and is required to give you a copy of your credit score.

A few consumers are pleasantly surprised at how high it is. Most, however, are shocked at how low it is. Fortunately there are things you can do to raise your score.

1. On-time payments

The most important step is actually the easiest, although it does require a measure of discipline. It's paying your bills on time. All of them, all of the time.

Nothing impresses the credit agencies more than timely payments and nothing will drag your credit score lower than consistently being late on payments. Sometimes it is just a matter of getting organized, knowing when bills come due and making payments before the due date.

Sometimes it's a matter of having enough money available to pay your bills on time. If that's the case you need to create a household budget and eliminate some expenses. No, it isn't easy but it's a necessary step to having a stable cash flow, which will enable you to make on-time payments.

2. Pay down credit card balances

The second step is to pay down credit card balances. Too many consumers carry too much debt.

Credit agencies look at how much available credit you have and how much of it you have used. If you have a $10,000 credit limit and the balance is only $2,500 that looks pretty good. If the balance is $8,500 it looks a lot worse.

But paying down an $8,500 credit card balance isn't easy, especially with an interest rate of around 20%. That's why you need to consider transferring the balance to a credit card that charges no interest.

Does such a thing exist? Yes, but only for a limited time. A number of credit cards charge 0% interest for an introductory period, as long as 21 months.

You'll pay a balance transfer fee, usually 3%, but you'll quickly compensate for that. If you could make monthly payments for more than a year and have 100% of the payment go toward what you owe, you'll make significant progress in reducing the balance.

If you only make the minimum payment and are charged 20% interest, most of your payment will just pay interest.

3. Avoid unnecessary new accounts

Even though we've just suggested you open another credit account, the third step is to avoid opening unnecessary credit accounts. When you're shopping at a retailer and the clerk says you can save $20 if you open a store charge card, politely decline.

Credit agencies do, in fact, want to see a few credit accounts in your credit history but they don't want to see too many. They also want to see a variety – not just credit and charge cards but an auto loan and a mortgage.

4. Use credit responsibly

Finally, it is important to use credit responsibly. What does that mean exactly? In short, it means not adding to existing balances if you can help it.

Before using a credit card, ask yourself if you will be able to pay for the purchase, in full, when the bill arrives, or over a couple of billing cycles. If you can't, don't buy it.

Credit agencies are impressed if they see you can make a large credit purchase one month and pay off the balance the next.

What's a good credit score, you ask? The highest possible score is 850, but 720 on up is considered excellent credit. If your score is between 689 and 630 you have average credit. Below 630 lands you in the bad credit camp.

Your score makes a difference when you apply for a loan or even when you try to buy car insurance, in some states. Lenders give the best terms to consumers with the best credit. Being in that category can save you $100 or more a month on a mortgage.

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Is the sun setting on tanning salons?

They remain popular but states are cracking down

Actor George Hamilton is famous for a deep tan but these days, few others are. The practice of lying in sun to darken skin has fallen out of favor over con...

PhotoActor George Hamilton is famous for a deep tan but these days, few others are. The practice of lying in the sun to darken skin has fallen out of favor over concerns about skin cancer.

Instead, when people head to the beach they're more likely to wear large brimmed hats and slather on layers of sunscreen. But not everyone.

There are still plenty of sun worshipers who continue to soak up the rays in the summer and go to tanning salons in the off season. While it's not against the law to go to the beach, more states are cracking down on tanning salons.

Eight states ban minors

In Minnesota, Gov. Mark Dayton has signed a new law that prohibits minors from engaging in indoor tanning. Minnesota joins Vermont, California, Illinois, Oregon, Nevada, Texas and Washington, which have similar laws.

While not everyone is happy about the trend, doctors appear to be.

“The American Academy of Dermatology Association commends the state of Minnesota for joining the fight against skin cancer, including melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer,” said Dr. Brett M. Coldiron, president of the American Academy of Dermatology Association (AADA). “It is estimated that one in five Americans will develop skin cancer in their lifetime and more than 1,030 new cases of melanoma will be diagnosed in Minnesota in 2014. Since 2.3 million teens tan indoors in the United States annually, restricting teens’ access to indoor tanning is critical to preventing skin cancer.”

Tanning is normally done on a regular basis. A review of a number of tanning salon websites shows tanning is often sold by membership, much like health clubs, meaning you can go as often as you like. None of the sites we reviewed carried any disclaimer or warning about potential skin cancer.

Cancer links

According to AADA, doctors diagnose more than 3.5 million skin cancers in more than 2 million people every year. Many of the cases are linked to over-exposure to the sun but dermatologists contend the risk for developing melanoma increases by 59% in people who use indoor tanning devices, and the risks increase with each subsequent use.

Indoor tanning booths are still legal, but then so are cigarettes. Government health experts say neither are healthy.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says indoor tanning has been linked to skin cancers, including the deadliest type – melanoma. It has also been linked to basal cell carcinoma, and squamous cell carcinoma, as well as cancers of the eye.

“Indoor tanning exposes users to two types of ultraviolet (UV) rays, UV-A and UV-B, which damage the skin and can lead to cancer,” the agency says in a warning to consumers. “Indoor tanning is particularly dangerous for younger users; people who begin indoor tanning during adolescence or early adulthood have a higher risk of getting melanoma, likely because of increased lifetime UV exposure.”

Long term, not a good look

Young people are often drawn to indoor tanning in the belief it improves their appearance and tanning salon marketing encourages that belief. Over time, the CDC says it can have the opposite effect.

It can cause premature skin aging, such as wrinkles and age spots. It can alter skin texture and increase the risk of blindness.

According to the CDC, indoor tanning is thought to cause about 419,000 cases of skin cancer in the U.S. every year. In comparison, smoking is thought to cause about 226,000 annual cases of lung cancer.

FDA warning

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) joins in the warning, saying over-exposure to UV rays, whether from natural or artificial sources, damages the skin. In fact, the FDA goes farther, saying there is no such thing as a “safe tan.”

According to the agency the increase in skin pigment, called melanin, which causes the tan color change in your skin, is a sign of damage.

Once skin is exposed to UV radiation, it increases the production of melanin in an attempt to protect the skin from even more damage. Melanin is the same pigment that colors your hair, eyes, and skin.

Tanning tax

While indoor tanning is still legal, government policymakers are doing all they can to discourage it. The Affordable Care Act imposed a 10% surtax on tanning salons, which is expected to generate $2.7 billion over 10 years.

But a growing number of states would like it to produce much less, prompting them to pass laws keeping minors out of tanning beds. But for now, indoor tanning remains popular as well as dangerous.

According to the Rockefeller Cancer Institute, on an average day, of the one million people using tanning beds in the United States, 71% are girls and women between the ages of 16 and 29.  

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Hyundai-Kia dethrones Honda as "greenest automaker"

Scientists' group says all eight major automakers have reduced their emissions

Hyundai-Kia has unseated Honda the become the "greenest automaker," according to the Union of Concerned Scientists’ (UCS) latest Automaker ...

PhotoHyundai-Kia has unseated Honda the become the "greenest automaker," according to the Union of Concerned Scientists’ (UCS) latest Automaker Rankings report.

Using the adjusted, most up-to-date information on Hyundai-Kia’s vehicles after the automaker had to revise its performance data with the U.S. EPA, the findings show that the automaker came out in first place thanks to a concerted effort to improve the green performance of its fleet by turbocharging and downsizing engines in a number of its models while also introducing hybrid-electric versions of two of its top-selling vehicles, the Hyundai Sonata and Kia Optima.

This report marks the first time another company has bested Honda, which came in second this year but has earned every “Greenest Automaker” previous accolade from UCS since 1998.

“Honda continues to lead the way in many vehicle classes, but it’s started to lag the industry average in its midsize fleet—which includes its best-selling Accord, and accounts for a quarter of the company’s sales,” said Dave Cooke, a vehicles analyst in the Clean Vehicles Program and the author of the report. “As Hyundai-Kia works to further improve fuel economy and electrify its fleet, Honda will need to step up its game if it wants to take back the crown.”

Tied for third

It was a three-way tie for third place, with Toyota, Nissan, and Volkswagen too close to call. While all the international automakers in the ranking scored better than the national average, the Detroit Three – Ford, General Motors, and Chrysler – continue to bring up the rear, as they have in every automaker ranking. However, some domestic automakers are making greater strides than others 

Ford led the Detroit automakers while achieving the greatest percent reduction in smog-forming emissions of any manufacturer evaluated. The company also enjoyed strong improvements in global warming emissions due to its increased use of hybrids and its focus on smaller, turbocharged engines in vehicles ranging from the Ford Focus sedan to its iconic, best-selling large pick-up, the F-150, demonstrating that fuel-economy gains are possible across an automaker’s entire fleet.

All eight bestselling automakers are improving their environmental performance thanks to new technologies and stronger standards for fuel efficiency and tailpipe emissions, the group said. It's the first time that's happened since the group began issuing its annual report in 1998.

The report, the sixth evaluation of its kind by UCS, examined the emissions of both global warming and smog-forming pollution from 2013 model year vehicles of the automakers. 

Not just cupholders

“For too many years, clean car standards were stagnant and automakers were more likely to promote extra cup holders instead of fuel economy,” Cooke said. “Now, consumers are demanding cars that go further on a gallon of gas and new standards are pushing the automakers to deliver. The big lesson here is that the smog and global warming standards are working and there is much more to be gained as these standards progress.”

Stronger tailpipe emissions standards have led to an 87 percent reduction in smog-forming tailpipe emissions from the average car or truck since 2000, while global warming emissions from the average vehicle have decreased by nearly 20 percent since 1998. 

Technology will be crucial to achieving continued reductions in both global warming and smog-forming emissions from the U.S. fleet, the report projects, as more stringent emissions standards continue to take effect. Diverse strategies to improve fuel economy and global warming emissions—from improvements in conventional engines to plug-in-electric and hybrid-electric vehicles—all present opportunities for automakers to continue and accelerate the trend of reducing emissions across all types of vehicles.

“Automakers have a lot of clean technology ready to roll, and they are only just beginning to deploy it,” said Don Anair, research director of the UCS Clean Vehicles program. “Continued investments by automakers coupled with strong performance standards will ensure new models further reduce fuel consumption and tailpipe emissions  while offering the cleanest, most fuel-efficient vehicle choices for their customers.”

 

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Justice department investigating auto-parts price-fixing

“Largest criminal antitrust probe ever” is still ongoing; cost U.S. drivers “millions”

The Justice Department is currently investigating what the Associated Press has dubbed the “largest criminal antitrust probe ever,” alleging bi...

PhotoThe Justice Department is currently investigating what reports say is the largest criminal antitrust probe in history, alleging bid-fixing and price-rigging in the auto parts industry that resulted in U.S. drivers collectively paying millions of dollars in higher costs.

Though the investigation first became public four years ago, when the FBI raided various offices in the Detroit area, the conspiracy is alleged to have covered four continents, and the FBI is working with authorities from other countries, including Australia and Japan. Last week, an executive from a Japanese company was charged with conspiring to fix the prices of certain parts sold to Toyota, and convincing his workers to destroy evidence of his actions.

Last September, as part of the investigation, nine automotive suppliers in Japan, including Hitachi Automotive Systems and Mitsubishi Electric, pleaded guilty to price-fixing and paid $740 million in criminal fines; at the time, the total fines collected since 2011 amounted to $1.6 billion.

Spencer Weber Waller, director of the Institute for Consumer Antitrust Studies at Loyola University, told The New York Times that “Twenty years ago, a case of this size would have been inconceivable …. We often fought with these countries against the application of U.S. antitrust laws, but now they themselves are more stringent in applying their own antitrust laws.”

The full size and scope of the price-fixing has yet to be determined. Despite claims that it significantly raised the prices of cars and parts for U.S. consumers, it's not known when or if drivers can expect the prices to actually drop now that the conspiracy is being broken.

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iJackers hit Australian Apple devices with ransom demands

Passwords may have been compromised

"Ransomware" has hit Australia, where Apple users woke this morning to find their devices locked, with the culprits demanding a payment of US$100 through P...

Photo"Ransomware" has hit Australia, where Apple users woke this morning to find their devices locked, with the culprits demanding a payment of US$100 through PayPal.

The exact method by which hackers took control of the devices isn't yet known; some security experts suggested the hackers may simply have obtained a list of user IDs and passwords but others said it was more likely Apple's Australia and New Zealand servers had been compromised.

Apple support forums are flooded with complaints but at last word, the company hadn't offered much in the way of solutions. 

The attacks are affecting iPhones, iPads, Macs and possibly other devices.

The ransom demands claim to be coming from Oleg Pliss. The somewhat unusual name appears to be a front chosen by the hackers for reasons known only to them at this point.

"There was a message on the screen ... saying that my device(s) had been hacked by Oleg Pliss," A Melbourne consumer told Australian Associated Press.

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Does your financial advisor listen to you?

It's what any financial advisor should do

You seek out and pay a financial advisor for their expertise. It stands to reason then that you would be ready to follow their advice.But that doesn't me...

PhotoYou seek out and pay a financial advisor for their expertise. It stands to reason then that you would be ready to follow their advice.

But that doesn't mean the information flow should be a one-way street. It's important that the person you consult about investing your money not only understands your financial objectives but listens closely when you raise questions or make suggestions.

That doesn't always happen.

“Often, wealth management firms listen only to financial advisors when they seek to understand client preferences and the important trends, issues and challenges facing their industry,” said Juan Carlos Lopez, Executive Director, Wealth Management at Ernst & Young LLP. “Unfortunately, this provides an incomplete view of the needs and desires of wealth management clients.”

Ernst & Young has just completed a wealth management survey in which it gathered in-depth feedback from both advisors and their clients to compare views on the most important trends occurring in the industry.

The survey identified three areas where financial advisors can improve their relationship with clients. Among them – financial advisors tend to over-estimate the importance of their role.

Show me the money

In the past a long-standing relationship between an advisor and client went a long way toward satisfying the client. According to the survey, not so much these days.

The fear generated by the 2008 financial crisis led to lower expectations. Clients were happy just to stay liquid and preserve their capital. That now seems to have changed.

The survey shows that today, portfolio performance has regained the top spot on clients’ minds, ranking well above the relationship with their advisor among the factors keeping clients with their wealth managers.

In other words, clients tend to judge their financial advisors by how well their portfolio is doing. They're also sensitive to fees and the firm's overall reputation.

Furthermore, clients value a firm’s reputation over that of the individual advisor when choosing a new wealth manager. They now tend to look at the company as well as the individual advisor.

Finding a financial advisor

If you need a new financial advisor, you may want to start your search for a financial advisor here – the website for the Financial Planning Association. It can provide a list of candidates in your area for you to consider.

To find an advisor who will listen and respond to you, ask for referrals. The people recommending an advisor should be in a similar phase of their investment life as you. It goes without saying they should also be fairly successful at building wealth.

Among the many questions you should ask a potential financial advisor is how much contact they expect to have with you and in what form that contact will be. An advisor with hundreds of clients can't be expected to hold regular face-to-face meetings with everyone.

Staying in touch

But they should be available by phone or email on a regular basis. The investment landscape is constantly changing and your advisor can't listen to your questions and concerns if there is little or no regular contact.

How much contact is reasonable? A recent survey by J.D. Power and Associates found that clients who had 12 or more contacts a year with their financial advisors had the highest rate of satisfaction with the service they received.

What other questions should you ask a potential financial advisor? The Securities and Exchange Commission offers this advice.

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Calorie restriction may improve breast cancer outcomes

Tests in mice find restricted diet lessens chance certain types of breast cancer will spread

Severely restricting calories has been suggested as a way of lengthening lifespans, and now a study finds that a very-low-calorie diet may also improve out...

PhotoSeverely restricting calories has been suggested as a way of lengthening lifespans, and now a study finds that a very-low-calorie diet may also improve outcomes for women with breast cancer.

According to a study published May 26th in Breast Cancer Research and Treatment, the triple negative subtype of breast cancer – one of the most aggressive forms – is less likely to spread, or metastasize, to new sites in the body when mice were fed a restricted diet.

"The diet turned on a epigenetic program that protected mice from metastatic disease," says senior author Nicole Simone, M.D., an associate professor in the department of Radiation Oncology at Thomas Jefferson University.

Breast cancer patients are often treated with hormonal therapy to block tumor growth, and steroids to counteract the side effects of chemotherapy. However, both treatments can cause a patient to have altered metabolism which can lead to weight gain. In fact, women gain an average of 10 pounds in their first year of treatment.

Recent studies have shown that too much weight makes standard treatments for breast cancer less effective, and those who gain weight during treatment have worse cancer outcomes.

"That's why it's important to look at metabolism when treating women with cancer," says Dr. Simone.

In earlier studies, Dr. Simone and colleagues had shown that calorie restriction boosted the tumor-killing effects of radiation therapy.

In order to test the effects of a restricted diet in humans, Dr. Simone is currently enrolling patients in the CaReFOR (Calorie Restriction for Oncology Research) trial. As the first trial like it in the country, women undergoing radiation therapy for breast cancer receive nutritional counseling and are guided through their weight loss plan as they undergo their treatment for breast cancer.

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Samsung's forthcoming smartwatch may not need to sync to a smartphone

Apple is also working on a standalone smartwatch that may be released later this year

Samsung's Galaxy Gear smartwatchThere are all kinds of smartwatches already on the market. Some are fairly crude, some are pretty sophisticated but nea...

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Samsung's Galaxy Gear smartwatch

There are all kinds of smartwatches already on the market. Some are fairly crude, some are pretty sophisticated but nearly all of them rely on a smartphone for at least some of their functions.

This may be about to change, however. Samsung is reported to be about to release a smartwatch that can send texts and make calls without having to sync with a smartphone.

There's no official word from the company but published reports say the watch, which is so far unnamed, will be released within the next month or two.

Besides telling the time, the smartwatch will supposedly be able to take photos, use GPS tracking, measure the wearer's heart rate and send emails.

Apple and Google are also working on new smartwatches as major manufacturers rush to get in on what's expected to be a land-office business. The market research firm IDC is predicting that sales of wearables will triple over the next year to more than 19 million units -- more than 10 times the predicted sales of smartphones.

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Consumer confidence rebounds in May

There's growing optimism about rising incomes

The Conference Board's Consumer Confidence Index rebounded from its April decline. After dipping to 81.7 last month, the Index now stands at 83.0. Both th...

PhotoThe Conference Board's Consumer Confidence Index rebounded from its April decline.

After dipping to 81.7 last month, the Index now stands at 83.0. Both the Present Situation Index and the Expectations Index posted increases.

“Consumer confidence improved slightly in May, as consumers assessed current conditions, in particular the labor market, more favorably,” said Lynn Franco, director of Economic Indicators at The Conference Board. “Expectations regarding the short-term outlook for the economy, jobs, and personal finances were also more upbeat. In fact, the percentage of consumers expecting their incomes to grow over the next six months is the highest since December 2007 (20.2%). Thus, despite last month’s decline, consumers’ confidence appears to be growing.”

The situation now

Consumers’ assessment of present-day conditions improved in May. Those who said business conditions are “good” dropped to 21.1% from 22.2%, while those who think they are “bad” declined to 24.1% from 24.8%.

Consumers’ assessment of the labor market was more favorable. Those saying jobs are “plentiful” rose to 14.1% from 13.0%, while those who believe jobs are “hard to get” dipped to 32.3% from 32.8%.

Looking ahead

Consumers’ expectations increased slightly in May.

The percentage of consumers expecting business conditions to improve over the next six months edged up to 17.5% from 17.2%, while those looking for business conditions to worsen slipped to 10.2% from 10.5%.

Consumers were more positive about the outlook for the labor market.

Those anticipating more jobs in the months ahead increased to 15.4% from 14.7%, while those anticipating fewer jobs edged up to 18.3% from 18.0%.

The proportion of consumers expecting their incomes to grow increased to 18.3% from 16.8%, but those expecting a drop in their incomes also increased -- to 14.5% from 12.9%.

The monthly Consumer Confidence Survey, based on a probability-design random sample, is conducted for The Conference Board by Nielsen, a global provider of information and analytics around what consumers buy and watch. The cutoff date for the preliminary results was May 14.

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Home prices on the rise in March

However, the rate of increase is slowing

March was another good month for homeowners looking for the prices of their houses to rise in value. Data by S&P Dow Jones Indices for its S&P/Case-Shille...

PhotoMarch was another good month for homeowners looking for the prices of their houses to rise in value.

Data by S&P Dow Jones Indices for its S&P/Case-Shiller Home Price Indices show the 10-City and 20-City Composite Indices were up 0.8% and 0.9%, respectively, from February.

During the first three months of the year, the National Index gained 0.2%. Nineteen of the 20 cities showed positive returns in March, with New York was the only one to decline. Dallas and Denver reached new index peaks.

Significant slowdown

The National and Composite Indices saw their annual rates of gain slow significantly in March. Chicago showed its highest year-over-year return -- 11.5% - since December 1988. Las Vegas and San Francisco, the cities with the highest returns, saw their rates of gain slow to approximately 21%; their post-meltdown peak returns were 29.2% and 25.7%. At the lower end was Cleveland with a gain of 3.9% in the 12 months ending March 2014.

“The year-over-year changes suggest that prices are rising more slowly,” said David M. Blitzer, chairman of the Index Committee at S&P Dow Jones Indices. “Annual price increases for the 2 Composites have slowed in the last 4 months and 13 cities saw annual price changes moderate in March.”

The National Index also showed decelerating gains in the last quarter. Among those markets seeing substantial slowdowns in price gains were some of the leading boom-bust markets including Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Phoenix, San Francisco and Tampa.

Despite signs of decelerating prices, all cities were higher than a year ago, and all but New York were higher in March than in February. However, only Denver and Dallas have set new post-meltdown highs and they experienced relatively lower peak levels than other cities. Four locations are fairly close to their previous highs: Boston (8%), Charlotte (9%), Portland (13%) and San Francisco (15%).

Positive returns

All 20 cities continued to record positive year-over-year returns. Thirteen of the 20 MSAs showed lower annual increases in March. Tampa showed the most deceleration, posting +13.4% year-over-year in February and +10.7% in March. Las Vegas and San Francisco, the only two cities to post annual gains of over 20%, also saw their rates decelerate; they gained 21.2% and 20.9%, respectively.

The only six cities to show higher year-over-year returns in March were Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, Miami, Minneapolis and New York.

Quarterly price hikes

A separate measure of home prices -- the Federal Housing Finance Agency's (FHFA) House Price Index (HPI) -- found that prices rose 1.3% in the first quarter of the year, the eleventh consecutive quarterly price increase in the purchase-only, seasonally adjusted index.

"Although the first quarter saw relatively weak real estate transaction activity -- in part due to seasonal factors -- home prices continued to push higher in the first quarter," said FHFA Principal Economist Andrew Leventis. "Modest inventories of homes available for sale likely played a significant role in driving the price increase, which was similar to appreciation in the preceding quarter."

As a way of comparison, house prices rose 6.6% from the first quarter of 2013. FHFA's seasonally adjusted monthly index for March was up 0.7 percent from February.

Other findings

  • The seasonally adjusted, purchase-only HPI rose in 42 states and the District of Columbia during the first quarter of 2014 (four more than in the fourth quarter of 2013). The top annual appreciation came in: 1) Nevada, 2) District of Columbia, 3) California, 4) Arizona, and 5) Florida.
  • Of the nine census divisions, the Pacific division experienced the strongest increase in the first quarter -- a 2.1% increase and a 13.2% increase since last year. House prices were weakest in the Middle Atlantic division, where prices inched up 0.1% percent from the prior quarter.
  • As measured with purchase-only indexes for the 100 most populated metropolitan areas in the U.S., first quarter price increases were greatest in the Charleston-North Charleston, S.C., Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) where prices increased by 10.7%. Prices were weakest in the New Orleans-Metairie, La., MSA, where they fell 2.6%. Appreciation was recorded in 71 of the 100 MSAs.
  • The monthly seasonally adjusted purchase-only index for the U.S. has increased for 23 of the last 24 months (November 2013 showed a decrease).
  • The Pacific and Mountain census divisions -- the two divisions that saw the greatest price increases between March 2012 and March 2013 -- saw substantive decelerations over the latest 12 months. Price appreciation was 12.4% between March 2013 and March 2014 in the Pacific Division, more than three percentage points below the rate for the preceding 12 months. At 9.8%, the last 12-month appreciation in the Mountain division was more than four percentage points below the rate in the preceding 12 months.
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Chaparros Mexican Foods recalls beef products

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

Chaparros Mexican Foods of Vista, Calif., is recalling approximately 568,503 pounds of beef products. The products were formulated with hydrolyzed milk p...

PhotoChaparros Mexican Foods of Vista, Calif., is recalling approximately 568,503 pounds of beef products.

The products were formulated with hydrolyzed milk protein, an allergen not declared on the product label.

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

The following products are subject to recall:

  • 100 lb. cases containing 20lb. bags, five per case, diced beef for broiling labeled “Alberto’s Meat Shop”
  • 100 lb. cases containing 20lb. bags, five per case, sliced beef for broiling labeled “Alberto’s Meat Shop”
  • 60 lb. cases containing beef trim labeled “Alberto’s Meat Shop”
  • 100 lb. cases containing 20lb. bags, five per case, beef chorizo labeled “Alberto’s Meat Shop”

The products were produced between November 1, 2013, and May 15, 2014, and sold to restaurants in Southern California and a federally inspected processing facility. The production date is stamped in black ink on the outer case label.

Consumers with questions about the recall should contact Julia Silva, office manager, Chaparros Mexican Foods Inc., (760) 631-6080.

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Fayette Creamery brand Jalapeno Pepper Raw Milk Cheddar Cold Pack Cheese Spread recalled

The product may contain soy, an allergen not listed on the label

Brunkow Cheese of Darlington, Wis., is recalling its 8-ounce tubs of Fayette Creamery brand Jalapeno Pepper Raw Milk Cheddar Cold Pack Cheese Spread. The ...

PhotoBrunkow Cheese of Darlington, Wis., is recalling its 8-ounce tubs of Fayette Creamery brand Jalapeno Pepper Raw Milk Cheddar Cold Pack Cheese Spread.

The product may contain soy, an allergen not listed on the label.

No illnesses have been reported to date.

The recalled was distributed nationwide in retail stores and through direct sales on premise at Brunkow Cheese and at farmers markets.

The product comes in 8-ounce, clear plastic tubs marked with one of the following Sell By Dates and codes on the bottom:

  • 05211411
  • 04051408
  • 06191415
  • 06191416
  • 06191417
  • 06261411
  • 06261412
  • 07071413
  • 07071414
  • 08061410
  • 08121406
  • 08121407
  • 08281413
  • 08281414
  • 08281415
  • 08281416
  • 09201411
  • 10031410
  • 10111404
  • 10171408
  • 10171409
  • 10251413
  • 11011406
  • 11151409

Consumers who have the recalled product should return it to the place of purchase for a full refund.

Consumers with questions may contact Brunkow Cheese at 608-776-3716 Monday through Friday, 8am - 4pm.

http://www.fda.gov/Safety/Recalls/ucm398726.htm

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General Motors recalls Cadillac CTS vehicles

A wiper issue could kill the vehicle battery

General Motors is recalling 19,225 model year 2014 Cadillac CTS vehicles manufactured June 10, 2013, through February 26, 2014. If the vehicle is turned ...

PhotoGeneral Motors is recalling 19,225 model year 2014 Cadillac CTS vehicles manufactured June 10, 2013, through February 26, 2014.

If the vehicle is turned off with wiper functionality left on and the wipers then become restricted, such as when covered in ice or snow, and the vehicle's battery goes dead and needs to be jump started, upon being jump started, the wipers will be inoperative.

An inoperative windshield wiper system may decrease the driver's visibility, increasing the risk of a crash.

GM will notify owners, and dealers will replace the front wiper module, free of charge. The manufacturer has not yet provided a notification schedule.

Owners may contact Cadillac customer service at 1-800-458-8006. GM's number for this recall is 14157.

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Money-saving tips for that Memorial Day road trip

Don't cram too much into three days

As the legendary baseball player Yogi Berra once said about a super-popular night spot: “Nobody goes there anymore; it's too crowded.”...

PhotoAs the legendary baseball player Yogi Berra once said about a super-popular night spot: “Nobody goes there anymore; it's too crowded.”

A similar principle applies to road trips on Memorial Day weekend: “Nobody drives anymore, because the roads are too crowded.” Still, even with today's high gas prices you'll find a handful of plucky people willing to brave the traffic for a mini-vacation, whether to avoid touchy-feely TSA airport agents in the airports or because, even with those gas prices, transporting multiple people in a single vehicle often remains cheaper than buying individual plane or train tickets for everybody (in addition to saving the cost and hassle of renting a car once you reach your destination).

If saving money is your main motivation, you know that mere “driving,” on its own, isn't enough to save money. Indeed, with either bad luck or bad planning, your road trip vacation might end up casting more than a first-class flying one. Yet a few obvious though easy-to-overlook tips can significantly cut the costs of your mini-vacation — leaving more money for bigger and better trips later.

Take the road less traveled

If you watch science-fiction disaster movies, you're familiar with the scene where everybody flees the coastlines and the big cities, to escape the alien invaders or asteroid strike or whatever threat the movie is about. You should consider doing the same thing, not for catastrophe-avoidance reasons but because, as Berra noted, “Nobody goes there anymore; it's too crowded.” (Spending several hours sitting in traffic is annoying enough on any occasion, far worse when those hours are eating away at your brief 72-hour vacation.)

That's not to say beaches, big cities or other super-popular tourist attractions are never worth visiting, of course, just that a 72-hour vacation weekend isn't the best time to try.

Take some food with you

To cite another quote from Yogi Berra (or was it Yogi Bear?): “Let's get us a pic-a-nic basket.” More specifically, bring one with you. Better yet, bring a 12-volt travel refrigerator that can either plug into a regular electrical outlet or into your car's dashboard power adapter (while your engine is running, of course, so you don't drain the car battery).

Of course, most people consider restaurant dining one of the vital vacation experiences. As do I, but I don't want to fritter away my vacation-restaurant budget on the same fast food I can get at home.

The winter-emergency blanket you keep in your car in case you find yourself stranded in cold weather does double-duty as a picnic blanket in summertime.

Take advantage of freebies

Despite the old saying “The best things in life are free,” it's a sad truth that on vacation, many of the best attractions charge entry fees. Even so, most areas have fun free things to do, though they might not be as well-advertised as the for-profit stuff.

Do an ahead-of-time online search for any interesting state parks in the area you're visiting (national parks are even nicer, of course, but not only do most of them charge entry fees; on holiday weekends they fall into the “Nobody goes there/too crowded” category).

If your destination region has a “visitor center,” whether run by a local tourism bureau or the state-government centers attached to certain highway rest stops, you definitely want to stop there not just to stretch your legs, but also because there's a good chance you'll find discounted coupons to attractions you'd hoped to visit. (I've found that visitor centers run by actual tourism bureaus tend to offer more and better discounts — understandable, since such centers are established specifically to cater to tourists, rather than motorists in general.)

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What makes hydrogen cars go?

Water -- but it's a bit more complicated than that

As gasoline mileage continues to improve and all-electric cars become more common on U.S. roadways, it's hard to see how fuel economy can get much better....

Photo
Photo: Wikipedia

As gasoline mileage continues to improve and all-electric cars become more common on U.S. roadways, it's hard to see how fuel economy can get much better.

But Hyundai raised hopes this week, beginning U.S. imports of the Hyundai Tucson Fuel Cell CUV. The first load of vehicles arrived in Los Angeles and should go on sale during the summer in Southern California.

Toyota will be right behind. At this years Consumer Electronics Show, Toyota announced its first fuel cell vehicles will be sold in the U.S. in 2015.

How do they work? To simplify, the engines are powered by water, not petroleum-based fuel. Sounds like a motorist's dream, right?

In a radical departure from the internal combustion engine, fuel cell engines contain a fuel cell stack that converts hydrogen gas stored on board with oxygen from the air into electricity to drive an electric motor that propels the car.

Hyundai UK produced a video to show how the propulsion system works.

Lengthy evolution

A mass-produced hydrogen fuel cell vehicle has been a long time in the making but scientists say there is still plenty of work ahead to make these systems a full part of the U.S. energy and transportation system.

However, a new report in the ACS journal Chemistry of Materials suggests a new solid, stable material can pack in a large amount of hydrogen, making fuel cells even more efficient.

A research team led by Umit B. Demirci has experimented with the recent discovery that hydrogen can be stored in solid material. The team concludes that using solids is something of a breakthrough, which could allow the wider use of hydrogen energy.

Since the 1970s energy researchers have dreamed of powering engines from water, but hydrogen has always posed a number of technological challenges. One of the biggest is storage.

Previous research has focused on developing hydrogen-containing liquids or compressing it in gas form. Now, Demirci and his team say solid storage is showing potential for holding hydrogen in a safe, stable and efficient way.

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Amazon stops selling Hachette book titles

Is this in retaliation for Hachette publishing an unflattering account of the company?

What does Amazon.com have against the Hachette Book Group? Nobody outside of Amazon's inner circle knows for sure (more on that later), but as The New York...

PhotoWhat does Amazon.com have against the Hachette Book Group? Nobody outside of Amazon's inner circle knows for sure (more on that later), but as The New York Times reported on Friday, the Internet retail giant has decided to escalate matters.

Two weeks ago we told you that Amazon, alone among online booksellers, was delaying its shipments of Hachette books — which includes such authors as Stephen Colbert, J. D. Salinger, and the latest novel by superstar author J. K. Rowling (of Harry Potter fame). Now it appears Amazon has stopped selling Hachette books altogether. Though the company has not said why, it's possible that maybe Amazon is upset with Hachette for publishing an unflattering account of the company. As The Times said:

The retailer began refusing orders late Thursday [May 22] for coming Hachette books, including J.K. Rowling’s new novel. The paperback edition of Brad Stone’s “The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon” — a book Amazon disliked so much it denounced it — is suddenly listed as “unavailable.”

In some cases, even the pages promoting the books have disappeared. Anne Rivers Siddons’s new novel, “The Girls of August,” coming in July, no longer has a page for the physical book or even the Kindle edition. Only the audio edition is still being sold (for more than $60). Otherwise it is as if it did not exist.

The confrontation with Hachette has turned into the biggest display of Amazon’s dominance since it briefly stripped another publisher, Macmillan, of its “buy” buttons in 2010 …. Amazon has millions of members in its Prime club, who get fast shipping. This, as Internet wits quickly called it, was the “UnPrime” approach.

Amazon is reportedly using the same tactics in Germany, squeezing the publisher Bonnier by delaying shipment of its books.

Given that remark about “Prime” and “un-Prime” shipping, it's worth recalling that, as of March, there are at least two lawsuits against Amazon, alleging that the company actually charges Prime members for “free” shipping by raising the base price of items Prime members buy: an ordinary customer might see a certain item listed for $10 plus $4 shipping, with the shipping cost waived if the total purchase exceeds $35, whereas a Prime member with “free” shipping sees the same item offered for $14.

But it looks like Prime and non-Prime Amazon shoppers at least get the same low low price for certain Hachette books: zero dollars, because the books aren't being sold at all.

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One reason the economy is stuck in neutral

Two economists suggest policymakers have attacked the wrong problem

As the credit crisis of 2008 recedes further and further into the rear view mirror the effects seem to still be with us.Unemployment is only now starting...

PhotoAs the credit crisis of 2008 recedes further and further into the rear view mirror the effects seem to still be with us.

Unemployment is only now starting to drop and yet remains well above normal levels. It might be higher except that millions of people have simply dropped out of the labor force and are no longer counted in the monthly statistics.

The Federal Reserve is only now “tapering” its massive stimulus program that seems to have saved the banks and pumped up the stock market but done little for Main Street. Historically low interest rates haven't done much since banks aren't lending money.

During the Great Recession more than 8 million people lost their jobs and more than 4 million homes were lost to foreclosure. Conventional wisdom has it that an inflated housing market finally collapsed and resulting foreclosures nearly caused an economic collapse.

Another view

But is that really how it happened? In their book “House of Debt,” authors Amir Sufi of the University of Chicago Booth School of Business and Atif Mian of Princeton University suggest there was another, less complicated cause.

They point out that in the years just before the recession, which started at the end of 2007, Americans doubled their household debt to $14 trillion. They argue the dramatic rise in debt, followed by a huge drop in household spending, were key – and overlooked -- factors leading to the economic crash.

"Excessive household debt leads to foreclosures, causing people to spend less and save more," Sufi said. "Less spending means less demand for goods followed by declines in production and huge job losses. The only way to break that cycle is directly attacking debt."

The record household debt is significant, in that it explains how the economy continued to grow at a rapid pace in the late 1990s and early 2000s. People weren't earning more money, they were borrowing more.

Houses became ATMs

And it wasn't all credit card debt. As home prices skyrocketed homeowners continued to refinance their mortgages, taking out massive amounts of equity that they spent mostly on perishable goods.

It created demand for goods and services in the economy but it just wasn't sustainable. In 2008 rapidly rising gasoline prices surged to record highs by the middle of the year. With consumers tapped out and real estate values starting to slide gasoline prices may have been the straw that broke the camel's back.

The banking crisis? How did that affect the average consumer? It may have played a role, providing the catalyst for massive job cuts, but Sufi and Mian use actual data to argue the policy it created is too heavily biased toward protecting banks and creditors.

Increasing the flow of credit, through rock bottom interest rates they argue, is counterproductive when people and organizations already have too much debt.

Student loan debt

With foreclosures no longer rising, Sufi argues that student debt may now be a bigger concern than housing debt. Students who entered college in 2006 were blissfully unaware that, when they graduated in 2010, they probably wouldn't find a job.

Had they known they might not have run up tens of thousands of dollars in student loan debt.

If the cause of the economic dislocation isn't what we thought it was, it helps to explain why remedial action has been less than successful. Sufi and Mian suggest changing strategy to deal with reality.

How to fix it

Their prescription? For starters, they suggest putting more flexibility into consumer debt contracts. For example, they suggest recent college grads should be protected if they face a dismal job market upon graduation by gearing their loan payments to the job market.

And while it has been pointed out countless times before, the authors make the point again; banks got bailed out but their customers – the people who historically have driven the economy – were left to fend for themselves.

Lender flexibility is key in avoiding future financial meltdowns. Borrowers in bad situations, the authors conclude, require more options, not fewer.

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Low-carb vegan diet reduces heart disease risk, helps weight loss

"Eco-Atkins" diet reduces carbs and animal proteins

Low-carb vegan diet may reduce heart disease risk and weightTORONTO, May 22, 2014 -- Researchers at St. Michael's Hospital have shown for the first time...

PhotoEverybody's heard of low-fat diets. And everybody's heard of the "caveman diet," which cuts carbs and emphasizes animal protein. Now, researchers at St. Michael's Hospital in Toronto have shown for the first time that, in addition to weight loss, a specific low-carbohydrate diet may also reduce the risk of heart disease by 10% over 10 years.

The diet, often called "Eco-Atkins," is a low-carbohydrate vegan diet. Many low-carbohydrate diets have been proven to improve weight loss but most emphasize eating animal proteins and fats, which may raise cholesterol. Diets that are high in vegetable proteins and oils may reduce the risk of heart disease by lowering "bad cholesterol."

"We killed two birds with one stone – or, rather, with one diet," explained lead author Dr. David Jenkins, a Nutritional Sciences professor at the University of Toronto. "We designed a diet that combined both vegan and low-carb elements to get the weight loss and cholesterol-lowering benefits of both."

The findings, which were published in British Medical Journal Open, compared Eco-Atkins to a high-carbohydrate, low-fat diet. The Eco-Atkins diet reduced cholesterol by 10% while also helping participants lose an average of four more pounds than the high-carbohydrate, low-fat diet over six months.

"We could expect similar results in the real world because study participants selected their own diets and were able to adjust to their needs and preferences," said Dr. Jenkins, who is a vegan.

Menu plans

Participants were given menu plans that outlined food items and amounts. Rather than requiring fixed meals, the menus served as a reference guide and participants were given a list of suitable food alternatives. With an exchange list of interchangeable food items, participants were better able to adapt the diet to their personal tastes – which helped to encourage adherence to the diet.

Twenty-three obese men and women completed the six-month diet. Participants were encouraged to eat only 60% of their estimated caloric requirements – the amount of calories that should be consumed daily to maintain their current weight.

Eco-Atkins participants aimed for a balance of 26% of calories from carbohydrates, 31% from proteins and 43% from fat – coming primarily vegetable oils.

Carbohydrate sources included high-fibre foods such as oats and barley and low-starch vegetables such as okra and eggplant. Proteins came from gluten, soy, vegetables, nuts and cereals. Predominant fat sources for the Eco-Atkins diet were nuts, vegetable oils, soy products and avocado.

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New home sales post first gain in 3 months

Home prices headed lower

After falling in March and February, sales of new single-family homes rose 6.4% in April to seasonally adjusted annual rate of 433,000. Despite last m...

PhotoAfter falling in March and February, sales of new single-family homes rose 6.4% in April to seasonally adjusted annual rate of 433,000.

Despite last month's advance, the sales pace remains 4.2% below the April 2013 rate of 452,000.

Falling prices

The joint release from the U.S. Census Bureau and the Department of Housing and Urban also puts the median sales price of new houses sold in April at $275,800 – down $5,900 from March. The median is the point at which half of the prices are higher and half are lower. The average sales price also fell -- to $320,100 from $336,700 the month before.

Economists at Briefing.com believe that as higher rates and soft income growth erode affordability conditions, the drop in prices should help new home sales growth.

Inventories, meanwhile, were on the rise. The estimate of new houses for sale at the end of last month rose 0.5% -- to 192,000, representing a supply of 5.3 months at the current sales rate.

The full new-home sales report is available on the Commerce Department website.

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Suzuki recalls Forenzas and Renos

The headlamp switch or the daytime running light module could melt

Suzuki Motor of America is recalling184,244 model year 2004-2008 Forenza vehicles, and 2005-2008 Reno vehicles manufactured from September 1, 2003, through...

PhotoSuzuki Motor of America is recalling184,244 model year 2004-2008 Forenza vehicles, and 2005-2008 Reno vehicles manufactured from September 1, 2003, through July 30, 2008.

Heat may be generated in the headlamp switch or daytime running light (DRL) module of the affected vehicles, which could melt the headlamp switch or the DRL module, increasing the risk of a fire.

Suzuki will notify owners but the manufacturer has not yet provided a notification schedule. The remedy for this recall campaign is still under development.

Owners may contact Suzuki at 1-800-934-0934. Suzuki's number for this recall is XA.

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Sherman Produce recalls bulk and packaged walnuts

The products may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes

Sherman Produce of St. Louis, Mo., is recalling 241 cases of bulk walnuts packaged in 25-lb bulk cardboard boxes and Schnucks brand 10-oz trays with UPC 00...

PhotoSherman Produce of St. Louis, Mo., is recalling 241 cases of bulk walnuts packaged in 25-lb bulk cardboard boxes and Schnucks brand 10-oz trays with UPC 00338390032 with best by dates 03/15 and 04/15.

The products have the potential to be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes.

No illnesses have been reported to date.

The products were sold to retailers in Missouri and Illinois from March – May 2014.

Consumers who have purchased these walnuts are urged not to consume them, but to dispose of them or return them to the place of purchase for a full refund.

Consumers with questions may call Sherman Produce at 314-231-2896, 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. CST weekdays.

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Despite reservations, Airbnb agrees to comply with subpoenas demanding names of hosts

Unlicensed hosts may face a mountain of past-due taxes, fees, penalties and interest

Airbnb has agreed to comply with New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman's demand that it turn over user data. The peer-to-peer rental service will als...

PhotoAirbnb has agreed to comply with New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman's demand that it turn over user data. The peer-to-peer rental service will also warn future hosts that they may be violating New York laws.

Schneiderman's office agreed that Airbnb could "anonymize" the data by blanking out names, Social Security numbers and other personal data and replacing them with a numerical identifier, at least for now. 

However, Airbnb agreed that it will turn over identification data in any case the AG's office decides to investigate after examining the anonymized data.

The settlement basically leaves Airbnb in the clear while subjecting its hosts to what could be a grueling series of demands for payment of back taxes, fees, penalties and interest. 

“Airbnb and the Office of the Attorney General have worked tirelessly over the past six months to come to an agreement that appropriately balances Attorney General Schneiderman’s commitment to protecting New York’s residents and tourists from illegal hotels with Airbnb’s concerns about the privacy of thousands of other hosts," a statement issued by Schneiderman's office said. "The arrangement we have reached today ... strikes this balance.” 

Warning to be posted, finally

Besides agreeing to give up the information, Airbnb agreed to post a notice that will be displayed to any potential host seeking to rent a New York property through the service, warning that the practice may be illegal under city and state laws -- something critics say it should have done from Day One.

The city and Airbnb have been at loggerheads for months over allegations that Airbnb is in violation of multiple laws and regulations, including:

  • The New York State Multiple Dwelling Law. This law prohibits short-term rentals in multiple dwelling buildings unless the owner is present;
  • Hotel taxes. Both New York City and the state have multiple hotel occupancy taxes, sales taxes and use taxes that may apply to Airbnb users.
  • Rent regulation. Both the city and state have laws that regulate how much rent a property owner can charge. New York City also has a complex rent control law. Short-term rentals can't exceed the limits set by these regulations.
  • Zoning laws. City zoning laws regulate how property may be used in the city.
  • Business licenses. Whether it's a newstand or the New York Stock Exchange, every business must have a license.  

It adds up

PhotoWhile some of this may sound petty, ask any small business owner how much time and money goes into keeping up with the many taxes, fees and regulations imposed by local and state governments.

What the agreement seems to say is that the AG's office can rummage through Airbnb's records and pick out the individuals who have taken in the most money or rented out their property the most times and then go afrer those individuals for payment of back taxes and fees.

There's major money at stake. Airbnb has reportedly told the AG's office that its top 100 hosts in New York have taken in more than $54 million over the past three years. 

Rights of other tenants

Schneiderman and officials in other cities and states have been under pressure from tenants' groups, landlords and the hotel industry, all demanding that Airbnb be reined in.

Tenants have complained that their quiet residential buildings are potentially turned into hotels, with strangers coming and going at all hours, potentially creating a security hazard. Condominium and co-op managers have noted that their homeowners' and shareholders' agreements generally prohibit short-term rentals. 

Hotels are irate for obvious reasons. They argue that the Airbnb hosts are unfairly undercutting established hotels because they don't pay the applicable fees and taxes and don't have to meet the building, health and zoning regulations that apply to hotels.

In the clear

If this all sounds familiar, it's because it's similar to the complaints raised about Uber, Lyft and other so-called peer-to-peer services that put customer and service provider together via the Internet. 

In each such service, it's the independent contractor service providers -- the drivers, rental hosts and grocery deliverer -- who are at most risk. Customers are in the clear, since it's not generally illegal to patronize unlicensed businesses.

And while the middleman sites -- Airbnb, Uber, etc. -- may be threatened, subpoenaed and even sued by cities, states and other aggrieved parties, it's the service providers who will feel the harsh Iron Boot of the State on their necks, as they wade through demands that they document every transaction, and pay a mountain of overdue taxes, fees, penalties and interest.

Service providers also need to hope that Uber, Airbnb, et al, have properly submitted 1099s to the Internal Revenue Service, which is traditionally the last but most tenacious and feared agency to land on businesses that have run afoul of the law. 

The "victim" in these cases may technically be New York City but in reality, it is the individual who thought short-term rentals would be a cool and easy way to make a few bucks.

Rent out your apartment for two nights for $500 with practically no work or expenses -- wow, sounds too good to be true. Exactly.

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Facing uncertain retirement? Don't panic

The situation might not be as dire as you think

It always happens. Conventional wisdom determines that some threat is inevitable, generating much fear and angst. Then someone comes along and says maybe t...

PhotoIt always happens. Conventional wisdom determines that some threat is inevitable, generating much fear and angst. Then someone comes along and says maybe things aren't so dire after all.

It may be happening in the field of retirement planning. In recent years we've been warned that Americans aren't saving enough to support themselves in retirement.

While we should all try to heed the advice to save, some are suggesting the fear is a bit overdone. Ben Steveman, writing in his Bloomberg personal finance blog “Ventured & Gained,” says fear is a poor motivator. Besides, he says, he may not be headed toward a “retirement apocalypse” after all.

“Once retired, Americans will likely find it easier to plot out their budgets. Policymakers and retirement plan providers are working on ways for workers to convert savings into a stream of "lifetime income” that also makes planning simple,” Steveman writes. “While historically low interest rates mean annuities and longevity insurance are expensive now, they should become a better deal when rates inevitably rise.”

Plenty to worry about

Much of the current fear no doubt stems from the poor performance of the stock market in the first decade of the 21st century. Retirement plans heavily invested in stocks barely treaded water for years.

Then along came 2009 and the terrifying plunge in the Dow Jones Industrial Average to below 7,000. While it is true that retirement savers who didn't panic but just rode out the sell-off enjoyed a sharp rebound after mid 2009, the fact remains that years of growth were lost.

Another unsettling factor is how retirement has changed. In previous generations people retired at 65 and started drawing Social Security and a defined benefit pension. They were probably going to die at 70, so they didn't really have to worry about paying for a long retirement.

Today, many retirees have tax-deferred retirement accounts that are finite. The money, supplemented by Social Security and other sources, has to last the rest of their lives. With people now routinely living into their 90s, that's a long time to stretch a dollar.

There's still time

PhotoStill, plenty of financial planners say it isn't as bleak as it has been painted. If you are 10 to 15 years away from retirement, you still have time to prepare and there is plenty of free help to advise you through the process.

In 2012 AARP launched a website, Ready for Retirement, featuring planning tools and answers to the more than 11,000 questions AARP has received on the issue. It was a response to an AARP survey that found 65% of people believe they won't have enough to retire.

“As pensions disappear for many American families, preparing for a successful retirement has become increasingly important, and AARP wants to ensure people have the tools they need to save for their futures,” Jean Setzfand, AARP Vice President for Financial Security said at the launch.

More free help is available from the U.S. Department of Labor, which has published an online booklet to offer tips on taking control of your financial life. The important thing is to start now.

“In those approximately 10 to 15 years, you will have time to put more of your paycheck to work in a retirement account,” the agency says. “It will grow, not only from your additional savings, but also from the 'miracle of compounding,' the world's greatest math discovery, according to everyone's favorite genius, Albert Einstein. This is the result of earnings from interest and from investments continually increasing the base amount.”

Define retirement for yourself

It's also important to define for yourself what retirement is going to be. If you hate your job you might not want to hear that you should continue working, but no one says you have to stay in the job you hate.

What if you had a part-time job doing something you love? After age 66 you can earn money without it affecting your Social Security payments. Social Security, income from your investments and a regular paycheck might make for a comfortable retirement, as long as housing and medical expenses are under control.

The take home from all of this, says Steveman, is not to be paralyzed by fear but to start planning and start saving right away.  

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Facebook improving users' privacy controls

Backing away from Zuckerberg's dream of a world without privacy—at least for now

A common complaint which Facebook users have had almost as long as there's been a Facebook is this: its confusing and oft-changing privacy policies make it...

PhotoA common complaint which Facebook users have had almost as long as there's been a Facebook is this: its confusing and oft-changing privacy policies make it extremely easy to overshare without realizing it — in other words, you post something you think will be visible only to a small select group of people, only to learn it's visible to anybody with an Internet connection.

That's because Facebook accounts used to default to a public setting — in other words, any post you made was visible to everybody unless you specifically changed your settings to make them private. And for years, Facebook mostly hand-waved away any complaints about its confusing privacy policies.

Indeed, a few years ago Mark Zuckerberg went so far as to call privacy an obsolete value. “When I got started in my dorm room at Harvard, the question a lot of people asked was 'Why would I want to put any information on the Internet at all? Why would I want to have a website?'”

Sharing is noble?

Of course, that idea didn't need long to change, and Zuckerberg seemed to feel that ending privacy altogether was a cause worth working toward:

“People have gotten really comfortable not only sharing more information and different kinds, but more openly and with more people …. That social norm is just something that evolved over time. We view it as our role in the system to constantly be innovating and updating what our system is to reflect what the current social norms are.”

If Facebook's privacy settings were any indication, Zuckerberg seemed to think those “current social norms” included “Sharing more and different information is synonymous with sharing all information” or “Sharing information with more people should entail sharing information with all people” or “When I tell my friends about my wild-n-crazy weekend, I always hope my boss and my super-strict grandmother hear about it, too” and other things which nobody actually believes, which is why pretty much everybody who's not Mark Zuckerberg always hated Facebook's public-default system.

But Facebook is finally paying attention to those complaints. On May 22, Facebook announced that it was changing its default settings, in part because of user complaints: “We've … received the feedback that [Facebook users] are sometimes worried about sharing something by accident, or sharing with the wrong audience.”

Set to "private"

As a result of these changes, new Facebook accounts will automatically be set to “private,” and you'll have to deliberately change the settings to make your posts public. For people already on Facebook, the company will start giving what it calls “privacy checkups” over the next few weeks, especially for people with “public” settings: try making a post and first, a pop-up window will remind you that this post will be publicly visible, and ask if you want to change that.

Regular Facebook users should also expect to see occasional pop-ups offering tutorials about other aspects of Facebook settings.

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New calling app Ringo challenges Skype

Ringo claims to deliver lower rates and better quality than Internet calls

For awhile there, making phone calls via the Internet was the unquestioned way to avoid expensive international and roaming rates. There were plenty of way...

PhotoFor awhile there, making phone calls via the Internet was the unquestioned way to avoid expensive international and roaming rates. There were plenty of ways for the tech-at-heart to do it but then Skype came along at just the right time and made it quick and easy, not to mention cheap.

But every dog has its day and now there's a new calling app called Ringo that is claiming to offer lower rates, better quality and greater ease of use. How does it do it?

Well, quite honestly, we're not quite sure. The easy answer is that it assigns a local number to all of your international contacts. So if you live in Paris, Texas and want to call your Aunt Marie in Paris, France you enter her in your contacts list, Ringo assigns a local Texas number for Marie and routes the call to her via France. The recipient does not need to have the Ringo app.

Ringo says the call zings its way to (and from) Paris via undersea cable, with none of the drop-outs and weird sound effects that plague Internet calls and without asking you to turn on roaming.

Ringo claims its rates are about 25% cheaper than Skype. Ringo is available for iOS, Android and Windows Phone in 16 countries including Australia, UK, the U.S and Canada. The video below is Ringo's explanation for how it all hangs together.

Story continues below video

Really?

Whether Ringo is successful, of course, remains to be seen. The company isn't saying much about its finances or, more particularly, about the hoops it has jumped through to get space on undersea cables and to arrange the local switching arrangement that makes it all possible.

Technically, the set-up appears fairly straightforward but whether embedded carriers will sit still for it is another question. It would be reasonable to expect legal challenges if Ringo becomes enough of a factor to be noticed by the large telecom companies. 

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Will the post office end door-to-door delivery?

Congressional committee votes to begin converting to "cluster" mailboxes

For as long as Internet news sites have existed, those sites have periodically reported the story “Post office having financial problems again.&rdquo...

PhotoFor as long as Internet news sites have existed, they have periodically reported the story “Post office having financial problems again.”

That's not a coincidence. The Internet (alongside other inexpensive new communication technologies) is the main reason why the post office is having financial problems.

The post office used to make most of its income from First Class mail delivery—you know, delivering letters. For the bulk of history that happened before the Internet, writing and mailing letters was the best and most convenient way for ordinary Americans to keep in touch with friends and relatives who lived more than a few miles away, just as writing and mailing checks was the most convenient way to pay your utility, mortgage and other bills each month, before online payment became a thing.

Granted, phone calls were much faster than letters — instantaneous, in fact — but in those days, if you called anybody more than a few miles away you had to pay by-the-minute “long distance” fees significantly higher than average wages.

Talking to Grandma for an hour could cost you several hours' worth of pretax pay, so it was much cheaper to write Grandma a letter and wait for her to write back, when a postage stamp cost less than one or two minutes' worth of long-distance chat.

It's obvious why innovations ranging from “free unlimited long-distance calling” to “free unlimited email or messaging” killed most of the market for First Class mail. In 2005, the post office passed an unhappy milestone — that year, after many years of steady decline, the volume of First Class mail delivery fell below that of direct-marketing [read: “junk mail”] delivery for the first time.

That explains why you get so much junk mail today — because the post office is trying to make up for lost letter revenue. That also explains why U.S. Postmaster General Patrick Donohoe has allegedly said “American citizens aren’t our customers — about 400 junk mailers are our customers,” and that any effort to reduce the amount of unwanted junk mail Americans receive “hurts our ability to serve those customers.”

No more mail slots?

PhotoNow Congress is considering a measure that would allow the post office to stop door-to-door delivery to millions of Americans, in delivering instead to curbside or communal mailboxes (although people with disabilities could get waivers, and anyone else would have the option to pay an extra fee to continue personal delivery).

The measure -- H.R. 4670, Secure Delivery for America Act of 2014 -- was approved by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee on an 18-13 vote. Introduced by Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), the bill would require the Postal Service to convert 1.5 million addresses per year over the next 10 years from “to the door” delivery to more cost-effective modes of delivery, including secure centralized delivery

Supporters of the proposal all make the same basic point: having postal carriers make deliveries to mailbox clusters would cost vastly less money than continuing door-to-door service which the post office simply cannot afford.

However, opponents cite a variety of objections, ranging from “in crowded urban areas, where will we find room to install cluster mailboxes?” to “forget about cutting services; if you want to fix the USPS' financial problems, try reforming its prefunded pension requirements or other financial shenanigans instead.”

Supporters say that replacing 15 million addresses form personal to communal delivery could save the post office $2 billion per year. Issa's measure now faces action by the full House and Senate. Its passage is by no means assured, so don't putty up your mail slot just yet.

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How to stay healthy on germ-infested airliners

There's no sure-fire method but there are a few simple steps you can take

Germs are everywhere. There's a reason most supermarkets now provide anti-bacterial hand wipes when you walk through the door.But public spaces that are ...

PhotoGerms are everywhere. There's a reason most supermarkets now provide anti-bacterial hand wipes when you walk through the door.

But public spaces that are also enclosed spaces, such as an airliner cabin, can be a particularly rich environment for germs to thrive. Now there's a new scientific report finding disease-causing bacterial can live on the surfaces found in airline cabins for days – even up to a week.

"Many air travelers are concerned about the risks of catching a disease from other passengers given the long time spent in crowded air cabins," said Kiril Vaglenov, an Auburn University researcher. "This report describes the results of our first step in investigating this potential problem."

Vaglenov presented the findings at the annual meeting of the American Society of Microbiology.

Should you worry?

But how much of a concern is this? Just because the bacteria is present, does it mean that it can be passed on to another person? In many cases, yes.

The research team looked at two common pathogens – methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) and E. coli O157:H7 – and tested their ability to survive on surfaces in an airline cabin under normal flight conditions.

The scientists obtained 6 types of material from an actual jetliner – an armrest, plastic tray table, metal toilet button, window shade, seat pocket cloth, and leather. Next they placed them in a lab and subjected them to the bacteria, exposing them to typical airplane conditions.

The discovered that MRSA was the more hardy of the bacteria, lasing 168 hours when placed on material from the seat-back pocket. When applied to the armrest, the E. coli bacteria lasted 96 hours.

Passing it on...and on

That means an ill passenger can infect perhaps dozens of others who sit in that same seat over the next several days. Vaglenov says the bacteria pose a significant risk just through skin contact.

"Our future plans include the exploration of effective cleaning and disinfection strategies, as well as testing surfaces that have natural antimicrobial properties to determine whether these surfaces help reduce the persistence of disease-causing bacteria in the passenger aircraft cabin," he said.

The research confirms what many germ-conscious travelers have long suspected. And it turns out MRSA and E. coli aren't the only nasty bugs lurking at 30,000 feet.

In 2012 a Dallas TV station randomly swabbed surfaces on a commercial airliner and reported the presence of 3,000 germs.

Germ heaven

The worst places for germs, the station reported, were in the seatback pocket and the bathroom.

Is there any way to fly and not get sick. Well, yes. People do it every day. But then, they may be pushing their luck.

You might improve your odds by following the advice of one germ-o-phobe interviewed by The New York Times. His pre-flight checklist includes wiping down the cushions, armrests and tray table. He won't touch a magazine in the seatback pocket and avoids the restroom at all costs.

Don't want to appear obsessive/compulsive to your fellow passengers? At the very least, using hand sanitizer or anti-bacterial wipes during the flight – and especially before eating and after you disembark, might keep you a little healthier.

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Green coffee bean sellers charged with deceiving consumers

The FTC says they used tactics including fake news sites and bogus weight loss claims

The outfit behind the the dietary supplement Pure Green Coffee is being accused of using bogus weight loss claims and fake news websites to market the prod...

PhotoThe outfit behind the the dietary supplement Pure Green Coffee is being accused of using bogus weight loss claims and fake news websites to market the product.

Popularized on the syndicated talk show The Dr. Oz Show, green coffee bean extract is touted as a potent weight loss treatment that supposedly burns fat.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) contends that weeks after green coffee was first promoted on the program, defendants Nicholas Congleton, Paul Pascual, Bryan Walsh, and the companies they control began selling their Pure Green Coffee extract, charging about $50 for a one-month supply.

A marketing blitz

According to the commission, they marketed the dietary supplement through ads on their own sales websites -- with names such as buypuregreencoffee.com, buygreenweightloss.com, greencoffeeweightcontrol.com.

The sites featured footage from The Dr. Oz Show, supposed consumer endorsements, and purported clinical proof that dieters could lose weight rapidly without changing their diet or exercise regimens. They also ran paid banner and text ads that appeared on search engines and contained phony weight loss claims.

The defendants made similar claims on websites they set up to look like legitimate news sites or blogs, but were in fact advertisements, and on other “fake news” sites run by affiliate marketers whom they paid to advertise the Pure Green Coffee product, according to the complaint.

The fake news sites featured mastheads of fictitious news organizations such as Women’s Health Journal and Healthy Living Reviewed, as well as logos they appropriated from actual news organizations, like CNN and MSNBC.

“Not only did these defendants trick consumers with their phony weight loss claims,” said Jessica Rich, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, “they also compounded the deception by advertising on pretend news sites, making it impossible for people to know whether they were seeing news or an ad.”

Charges filed

The FTC charged the defendants with false and unsupported advertising claims, including:

  • that consumers using Pure Green Coffee can lose 20 pounds in four weeks; 16% of body fat in 12 weeks; and 30 pounds and 4-to-6 inches of belly fat in 3-to-5 months.
  • that studies prove Pure Green Coffee use can result in average weight loss of 17 pounds in 12 weeks or 22 weeks, weight loss of 10.5%, and body fat loss of 16% without diet or exercise.
  • that certain websites linked to the defendants’ sites are objective news sites with articles written by objective news reporters and that the comments following the supposed articles reflected views of independent consumers.

The FTC also charged the defendants with deceptively failing to disclose that consumers who endorsed the supplement had received it for free and were paid to provide a video testimonial.

Also named as defendants the companies used by Congleton, Pascual, and Walsh to market this operation are: NPB Advertising, Inc./dba Pure Green Coffee; Nationwide Ventures, LLC; Olympus Advertising, Inc.; JMD Advertising, Inc.; and Signature Group, LLC.

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Study finds cause of obesity: too much food!

Seriously, RAND study finds easy access to inexpensive food of all kinds is driving obesity epidemic

US obesity epidemic making all segments of the nation fatter, study findsThe nation's obesity epidemic is striking all groups of Americans, affecting tho...

PhotoAmericans know more about nutrition than ever before. Despite the sluggish economy, most are well able to afford to buy fresh, healthful food. And, thanks to constantly evolving efficiencies in agriculture, marketing and transportation, there is plenty of food available in just about any form anytime we want it.

It's that last item that may hold the clue to the continuing epidemic of obesity in the U.S. and other Western nations, a new RAND study finds.

After all, it's not just one group that's the problem -- we're all getting fatter. Old, young, educated, not so educated, active, sedentary, rich, poor, black, white and brown, we've been getting fatter at about the same rate for the past 25 years. 

More food, more often

Since 1970, the average per capita consumption of calories of Americans has risen by about 20 percent, while at the same time there has been a sharp drop in the cost of food as a proportion of disposable income, according to a report published online by the journal CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians.

"Not only has food been getting cheaper, but it is easier to acquire and easier to prepare," said Roland Sturm, lead author of the report and a senior economist at RAND, a nonprofit research organization. "It's not just that we may be eating more high-calorie food, but we are eating more of all types of food."

Analyzing economic factors that contribute to obesity, Sturm and co-author Ruopeng An of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign found that weight gain was surprisingly similar across sociodemographic groups and geographic areas, rather than specific to some groups. The findings suggest that the cause of obesity is driven by environmental factors that affect all groups, not just a few.

The RAND researchers say that Americans now have the cheapest food in history, when measured as a fraction of disposal income. During the 1930s, American spent about one-quarter of their disposal income on food, dropping to one-fifth during the 1950s. Today, Americans spend about one-tenth of their disposable income on food.

"Not only has the cost of food dropped, but it has become even more available," An said. "So a smaller share of Americans' disposable income now buys many more calories."

Meanwhile, Sturm and An say that effective economic policies to curb obesity remain elusive.

Imposing taxes on foods with low-nutritional value could nudge behavior toward healthier diets, as might subsidies or discounts for healthier foods. But political and popular support for such approaches has been low.

"The high cost of healthy food may not be the problem as far as obesity is concerned, rather it is the excess availability and affordability of all types of food," Sturm said. "We need to consider strategies that replace calorie-dense foods with fruits and vegetables, rather than just add fruits and vegetables to the diet."

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Finally -- an increase in sales of existing homes

Rising home inventory is giving buyers a bigger choice

Sales of previously-owned homes rose in April for the first time this year. Figures released by the National Association of Realtors show existing-home sa...

PhotoSales of previously-owned homes rose in April for the first time this year.

Figures released by the National Association of Realtors show existing-home sales, which are completed transactions that include single-family homes, townhomes, condominiums and co-ops, were up 1.3% from March to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 4.65 million. Still, sales are 6.8% below their year-ago level of 4.99 million units.

At the same time, inventory showed a substantial increase and home price growth moderated.

The improvement was not unexpected. “Some growth was inevitable after sub-par housing activity in the first quarter, but improved inventory is expanding choices and sales should generally trend upward from this point,” said NAR Chief Economist Lawrence Yun. “Annual home sales, however, due to a sluggish first quarter, will likely be lower than last year.”

Inventory and prices

Total housing inventory at the end of April shot up 16.8% to 2.29 million existing homes available for sale, representing a 5.9-month supply at the current sales pace. Unsold inventory is 6.5% higher than a year ago, when there was a 5.2-month supply.

The median existing-home price for all housing types was $201,700 last month -- 5.2% above April 2013; in the first quarter the median price was 8.6% above a year earlier.

Regional results

  • Existing-home sales in the Northeast were unchanged at an annual rate of 600,000 in April, but are 6.3% a year ago. The median price was $244,000 -- down 0.4% from the same time last year.
  • In the Midwest, sales slipped 1.0% to a pace of 1.03 million, and are 9.6% below a year ago. The median price was $157,200 -- 5.8 percent above April 2013.
  • Sales in the South, rose 1.0% to an annual level of 1.94 million, but are 3.5% below April 2013. The median price rose 3.2% from a year earlier -- to $173,200.
  • Existing-home sales in the West were up 4.9% to a 1.08 million annual rate, but off 10.0% from last year. The median price was $291,200 -- 9.7% above April 2013.

PhotoInitial jobless claims

In a separate report, the Labor Department (DOL) says the number of people applying for unemployment benefits for the first time rose by 28,000 in the week ending May 17 to a seasonally adjusted total of 326,000. That's about 21,000 higher than the consensus estimate of economist surveyed by Briefing.com.

Analysts say claims at this level would suggest monthly payroll growth of about, 200,000, which is described as generally “lackluster.”

Sterne Agee Chief Economist Lindsey Piegza notes that in many cases, businesses that are willing to hire continue to search for low-cost, flexible labor. She explains that means “a growing number of temporary and part-time employees rather than full-time workers.”

The 4-week moving average, which is less volatile than the weekly number and considered a better barometer of the labor market, dipped 1,000 from the previous week -- to 322,500.

The full jobless claims report is available on the DOL website.

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Prime Pak Foods recalls chicken breast and tender products

The products contain eggs, milk and wheat, allergens not isted on the label

Prime Pak Foods of Gainesville, Ga., is recalling approximately 23,250 pounds of fully cooked breaded chicken breast and tender products. The products wer...

PhotoPrime Pak Foods of Gainesville, Ga., is recalling approximately 23,250 pounds of fully cooked breaded chicken breast and tender products.

The products were formulated with eggs, milk and wheat, known allergens which are not declared on the product label.

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

The following products are subject to recall:

  • Two 5-lb. bags in a 10-lb. box of “Wegmans Fully Cooked Breaded Chicken Breast Strips” with the product code “77064” printed on the box.
  • Two 5-lb. bags in a 10-lb. box of “Wegmans Fully Cooked Breaded Chicken Breast Strips” with the product code “77065” printed on the box.
  • Two 5-lb. bags in a 10-lb. box of “Sugar Lake Farms Fully Cooked Breaded Chicken Tender” with the product code “77409” printed on the box.
  • Two 5-lb. bags in a 10-lb. box of “Wegmans Fully Cooked Breaded Chicken Breast Fillets” with the product code “77425” printed on the box.

The recalled products were mislabeled by Prime Pak Foods and were not sold at Wegmans or other retail stores. They were distributed to hotels, restaurants and institutions nationwide.

The products, produced from June 5, 2013, to March 21, 2014, bear the establishment number “P-9165” inside the USDA mark of inspection.

Consumers with questions should contact John Appling at (770) 536-8708, ext. 1105, or by email at jappling@primepakfoods.com.

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Bristle Builders for Toddlers play sets recalled

The base of the three animal figures can detach

Lakeshore Learning Materials of Carson, Calif., is recalling about 2,000 Bristle Builders for Toddlers play sets. The base of the three animal figures can...

PhotoLakeshore Learning Materials of Carson, Calif., is recalling about 2,000 Bristle Builders for Toddlers play sets.

The base of the three animal figures can detach, posing a choking hazard to young children.

No incidents or injuries have been reported.

The recall includes the Bristle Builders for Toddlers sets sold with 52 plastic pieces consisting of building pieces and three animal figures.

The animal figures include a yellow duck with a purple round base, a brown horse with a blue round base and a pink pig with a round green base. The building pieces include circle, rectangle, square and triangle-shaped pieces in different colors with a green 8” by 4.5” rectangle base.

Pieces are covered with plastic bristle pegs which allow all the pieces to connect. Production number EC559597 is printed on the smooth side of the green baseplate.

The play sets, manufactured in China, were sold exclusively at Lakeshore retail stores, Lakeshore Learning Materials’ Early Childhood catalog and online at www.lakeshorelearning.com from December 2013 to April 2014 for about $30.

Consumers should immediately take the three animal figures away from children and contact the company to receive a free replacement set of the three animal figures.

Consumers may contact Lakeshore Learning Materials at (800) 428-4414 from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. PT Monday through Friday.

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Office Depot Gibson Leather Task Chairs recalled

The mounting plate weld can break and separate the seat from the base of the chair

Office Depot of Boca Raton, Fla., is recalling about 1.4 million Office Depot Gibson Leather Task Chairs. The mounting plate weld can break and separate t...

PhotoOffice Depot of Boca Raton, Fla., is recalling about 1.4 million Office Depot Gibson Leather Task Chairs.

The mounting plate weld can break and separate the seat from the base of the chair, posing a fall hazard to consumers.

The company has received about 153 reports of the seat plate weld cracking or breaking, including 25 reports of contusions, abrasions and reports of injuries to the head, neck and a fractured back and hip which required medical attention.

This recall involves Office Depot Gibson Leather Task Chairs. The black, armless, adjustable chairs have a black base with five wheels. The affected chairs have the SKU number 105479 and the registration numbers PA 27248 (CN), PA 25498 (CN), PA 25276 (HK) or CA 35181 (RC) that can be found next to the words “Made in China” which is printed on a label located on the underside of the seats.

The chairs, manufactured in China were sold exclusively at Office Depot retail stores and online from 2003 through 2012 for about $40.

Consumers should immediately stop using the chairs and return them to any Office Depot store location for a $55 store merchandise credit.

Consumers may contact Office Depot toll-free at (866) 403-3763 from 8:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. ET Monday through Friday.

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License plate scanner errors vex innocent motorists

The privacy implications are bad. The false readings are worse.

It's no exaggeration to say that if you live in modern America, there's a good chance anytime you leave your house, your movements and whereabouts are bein...

PhotoIt's no exaggeration to say that if you live in modern America, there's a good chance anytime you leave your house, your movements and whereabouts are being recorded in real-time and stored in a permanent record accessible to – well, anybody willing to pay.

Right now, it appears that this business of being recorded anytime you're in public will remain the status quo. Indeed, given the affordability and ubiquitousness of recording technology these days, in everything from stationary security cameras to cellphone video recorders, it probably isn't possible to change that. At least those cellphone recordings (usually) aren't being updated to a real-time spy database.

But license plate scanner recordings are. Earlier this week, a California state senator supported a bill which, if passed, would limit the ability of private companies (though not police departments or other organizations) in that state to not only collect such information, but sell it to anyone willing to pay.

State Senator Jerry Hill (D-San Mateo), in order to illustrate the depth of the problem, hired a private detective to track his wife's activities (presumably with her consent). The detective was easily able to get a fairly inclusive record of whatever she did – including a visit to a gym 100 miles away from home – without having to personally “track” her at all; he merely paid to access a database of license plate scans and used them to reconstruct her whereabouts.

Even worse, it appears that in many cases, the private companies who make these scanners impose quotas on the police departments who buy them. The Los Angeles Times reported on May 16 that:

Last year, [private scanner/data company] Vigilant Solutions offered police in Tempe, Ariz., license plate scanners for free. But there was a catch, according to a copy of the offer obtained by The Times.
To keep the freebies, the Tempe department had to go after at least 25 outstanding "Vigilant provided" warrants each month. In general, such arrangements are paid for by private collection companies, which profit by going after warrants that result from people failing to pay municipal fines, said Brian Shockley, a vice president at Vigilant.
In the document, Vigilant assured the Tempe department that the offer was not an attempt to "unduly influence" its police work. But the company also warned that the free cameras would be taken away if the police department failed to meet its monthly quota.

Not always accurate

So there's definite privacy and civil liberty concerns regarding license plate scanners and their ability to effortlessly and accurately compile an ever-growing database of your movements and whereabouts in realtime. But what about when the database is not accurate? What happens when license plate scanners falsely identify innocent people as dangerous criminals?

“San Francisco woman pulled out of car at gunpoint because of license plate reader error,” says a May 13 ACLU report about a lawsuit stemming from a disturbing incident dating back to March 2009:

A lawsuit pertaining to the use of license plate readers in San Francisco illustrates how dangerous it can be when police officers turn off their eyes, ears, and brains, and mistakenly rely on imperfect technologies to tell them who’s up to no good.

On March 30, 2009, Denise Green, a 47 year-old black woman, was pulled over by multiple SFPD squad cars. Between four and six officers pointed their guns at her—one had a shotgun, she says—and told her to raise her hands above her head and exit her car. She was ordered to kneel, and she was handcuffed. Green, who suffered from knee problems, complied with all of their orders....

Green was not allowed to leave for 20 minutes, after cops finished searching her car and found nothing incriminating. Despite the incorrect license plate reading, the ACLU report suggests police should've known better than to harass Green:

It turns out that Denise Green was stopped because police, acting on a tip from a controversial piece of law enforcement surveillance technology, mistakenly thought she was driving a stolen car. A license plate reader had misread her plate and alerted officers that her car, a Lexus, was stolen. But if police officers had performed the most basic, visual check to ensure the information coming from the license plate reader system was accurate, they would have realized that her license plate wasn't a match, and that the stolen car in question was a gray GMC truck, while Denise Green was driving a burgundy Lexus.

More recently: last month, the Prairie Village Post in Kansas reported the unsettling experience of an innocent motorist in that town who suffered from a false police scanner reading:

Mark Molner, whose law office is just north of the intersection of 75th Street and State Line Road, was driving back from a sonographer’s appointment with his wife around 5:15 p.m. Monday when a Prairie Village police car pulled up behind him.

“As there were tons of cars around me, I was not certain who they were pulling over, but as I had been at the light some time, I did not think that I had had the opportunity to do anything to interest the officers, so when traffic permitted, I pulled forward with it, slowly,” Molner said. “At that time, the cruiser darted in front of me and attempted to pin me by parking diagonally across both lanes of traffic, and the motorcycle took up a place directly behind me.”

As one of the officers approached Molner’s car, Molner noticed that he had his gun out.

“He did not point it at me, but it was definitely out of the holster,” he said. “I am guessing that he saw the shock and horror on my face, and realized that I was unlikely to make (more of) a scene.”

Acceptable protocol

Despite being an attorney, Molner said at the time that he's not interested in suing the police, but does want police to reconsider whether unholstering their guns is “acceptable protocol” in such situations.

But here's the problem: acceptable protocol according to whom? From the perspective of an innocent citizen in a presumably free country, if you've done nothing wrong, acceptable protocol says the police aren't supposed to bother you in the first place, let alone threaten your physical safety. But if you're a police officer whose in-car anti-crime computer just told you “That vehicle over there's being driven by a felon on the run,” then of course you want to unholster your weapon, because you might genuinely need it.

A week after the Prairie Village incident, KansasWatchdog.org reported that “Police won’t discuss innocent driver flagged by license plate reader error”; and said:

Capt. Wes Lovett, PVPD patrol commander, acknowledged that he did exchange emails with the Prairie Village Post about the matter early last week, but said he didn’t like the tone of Publisher Jay Senter’s article [excerpted above]. Since then Lovett said he has declined to speak with other media about the traffic stop, and believed it wouldn’t be fair to discuss the matter with Kansas Watchdog.

Last December, police in Boston “indefinitely suspended” use of their license plate scanners, partially due to the vast privacy implications raised by such wholesale collection of data, largely pertaining to innocent people.

But – supporters of the scanners might say – for all the innocent people who have their privacy violated and maybe suffer the occasional cop-gun aimed unjustifiably in their direction, at least these scanners help police catch genuine crooks too, right?

Not necessarily. As the Boston Globe reported:

The police inadvertently released to the Globe the license plate numbers of more than 68,000 vehicles that had tripped alarms on automated license plate readers over a six-month period. Many of the vehicles were scanned dozens of times in that period alone.

The accidental release triggered immediate doubts about whether the police could reliably protect the sensitive data. It also raised questions about whether police were following up on the scans, since numerous vehicles repeatedly triggered alarms for the same offenses. One motorcycle that had been reported stolen triggered scanner alerts 59 times over six months, while another plate with lapsed insurance was scanned a total of 97 times in the same span.

So Boston PD's backing away from scanner use only came about by accident; apparently police didn't intend to let anyone know just how far-reaching their license-plate-scanning program actually was.

While Boston is giving scanners a break, other cities across America are quickly adopting their use. Last year, for example, the city council in Dallas, Texas, approved funding for police to equip their own cars with the technology. Then, just last month, the Dallas Observer reported that the city is now equipping its school buses – well, one bus, thus far – with all sorts of new spy technology including fingerprint scanners (for keeping track of the kids on the bus), interior security cameras (ditto), and a rear-mounded security camera dubbed the “Pedophile Finder,” which records the license plates of whatever car gets stuck behind the school bus in traffic.

Prediction: while being the victim of a false reading from an ordinary police license plate scanner is bad enough, becoming the victim of a false reading from a so-called “Pedophile Finder” will be even worse.

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eBay hacked -- eBay & PayPal users warned to change passwords

The break-in was detected about two weeks ago, the company said

Here's the latest in the never-ending chain of cyberattacks: eBay says it has been hacked and is asking its eBay and PayPal users to immediately change the...

PhotoHere's the latest in the never-ending chain of cyberattacks: eBay says it has been hacked and is asking its eBay and PayPal users to immediately change their passwords.

The company said that attackers compromised "a small number of employee log-in credentials," allowing unauthorized access to eBay's corporate network and compromising a database containing encrypted passwords and other non-financial data.

"After conducting extensive tests on its networks, the company said it has no evidence of the compromise resulting in unauthorized activity for eBay users, and no evidence of any unauthorized access to financial or credit card information, which is stored separately in encrypted formats," eBay said in a statement, adding that "changing passwords is a best practice and will help enhance security for eBay users."

eBay said the affected database, which was compromised between late February and early March, included eBay customers' name, encrypted password, email address, physical address, phone number and date of birth.

The break-in was detected about two weeks ago, eBay said.

The company said it has seen no indication of increased fraudulent account activity on eBay. The company also said it has no evidence of unauthorized access or compromises to personal or financial information for PayPal users. PayPal data is stored separately on a secure network, and all PayPal financial information is encrypted.

eBay and PayPal users will be notified by email and asked to change their password. Also, anyone who used their eBay/PayPal password on other sites should change the password on those sites as well.

The same password should never be used on multiple sites.

eBay said it is working with law enforcement to try to identify those responsible for the break-in.

 

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Drugs show promise against alcohol abuse

Researchers say there's help now for people with alcohol dependency

Currently people with alcohol dependence have few treatment options. In most cases they enter programs in which the goal is complete and lifelong abstinenc...

PhotoCurrently people with alcohol dependence have few treatment options. In most cases they enter programs in which the goal is complete and lifelong abstinence from alcohol.

For many who are committed to overcoming their alcohol dependence these programs are highly successful. Others, however, fall by the wayside and return to excessive drinking.

Now researchers at the University of North Carolina believe several readily available medications that can help maintain abstinence or reduce the amount of alcohol they drink.

"There are many studies that have tried to show whether certain medications can help with alcohol use disorders, but it is a lot of information to digest and many providers do not know what works or doesn't work," said Daniel Jonas, lead author of the study. "When you synthesize all the evidence, it shows pretty clearly that some medications do work."

The study is published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) and funded by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ), a federal agency. It offers some additional options for doctors to help patients with alcohol dependency.

At present fewer than one-third of people with alcohol disorders receive any treatment and fewer than 10% receive medications to help reduce alcohol consumption.

What works

Jonas and his research team conducted a systematic review of 122 randomized trials and one cohort study. They conclude that two drugs, acamprosate – brand name Campral -- and oral naltrexone – brand name Revia -- have the best evidence supporting their benefits.

According to the findings both drugs reduced subjects' resumption of drinking and improved other alcohol-related outcomes.

The research also identified two other drugs – topiramate and nalmefene – that are not approved for alcohol disorders but showed some improvement in outcomes for those taking them.

"The health implications of preventing a return to drinking and reducing alcohol consumption are substantial," Jonas said. "Modeling studies have shown that such improvements would result in significant reductions in alcohol-attributable mortality, costs from health care, arrests and motor vehicle accidents."

In addition to accidents, there are many other health-related issues stemming from drinking too much alcohol. The link between alcohol and cirrhosis of the liver is well established. Alcohol abuse has also been linked to various cancers, stroke and depression.

Growing problem among seniors

Alcohol abuse has increased in recent years, not just among young people but among their grandparents as well. Alcohol and prescription drug problems among adults 60 and older is one of the fastest growing health problems facing the country, according to the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence.

As people age their ability to metabolize alcohol declines. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, part of the National Institutes of Health, recommends that people over age 65 should have no more than seven drinks a week and no more than three drinks on any one day.

Jonas and his research team believe doctors should take advantage of available drugs to help patients of all ages reduce or stop drinking. But first doctors will have to bring up the subject with their patients, and a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report suggests that isn't happening.

The CDC reports only 1 in 6 adults -- and only 1 in 4 binge drinkers -- say a health professional has ever discussed alcohol use with them.  

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Hyundai Tucson Fuel Cell cross-overs begin arriving in California

The hydrogen-powered cars will be offered on a three-year lease, including fuel

Auto manufacturers have big plans for hydrogen-powered fuel cells but most of those plans are far in the future. Toyota earlier this week said fuel cells a...

PhotoAuto manufacturers have big plans for hydrogen-powered fuel cells but most of those plans are far in the future. Toyota earlier this week said fuel cells are the future but battery-gas hybrids are the present.

Perhaps so, but fuel-cell-powered Hyundai Tucson cross-overs came rolling off a freighter near Los Angeles this week and the company says it will begin leasing the vehicles within the next several weeks.

Under the Hyundai leasing program, approved lessees can drive Hyundai’s next-generation Tucson Fuel Cell for $499 per month, including unlimited free hydrogen refueling and valet maintenance at no extra cost.

It marks the first time in the U.S. that retail consumers can put a mass-produced, federally-certified hydrogen fuel cell vehicle in their driveways, with availability at three select southern California Hyundai dealers: Tustin Hyundai, Win Hyundai in Carson, and Hardin Hyundai in Anaheim.

“Hydrogen-powered fuel cell vehicles represent the next generation of zero-emission electric vehicle technology, and we’re proud of our leadership role in this important segment of the alternative fuel vehicle market,” said Mike O’Brien, vice president, corporate and product planning, Hyundai Motor America. “The range and refueling time of our Tucson Fuel Cell compare favorably with gasoline vehicles, making them a seamless transition from traditional gasoline-powered vehicles."

Pricing

The Hyundai Tucson Fuel Cell will initially be offered to customers in the Los Angeles/Orange County region for a 36-month term at $499 per month, with $2,999 down, including unlimited free hydrogen refueling.

More information is available at the Tucson Fuel Cell microsite.

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New commuter service plans seaplanes linking NY-DC-Boston

Tailwind promises fast boarding and close-in landing sites

Business travelers in a hurry love to avoid the gantlet of security lines and crowded gates. A new airline promises to skip airports all together.Tailwin...

PhotoThe Washington-New York-Boston air corridor is by most measures the second busiest in the country, second only to Los Angeles-San Francisco. But although both Delta and US Airways offer hourly flights, getting to and through the airports on either end can be a major hassle.

There's always Amtrak but for many the convenience of downtown terminals doesn't make up for the roughly three hours on the train.

Tailwind Air Service has a plan to change all that -- by eliminating airports entirely and landing on the water at the East Coast's three biggest cities. It plans to begin daily flights next month from Manhattan’s East 23rd Street Skyport Marina to Boston and Washington, flying nine-seat Cessna amphibians.

Amphibians in this case refers not to frogs and toads but to airplanes that can take off and land on both water and runways. Which is good, because the D.C. and Boston flights will be flying out of and into Dulles and Logan Airports until water landing rights can be straightened out.

But not to worry. Tailwind says the D.C. and Boston flights will use private terminals -- the same ones used by general aviation -- so passengers won't face long lines and security checks. 

The fares range from $450 to $650 each way; the Delta and US Airways shuttles start at $488. The beer and wine will be free though. Tailwind executives think business passengers who make the trip regularly will be more than happy to pay a few dollars more.  

That's been borne out by the experience of Tailwind's sister company, Fly the Whale, established in 2010 to make summer hopes between Manhattan and the Hamptons on Long Island Nantucket Island in Massachusetts. 

“We recognized a need for efficiency and speed and people’s willingness to pay a premium for shorter travel with our Hamptons route,” Melissas Tomkiel told Bloomberg Businessweek.

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Google's vision: ads everywhere

In SEC filing, Google dreams aloud of all the places it hopes to display ads

Your watch, your thermostat, even your refrigerator are just a few of the things Google thinks are simply crying out for ads. Ads are good, right? S...

PhotoYour watch, your thermostat, even your refrigerator are just a few of the things Google thinks are simply crying out for ads. 

Ads are good, right? So it's only reasonable that they be plastered on every possible square inch of space. Or, if a square inch isn't available, just about any little remnant will do.

This seems to be the thinking behind a filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) last December, in which Google argued against an SEC request that it disclose the revenue it generates from mobile devices, according to a report in Apple Insider.

"Our expectation is that users will be using our services and viewing our ads on an increasingly wide diversity of devices in the future, and thus our advertising systems are becoming increasingly device-agnostic," Google said.

Photo

Mobile revenue

The SEC had asked Google, Facebook, Twitter and other companies to provide their investors with more detail on their mobile revenue, which is thought to be something of a sore spot with Google, since it trails its arch-rival Facebook in mobile ad revenue by most measurements.

None of this is very surprising, really. It's quite apparent that Google is still in its gung-ho phase, seeking to organize (and capitalize on) the world's information. Back in the 1990s, it was Microsoft whose goal was total world domination. It has come down a few notches since then and it's likely Google will too, one of these days.

But until then, it's full steam ahead for Google and Facebook, the clear leaders in the ads-everywhere derby, and a quick look at Google's recent acquisitions and new products offers further evidence of the company's interest in the Internet of Things, wearables and mobile devices.

It bought Internet-enabled thermostat and smoke alarm maker Nest for $3.2 billion, has been betting big on Google Glass and other wearables and, of course, is the parent of the Android operating system that powers more mobile devices than any other.  

Apple followers seem a bit irked by all of this but, aside from the privacy aspects of it all, no one else seems to be protesting too much.

What we don't understand is why Google hasn't yet put contextual ads on buses, delivery trucks and postal vans. Besides solving the Postal Service's budget problems, ads on moving vehicles could alert us to upcoming coffee shops, super sidewalk sales and burrito buffets.

Maybe for a slight subscription fee we could also get speed trap warnings?

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Three increases in a row for mortgage applications

Lower interest rates get the credit

Mortgage applications posted their third straight increase last week. According to data from the Mortgage Bankers Association’s (MBA) Weekly Mortgage Appl...

PhotoMortgage applications posted their third straight increase last week.

According to data from the Mortgage Bankers Association’s (MBA) Weekly Mortgage Applications Survey applications edged up 0.9% during the week of May 16.

“Renewed concerns about the state of the global economy, particularly in Europe, led to a flight to quality to US Treasury securities, thereby pushing interest rates down in the U.S.,” said Mike Fratantoni, MBA’s Chief Economist. “Rates on conforming loans hit 6-month lows and jumbo rates hit 12-month lows.”

The Refinance Index rose 4% from the previous week, pushing the refinance share of mortgage to 52% of total applications from 50% the previous week. Still, refinance volume is more than 65 percent below last year's pace.

The adjustable-rate mortgage (ARM) share of activity remained at 8% of total applications.

Contract interest rates

  • The average contract interest rate for 30-year fixed-rate mortgages (FRMs) with conforming loan balances ($417,000 or less) was down 6 basis points -- from 4.39% to 4.33% -- the lowest rate since November 2013, with points decreasing to 0.20 from 0.22 (including the origination fee) for 80% loan-to-value ratio (LTV) loans. The effective rate dropped from last week.
  • The average contract interest rate for 30-year FRMs with jumbo loan balances (greater than $417,000) decreased to 4.24%, the lowest rate since May 2013, from 4.29%, with points falling to 0.1 from 0.16 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate was down from last week.
  • The average contract interest rate for 30-year FRMs backed by the FHA dipped 3 basis points -- 4.06 percent, the lowest rate since October 2013, with points decreasing to -0.39 from -0.17 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate decreased from last week.
  • The average contract interest rate for 15-year FRMs went from 3.48% to 3.43%, the lowest rate since October 2013, with points increasing to 0.15 from 0.12 (including the origination fee) for 80 percent LTV loans. The effective rate was lower than the week before.
  • The average contract interest rate for 5/1 ARMs decreased to 3.14% from 3.17%, with points rising to 0.29 from 0.24 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate decreased from last week.

The survey covers over 75 percent of all U.S. retail residential mortgage applications.

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General Motors recalls Aveos and Optras

Overheating could cause problems in the vehicles' electrical systems

If it's Wednesday, there must be more General Motors recalls. There are -- 2 of them. In the first, the automaker is recalling 218,000 model year 2004-200...

PhotoIf it's Wednesday, there must be more General Motors recalls. There are -- 2 of them.

In the first, the automaker is recalling 218,000 model year 2004-2008 Chevrolet Aveo vehicles equipped with daytime running lights (DRL).

There may be heat generated within the DRL module located in the center console in the instrument panel, which could melt the DRL module, which could cause a vehicle fire.

The remedy for this recall campaign is still under development, and a notification schedule has not yet been provided.

Owners may contact General Motors customer service at 1-800-222-1020 (Chevrolet). General Motors recall number for this campaign is 14236.

In the second instance, GM is recalling 214 model year 2004-2008 Chevrolet Optra vehicles.

There may be heat generated in the headlamp switch or daytime running light (DRL) module and the heat could melt the headlamp switch or the DRL module, increasing the risk of a vehicle fire.

The remedy for this recall is still under development, with no word yet of a notification schedule.

Owners may contact General Motors at 1-800-222-1020 (Chevrolet). General Motors recall number for this campaign is 14093.

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Additional consumer protections proposed for air travelers

The DOT proposal covers fee disclosure and reservations

The disclosure of fees for certain basic airline services such as checked baggage is among the new consumer protections for air travelers being proposed by...

PhotoThe disclosure of fees for certain basic airline services such as checked baggage is among the new consumer protections for air travelers being proposed by the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT).

“Knowledge is power, and our latest proposal helps ensure consumers have clear and accurate information when choosing among air transportation options,” said Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx. The proposal, he added, “will strengthen the consumer protections we have previously enacted and raise the bar for airlines and ticket agents when it comes to treating travelers fairly.”

In addition to fee disclosure, the proposal would require more carriers to report their performance data to DOT, and codify the department’s definition of a ticket agent to ensure that companies that offer flight search tools and receive a form of compensation are adhering to the DOT consumer protection requirements.

Areas of coverage

Under the proposed rule, airlines and ticket agents would be required to disclose fees for certain basic, additional services associated with airline tickets at all points of sale. The proposal defines these services as first checked bag, second checked bag, one carry-on item, and advance seat assignment.

Currently, fees for additional services are often difficult to determine when searching for airfares and as a result, many consumers are unable to understand the true cost of travel before purchasing a ticket.

Fees seem to be a real bone of contention with consumers. Jeff of Indianapolis, Ind., says Frontier Airlines charged him $50.00 to carry on his computer bag because he did not purchase his ticket directly through the carrier. "This is a rip off," he writes in a ConsumerAffairs post. "To me Frontier is a bait and switch airline. They list their prices cheap on third-party websites but then snag you with fees once you get to the airport. Even if I see their prices $200 cheaper I will never fly them again; it's more the principle."

The proposed rule would also expand the pool of carriers that would be required to report information about their on-time performance, oversales, and mishandled baggage rates.

The proposal would also:

  • Require large travel agents to adopt minimum customer service standards such as responding promptly to customer complaints and providing an option to hold a reservation at the quoted fare without payment, or to cancel without penalty, for 24 hours if the reservation is made one week or more prior to a flight’s departure date;
  • Require carriers and ticket agents to disclose any code-share arrangements on initial itinerary displays on their websites; and
  • Prohibit unfair and deceptive practices such as preferentially ranking flights of certain carriers above others without disclosing the bias in any presentation of carrier schedules, fares, rules, or availability.
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BMW recalls R 1200 GS motorcycles

The transmission output seal could be pushed out of place

BMW of North America is recalling 1,420 model year 2013 R 1200 GS motorcycles manufactured November 2012, through August 2013. Pressure inside the transm...

PhotoBMW of North America is recalling 1,420 model year 2013 R 1200 GS motorcycles manufactured November 2012, through August 2013.

Pressure inside the transmission may cause the transmission output seal to be pushed out of place. That could cause oil to leak from the transmission onto the rear tire, increasing the risk of a crash.

BMW will notify owners, and dealers will fit a bracket to prevent the transmission seal from being pushed out of position, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin in June 2014.

Owners may contact BMW customer service at 1-800-525-7417.

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Hot Mama’s Foods recalls hummus & dip products

The products may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes

Hot Mama’s Foods is recalling approximately 14,860 pounds of hummus and dip products. The products may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes. No il...

PhotoHot Mama’s Foods is recalling approximately 14,860 pounds of hummus and dip products.

The products may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes.

No illnesses have been reported

The following products, packaged in plastic containers, are subject to recall:

UPCItemUse by DatesAffected Areas
85239233405Target Archer Farms Traditional Hummus 10oz.JUN/11/2014National
8968630 01823Target Archer Farms Traditional Hummus 2lb. (Non-retail item; Ingredient item used in SuperTarget store production of 2 items, Archer Farms Mediterranean Veggie Hummus Wrap and Archer Farms Hummus Veggie Snacker)JUN/11/2014National
85239233498Target Archer Farms Roasted Garlic with Roasted Garlic Tapenade 17 oz.JUN/9/14 & JUN/12/14National
85239233481Target Archer Farms Roasted Red Pepper with Roasted Red Pepper Topping 17 oz.JUN/12/2014National
30034065881Giant Eagle Chipotle Hummus 8oz.MAY/7/2014 & MAY/14/14Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio, and Maryland.
30034064747Giant Eagle Garlic Hummus 8oz.MAY/7/2014 & MAY/14/14Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio, and Maryland.
988582Trader Joe’s Edamame Hummus 8oz.APR/28/14 & APR/29/14 & MAY/9/24Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Louisiana, North Carolina, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia (Southern), Washington
435451Trader Joe’s 5 Layered Dip Small 11.5oz.APR/15/2014Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, Ohio & Wisconsin
274043Trader Joe’s 5 Layered Dip Large 24oz.APR/15/2014Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, Ohio & Wisconsin
8968630 01410Tryst Yellow Lentil Hummus with Sunflower Seeds & Apricots 10oz

Only Products with the following Lot Codes:

USE BY JUN/10/14 E Time stamp & USE BY JUN/12/14 E Time Stamp

Midwest & Pacific Northwest regions of United States

Consumers who have purchased the above products are urged not to eat them and to dispose of them or return them to the place of purchase for a full refund.

Consumers with questions may call toll free (877) 550-0694 from 8:00A.M. to 8:00P.M. (EST) 7 Days a week.

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Surge in auto recalls could mean future safety issues

If you drive a used car you should make sure there isn't an open recall on it

GM's recent series of safety-related recalls is reason enough to wonder about the safety of your set of wheels. Could there be an open recall on the car yo...

PhotoGM's recent series of safety-related recalls is reason enough to wonder about the safety of your set of wheels. Could there be an open recall on the car you're driving?

If you are the one and only owner of your vehicle, chances are you will know if there is a recall. If you'redriving a used car, you might not.

Not all consumers who receive a recall notice for their vehicle respond. That's why the flood of GM recalls in recent months is troubling. Not all of the recalled vehicles are going to make it into the shop.

If the vehicle seems to be running okay, a car owner might not find the time in their busy schedule to take it to the dealer for the repair. Once they sell the vehicle, the new owner probably won't know the car has a safety defect that hasn't been fixed.

People should, of course, get their recalled car repaired, not just for the person who owns the car after them do but for their own safety. Research from the Highway Loss Data Institute found that repairing recalled vehicles reduces "dangerous incidents" for drivers.

Fewer insurance claims

One item from the study stands out; the recalled cars that received the mandated repair were the subject of fewer non-crash fire insurance claims – meaning they were not only safer but less expensive to drive, since insurance rates didn't go up as much.

In 2013, manufacturers recalled 22 million cars and that number is expected to be higher in 2014, especially with all the GM cars heading into the shop. The insurance industry is increasingly concerned that more of them will slip through the recall net.

"Getting unsafe cars and trucks off the road to be repaired is important for the safety of all drivers," said Mark R. Desrochers, president, Personal Lines insurance at The Hanover. "The end result is fewer accidents and more lives saved."

New recall label

Beginning this year the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) introduced a standardized label that car manufacturers must use when sending out recall notices. In the past some consumers have said what they thought were recall notices turned out to be cleverly designed marketing pieces.

NHTSA has also launched a free mobile app called SaferCar for Apple or Android smartphones. It sends recall notices right to your phone.

An automotive website called DriverSide, partnering with Hanover, tracks car recalls, and provides maintenance and repair information.

"These efforts by industry and government emphasize the importance of sharing information and consumers acting quickly when recall notices are issued," Desrochers said.

Used cars pose a problem

Things get trickier when you buy a used car. Earlier this year Carfax, an automotive data provider, reported that in 2013 there were 3.5 million used cars for sale online with an open, or unrepaired, recall.

"Open recalls are still a major public safety issue," said Larry Gamache, a Carfax spokesman. "In fact, our research indicates that more than one in ten used cars for sale online has an open recall. It's another reminder that consumers, especially those shopping online, need to know as much as possible about a used car before they buy. This includes if an open recall or other potentially dangerous issue exists.”

According to the Carfax report, Texas, California, Missouri, Florida and Ohio had the most recalled cars for sale online last year, accounting for one-third of the total.

What's a consumer driving a used car to do? The best advice is, unless you know otherwise, assume your vehicle probably has an open recall.

Take advantage of this database to search your car's Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) to see if there is an open recall. If there is, contact a local dealer to schedule the repair.

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Jerky treats implicated in 1,000 dog deaths, FDA reports

But the agency says it still hasn't been able to find a specific cause

For years, angry pet owners have accused jerky treats for causing their dogs' and cats' illness and deaths. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has...

PhotoFor years, angry pet owners have accused jerky treats for causing their dogs' and cats' illness and deaths. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has been collecting and studying case reports but says it still hasn't pinned down the exact cause of the problems, although it has confirmed the presence of a prohibited antiviral drug in treats containing chicken from China.

In its latest report, the FDA said it has combed through more than 4,800 complaints of illness in pets that ate chicken, duck, or sweet potato jerky treats, nearly all of them imported from China.  

The reports include more than 1,000 canine deaths and involve a total of more than 5,600 dogs, 24 cats and three people. Some consumers reported illness in more than one pet.

The symptoms reported will sound familiar to anyone who's kept up with the problem: approximately 60 percent of the cases report gastrointestinal/liver disease, 30 percent kidney or urinary disease, with the remaining 10 percent of complaints including various other signs such as neurologic, dermatologic, and immunologic symptoms.

About 15 percent of the kidney or urinary cases also tested positive for Fanconi syndrome, a rare kidney disease that has been associated with this investigation.

Veterinarian reports

PhotoBesides reports from consumers, the FDA said it has received "many well-documented case reports" from veterinarians, the result of an October 2013 "Dear Veterinarian" letter the agency sent to vets nationwide.

Following up on the vets' reports, the FDA conducted 26 examinations of dead dogs. It found that half of them had causes of death that appeared to be related to consumption of jerky treats.

While the other 13 did not appear to be directly related, the FDA said "an association with consumption of jerky pet treats could not be ruled out."

Help from CDC

The FDA has also asked the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) for help. Although it normally deals only with human illness, the CDC is assisting with a study of cases involving sick dogs compared with a control group of healthy dogs.

The goal is to compared the foods eaten by the sick dogs compared with that eaten by the healthy dogs and to determined whether sick dogs ate more jerky and other pet treats than healthy dogs.

The study is still underway. Results will be released when it's finished.

Drug testing

Adapting a testing methodology used by New York, the FDA said it has found low levels of the drug amantadine in some jerky samples containing chicken. Amantadine is an antiviral that is approved for use in humans but is prohibited in chickens.

The FDA said it "does not believe that amantadine contributed to the illnesses because the known side effects or adverse events associated with amantadine do not seem to correlate with the symptoms seen in the jerky pet treat-related cases."

But the agency said there should be no amantadine in jerky treats and said Chinese officials have "assured us that they will perform additional screening and will follow up with jerky pet treat manufacturers."

What to do

PhotoWhat's a pet owner to do? The most obvious is to avoid feeding jerky treats to pets. The FDA notes in its reports that jerky treats are not required for a balanced diet.

Animal lovers who want to give their pets an occasional treat or need to use treats for training purposes should talk to their veterinarians about which treats are best for their dog. As in humans, too many treats can lead to obesity and can crowd out healthier foods.

FDA is still collecting information. If your pet has become ill after eating jerky treats, you are encouraged to report it to FDA.

"While FDA does not necessarily respond to every individual complaint submitted, each report is valuable and becomes part of the body of knowledge that helps to inform our investigation," the agency said.

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Survey: U.S. kids getting too much screen time

Pediatricians say children under 2 should get no screen time

Parents with young children know the value of an entertaining TV show or computer game when the kids need to be occupied for a short while. But a little sc...

PhotoParents with young children know the value of an entertaining TV show or computer game when the kids need to be occupied for a short while. But a little screen time goes a long way.

According to National Institutes of Healthguidelines, children under age 2 should have no screen time. Over age 2 they should be limited to 1 to 2 hours per day.

A new survey by the University of Michigan shows kids are spending a lot more time than that in front of a screen. About 25% of parents with children between 2 and 5 say their children get 3 hours or more each day.

Not many rules

Only about half of the parents surveyed said they try to set some limits on viewing by prohibiting media devices in bedrooms or in dining areas.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) also expressed concern about the time young children spend in front of some kind of media screen. In 2013 AAP updated its guidelines, adopted by NIH, reducing the recommended screen time for children.

The poll found that 53% of parents are following recommendations that children’s entertainment screen time be limited by location. Twenty-eight percent said they use a combination of location and time limits.

More worrying for policymakers is the 13% who admit they place no limits on entertainment screen time and have “screen-free” zones in their homes.

“In our poll, we found that one-quarter of parents of kids 2 to 5 years old are allowing more than three hours of entertainment screen time each day,” said April Khadijah Inniss, M.D., pediatrician at the University of Michigan Health System.

What kids are missing

It's not so much the content of the entertainment that is the problem. Rather, Dr. Matthew Davis, director of the C. S. Mott Children's Hospital National Poll on Children’s Health says it's what the children are missing while they are glued to the screen.

“When you get to three or four hours each day, that screen time crowds out other important activities that babies and young kids should be engaging in: looking at books, going for walks or playing outside,” Davis said.

The survey exposes one area where parents of young children are not on board with the medical community's recommendations. Only 12% of parents of children under age 2 believed it was right to block all screen time.

In fact, these parents overwhelmingly expressed the belief that 2 hours or less a day of screen time is reasonable. After all, there are a number of “educational” media products specifically produced for very young children.

Skeptical of “educational” videos

“Videos aimed at very young children do not improve their development, in spite of what ads that promote them say,” according to NIH.

The health agency says too much time spent in front of TV or a tablet can increase the risk of a child becoming obese, make it harder for a child to get a good night's sleep and could lead to attention problems, anxiety and depression.

While many parents may not want to try to enforce strict rules they could help by setting a good example. In fact, there is data to suggest that can be effective.

Parental influence

AAP cites a 2013 study that showed the amount of time that children and teens spend watching television may have more to do with their parents’ TV habits than with family media rules or the location of TVs within the home.

The researchers say parents’ TV viewing time had a stronger connection to children’s viewing time than rules about time limits, whether the children had a TV in the bedroom, and co-viewing. For every hour a parent spent in front of a screen, their children tacked on an additional half hour.

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Toyota: fuel cells are the future

Batteries are fine for now but the company says hydrogen fuel cells are the long-term answer

Sometimes it's a little hard to tell which promising new technology will wind up on top: VHS or Beta, iPhone or Android, wind or solar power, battery or fu...

PhotoSometimes it's a little hard to tell which promising new technology will wind up on top: VHS or Beta, iOS or Android, wind or solar power, battery or fuel-cell cars. 

Even Toyota, the world leader in hybrids, seems to be of two minds about the battery vs. fuel cell question, touting improvements in battery hybrids' efficiency on the same day it says its future efforts will be focused on fuel cells.

The company said from Tokyo today that it has developed a new semiconductor that can boost efficiency of battery hybrids like the Prius by as much as 10%. 

Meanwhile, at an auto industry conference in Los Angeles, Toyota's top U.S. executive, Jim Lentz, said the future would belong to hydrogen-powered fuel cell cars.

"Short-range vehicles"

Battery-powered electric cars are doomed to be "short-range vehicles that take you that extra mile, from the office to the train, or home to the train," Lentz said, according to Automotive News. "But for long-range travel primary vehicles, we feel there are better alternatives, such as hybrids and plug-in hybrids, and tomorrow with fuel cells.”

The two statements aren't as contradictory as they at first appear, however, and appear to be aimed more at Tesla, whose $90,000 sports sedan is being hailed as a work of genius while more affordable gas-and-battery hybrids are getting the ho-hum treatment.

This despite the fact that very few consumers can a.) afford a Tesla or b.) want to drive a car that is powered only by a battery. The hardy Prius and other gas-battery duos, which can be had for as little as $20,000, offer excellent gas mileage and reliability by today's standards. Plug-in hybrids like the Chevrolet Volt offer gas-free driving for those whose travels are mostly short while providing gas-powered back-up for longer trips.

Laws of physics

Tomorrow is another matter, however. While Toyota and other automakers are working to improve battery efficiency, they're basically bumping up against the laws of physics and, minus a major and unforeseen breakthrough, appear doomed to making little more than incremental progress.

Hydrogen fuel cells, on the other hand, offer a range more like today's gas-powered cars with zero tailpipe emissions. They're also cheaper to manufacture than gas-battery hybrids and battery-only cars, once the process scales up. 

The big drawback is refueling stations. Right now, there aren't any to speak of. California is building a network of stations and will be Ground Zero for fuel cell cars but a nationwide roll-out appears to be on the distant horizon at this point.

Thus, Toyota and other manufacturers are turning away from long-range efforts to build battery-powered cars towards fuel cells, while continuing to improve and support their gas-battery hybrids in the interim, as in today's announcement of an improved semiconductor.

Message: don't plan to hang onto your gas guzzler until the fuel cell models hit the market. Gas-battery hybrids are the bridge vehicles that will get you from now to the future.   

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GM recalls another 2.4 million vehicles

Four recalls cover everything from seat belts to potential fire hazards

2014 Chevrolet Traverse (GM Photo)In its many apologies and mea culpas after its defective ignition switch debacle, General Motors has said it would sp...

Photo
2014 Chevrolet Traverse (GM Photo)

In its many apologies and mea culpas after its defective ignition switch debacle, General Motors has said it would speed up the process of identifying and rectifying safety defects in its vehicles. It has issued numerous recalls since then, including a huge batch of 2.4 million vehicles in four separate recalls today.

The recalls are for:

  • 1,339,355 Buick Enclave, Chevrolet Traverse, GMC Acadia full-size crossovers from the 2009-2014 model years and Saturn Outlooks from 2009-2010 because front safety lap belt cables can fatigue and separate over time. In a crash, a separated cable could increase the risk of injury to front seat passengers.
  • 1,075,102 of the previous generation 4-speed automatic transmission Chevrolet Malibu and from the 2004-2008 model years and Pontiac G6 from the 2005-2008 model years  because of a shift cable that could wear out over time, resulting in mismatches of the gear position indicated by the shift lever.  
  • 1,402 Cadillac Escalades and Escalade ESVs from the 2015 model year because an insufficiently heated plastic weld that attaches the passenger side air bag to the instrument panel assembly could result in a partial deployment of the air bag in the event of a crash.
  • 58 Chevrolet Silverado HD and GMC Sierra HD full-size pickups from the 2015 model year because retention clips attaching the generator fuse block to the vehicle body can become loose and lead to a potential fire.

There have been no fatalities associated with these recalls, GM said.

More investigators

Photo
2008 Chevrolet Malibu (GM Photo)

GM has added 35 product investigators since the beginning of 2014, and, including those announced today, has initiated 29 safety and non-compliance recalls in the U.S. so far this year, the company said. Two of the recalls involve fewer than 100 vehicles.

In the full-size crossover recall, the flexible steel cable that connects the safety belt to the vehicle at the outside of the front outboard seating positions can fatigue and separate over time as a result of occupant movement into the seat. GM has told dealers they cannot sell new or used models of the vehicles until repairs are made.

The previous generation Malibu, Malibu Maxx and Pontiac G6 were added to an April 29 recall for certain 4-speed transmission Aura models from the 2007-2008 model year. The Malibu and G6 vehicles equipped with a 4-speed automatic transmission have a condition in which the transmission shift cable may fracture. When the fracture occurs, the driver may not be able to select a different gear, remove the key from the ignition or place the transmission in park. 

GM is aware of 18 crashes and one injury among the 4-speed Malibu and G6 population. Dealers will replace the shift cable and attachment bracket at no charge to the customer.

Stop sale

GM stopped sale of the 2015 Escalade and Escalade ESV and sent overnight letters, called and emailed the 224 customers who had taken delivery of the vehicles and instructed them to not let occupants sit in the front passenger seat until the vehicle has been serviced. GM knows of no crashes or injuries associated with the Escalades.

The passenger airbag module is attached to a chute adhered to the backside of the instrument panel with an infrared weld that was not sufficiently heated. The issue has been corrected at the supplier and Escalade production is under way at the Arlington, Texas, Assembly Plant.

In the heavy-duty truck recall, certain 2015 model year Chevrolet Silverado HD and GMC Sierra HD model vehicles equipped with a 220 Amp Generator have a condition where the retention clips that attach a fuse block to the vehicle body can become loose, allowing the fuse block to move out of position and lead to a potential fire. No crashes or injuries are known to be associated with the trucks.

GM expects to take a charge of up to approximately $400 million in the second quarter, primarily for the cost of recall-related repairs announced in the quarter. This amount includes a previously disclosed $200 million charge for the five recalls announced May 16.

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Consumers overly penalized for medical debt, study finds

Current scoring models may also fail to credit customers who repay medical bills

Consumers whose medical debt gets turned over to collections may be unfairly penalized on their credit scores, according to a research report released toda...

PhotoConsumers whose medical debt gets turned over to collections may be unfairly penalized on their credit scores, according to a research report released today by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB).

According to the study, credit scoring models may underestimate the creditworthiness of consumers who owe medical debt in collections. The scoring models also may not be crediting consumers who repay medical debt that has gone to collections.

Photo
Cordray

“Getting sick or injured can put all sorts of burdens on a family, including unexpected medical costs. Those costs should not be compounded by overly penalizing a consumer’s credit score,” said CFPB Director Richard Cordray. “Given the role that credit scores play in consumers’ lives, it’s important that they predict the creditworthiness of a consumer as precisely as possible.”

According to a study by the Federal Reserve Board, over half of all collections on credit reports are associated with medical bills. The vast majority of medical debt reflected on credit records is reported by third-party collection agencies.

In some instances, the consumer may not even be aware of a debt that has been sent to collections or that it is on their credit record. A collection account generally can stay on a report for up to seven years.

Many current credit scoring models do not differentiate between medical and non-medical debt in collections. This is true even though medical debt is different than other unpaid bills reported by collection agencies, such as unpaid phone or utility bills.

Medical debt can result from an event that is unpredictable and costly. Sometimes the debt is caused by billing issues with medical providers or insurers. Complaints to the CFPB indicate that many consumers do not even know they have a medical debt in collections until they get a call from the collections agency or they discover the debt on their credit report.

Today’s study considered 5 million anonymized credit records from September 2011 to September 2013 to assess how well a common credit score predicted a consumer’s future likelihood of paying back debt. To do that, the study looked at the credit histories and scores of consumers in September 2011 and then examined their actual loan payment patterns over the next two years. 

The study found that credit scoring models have not been considering medical debt as well as they could be. It found that if the credit scoring models accounted differently for medical debt in collection and medical debt that is repaid by the borrower, the models could be more precise.

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Study finds e-cigarettes can be a useful quit-smoking tool

British study also finds no evidence e-cigs lead to renewed use of tobacco

E-cigarettes have taken something of a beating recently, as numerous studies have identified negative health consequences from using the nicotine burners w...

PhotoE-cigarettes have taken something of a beating recently, as numerous studies have identified negative health consequences from using the nicotine burners while others have challenged the claim that e-cigs can help people stop smoking.

But now a large survey of smokers in England finds that people who use e-cigs to help them stop smoking are 60% more likely to succeed than those who use other over-the-counter therapies such as nicotine patches or gum.

The study, conducted by University College London and published in Addiction, surveyed 5,863 smokers between 2009 and 2014 who had attempted to quit smoking without the aid of prescription medication or professional support; 20% of people trying to quit with the aid of e-cigarettes reported having stopped smoking conventional cigarettes at the time of the survey.

The research, chiefly funded by Cancer Research UK, suggests that e-cigarettes could play a positive role in reducing smoking rates.

"E-cigarettes could substantially improve public health because of their widespread appeal and the huge health gains associated with stopping smoking," says Prof. Robert West of UCL's Department of Epidemiology & Public Health, senior author of the study.

Even better with professional help

West said, however, that the success rate for those using Britain's National Health Service stop-smoking program was even better -- nearly three times better than do-it-yourself smoking cessation programs.

The researchers noted that, while some use e-cigs to stop smoking, others may want to continue using them indefinitely.

"It is not clear whether long-term use of e-cigarettes carries health risks but from what is known about the contents of the vapour these will be much less than from smoking," West said. 

West also said he sees no sign that e-cigarettes are leading to a resurgence of smoking in the UK.

"Some public health experts have expressed concern that widespread use of e-cigarettes could "re-normalise" smoking. However, we are tracking this very closely and see no evidence of it. Smoking rates in England are declining, quitting rates are increasing and regular e-cigarette use among never smokers is negligible." 

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Bacteria can be frequent flyers too

Study finds some pathogens can live for a week on airplane surfaces

Many consumers dislike flying because they think it's unsanitary to be cooped up in a metal tube with a bunch of strangers for hours at a time.Guess what...

PhotoMany consumers dislike flying because they think it's unsanitary to be cooped up in a metal tube with a bunch of strangers for hours at a time.

Guess what? It's not just the strangers on the plane with you that can be a problem. It's also the ones who were there before you, according to research presented at the annual meeting of the American Society for Microbiology.

Researchers say they've found that disease-causing bacteria, including MRSA and E. coli, can linger on surfaces commonly found in airplane cabins for days, even up to a week.

"Many air travelers are concerned about the risks of catching a disease from other passengers given the long time spent in crowded air cabins," says Kiril Vaglenov, of Auburn University who presented the data. "This report describes the results of our first step in investigating this potential problem."

Looking on the bright side, the research is laying the groundwork for important work to come.

"Our future plans include the exploration of effective cleaning and disinfection strategies, as well as testing surfaces that have natural antimicrobial properties to determine whether these surfaces help reduce the persistence of disease-causing bacteria in the passenger aircraft cabin," said Vaglenov.

Surfaces studied

In their study Vaglenov and his colleagues tested the ability of two pathogens -- methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) and E. coli O157:H7 -- to survive on surfaces commonly found in airplanes.

They obtained six different types of material from a major airline carrier (armrest, plastic tray table, metal toilet button, window shade, seat pocket cloth, and leather), inoculated them with the bacteria and exposed them to typical airplane conditions.

MRSA lasted longest (168 hours) on material from the seat-back pocket while E. coli O157:H7 survived longest (96 hours) on the material from the armrest.

"Our data show that both of these bacteria can survive for days on the selected types of surfaces independent of the type of simulated body fluid present, and those pose a risk of transmission via skin contact," says Vaglenov.

They currently have ongoing trials with other human pathogens including the bacteria that cause tuberculosis.

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Kraft Foods recalls cottage cheese products

Some product ingredients were not stored properly

Kraft Foods Group is recalling select Knudsen Cottage Cheese, Breakstone’s Cottage Cheese, Simply Kraft Cottage Cheese and Daily Chef Cottage Cheese produc...

PhotoKraft Foods Group is recalling select Knudsen Cottage Cheese, Breakstone’s Cottage Cheese, Simply Kraft Cottage Cheese and Daily Chef Cottage Cheese products.

Some ingredients used in these products were not stored in accordance with Kraft’s temperature standards, which could create conditions that could lead to premature spoilage and/or food borne illness.

The affected products all have code dates from May 9, 2014, through July 23, 2014.

Approximately 1.2 million cases of affected product were shipped to customers across the United States.

The following varieties are being recalled:

Product Size
Name of Product
Units/ Case
Code Dates only from Plant 06-245
Package Code
Case Code
3.9ZBREAKSTONE'S COTTAGE DOUBLES PINEAPPLE1209 MAY 2014 to 23 JUL 2014 Plant 06-245 ONLY021000006670 or 0216670000 21000 00667 00
3.9ZBREAKSTONE'S COTTAGE DOUBLES STRAWBERRY1209 MAY 2014 to 23 JUL 2014 Plant 06-245 ONLY021000006687 or 0216680700 21000 00668 00
3.9ZBREAKSTONE'S COTTAGE DOUBLES PEACH1209 MAY 2014 to 23 JUL 2014 Plant 06-245 ONLY021000006694 or 0216690400 21000 00669 00
3.9ZBREAKSTONE'S COTTAGE DOUBLES BLUEBERRY1209 MAY 2014 to 23 JUL 2014 Plant 06-245 ONLY021000006700 or 0216700000 21000 00670 00
3.9ZBREAKSTONE'S COTTAGE DOUBLES APPLE CINNAMON1209 MAY 2014 to 23 JUL 2014 Plant 06-245 ONLY021000006717 or 0216710700 21000 00671 00
3.9ZBREAKSTONE'S COTTAGE DOUBLES RASPBERRY1209 MAY 2014 to 23 JUL 2014 Plant 06-245 ONLY021000007134 or 0217130400 21000 00713 00
3.9ZBREAKSTONE'S COTTAGE DOUBLES MANGO1209 MAY 2014 to 23 JUL 2014 Plant 06-245 ONLY021000007141 or 0217140100 21000 00714 00
4-4ZBREAKSTONE'S COTTAGE CHEESE SMALL CURD 2%809 MAY 2014 to 23 JUL 2014 Plant 06-245 ONLY02100012382700 21000 12382 00
4-4Z

BREAKSTONE'S LOWFAT

COTTAGE CHEESE WITH PINEAPPLE

809 MAY 2014 to 23 JUL 2014 Plant 06-245 ONLY02100002525100 21000 02525 00
16ZSIMPLY KRAFT COTTAGE CHEESE 4% SMALL CURD1209 MAY 2014 to 23 JUL 2014 Plant 06-245 ONLY02100003457400 21000 03457 00
16ZSIMPLY KRAFT COTTAGE CHEESE 2% SMALL CURD1209 MAY 2014 to 23 JUL 2014 Plant 06-245 ONLY02100003462800 21000 03462 00
24Z

SIMPLY KRAFT FAT FREE

COTTAGE CHEESE SMALL CURD

1209 MAY 2014 to 23 JUL 2014 Plant 06-245 ONLY02100003475800 21000 03475 00
24ZSIMPLY KRAFT 2% COTTAGE CHEESE SMALL CURD1209 MAY 2014 to 23 JUL 2014 Plant 06-245 ONLY02100003476500 21000 03476 00
24ZSIMPLY KRAFT 4% COTTAGE CHEESE SMALL CURD1209 MAY 2014 to 23 JUL 2014 Plant 06-245 ONLY02100003477200 21000 03477 00
3.9ZKNUDSEN COTTAGE DOUBLES PEACH1209 MAY 2014 to 23 JUL 2014 Plant 06-245 ONLY049900000093 or 0499093300 49900 00009 00
3.9ZKNUDSEN COTTAGE DOUBLES STRAWBERRY1209 MAY 2014 to 23 JUL 2014 Plant 06-245 ONLY049900000109 or 0499103900 49900 00010 00
3.9ZKNUDSEN COTTAGE DOUBLES PINEAPPLE1209 MAY 2014 to 23 JUL 2014 Plant 06-245 ONLY049900000116 or 0499113600 49900 00011 00
8ZKNUDSEN 2% LOW FAT COTTAGE CHEESE1209 MAY 2014 to 23 JUL 2014 Plant 06-245 ONLY04990000014700 49900 00014 00
8ZKNUDSEN 4% COTTAGE CHEESE SMALL CURD1209 MAY 2014 to 23 JUL 2014 Plant 06-245 ONLY04990000015400 49900 00015 00
3.9ZKNUDSEN COTTAGE CHEESE DOUBLES BLUEBERRY1209 MAY 2014 to 23 JUL 2014 Plant 06-245 ONLY049900000161 or 0499163100 49900 00016 00
3.9ZKNUDSEN COTTAGE DOUBLES RASPBERRY1209 MAY 2014 to 23 JUL 2014 Plant 06-245 ONLY049900000253 or 0499253300 49900 00025 00
3.9ZKNUDSEN COTTAGE DOUBLES MANGO1209 MAY 2014 to 23 JUL 2014 Plant 06-245 ONLY049900000260 or 0499263000 49900 00026 00
4-4ZKNUDSEN LOWFAT COTTAGE CHEESE AND PINEAPPLE809 MAY 2014 to 23 JUL 2014 Plant 06-245 ONLY04990000118200 49900 00118 00
16ZKNUDSEN FREE NON-FAT COTTAGE CHEESE1209 MAY 2014 to 23 JUL 2014 Plant 06-245 ONLY04990010020500 49900 10020 00
4-4ZKNUDSEN LOW FAT COTTAGE CHEESE809 MAY 2014 to 23 JUL 2014 Plant 06-245 ONLY04990010030400 49900 10030 00
32ZKNUDSEN FREE NON-FAT COTTAGE CHEESE609 MAY 2014 to 23 JUL 2014 Plant 06-245 ONLY04990010060100 49900 10060 00
16Z KNUDSEN LOWFAT COTTAGE CHEESE AND PINEAPPLE1209 MAY 2014 to 23 JUL 2014 Plant 06-245 ONLY04990030270800 49900 30270 00
32ZKNUDSEN COTTAGE CHEESE SMALL CURD609 MAY 2014 to 23 JUL 2014 Plant 06-245 ONLY04990034264300 49900 34264 00
16ZKNUDSEN COTTAGE CHEESE SMALL CURD1209 MAY 2014 to 23 JUL 2014 Plant 06-245 ONLY04990034270400 49900 34270 00
16ZKNUDSEN LOW FAT COTTAGE CHEESE1209 MAY 2014 to 23 JUL 2014 Plant 06-245 ONLY04990034506400 49900 34506 00
3LBKNUDSEN LOW FAT COTTAGE CHEESE609 MAY 2014 to 23 JUL 2014 Plant 06-245 ONLY04990034630600 49900 34630 00
32ZKNUDSEN LOW FAT COTTAGE CHEESE609 MAY 2014 to 23 JUL 2014 Plant 06-245 ONLY04990034702000 49900 34702 00
3LBKNUDSEN LOW FAT COTTAGE CHEESE609 MAY 2014 to 23 JUL 2014 Plant 06-245 ONLY07874204348700 78742 04348 00
5LBDAILY CHEF REGULAR COTTAGE CHEESE609 MAY 2014 to 23 JUL 2014 Plant 06-245 ONLY07874204349400 78742 04349 00

Code dates can be found on the bottom of the cup or the top of the package.

Simply Kraft products with a plant code of 36-2158 on the cups or a “W” in the case code (e.g., “W 21 JUL 2014”) are not affected. Only those products with a plant code of 06-245 on the bottom of the cup and case code date without any “W” (e.g., “21 JUL 2014”) subject to the recall.

No other Knudsen, Breakstone’s, Simply Kraft or Daily Chef products are affected.

Consumers who purchased any of these products should not eat them, but return them to the store where purchased for an exchange or full refund.

Consumers may contact Kraft Foods Consumer Relations at 1-800-396-6307 between 9 am and 6 pm (Eastern).

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Transatlantic Foods recalls nearly a-half million pounds of pork products

The company used labels with false “no antibiotic” claims

Transatlantic Foods of New York, is recalling 449,000 pounds of pork products. The company establishments in Scranton, Pa., and Andover, N.J., used labe...

PhotoTransatlantic Foods of New York, is recalling 449,000 pounds of pork products.

The company establishments in Scranton, Pa., and Andover, N.J., used labels with false “no antibiotic” claims. A USDA investigation is underway.

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

The products subject to recall include:

Bacon

  • 10-oz. packages of “Aux Delices des Bois Artisanal Uncured Bacon Herbes de Provence Uncured Bacon” with package code (H-291 through 365or F-001 through F-060)
  • 10-oz. packages of “Aux Delices des Bois Artisanal Uncured Bacon Farmhouse Country Uncured Bacon” with package code (H-291 through 365or F-001 through F-060)
  • 10-oz. packages of “Aux Delices des Bois Artisanal Uncured Bacon Southwestern Style Uncured Bacon” with package code (H-291 through 365or F-001 through F-060)
  • 10-oz. packages of “Aux Delices des Bois Artisanal Uncured Bacon Pepper & Garlic Uncured Bacon” with package code (H-291 through 365or F-001 through F-060)

Fresh Sausage

  • various weight packages of “Aux Delices des Bois Breakfast Sage Sausage” with package code (T-001 through 365; H-001 through 365; or F-001 through F-060)
  • various weight packages of “Chestnut Valley Breakfast Sage Sausage” with package code (T-001 through 365; H-001 through 365; or F-001 through F-060)
  • various weight packages of “Aux Delices des Bois Pork Brooklyn Bratwurst” with package code (T-001 through 365; H-001 through 365; or F-001 through F-060)
  • various weight packages of “Chestnut Valley Pork Brooklyn Bratwurst” with package code (T-001 through 365; H-001 through 365; or F-001 through F-060)
  • various weight packages of “Aux Delices des Bois Brooklyn Lager Cheddar Bratwurst” with package code (T-001 through 365; H-001 through 365; or F-001 through F-060)
  • various weight packages of “Chestnut Valley Brooklyn Lager Cheddar Bratwurst” with package code (T-001 through 365; H-001 through 365; or F-001 through F-060)
  • various weight packages of “Aux Delices des Bois Chorizo Sausage” with package code (T-001 through 365; H-001 through 365; or F-001 through F-060)
  • various weight packages of “Chestnut Valley Chorizo Sausage” with package code (T-001 through 365; H-001 through 365; or F-001 through F-060)
  • various weight packages of “Chestnut Valley Irish Banger Sausage” with package code (T-001 through 365; H-001 through 365; or F-001 through F-060)
  • various weight packages of “Aux Delices des Bois Pork & Broccoli Rabe Sausage” with package code (T-001 through 365; H-001 through 365; or F-001 through F-060)
  • various weight packages of “Chestnut Valley Pork & Broccoli Rabe Sausage” with package code (T-001 through 365; H-001 through 365; or F-001 through F-060)
  • various weight packages of “Aux Delices des Bois Cheese & Parsley Sausage” with package code (T-001 through 365; H-001 through 365; or F-001 through F-060)
  • various weight packages of “Chestnut Valley Cheese & Parsley Sausage” with package code (T-001 through 365; H-001 through 365; or F-001 through F-060)
  • various weight packages of “Aux Delices des Bois Pork & Smokey Bacon Sausage” with package code (T-001 through 365; H-001 through 365; or F-001 through F-060)
  • various weight packages of “Chestnut Valley Pork & Smokey Uncured Bacon Sausage” with package code (T-001 through 365; H-001 through 365; or F-001 through F-060)
  • various weight packages of “Aux Delices des Bois Hot Italian Sausage” with package code (T-001 through 365; H-001 through 365; or F-001 through F-060)
  • various weight packages of “Chestnut Valley Hot Italian Sausage” with package code (T-001 through 365; H-001 through 365; or F-001 through F-060)
  • various weight packages of “Aux Delices des Bois Sweet Italian Sausage” with package code (T-001 through 365; H-001 through 365; or F-001 through F-060)
  • various weight packages of “Chestnut Valley Sweet Italian Sausage” with package code (T-001 through 365; H-001 through 365; or F-001 through F-060)
  • various weight packages of “Chestnut Valley Fresh Kielbasa” with package code (T-001 through 365; H-001 through 365; or F-001 through F-060)

Dried Sausage

  • 6-oz. packages of “Aux Delices des Bois Guanciale” with package code (T-001 through 365; H-001 through 365; or F-001 through F-060)
  • 6-oz. and bulk packages of “Aux Delices des Bois Artisanal Charcuterie Fennel Salami” with package code (T-001 through 365; H-001 through 365; or F-001 through F-060)
  • 6-oz. packages of “Chestnut Valley Charcuterie Fennel Salami” with package code (T-001 through 365; H-001 through 365; or F-001 through F-060)
  • 6-oz. and bulk packages of “Aux Delices des Bois Artisanal Charcuterie Uncured Fennel Salami” with package code (T-001 through 365; H-001 through 365; or F-001 through F-060)
  • 6-oz. packages of “Chestnut Valley Charcuterie Uncured Fennel Salami” with package code (T-001 through 365; H-001 through 365; or F-001 through F-060)
  • bulk packages of “Aux Delices des Bois Artisanal Charcuterie Genoa Salami” with package code (T-001 through 365; H-001 through 365; or F-001 through F-060)
  • 6-oz. packages of “Chestnut Valley Charcuterie Genoa Salami” with package code (T-001 through 365; H-001 through 365; or F-001 through F-060)
  • bulk packages of “Aux Delices des Bois Artisanal Charcuterie Uncured Genoa Salami” with package code (T-001 through 365; H-001 through 365; or F-001 through F-060)
  • 6-oz. packages of “Chestnut Valley Charcuterie Genoa Uncured Salami” with package code (T-001 through 365; H-001 through 365; or F-001 through F-060)
  • 6-oz. packages of “Chestnut Valley Charcuterie Abruzzi” with package code (T-001 through 365; H-001 through 365; or F-001 through F-060)
  • 6-oz. packages of “Chestnut Valley Charcuterie Hot Abruzzi” with package code (T-001 through 365; H-001 through 365; or F-001 through F-060)
  • 6-oz. and bulk packages of “Aux Delices des Bois Artisanal Charcuterie Sopressata” with package code (T-001 through 365; H-001 through 365; or F-001 through F-060)
  • 6-oz. packages of “Chestnut Valley Charcuterie Sopressata” with package code (T-001 through 365; H-001 through 365; or F-001 through F-060)
  • 6-oz. and bulk packages of “Aux Delices des Bois Artisanal Charcuterie Hot Sopressata” with package code (T-001 through 365; H-001 through 365; or F-001 through F-060)
  • 6-oz. packages of “Chestnut Valley Charcuterie Hot Sopressata” with package code (T-001 through 365; H-001 through 365; or F-001 through F-060)
  • 6-oz. and bulk packages of “Aux Delices des Bois Artisanal Charcuterie Truffle Sopressata” with package code (T-001 through 365; H-001 through 365; or F-001 through F-060)
  • 6-oz. packages of “Chestnut Valley Charcuterie Truffle Sopressata” with package code (T-001 through 365; H-001 through 365; or F-001 through F-060)
  • bulk packages of “Aux Delices des Bois Artisanal Charcuterie Toscano” with package code (T-001 through 365; H-001 through 365; or F-001 through F-060)
  • 6-oz. packages of “Chestnut Valley Charcuterie Toscano” with package code (T-001 through 365; H-001 through 365; or F-001 through F-060)
  • 6-oz. and bulk packages of “Aux Delices des Bois Cacciatorini” with package code (T-001 through 365; H-001 through 365; or F-001 through F-060)
  • 6-oz. packages of “Chestnut Valley Charcuterie Cacciatorini” with package code (T-001 through 365; H-001 through 365; or F-001 through F-060)
  • 6-oz. and bulk packages of “Aux Delices des Bois Artisanal Charcuterie Chorizo” with package code (T-001 through 365; H-001 through 365; or F-001 through F-060)
  • 6-oz. packages of “Chestnut Valley Charcuterie Chorizo” with package code (T-001 through 365; H-001 through 365; or F-001 through F-060)
  • bulk packages of “Aux Delices des Bois Artisanal Charcuterie Coppa Picante” with package code (T-001 through 365; H-001 through 365; or F-001 through F-060)
  • bulk packages of “Aux Delices des Bois Artisanal Charcuterie Coppa” with package code (T-001 through 365; H-001 through 365; or F-001 through F-060)
  • bulk packages of “Chestnut Valley Charcuterie Coppa” with package code (T-001 through 365; H-001 through 365; or F-001 through F-060)
  • 8-oz. and bulk packages of “Aux Delices des Bois Artisanal Charcuterie Pancetta” with package code (T-001 through 365; H-001 through 365; or F-001 through F-060)
  • 6-oz. packages of “Chestnut Valley Charcuterie Pancetta” with package code (T-001 through 365; H-001 through 365; or F-001 through F-060)
  • 8-oz. and bulk packages of “Aux Delices des Bois Artisanal Charcuterie Herb Pancetta” with package code (T-001 through 365; H-001 through 365; or F-001 through F-060)
  • 6-oz. packages of “Chestnut Valley Charcuterie Herb Pancetta” with package code (T-001 through 365; H-001 through 365; or F-001 through F-060)
  • bulk packages of “Aux Delices des Bois Artisanal Charcuterie Pancetta Picante” with package code (T-001 through 365; H-001 through 365; or F-001 through F-060)
  • bulk packages of “Aux Delices des Bois Artisanal Charcuterie Uncured Pepperoni” with package code (T-001 through 365; H-001 through 365; or F-001 through F-060)
  • 6-oz. packages of “Chestnut Valley Charcuterie Uncured Pepperoni” with package code (T-001 through 365; H-001 through 365; or F-001 through F-060)
  • 6-oz. packages of “Chestnut Valley Charcuterie Pepperoni” with package code (T-001 through 365; H-001 through 365; or F-001 through F-060)

The recalled products were produced from January 2012, through February 2014, and bear the establishment number “Est. 33806” or “Est. 45100” inside the USDA Mark of Inspection. They were shipped to retail, Internet and wholesale locations nationwide.

Consumers with questions regarding the recall may contact Amy Farges at (212) 330-8285 extension 1003.

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BMW recalls X5 SAV vehicles

The child safety lock may disengage.

BMW of North America is recalling 6,400 model year 2014 X5 SAV vehicles manufactured December 12, 2013, through March 10, 2014, and equipped with the Soft...

PhotoBMW of North America is recalling 6,400 model year 2014 X5 SAV vehicles manufactured December 12, 2013, through March 10, 2014, and equipped with the Soft Close Automatic (SCA) option.

The rear side door lock mechanisms may not have been manufactured to correct tolerances and when the inside door handle is pulled, the previously engaged child safety lock can disengage.

A disengaged child safety lock would allow the rear seat occupant to pull the door handle twice and open the door while the vehicle is parked or in motion, increasing the risk of injury.

BMW will notify owners, and dealers will inspect the rear side door locks and any affected door locks will be replaced, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin in May 2014.

Owners may contact BMW customer service at 1-800-525-7417.

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Wolverine Packing recalls 1.8 million pounds of ground beef products

The beef may be contaminated with E. coli O157:H7

Wolverine Packing Company of Detroit, Mich., is recalling approximately 1.8 million pounds of ground beef products. The products, produced between March 3...

PhotoWolverine Packing Company of Detroit, Mich., is recalling approximately 1.8 million pounds of ground beef products.

The products, produced between March 31, 2014, and April 18, 2014, may be contaminated with E. coli O157:H7.

Based on epidemiological and traceback investigations, 11 case-patients have been identified in 4 states with illness onset dates ranging from April 22, 2014, to May 2, 2014.

A full list of recalled products is available here: http://www.fsis.usda.gov/wps/wcm/connect/3a3ed84a-f07f-4cb5-b321-b07ddba9d650/recall-030-2014-products.pdf?MOD=AJPERES

The products subject to recall bear the establishment number “EST. 2574B” and will have a production date code in the format “Packing Nos: MM DD 14” between “03 31 14” and “04 18 14.”

These products were shipped to distributors for restaurant use in Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, and Ohio. There were no catalog or Internet sales.

Consumers with questions regarding the recall may call (800) 521-1390.

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License-plate scanners make it easy to track your whereabouts

How long should police keep records on you? What about private companies?

Here's a few civil liberty issues worthy of debate: do you have any right to privacy at all outside the confines of your home? Do police have the right to ...

PhotoHere are a few civil liberty issues worthy of debate: do you have any right to privacy at all outside the confines of your home? Do police have the right to record and keep a permanent record of your whereabouts at all times? And if police do have this right, who else does?

These aren't merely dystopian sci-fi scenarios; modern technology makes them already commonplace. To offer just one example: Cameras mounted everywhere from moving police dashboards to stationary highway overpasses see and record every passing vehicle and license plate; many of these cameras also clearly show the driver as well.

There are undeniable crime-fighting advantages to this technology — for example, when a car is reported stolen, the ability to instantly scan all on-the-road license plates in a given area and compare them to the database of recently stolen vehicles makes it much easier to recover the stolen car and prosecute the thief.

But what about the vast majority of cars that were not stolen? And for how long should those recordings be kept?

Last July the ACLU argued that there was no need for police departments to keep license-plate camera recordings any longer than necessary to see whether a give car or license plate is on a “hot list” of stolen or suspicious vehicles.

How many such records police have regarding your whereabouts depends largely on where you live and where you drive. The ACLU's report “You are being tracked: how license plate readers are being used to record Americans' movements” includes a map showing a sampling of “retention policies” among various police departments that use license-plate scanners. In Minnesota, for example, the State Patrol deletes scanned license plate information after 48 hours, and has less than 20,000 “stored plate reads” on file at any given time, out of a total state population of 5.3 million.

Compare that to Jersey City, New Jersey, with a population of only 250,000 people: there, recordings of license plate scans are kept on file for five years, and there's currently an estimated 10 million “stored plate reads” on file.

Other police departments have no limits at all on how long they keep this data on file.

Legislator concerned

PhotoLast week the Los Angeles Times reported that at least one California legislator, state Senator Jerry Hill (D-San Mateo), is concerned enough about private plate-scanning companies (though not necessarily public police departments) not only collecting such information, but selling it to anyone willing to pay.

Hill told The Times that, to illustrate the invasive potential of the scanners, he hired a private detective to track his wife's whereabouts (presumably with her consent). But the detective never had to actually “track” her; he merely paid to acquire her license plate records and learned where she drove and parked—including a particular gym 100 miles from her home.

In another incident, a man in San Leandro filed a public-records request and discovered that the public record includes photographs of his daughters standing in their driveway, alongside over 100 photos of the man's license plate in various locations.

This situation is hardly unique to California. In 2011, for example, Slashdot noted that “plate readers abound in [Washington] DC with little regard for privacy”; at the time over 250 scanners in the city and its suburbs were recording and cross-checking license plate data in real time.

As of 2012, the most recent year for which data is available, over 70 percent of police departments use similar scanners.

Private vendors

Of even greater concern, perhaps, is the notion that police departments who have such scanners might actually set fine-and-enforcement quotas in order to pay for them — or have the private scanner companies set those quotas for them. The Los Angeles Times reports that this might be happening already in Tempe, Arizona:

Last year, [private scanner/data company] Vigilant Solutions offered police in Tempe, Ariz., license plate scanners for free. But there was a catch, according to a copy of the offer obtained by The Times.

To keep the freebies, the Tempe department had to go after at least 25 outstanding "Vigilant provided" warrants each month. In general, such arrangements are paid for by private collection companies, which profit by going after warrants that result from people failing to pay municipal fines, said Brian Shockley, a vice president at Vigilant.

In the document, Vigilant assured the Tempe department that the offer was not an attempt to "unduly influence" its police work. But the company also warned that the free cameras would be taken away if the police department failed to meet its monthly quota.

Tables turned

PhotoHowever much police and other authorities might like keeping permanent records on what local citizens are doing anywhere in range of the scanners, police show far more recalcitrance at keeping tabs on themselves, even when they're on the clock.

Last month, for example, the LA Times ran an article about another police-and-recording issue: ever since last year, police in Los Angeles have been required to record their on-duty activities, via transmitters in their uniform belts, and dashboard cameras that come on anytime the car's siren or emergency lights are activated. However, an investigation showed that up to half of all such police cars mysteriously had their antennas break or go missing, so that the monitoring equipment didn't work.

Of course, this presumed dislike of being recorded is hardly limited to police in Los Angeles, or even in California.

On May 13, a mere three days before the LA Times story about state Senator Mateo and the license-plate scanners, Washington Post criminal-justice blogger Radley Balko wrote that “Despite court rulings, people are still getting arrested for recording on-duty cops,” and said:

… police in Chicopee, Mass., have arrested and charged a woman for allegedly recording her arrest with her cellphone surreptitiously.

When you see one of these stories, please remember that it is perfectly legal to record on-duty police in every state in the country. That includes states that require all parties to a conversation to consent in order for that conversation to be recorded.

Police arresting citizens for recording them while on duty is such a commonplace event, despite its legality, that there are entire websites dedicated to showcasing the most recent examples. At the same time, anti-police-corruption groups like Copblock.org urge people to “Film the Police.”

It's also quite affordable these days to outfit your car with a dashboard camera or other recording equipment of your own – which is helpful if you want to turn the tables on the police who are monitoring and recording your whereabouts, but won't do anything to prevent them monitoring and recording you in the first place.

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AT&T agrees to $49 billion purchase of DirecTV

Initial effect on consumers is expected to be minimal

If you're a DirecTV subscriber, you may soon be an AT&T customer. And if you're an AT&T Uverse customer, you could soon be getting your TV channels...

PhotoIf you're a DirecTV subscriber, you may soon be an AT&T customer. And if you're an AT&T U-verse customer, you could soon be getting your TV channels via satellite.

It's all because AT&T has agreed to buy DirecTV for $49 billion, potentially giving it 26 million cable TV subscribers, second only to Comcast and Time Warner, which would have about 30 million in their proposed merger goes through.

Both deals are contingent on regulatory approval. The AT&T transaction was approved by both the AT&T and DirecTV boards in special Sunday meetings.

AT&T Uverse May 19, 2014, 1:19 a.m.
Consumers rate AT&T Uverse

Consumers were not exactly gleeful about the announcement. 

"Have had a Uverse account for about three years now. The service is continuously interrupted," said Theresa of Buena Park, Calif., in a review submitted to ConsumerAffairs. "I have a pixelated TV almost every week I need to reboot one or more of my 5 boxes. ... ATT is just too big and busy to care that my reception sucks. They will however call write and text me to tell me my bill is ready."

For Christina of Carlsbad, Calif., U-verse interruptions are more than just an inconvenience. She said she had been without cable for two days.

"My box died and when I call Customer Service they said they will mail me one, the need didn't justified a service call. So in the middle of getting ready to evacuate because of the Poinsettia Fire, I couldn't watch the news."

Tom of Minneapolis said he has been a DirecTV customer for more than a decade but had to cancel his service when he moved to a building that doesn't allow satellite dishes.

"I'd rather keep their service, but that sentiment went away when I heard I would be charged $20 for each of the 6 months left on my contract. I would have switched back as soon as I could, but won't go back now. I will no longer be someone who recommends their services either, but will turn on them to become a detractor."

Urge to merge

Why this sudden urge to merge? It's mostly because the TV business is changing faster than anyone expected -- sort of like climate change. Streaming video is becoming a threat to cable -- but only if it can acquire the first-run, top-tier programming that for the last few decades has been tied up by cable channels like HBO.

To acquire the best content, and to have the wherewithal to produce their own first-rate content, distribution companies need to bulk up, so that they can wrestle the best deals out of content producers and produce the revenue they need to brew their own.

This is not a new problem. Ben Franklin dealt with it back in the 1700s. He started with a print shop, then began publishing a newspaper, then a magazine and, finally, got himself appointed Postmaster of Philadelphia, enabling him to give his competitors the dead letter treatment and basically creating America's first vertically integrated media empire. 

It was, says Franklin biographer Walter Isaacson, "an early example of the tension that often still exists between those who create content and those who control distribution." ("Benjamin Franklin: An American Life," Simon & Schuster).

AT&T may be reading from Franklin's primer but the scale is quite a bit bigger. The acquisition would give AT&T a nationwide wireless network, a nationwide satellite video distribution system and 70 million household broadband subscribers. 

Not bad for a company that was broken up into little pieces 32 years ago because it had gotten too big. 

Effect on consumers?

DirecTV May 19, 2014, 1:19 a.m.
Consumers rate DirecTV

What it means for consumers, at least initially, is that you can expect AT&T to begin offering service bundles that include satellite TV. That could mean existing Uverse customers would get their TV shows by satellite while enjoying faster broadband service if cable programming is removed from Uverse.

Nothing much more significant than that is in the cards in the short-term, most observers think. AT&T, of course, spins it as a dream-come-true for consumers.

"DIRECTV is a great fit with AT&T and together we’ll be able to enhance innovation and provide customers new competitive choices for what they want in mobile, video and broadband services," said Randall Stephenson, AT&T Chairman and CEO. "This is a unique opportunity that will redefine the video entertainment industry and create a company able to offer new bundles and deliver content to consumers across multiple screens – mobile devices, TVs, laptops, cars and even airplanes."

AT&T said it would commit to abide by net-neutrality rules, invest in rural broadband and spend at least $9 billion in an upcoming government auction of wireless airwaves.

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Skeptic alert: think twice about “drinkable sunscreen”

You could maybe get the same medicinal benefits by blowing into a flute

I'm about as pale as you can get without crossing the line into albino territory, which means I sunburn ridiculously easily, so I genuinely wish there exis...

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E-cigarettes may increase virulence of drug-resistant bacteria

They're not as bad as tobacco but that doesn't make them healthful

E-cigarettes have been losing much of their initial luster as a safer alternative to tobacco as one study after another finds some new problem with the ele...

PhotoE-cigarettes have been losing much of their initial luster as a safer alternative to tobacco as one study after another finds some new problem with the electronic nicotine burners. 

The latest is something of a shocker: researchers say e-cigarettes appear to increase the virulence of drug- resistant and potentially life-threatening bacteria, while decreasing the ability of human cells to kill these bacteria.

"As health care professionals, we are always being asked by patients, "Would this be better for me?" lead investigator Laura E. Crotty Alexander, M.D., said. "In the case of smoking e-cigarettes, I hated not having an answer. While the answer isn't black and white, our study suggests a response: even if e-cigarettes may not be as bad as tobacco, they still have measurable detrimental effects on health."

Crotty Alexander and other researchers at the VA San Diego Healthcare System (VASDHS) and the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), tested the effects of e-cigarette vapor on live methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) and human epithelial cells.

MRSA commonly colonizes the region of the nasal passage where the bacteria and the cells that line the passage are exposed constantly to inhaled substances such as e-cigarette vapor and cigarette smoke.

"The virulence of MRSA is increased by e-cigarette vapor," Crotty Alexander said. Exposure to e-cigarette vapor increased the virulence of the bacteria. However, she added, the vapor did not make the bacteria as aggressive as cigarette smoke exposure did in parallel studies her group conducted.

Early warnings, not much action

Scientists have been warning of potential health hazards in e-cigs for years but the popularity of the devices has continued to grow amid light regulation.

In 2010, researchers at UC-Riverside concluded that e-cigarettes are potentially harmful and urged regulators to consider removing e-cigarettes from the market until their safety is adequately evaluated.

Last month, a CDC study reported that calls to poison control centers shot up from 1 per month in September 2010 to 215 per month in February 2014. The number of calls per month involving conventional cigarettes did not show a similar increase during the same time period.

Also in April, a study published in the academic journal Clinical Cancer Research finds that the vapor from e-cigarettes damages human cells in much the same way as the smoke from traditional cigarettes. Scientists at Boston University grew a batch of human bronchial cells in the presence of e-cig vapor and another batch in the presence of tobacco smoke. The result: the two batches of cells showed similar patterns of gene expression, which can cause the mutations that lead to cancer.

In March, a University of California San Francisco study found that e-cigs may be a new route to conventional smoking and nicotine addiction. UCSF researchers found that adolescents who used the devices were more likely to smoke cigarettes and less likely to quit smoking. 

Study details

To conduct the e-cigarette vapor experiment, the researchers grew MRSA in culture with vapor concentrations similar to inhalers on the market. They tested first for biochemical changes in the culture known to promote pathogen virulence and then introduced epithelial cell- and alveolar macrophage-killing assays.

The researchers looked at five factors that contribute to MRSA virulence: growth rate, susceptibility to reactive oxygen species (ROS), surface charge, hydrophobicity and biofilm formation. In particular, e-cigarette vapor led to alterations in surface charge and biofilm formation, which conferred greater resistance to killing by human cells and antibiotics.

Crotty Alexander said that one possible contribution to the increased virulence of MRSA was the rapid change in pH induced by e-cigarette vapor. Exposure changed the pH from 7.4 up to 8.4, making the environment very alkalotic for both bacterial and mammalian cells. This alkalosis stresses the cells, giving them a danger signal, leading to activation of defense mechanisms. The bacteria make their surface more positively charged, to avoid binding by the lethal antimicrobial peptides produced by human innate immune cells. The bacteria also form thicker biofilms, increasing their stickiness and making MRSA less vulnerable to attack.

These changes make MRSA more virulent. However, when MRSA is exposed to regular cigarette smoke, their virulence is even greater.

Cigarette smoke induces surface charge changes 10-fold greater than that of e-cigarette exposure, alters hydrophobicity and decreases sensitivity to reactive oxygen species and antimicrobial peptides.

In a mouse model of pneumonia, cigarette smoke exposed MRSA had four-times greater survival in the lungs, and killed 30% more mice than control MRSA. E-cigarette vapor exposed MRSA were also more virulent in mice, with a three-fold higher survival.

Unfortunately, while e-cigarette vapor is increasing bacterial virulence, Crotty Alexander has found that the vapor is also decreasing the ability of human epithelial cells to kill pathogens.

The study was presented at the 2014 American Thoracic Society International Conference.

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Boomer roommates may shape housing market

Seniors finding two can live more cheaply than one

Just out of college in the 1960s and 70s, many Baby Boomers moved into group houses as they were starting jobs and careers. It provided instant friends in ...

PhotoJust out of college in the 1960s and 70s, many Baby Boomers moved into group houses as they were starting jobs and careers. It provided instant friends in a strange city while making rent dollars go farther.

Guess what? Now that Boomers are entering retirement they're doing it again, influencing a significant post-recession housing trend.

AARP recently noted the trend of women over 50 becoming roommates – either buying a place together or sharing the rent of an apartment or house. Just as when they were younger the move has a dual purpose – camaraderie and economy.

By AARP's count 4 million women over age 50 live in U.S. households with at least two women age 50-plus, and that number can be expected to rise. The National Center for Family & Marriage Research estimates 1 out of 3 Boomers will likely grow old without a spouse. Women tend to live longer than men and over the last quarter century the 50-plus divorce rate has doubled.

Plethora of websites

Other evidence of this Boomer housing trend can be found online, with the growth in websites matching up potential Boomer roommates. Roommates4Boomers.com, a site specifically designed for women over 50, launched in April.

Founder Karen Venable says most women drawn to the site so far are motivated by a desire to show their “radical” side and reinvent themselves. Companionship and economics, she says, figure less into the equation.

"This is so much in keeping with what we know about Boomer women today," Venable said. "Over-50 women today are fierce, independent, active, connected, and believe in having fun."

Venable says 8,000 Boomers turn 65 every day so this roommate trend is only going to grow. One in 3 Boomer women are single and 1 in 6 have no children.

Not exactly new

While unrelated seniors living together is a growing trend, the practice is not exactly new. Don't forget the 1980s television comedy “Golden Girls,” featuring four senior women living together. In the 1970s there was “The Odd Couple.”

The New York Foundation for Senior Citizens is also no newcomer on the scene. It has operated its Home Sharing program for three decades, matching more than 2,000 people in New York City.

Foundation officials say the program has allowed many seniors to remain in their homes in spite of rapidly rising rents and real estate taxes in the nation's most expensive housing market.

Senior organizations have begun organizing meetings where women interested in roommates gather. Venable says such face-to-face encounters may be valuable for information and support but could prove awkward.

"Frankly, using group meetings to find roommates makes me uncomfortable," she said. "It would be kind of like going to a singles bar. You put yourself out there as wanting a roommate. It can be awkward if one woman is interested in pairing up and the other isn't."

Like online dating

Selecting roommates online can be a lot like online dating, with the same amount of caution and discretion required. Sooner or later you going to have that face-to-face encounter.

Selecting a roommate when you're in your 50's or 60's isn't all that different from selecting a roommate when you were in your 20's. Personality and compatibility are still very important.

In the meantime, builders are undoubtedly taking notice of this trend. Expect to see more homes and condos with two or more master suites in one-level layouts, providing ample personal space for two independent Baby Boomers.

In fact, we may already be seeing it. The Commerce Department reports that residential construction activity surged in April. Housing starts for single-family homes were up only slightly. There was a big increase, however, in apartment and condo construction.

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Marijuana involvement in fatal accidents increases in Colorado

Percentage of stoned drivers in crashes more than doubled from 1994 to 2011

Marijuana may help reduce frustration with traffic congestion but it's not doing much to increase traffic safety in Colorado, where a new study finds a dra...

PhotoMarijuana may help reduce frustration with traffic congestion but it's not doing much to increase traffic safety in Colorado, where a new study finds a dramatic increase in the proportion of marijuana drivers involved in fatal traffic accidents since the commercialization of medical marijuana there in mid-2009.

University of Colorado School of Medicine researchers used data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's Fatality Analysis Reporting System covering 1994 to 2011. They analyzed fatal motor vehicle crashes in Colorado and in the 34 states that did not have medical marijuana laws.

They found that fatal motor vehicle crashes in Colorado involving at least one driver who tested positive for marijuana accounted for 4.5 percent in the first six months of 1994; this percentage increased to 10 percent in the last six months of 2011. 

The increase in Colorado was significantly greater compared to the 34 non-medical marijuana states from mid-2009 to 2011. The researchers also reported no significant changes over time in the proportion of drivers in a fatal motor vehicle crash who were alcohol-impaired within Colorado and comparing Colorado to the 34 non-medical marijuana states.

Stacy Salomonsen-Sautel, Ph.D, who was a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Pharmacology, is the lead author of the study, which is available online in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence. Christian Hopfer, MD, associate professor of psychiatry, is the senior author.

While the study does not determine cause and effect relationships, such as whether marijuana-positive drivers caused or contributed to the fatal crashes, it indicates a need for better education and prevention programs to curb impaired driving.

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Windshield washer fluid may carry Legionnaire's disease bacteria

Researchers found it in nearly 75% of school buses tested

Windshield washer fluid a source of LegionnairesA form of bacteria responsible for respiratory illness, including the deadly pneumonia known as Legionnai...

PhotoYou probably don't think of windshield washer fluid as pleasant but it may come as a surprise to learn that it is a possible source of the bacteria that can cause Legionnaire's disease, a severe form of pneumonia.

But that's what researchers reported recently at the annual meeting of the American Society for Microbiology as they outlined a study that found the bacteria in nearly 75% of school buses tested in one district in Arizona.

"Washer fluid spray can release potentially dangerous numbers of these bacteria into the air. These results suggest that automobiles may serve as a source of transmission for Legionella infections," said Otto Schwake, a doctoral student at Arizona State University, who presented the research.

Legionella bacteria are commonly associated with the cooling towers found in large-scale air conditioners and hot tubs. They are not spread from person to person but instead are transmitted via mist or vapor containing the bacteria. The name comes from a large group of American Legion members who became ill at a 1976 convention at the Bellevue-Stratford Hotel in Philadelphia.

The results presented come from a series of experiments conducted in the summer of 2012. Schwake and his colleagues attempted to grow Legionella bacteria in a variety of different washer fluid preparations.

They found that the bacterial concentrations increased over time and they were able to maintain stable populations for up to 14 months. In the second study, they tested the washer fluid from school buses in central Arizona and found culturable Legionella in approximately 75% of the samples.

"This study is the first to detect high levels of Legionella in automobiles or aerosolized by washer fluid spray," says Schwake. "While potential transmission of a deadly respiratory disease from a source as common as automobile windshield washing systems is significant, the study also points to the fact people can be exposed to pathogens -- particularly those occurring naturally in the environment -- in previously unknown and unusual ways."

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Buick Lacrosse and Chevy Malibu vehicles with braking issue recalled

Brake rotors intended for the rear of the car may have been installed on the front

General Motors is recalling 8,208 model year 2014 Buick Lacrosse vehicles manufactured January 29, 2014, through March 31, 2014, and 2014 Chevrolet Malibu ...

PhotoGeneral Motors is recalling 8,208 model year 2014 Buick Lacrosse vehicles manufactured January 29, 2014, through March 31, 2014, and 2014 Chevrolet Malibu vehicles manufactured February 7, 2014, through March 31, 2014, and equipped with 17-inch front brake rotors.

The vehicles may have had brake rotors intended for the rear of the car accidentally installed on the front. The rear rotors are thinner and may result in a front brake pad detaching from the caliper. That could result in a sudden reduction in braking, lengthening the distance required to stop the vehicle and increasing the risk of a crash.

GM will notify owners, and dealers will inspect the front brake rotors, and install the correct rotors with new brake pads, as necessary, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin around May 29, 2014.

Owners may contact General Motors customer service at 1-800-521-7300 (Buick) or 1-800-222-1020 (Chevrolet). GM's number for this recall is 14128.

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Transatlantic Foods recalls pork and poultry products

The products did not receive full USDA inspection

Transatlantic Foods of New York is recalling approximately 222,000 pounds of pork and poultry products that did not receive the full benefit of inspection,...

PhotoTransatlantic Foods of New York is recalling approximately 222,000 pounds of pork and poultry products that did not receive the full benefit of inspection, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) announced today.

The company operates two establishments -- one in Scranton, Pa. and another in Andover, N.J. The Andover establishment had not been issued a USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) Grant of Inspection. Thus, FSIS inspection program personnel were not assigned to the establishment.

However, it was producing product and using labels approved for use by, and bearing the establishment number of, the Scranton, Pa., establishment. Products produced without inspection are considered unfit for human consumption and must be recalled. In addition, products were produced in undisclosed locations without the benefit of inspection.

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

The products subject to recall include:

Duck fat

  • 7-oz. tubs of “Aux Delices des Bois Natural Duck Fat” with package code (T-001 through 365; H-001 through 365; or F-001 through 136)

Bacon

  • 10-oz.  packages of “Aux Delices des Bois Artisanal Uncured Bacon Herbes de Provence Uncured Bacon” with package code (T-001 through 365 or H-001 through 290)
  • 10-oz. packages of “Aux Delices des Bois Artisanal Uncured Bacon Farmhouse Country Uncured Bacon” with package code (T-001 through 365 or H-001 through 290)
  • 10-oz. packages of “Aux Delices des Bois Artisanal Uncured Bacon Southwestern Style Uncured Bacon” with package code (T-001 through 365 or H-001 through 290)
  • 10-oz. packages of “Aux Delices des Bois Artisanal Uncured Bacon Pepper & Garlic Uncured Bacon” with package code (T-001 through 365 or H-001 through 290)

Fresh sausage

  • various weight packages of “Aux Delices des Bois Breakfast Sage Sausage” with package code (T-001 through 365 or H-001 through 290)
  • various weight packages of “Chestnut Valley Breakfast Sage Sausage” with package code (T-001 through 365 or H-001 through 290)
  • various weight packages of “Aux Delices des Bois Brooklyn Lager Cheddar Bratwurst” with package code (T-001 through 365 or H-001 through 290)
  • various weight packages of “Chestnut Valley Brooklyn Lager Cheddar Bratwurst” with package code (T-001 through 365 or H-001 through 290)
  • various weight packages of “Aux Delices des Bois Pork Brooklyn Bratwurst” with package code (T-001 through 365 or H-001 through 290)
  • various weight packages of “Chestnut Valley Pork Brooklyn Bratwurst” with package code (T-001 through 365 or H-001 through 290)
  • various weight packages of “Aux Delices des Bois Chorizo Sausage” with package code (T-001 through 365 or H-001 through 290)
  • various weight packages of “Chestnut Valley Chorizo Sausage” with package code (T-001 through 365 or H-001 through 290)
  • various weight packages of “Chestnut Valley Irish Banger Sausage” with package code (T-001 through 365 or H-001 through 290)
  • various weight packages of “Aux Delices des Bois Pork & Broccoli Rabe Sausage” with package code (T-001 through 365 or H-001 through 290)
  • various weight packages of “Chestnut Valley Pork & Broccoli Rabe Sausage” with package code (T-001 through 365 or H-001 through 290)
  • various weight packages of “Aux Delices des Bois Cheese & Parsley Sausage” with package code (T-001 through 365 or H-001 through 290)
  • various weight packages of “Chestnut Valley Cheese & Parsley Sausage” with package code (T-001 through 365 or H-001 through 290)
  • various weight packages of “Aux Delices des Bois Pork & Smokey Bacon Sausage” with package code (T-001 through 365 or H-001 through 290)
  • various weight packages of “Chestnut Valley Pork & Smokey Uncured Bacon Sausage” with package code (T-001 through 365 or H-001 through 290)
  • various weight packages of “Aux Delices des Bois Hot Italian Sausage” with package code (T-001 through 365 or H-001 through 290)
  • various weight packages of “Chestnut Valley Hot Italian Sausage” with package code (T-001 through 365 or H-001 through 290)
  • various weight packages of “Aux Delices des Bois Sweet Italian Sausage” with package code (T-001 through 365 or H-001 through 290)
  • various weight packages of “Chestnut Valley Sweet Italian Sausage” with package code (T-001 through 365 or H-001 through 290)
  • various weight packages of “Chestnut Valley Fresh Kielbasa” with package code (T-001 through 365 or H-001 through 290)
  • various weight packages of “Aux Delices des Bois Chicken Breakfast Sausage” with package code (T-001 through 365 or H-001 through 290)
  • various weight packages of “Chestnut Valley Chicken Breakfast Sausage” with package code (T-001 through 365 or H-001 through 290)
  • various weight packages of “Aux Delices des Bois Chipotle Honey Flavored Chicken Sausage” with package code (T-001 through 365 or H-001 through 290)
  • various weight packages of “Chestnut Valley Chipotle Honey Flavored Chicken Sausage” with package code (T-001 through 365 or H-001 through 290)
  • various weight packages of “Aux Delices des Bois Chicken Spinach & Feta Sausage” with package code (T-001 through 365 or H-001 through 290)
  • various weight packages of “Chestnut Valley Chicken Spinach & Feta Sausage” with package code (T-001 through 365 or H-001 through 290)
  • various weight packages of “Aux Delices des Bois Buffalo Style Chicken Sausage” with package code (T-001 through 365 or H-001 through 290)
  • various weight packages of “Chestnut Valley Buffalo Style Chicken Sausage” with package code (T-001 through 365 or H-001 through 290)
  • various weight packages of “Chestnut Valley Turkey Breakfast Sausage” with package code (T-001 through 365 or H-001 through 290)
  • various weight packages of “Aux Delices des Bois Chicken Marsala & Mushrooms Sausage” with package code (T-001 through 365 or H-001 through 290)
  • various weight packages of “Chestnut Valley Chicken Marsala & Mushrooms Sausage” with package code (T-001 through 365 or H-001 through 290)
  • various weight packages of “Aux Delices des Bois Chicken Apple Sausage” with package code (T-001 through 365 or H-001 through 290)
  • various weight packages of “Chestnut Valley Chicken Apple Sausage” with package code (T-001 through 365 or H-001 through 290)

The duck fat included in the recall was produced from January 2012, through May 2014, and bears the establishment number “P-39954.”

The remaining products were produced prior to October 18, 2013, and bear the establishment number “Est. 33806” or “Est. 45100,” “P-33806” or “P-45100” inside the USDA Mark of Inspection.

These products were shipped to retail, internet and wholesale locations nationwide.

Consumers with questions regarding the recall can contact Amy Farges at (212) 330-8285 extension 1003.

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Nissan recalls 2014 LEAF vehicles with structural issues

The front structural member assembly may be missing welds

Nissan North America is recalling 211 model year 2014 LEAF vehicles manufactured February 28, 2014, through March 12, 2014. The front structural member a...

PhotoNissan North America is recalling 211 model year 2014 LEAF vehicles manufactured February 28, 2014, through March 12, 2014.

The front structural member assembly may be missing welds, which could reduce the structural integrity of the vehicle if the vehicle is involved in a crash, increasing the risk of injury to the vehicle's occupants.

Nissan will notify owners, and dealers will inspect to see if any of the welds are missing. Any vehicle missing welds will be replaced, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin by mid-June 2014.

Owners may contact Nissan at 1-800-647-7261.

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Hyundai Tucsons recalled for air bag problems

The air bag assembly installed in the steering wheel may come loose from its mounting

Hyundai Motor Company is recalling 137,500 model year 2011-2014 Hyundai Tucson vehicles manufactured January 3, 2011, through December 23, 2013. The air ...

PhotoHyundai Motor Company is recalling 137,500 model year 2011-2014 Hyundai Tucson vehicles manufactured January 3, 2011, through December 23, 2013.

The air bag assembly installed in the steering wheel in the affected vehicles may come loose from its mounting, which could increase the risk of injury to the driver in the event of a crash.

Hyundai will notify owners, and dealers will inspect and tighten the bolts that secure the driver's air bag assembly, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin by the end of June 2014.

Owners may contact Hyundai customer service at 1-800-633-5151. Hyundai's number for this recall is 118.

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Exmark recalls Quest ZRT riding mowers

The riding mower’s steering assembly can fail

Exmark Manufacturing of Beatrice, Neb., is recalling about 5,300 Quest ZRT riding mowers. The riding mower’s steering assembly can fail and cause riders t...

PhotoExmark Manufacturing of Beatrice, Neb., is recalling about 5,300 Quest ZRT riding mowers in the U.S. and Canada.

The riding mower’s steering assembly can fail and cause riders to lose steering, posing a crash hazard.

There have been nine incidents with the riding mowers, including one back injury.

This recall involves 2009 and 2010 model year Exmark Quest ZRT mid-mount riding mowers. The mowers are red and gray. Exmark is printed on the side and Quest is printed on the front of the riding mowers. The model and serial numbers are on a metal plate behind the seat on the left hand side. The following models and serial number ranges are included: 

Recalled Exmark Quest ZRT Riding Mowers

Model number

Serial number range

Size of mowing deck

QST20BE422

814303 through 891973

42 inches

QST22BE482

803664 through 895485

48 inches

QST24BE522

810131 through 887319

52 inches

About 2,200 Quest 2009 and 2010 ZRT riding mowers were recalled in May 2012 for a different hazard.

The mowers, manufactured in the U.S., were sold at hardware, lawn and garden, rental equipment stores and others nationwide from April 2009, through October 2010, for between $4,600 and $6,000.

Consumers should immediately stop using the recalled mowers and contact an Exmark dealer for a free repair.

Consumers may contact Exmark at (800) 667-5296 from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. CT Monday through Friday.

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BMC recalls three models of bicycles

The bicycle forks can crack or break above the brake mount

BMC of San Diego, Calif., is recalling about 160 Alpenchallenge, Masschallenge and Urbanchallenge bicycles with Aprebic forks The bicycle forks can crack o...

PhotoBMC of San Diego, Calif., is recalling about 160 Alpenchallenge, Masschallenge and Urbanchallenge bicycles with Aprebic forks

The bicycle forks can crack or break above the brake mount posing a fall hazard to consumers.

There are no reports of incidents or injuries.

The recall involves certain models of Alpenchallenge, Urbanchallenge and Masschallenge bicycles equipped with full carbon Aprebic bike forks model ACC-A704DN50B.  The fork model number is printed behind the top arch. Specific bicycle models included in the recall are Alpenchallenge AC01 105 Tiagra, Alpenchallenge AC01 Rival, Masschallenge MC01 Team and the Urbanchallenge UC01 Alfine 11. Both the Alpenchallenge and Urbanchallenge bicycles include the 2012 and 2013 model years. The Masschallenge bicycle includes model year 2012. The model year is printed on the top tube of the bike. The bicycles come in black and yellow, or black and red color combinations.

The bicycles, manufactured in Taiwan, were sold at authorized BMC bicycle dealers nationwide from December 2011 to June 2013 for about $1,000.

Consumers should immediately stop using these recalled bicycles immediately and contact their local BMC authorized dealer for instructions on receiving a replacement fork.

Consumers may contact BMC at (800) 819-4262 from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. ET Monday through Friday.




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GM agrees to $35 million fine in ignition-switch case

The company also agrees to speed up its handling of safety defects

Some things need to be handled quickly. Just ask General Motors, which today agreed to pay a $35 million fine and streamlining its internal recall process....

PhotoSome things need to be handled quickly. Just ask General Motors, which today agreed to pay a $35 million fine and streamlining its internal recall process. The fine is the maximum allowed by law.

The fine was announced by U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, after a federal investigation of GM's handling of faulty ignition switches in Chevrolet Cobalts, Saturn Ions and other models.

“Today’s announcement puts all manufacturers on notice that they will be held accountable if they fail to quickly report and address safety-related defects,” Foxx said in prepared remarks. 

“We have learned a great deal from this recall,” GM CEO Mary Barra said. “We will now focus on the goal of becoming an industry leader in safety. We will emerge from this situation a stronger company.”

The company is also accruing fines of $7,000 per day for not answering all of the questions put to it by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). The company says it is waiting for its internal investigation to be complete before it tries to answer all of the questions.

GM had earlier conceded that it knew about the problem in 2004 and was also aware of at least 13 deaths that have been attributed to the faulty switches, which can cause the engine to shut off without warning, leaving occupants without airbags and other safety features.

It took GM nearly a decade to recall the 2.6 million cars with the defective switch. Since then, it has recalled millions of other models to fix assorted other problems. 

Photo
Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.) displays a GM ignition switch during a Congressional hearing. (Photo via YouTube)



Tougher penalties sought

While today's $35 million fine is a record, Foxx urged Congress to increase the penalties that could be levied in similar cases to $300 million.

He said that would send "an even stronger message that delays will not be tolerated.”

Federal law requires all auto manufacturers to notify NHTSA within five business days of determining that a safety-related defect exists or that a vehicle is not in compliance with federal motor vehicle safety standards and to promptly conduct a recall. 

“No excuse, process, or organizational structure will be allowed to stand in the way of any company meeting their obligation to quickly find and fix safety issues in a vehicle,” said NHTSA Acting Administrator David Friedman. “It’s critical to the safety of the driving public that manufacturers promptly report and remedy safety-related defects that have the potential to lead to deaths or injuries on our nation’s highways.”

The problem

The issue with the ignition switch is that it can shut down the engine if it is jiggled or bumped, allowing the switch to move from "On" to "Acc" (accessorry). When that happens, the engine shuts down, the airbags become inoperable and the driver loses such safety features as power assist to the brakes and power steering.

As replacement parts begin to trickle in to dealers, GM has advised owners of the recalled vehicles to avoid putting more than one key on their key ring, to reduce the weight on the switch. It also advised drivers not to bump the switch with their knee -- advice that's not always easy to follow, especially for tall drivers. 

"Old GM"

While dealing with the federal investigation of its actions, GM has also been dealing with a barrage of class action and mass tort lawsuits. It has been trying to deflect those lawsuits using a strategy related to the company's bankruptcy in 2009, basically claiming that today's General Motors is not the same company that built the Cobalts and Ions.

That was "Old GM," the predecessor to today's "New GM," the company argued. A bankruptcy court ruling on that issue is pending.

 

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Researchers: neighbor's foreclosure may spike your blood pressure

Researchers continue to find contributors to hypertension

Smoking can cause high blood pressure. So can drinking too much alcohol. Being overweight and consuming too much sodium also greatly increases your risk....

PhotoSmoking can cause high blood pressure. So can drinking too much alcohol. Being overweight and consuming too much sodium also greatly increases your risk.

Beyond that, doctors have been puzzled when hypertension shows up in people who don't smoke, drink, or have poor diets. But gradually new potential triggers are emerging.

Researchers publishing their results in the American Heart Association journal Circulation have advanced the theory that living on a street with a foreclosed home can cause your blood pressure to rise.

Specifically, the researchers say that a foreclosed property may cause a neighbor's systolic blood pressure, the top number in a blood pressure reading, to rise.

Stressing over the neighborhood

Stress has always been a hypertension risk factor but the study takes health in a new direction. Instead of blood pressure being influenced by an individual's personal behavior, the researchers suggest that environmental factors play a bigger role that previously believed.

It may have taken the 2008 housing collapse to bring it to light. Because of the massive scale of the U.S. housing crisis public health officials have tried to reach a better understanding of how foreclosure activity might impact health.

The number of foreclosures spiked in the United States in 2007-10 when more than 6 million homeowners fell behind on their mortgages and banks took ownership of the homes, or foreclosed.

Researchers looked at data from 1,740 participants in 1987-2008 who were part of the Framingham, Mass., Heart Study. They distinguished between bank-owned foreclosures that typically sit vacant and foreclosures purchased by third-party buyers, which are generally put into productive use.

Proximity matters

They found that for every vacant foreclosed property within 328 feet of a participant's home there was an average increase of 1.71 mm Hg in systolic blood pressure. If a property was purchased and occupied there was no difference.

The findings have renewed focus on the role that stress plays in hypertension.

"The increases in blood pressure observed could be due in part to unhealthy stress from residents' perception that their own properties are less valuable, their streets less attractive or safe and their neighborhoods less stable," said Mariana Arcaya, study lead author and Yerby Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Harvard Center for Population and Development Studies. "Safety could also be a concern that affects their ability to exercise in these neighborhoods."

Increased awareness needed

The takeaway from this, according to Arcaya, is that healthcare providers should be aware of real estate trends in the areas they serve. Patients living in neighborhoods still recovering from the housing crisis may need extra monitoring.

High blood pressure, often called “the silent killer, affects nearly 76 million people in the United States. It's a major contributor to heart disease and stroke.

While stress is a risk factor that should get more attention, doctors continue to link the condition lifestyle choices, particularly diet.

Phosphate link

Scientists in Austria recently identified a hormone, FGF23 (Fibroblast Growth Factor 23), as a trigger for elevated blood pressure. When the level of FGF23 is raised, as through a high phosphate diet, calcium and sodium accumulate, putting strain on the cardiovascular system.

Foods that are rich in phosphate – things like cheese, Parmesan, cola, baking powder and most processed foods – are triggers for FGF23.

When large quantities of phosphates are consumed, production of the FGF23 hormone is stimulated, which has a negative effect on the cardiovascular system.

Reinhold Erben, the head of the Unit of Physiology, Pathophysiology and Biophysics at the Vetmeduni Vienna, says consumers should control their phosphate consumption, since it is now shown to be important to health.

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Homemade competes with 'store-bought' on price and quality

You can make some things just as well as a factory

Here's a wild thought. Maybe one reason the economy has never really taken off since the Great Recession is consumers are just buying less stuff. Maybe the...

Photo
A commercial stink bug trap

Here's a wild thought. Maybe one reason the economy has never really taken off since the Great Recession is consumers are just buying less stuff. Maybe they're doing without or making things themselves.

Look at the incredible popularity of websites like Pinterest. Millions of consumers use it to learn how to make all kinds of products, from food to apparel.

Consumers are drawn to it because they believe the homemade version costs less and is better than what you would buy in a store.

Research project

Researchers at Virginia Tech decided to put that theory to the test.

For their empirical study researchers in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences decided to build a homemade stink bug trap and compare it to one you could buy in a store.

They felt the choice was timely since stink bugs may be an especially annoying pest this season. With warmer weather they are just now coming out of the crevices of homes where they have been hiding out during the winter months.

Hardware stores sell stinkbug traps, some of which can be rather pricey. While some models cost around $25 others can cost $50 or more. The objective is to lure the bugs into the trap where they can be killed.

Homemade design

PhotoThe research team came up with a homemade design that it found to be a lot cheaper and more effective. It consisted of a foil roasting pan, water, dish soap and a light placed over the pan to attract the bugs.

According to the researchers the homemade trap eliminated 14 times more stink bugs than store-bought traps. The only cost was the price of a roasting pan, dish soap, and a light, all which homeowners may already own.

To carry out the study, the researchers enlisted the help of homeowners who were annoyed by the infestation of stink bugs in their houses. They were assigned to evaluate different types of traps for ridding homes of bugs.

Other advantages

The traps were used in 16 houses over two years. The researchers found the home made versions were not only more effective but had clear advantages.

"Currently there are no in-home insecticides labeled for use against brown marmorated stink bugs, so that presented us with a challenge," John Aigner, a doctoral student in the Department of Entomology. “The homemade trap is not only inexpensive, it is also pesticide-free.

Making your own stink bug trap might be cheap and effective but not everyone has a problem with insects. But making a product yourself instead of buying it clearly has appeal, especially when it comes to food.

Greatist.com features “45 Healthy Foods to Make and Never Buy Again,” including pita chips. It features a recipe for pita chips that it says costs 41 cents per 2 ounce serving, compared to 77 cents for a commercial brand.

Natural Living Ideas offers advice on replacing 10 common household products with Castile soap – everything from dog shampoo to dishwasher soap.

Trends come and go, but Trend Reports suggests the do-it-yourself trend has legs. In fact, it's becoming a growing industry.

“While it was the recession that gave rise to DIY projects, it looks like this industry is gaining ground,” the company says.

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Scam alert! No, Facebook isn't closing your account this weekend

The Facebook shutdown scam is back, says the Better Business Bureau

The Better Business Bureau reported on Friday that a venerable old scam has made its reappearance on Facebook this week: the “shutdown scam,” w...

PhotoThe Better Business Bureau reported on Friday that a venerable old scam has made its reappearance on Facebook this week: the “shutdown scam,” where you see what looks like an official-looking Facebook notice, possibly even from Mark Zuckerberg himself, claiming that your Facebook account will be deactivated in a couple of days (May 18 is the specific date mentioned in the BBB's latest warning) and the only way you can save your account is if you “register” it.

So you either click on the offered link, or copy and paste an address into your browser, and you end up on a third-party site answering questions that give the scammers all the information they need to take over your Facebook account.

If you see such a come-on announcement on your Facebook feed, you can report it to legitimate Facebook authorities through their spam-report link here.

That link is only specific to Facebook, but the BBB also offered a piece of advice useful to avoid scams on all websites, not just Facebook: “Don't take the bait. Stay away from promotions of 'exclusive,' 'shocking' or 'sensational' footage. If it sounds too outlandish to be true (um, like a gigantic website shutting down on a week's notice), it is probably a scam. “

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Warning: hookah bars may be hazardous to your health

Lots of nicotine and potentially harmful chemicals are ingested

It's easy to think that if you don't hold a burning piece of paper wrapped around some tobacco to your mouth and inhale, you're doing something that health...

PhotoIt's easy to think that if you don't hold a burning piece of paper wrapped around some tobacco to your mouth and inhale, you're doing something that's healthful -- or at least not as harmful as smoking cigarettes.

But a new study finds that young adults who smoked water pipes in hookah bars had elevated levels of nicotine, cotinine, tobacco-related cancer-causing agents, and volatile organic compounds (VOC) in their urine, and this may increase their risk for cancer and other chronic diseases.

"This study reports systemic intake of tobacco-specific nitrosamines and VOCs after a typical water pipe-smoking session in a hookah bar setting, thus making the findings generalizable to most water pipe users in the United States," said Gideon St.Helen, Ph.D., postdoctoral fellow in the Division of Clinical Pharmacology and the Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education at the University of California, San Francisco.

The study is published in Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention, a journal of the American Association for Cancer Research.

After a single evening of water pipe smoking in a hookah bar, young men and women had in their urine a 73-fold increase in nicotine; fourfold increase in cotinine; twofold increase in NNAL, a breakdown product of a tobacco-specific nitrosamine, NNK, which can cause lung and pancreatic cancers; and 14 to 91% increase in the breakdown products of VOC such as benzene and acrolein that are known to cause cancer and cardiovascular and respiratory diseases.

"There was also a substantial increase in nicotine levels, which raises concerns about the potential addictiveness of water pipe smoking and possible effects on the developing brains of children and youths who use water pipes," added St.Helen. "Water pipe smoking is generally perceived to be a safe alternative to cigarette smoking, even for children and youths. Our study shows that water pipe use, particularly chronic use, is not risk-free."

"I have seen entire families, including young children, smoking water pipes. I have even been offered a smoke by my friend who thought water pipe smoking was 'totally safe,'" St.Helen added. "Our study provides evidence that water pipe smoking leads to significant intake of tobacco-related addictive and harmful substances, and is therefore not without risk, particularly among children and youths."

Study details

St.Helen and colleagues recruited 55 healthy, experienced water pipe smokers, ages 18 to 48 years, to the study. Participants were instructed to refrain from any type of smoking for a week.

At the end of this period they provided a "before" urine sample and smoked water pipes at a hookah bar of their choice in the San Francisco Bay area. Soon after the visit, they provided the "after" urine sample, and filled a form to provide detailed information on their smoking session including total time spent smoking, number of bowls smoked, and number of shared users. They also provided a first-voided urine sample the next morning, which helped researchers estimate the clearance of the tobacco-related chemicals of interest.

The study participants spent on average 74 minutes smoking water pipes and smoked an average 0.6 bowls of water pipe tobacco per person.

The researchers found that the elevated levels of nicotine, cotinine, and NNAL, which were detected immediately after the water pipe-smoking session, remained significantly elevated in the next-day urine samples, compared with the "before" samples: Nicotine was 10.4-fold higher; cotinine, 3.2-fold; and NNAL, 2.2-fold.

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New York State might outlaw microbeads in cosmetics

Environmental concerns lead to five states considering bead bans

The New York Attorney General is calling for a statewide ban on the use of “microbeads” in cosmetic and beauty products, and earlier this week ...

Photo
Photo source: Etsy

The New York Attorney General is calling for a statewide ban on the use of “microbeads” in cosmetic and beauty products, and earlier this week released an environmental report, “Unseen Threat: How Microbeads Harm New York Waters, Wildlife, Health and Environment” (available in .pdf form here).

Though the report of course mentions problems specific to New York State, the general complaints are valid everywhere.

The problem with microbeads – minuscule balls of plastic used in exfoliating face creams – is that they never go away. They're non-biodegradeable, so they won't break down. They're small enough to slip through filters at wastewater-treatment plants, which mean they ultimately end up going back into public water supplies, or in lakes and oceans. There, they can easily absorb or become coated with toxins, are ingested by fish and other animals, and thus might also play a role in concentrating toxins and introducing them into the food chain.

Not alone

New York isn't the only state to consider banning microbeads for environmental reasons; Minnesota, Illinois, Ohio, and California are all considering similar proposals.

Microbeads also have many opponents overseas; the Dutch nonprofit Beat The Microbead promotes an “international campaign against microbeads in cosmetics.”

Even among the companies who might use them in their products, microbeads have few if any supporters. Many companies, including Unilever, Johnson and Johnson, L'Oreal and Colgate/Palmolive have already stated intentions to phase microbeads out of their products.

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Does testosterone replacement therapy increase the risk of heart disease?

The FDA is investigating; preliminary studies suggest there's something to it

Visitors and newcomers to America—specifically, those who spend enough time here to waste some of it vegging out in front of the TV—are often a...

PhotoVisitors and newcomers to America — specifically, those who spend enough time here to waste some of it vegging out in front of the TV — are often amazed by our strange and exotic television commercials for prescription pharmaceuticals, since New Zealand is the only other country where “direct to consumer pharmaceutical advertising” is legal.

So if you've watched television lately, you've probably heard something about the many men who suffer from “low T,” or low testosterone, which can be treated with various topical gels or patches so talk to your doctor if you have any of the symptoms mentioned in this commercial.

If you are taking any of these testosterone treatments then you should talk to your doctor (again) because he might not know that various forms of FDA-approved testosterone replacement therapies seem to increase patients' risk of heart attack, stroke or other problems. Not that your doctor is being lax; the studies suggesting this correlation are only a few months old, and word hasn't fully got out yet.

If you've purchased testosterone supplements by responding to one of those last-night commercials, talk to your doctor before you start or continue taking them. Low testosterone is not something you can self-diagnose.

On January 31, 2014, the FDA announced that it was “evaluating risk of stroke, heart attack and death with FDA-approved testosterone products” though it also specified that “At this time, FDA has not concluded that FDA-approved testosterone treatment increases the risk of stroke, heart attack, or death. Patients should not stop taking prescribed testosterone products without first discussing any questions or concerns with their health care professionals.”

FDA investigating

But the FDA is still investigating the possibility, after a November 2013 report in the Journal of the American Medical Association:

The men included in this study had low serum testosterone and were undergoing imaging of the blood vessels of the heart, called coronary angiography, to assess for coronary artery disease. Some of the men received testosterone treatment while others did not. On average, the men who entered the study were about 60 years old, and many had underlying cardiovascular disease. This study suggested a 30% increased risk of stroke, heart attack, and death in the group that had been prescribed testosterone therapy.

How was that 30% increased risk determined? Researchers followed up with the men about two and a half years after the men had their angiography. Among the men who had received testosterone therapy, 26% of them either had a heart attack, suffered a stroke, or died from any cause; this number dropped to 20% among the men who did not have testosterone replacement therapy.

The November 2013 AMA study wasn't the first to suggest a correlation between testosterone therapy and heart problems, though. In 2010, the New England Journal of Medicine mentioned an aborted clinical trial intended to test testosterone gel on patients over 65; researchers halted the study early after subjects showed an increased number of heart attacks and other heart-related problems.

That 2010 study, meanwhile, inspired another study which the online journal PLOS One published in January 2014, noting that “An association between testosterone therapy (TT) and cardiovascular disease has been reported and TT use is increasing rapidly.”

Remember: “increased risk of heart disease” is not remotely synonymous with “guaranteed to cause a heart attack.” However, if you are undergoing testosterone replacement therapy — and especially if you or any of your genetic relatives have a history of heart problems — talk to your doctor and decide whether the risks of testosterone therapy might outweigh the benefits, for you.

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Feds say sleep drug Lunesta should have a lower starting dose

There are concerns about impairment the morning after sleep aid drugs are used

The manufacturer of the sleep drug Lunesta (eszopiclone) has been ordered to change the drug label and lower the current recommended starting dose. The o...

PhotoThe manufacturer of the sleep drug Lunesta (eszopiclone) has been ordered to change the drug label and lower the current recommended starting dose.

The order from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) comes in the wake of data showing that eszopiclone levels in some patients may be high enough the morning after use to impair activities that require alertness -- including driving -- even if they feel fully awake.

Reducing the dosage

Taken at bedtime, the recommended starting dose has been decreased from 2 milligrams (mg) to 1 mg for both men and women. The 1 mg dose can be increased to 2 mg or 3 mg if needed, but the higher doses are more likely to result in next-day impairment of driving and other activities that require full alertness. Using lower doses means less drug will remain in the body in the morning hours.

Patients currently taking the 2 mg and 3 mg doses of Lunesta should contact their health care professional to ask for instructions on how to continue to take their medicine safely at a dose that is best for them.

“To help ensure patient safety, health care professionals should prescribe, and patients should take, the lowest dose of a sleep medicine that effectively treats their insomnia,” said Ellis Unger, M.D., director, Office of Drug Evaluation I in the FDA's Center for Drug Evaluation and Research. “Recently, data from clinical trials and other types of studies have become available, which allowed the FDA to better characterize the risk of next-morning impairment with sleep drugs.”

The dose change is based -- in part -- on findings from a study of 91 healthy adults ages 25 to 40. The study shows, compared to an inactive pill (placebo), Lunesta 3 mg was associated with severe next-morning psychomotor and memory impairment in both men and women 7.5 hours after taking the drug.

The study found that recommended doses can cause impairment to driving skills, memory, and coordination as long as 11 hours after the drug is taken. Despite these long-lasting effects, patients were often unaware they were impaired.

Label changes approved

In addition, the FDA has approved changes to the Lunesta prescribing information (label) and the patient Medication Guide to include these new prescribing recommendations. The drug labels for generic eszopiclone products must also be updated to include these changes.

In a drug safety communication, the FDA is urging health care professionals to caution patients taking Lunesta about the risk of next-morning impairment for activities that require mental alertness, including driving. Alertness can be impaired even in people who do not feel drowsy.

Drowsiness is listed as a common side effect for all insomnia drugs, along with warnings that people may still feel drowsy the next day after taking one of these products. The FDA is continuing to evaluate the risk of impaired mental alertness with the entire class of sleep drugs, including over-the-counter drugs, and will update the public as new information becomes available.

In Jan. 2013, the FDA announced a dose reduction  for sleep drugs that contain the active ingredient zolpidem, such as Ambien and Ambien CR, because of the risk of next morning impairment.

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A strong April for new home construction

Things are also looking good for homebuilding in the near term

New home construction surged in April following a strong showing the month before. Figures released by the Census Bureau show housing starts shot up 13.2%...

PhotoNew home construction surged in April following a strong showing the month before.

Figures released by the Census Bureau show housing starts shot up 13.2% from March to a  seasonally adjusted annual rate of 1,072,000, putting that rate of homebuilding 26.4% above the same period a year ago.

At the same time, the government revised its March figure higher -- to 947,000 and is 26.4 percent (±11.8%) above the April 2013 rate of 848,000.

Construction of single-family homes ran at an annual rate of 649,000 in April were at a rate of 649,000, while buildings with five units or more were
constructed at a rate of 413,000.

Building permits

Applications for building permits -- an indicator of developers’ plans for the next few months, were up 8.0% in April to seasonally adjusted annual rate of 1,080,000.

Permits for single-family homes totaled 602,000, and permits for apartment buildingswere at a rate of 453,000.

The full report is availabl e on the Commerce Department website. http://www.census.gov/construction/nrc/pdf/newresconst.pdf

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Headlamp problems prompt Corvette recall

A wiring issue could result in the loss of low beam headlamp illumination

General Motors is recalling 103,158 model year 2005-2007 Chevrolet Corvette vehicles manufactured March 29, 2004, through June 22, 2007. The underhood bus...

PhotoGeneral Motors is recalling 103,158 model year 2005-2007 Chevrolet Corvette vehicles manufactured March 29, 2004, through June 22, 2007.

The underhood bussed electrical center (UBEC) housing can expand and cause the headlamp low beam relay control circuit wire to bend. If the wire is repeatedly bent, it may fracture causing a loss of low beam headlamp illumination, decreasing the driver's visibility, as well as the vehicle's conspicuity to other motorists, increasing the risk of a crash.

GM will notify owners, and dealers will replace the UBEC housing unit, free of charge. The manufacturer has not yet provided a notification schedule.

Model year 2008-2013 Chevrolet Corvettes will be covered under customer satisfaction program number 14203 for the same issue.

Owners may contact Chevrolet customer service at 1-800-222-1020. GM's number for this recall is 13146.

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FCC promotes "net neutrality" with a "fast lane"

All websites will be treated equally; some more equally than others

It's hard not to feel confused—or at least suspect that FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler might be confused—when you read today's news reports that the ...

PhotoIt's hard not to feel confused — or at least suspect that FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler might be confused — when you read today's news reports that the FCC has voted for “net neutrality,” and hear Wheeler praise “net neutrality” and a free and open internet even though the actual FCC rules seem to run counter to what “net neutrality” is supposed to be.

Net neutrality, as the label suggests, is basically the idea that all websites should be treated equally (or viewed neutrally) by Internet service providers: you can reach all websites at the same speed, whether websites belonging to big rich companies or little blogs and mom-and-pop startups.

But what the “net neutrality” the FCC passed today also allows for an Internet “fast lane” granting certain companies faster connection speeds provided they pay for the privilege.

Earlier this year, Netflix agreed to pay Comcast to ensure Comcast subscribers could get faster connections to the Netflix site; Netflix later signed a similar deal with Verizon. The new FCC rules basically say yes, that's fine; Comcast, Verizon and other providers can indeed charge Netflix higher rates for faster service.

But is that necessarily unfair? Just yesterday, after all, came reports that streaming video services like Netflix account for more than half the broadband traffic in North America.

Good arguments?

Perhaps there are good arguments to make, then, that Netflix should pay more since it consumes more traffic. Or should Internet customers who use lots of bandwidth — the people actually streaming those Netflix videos — pay more than those who do not?

They already do, or soon will. Comcast — which now charges Netflix higher costs for faster connections — is also imposing broadband caps on its customers.

So there's a limit to how much bandwidth you can use for Netflix or other services, in addition to the extra fees Netflix and other services pay to ensure you can access them in a timely manner.

Critics of the FCC proposal fear than the Internet will basically be divided into haves and have-nots: easily accessible websites for companies rich enough to pay for fast-lane service, slow and clunky websites for everyone else.

But FCC Chairman Wheeler, while supporting Internet fast lanes, still said, “there is one Internet. Not a fast Internet, not a slow Internet, one Internet.” One Internet with a fast lane.

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Future daytripping: the week in robocar reporting

Driverless cars offer improved safety on one hand, ethical dilemmas on the other

It's sometimes fun to sit here now, at the Pinnacle of Technological History To Date, and read old-fashioned predictions about their future (our past) and ...

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A 1902 Century steam car (Source: Wikipedia)

It's sometimes fun to sit here now, at the Pinnacle of Technological History To Date, and read old-fashioned predictions about their future (our past) and see how utterly wrong most of them were.

For example: when railroads were first invented — more specifically, when inventors first realized “Hey, these newfangled 'engine' things might not just power labor-saving machines; it's possible that, for the first time in history, people could travel on land faster than even the fastest horse can run!” — there were fears that the human body simply couldn't withstand prolonged exposure to crazy-fast speeds like 15 miles per hour, and at trulyridiculous speeds, like 30 or 40 mph, you'd either suffocate because it's impossible to breathe with air being sucked out of your carriage that quickly, or be unable to see anything because the human optical system probably can't process images of such unnaturally fast motion.

At the other extreme, there were predictions that proved far too wildly optimistic — the year 2000 came and went with no moon bases, flying cars, robot servants or 15-hour standard workweeks.

Heh heh heh. Silly old-timers with their silly old predictions, right? Except if you sit here now, at the Pinnacle of Technological History To Date, and make your own predictions about the future, there's a very good chance that one day your predictions will prove just as silly.

Driverless car

Consider the eventual promise of a true driverless car: get in your vehicle, give it your destination, then go to sleep if you wish, confident you'll be at your destination when you wake up. Too optimistic, or on its way? Google has already developed and tested a semi-driverless car: you can't actually sleep while you're in it, because the car requires an attentive human failsafe in case anything goes wrong.

But this is the earliest and most primitive form of the technology, so perhaps the suggestion, “A truly driverless robot car will come, even within modern people's lifetimes,” won't be listed among the silly-oldtimer predictions of the future.

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Indeed, most of the “driverless cars are/will be much better than cars with drivers” arguments sound perfectly logical, even airtight, from a year-2014 perspective: it's true that of all the car accidents involving human drivers to date, the vast majority were caused by either human error or human frailty — sleepy drivers, distracted drivers, drunk or drugged drivers, careless drivers and just plain bad drivers.

Then, too, there are the accidents caused by generally good and responsible drivers whose reflexes, response times and senses are merely human rather than superhuman; could a well-designed and well-programmed robot car avoid the sort of accidents certain to happen with frail, faulty humans?

Life savers

Here's two articles from the past week exploring the near-future possibilities — and possible ramifications — of automated driving systems. The first is a May 7 article from IEEE Spectrum's blog, asking “How many lives will robocar technologies save?”

[Three-word summary: possibly a lot.]

This isn't about actual driverless or robot-driven cars, more about robot-assisted driving technology: warning systems far better and more precise than human senses. In a project sponsored by Toyota, some engineers at Virginia Tech ran a long, complicated and detailed study which led to thoroughly unsurprising results: yes, cars equipped with lane-change-warning devices would probably reduce the number of accidents caused by accidental or careless lane changes. Cars equipped with collision-warning systems are less likely to get into collisions. Why bother studying such obvious things?

But Spectrum addresses that:

You may well ask why anyone bothers to model the advantages of these warning systems when it stands to reason that they must save lives. Problem is, what stands to reason hasn’t always turned out to be true.

The early antilock braking systems (ABS) seemed so obviously good that the public flocked to buy them as optional features, and insurers offered discounts on policies for cars equipped with them.  But when the accident reports rolled in, insurers found that ABS had made no visible improvement. It seems that drivers, emboldened by their super-automatic brakes, had driven a little more aggressively than before.

So proximity sensors and collision-avoidance systems and other warning devices will almost certainly be standard features on cars of the near future, whether driven by humans or not.

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A Google self-driving car (Source: Google)

Tough decisions

Meanwhile, Wired took its driving-technology predictions even further, in this piece by Patrick Lin addressing some of the philosophical and ethical questions which programmers of true robot-driven cars would have to consider: “The robot car of tomorrow may just be programmed to hit you.”

Here's a problem: even assuming perfected driverless-car technology, and further assuming a time when all cars are driverless (and thus human error and human weakness no longer cause car accidents), 100% perfect accident avoidance still won't be possible:

In future autonomous cars, crash-avoidance features alone won’t be enough. Sometimes an accident will be unavoidable as a matter of physics, for myriad reasons – such as insufficient time to press the brakes, technology errors, misaligned sensors, bad weather, and just pure bad luck. Therefore, robot cars will also need to have crash-optimization strategies.

What does that mean? Here's a couple of examples: suppose a crash is unavoidable for some reason, there's two cars ahead and your robo-car will hit one of them. One car is a heavy, sturdily-made SUV with an excellent safety rating, the other choice is a flimsy little mini-car. Which should your robo-car hit?

Well, the robot programming would want to minimize the chance of causing death or serious injury, which means hitting the big safe car is the better choice, as the flimsy car's driver is far more likely to be hurt. Except that means robot cars would effectively be programmed to single out cars with high safety ratings.

As Lin pointed out:

Programming a car to collide with any particular kind of object over another seems an awful lot like a targeting algorithm, similar to those for military weapons systems. And this takes the robot-car industry down legally and morally dangerous paths.

Even if the harm is unintended, some crash-optimization algorithms for robot cars would seem to require the deliberate and systematic discrimination of, say, large vehicles to collide into. The owners or operators of these targeted vehicles would bear this burden through no fault of their own, other than that they care about safety or need an SUV to transport a large family. Does that sound fair?

What seemed to be a sensible programming design, then, runs into ethical challenges.

Helmeted or not?

And other challenges are even worse. Lin posited another hypothetical: suppose a crash with a motorcyclist is unavoidable. The car must choose between hitting a driver who wears a helmet, or a driver who does not. A driver without a helmet is far more likely to die in an accident, and reducing the chance of death or serious injury is surely a laudable goal, yet there are obvious ethical problems with programming cars to target helmet-wearing motorcyclists:

...we can quickly see the injustice of this choice, as reasonable as it may be from a crash-optimization standpoint. By deliberately crashing into that motorcyclist, we are in effect penalizing him or her for being responsible, for wearing a helmet. Meanwhile, we are giving the other motorcyclist a free pass, even though that person is much less responsible for not wearing a helmet, which is illegal in most U.S. states.

Not only does this discrimination seem unethical, but it could also be bad policy. That crash-optimization design may encourage some motorcyclists to not wear helmets, in order to not stand out as favored targets of autonomous cars, especially if those cars become more prevalent on the road.

Will driverless cars really take off in your lifetime, or at least your kid's? Will solutions be found for the ethical problems they pose? Wait long enough, and the question's bound to answer itself.

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Other shoe drops: Comcast planning data caps, report says

The feds have opened the door to carriers gouging customers on both ends of their pipes

If you're looking to be relieved of your worldly goods, you can hang out in a casino, buy a batch of Lotto tickets daily and give big piles of money to eve...

PhotoIf you're looking to be relieved of your worldly goods, you can hang out in a casino, buy a batch of Lotto tickets daily and give big piles of money to everyone you meet.

Or you can just sign up for cable, telephone and Internet service.

The ink is not even dry on the Federal Communications Commission's new policy that lets companies like Comcast charge companies like Netflix higher rates to ensure that their streaming video moves smoothly and quickly and now the perhaps over-confident carriers are beginning to move towards their longtime dream -- getting more money on both ends.

A Comcast executive is being quoted today as saying he expects the company will roll out "usage-based billing" — what most people call "data caps" — to all of its customers within five years.

"I would predict that in five years Comcast at least would have a usage-based billing model rolled out across its footprint," Comcast Executive Vice President David Cohen said, according to ThomsonReuters (transcript).

Forked tongue

But hey, put yourself in Comcast's shoes. Currently consumers pay you $100 or so per month for Internet access and other "bundled services." If they want faster Internet connections, they pay a few bucks more.

Netflix and other big content companies pay for their local connection to the Internet but until recently, they haven't paid a premium to the Comcasts of the world even though they use more than half the available broadband capacity most days.

So now that they have their hands in the pockets of the content providers, Comcast and the other carriers are just doing what big monopolies do -- sharpening their plans to shake more money out of consumers. 

Come on, did you really expect anything else?

 

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Google inundated with European takedown requests

Pedophiles and politicians invoke their “right to be forgotten”

Well, that didn't take long! On Tuesday, May 13, the European Union's Court of Justice ruled that Google and other search engines are, in at least some cir...

PhotoWell, that didn't take long! On Tuesday, May 13, the European Union's Court of Justice ruled that Google and other search engines are, in at least some circumstances, legally obligated to stop linking to old news stories about various people — true and accurate news stories about people — if the people in question request it, because in the European Union, apparently, there is such a thing as a “right to be forgotten” and the Internet is obliged to honor it.

The original case was brought by a Spanish man, Mario Costeja González, whose house was repossessed and auctioned for unpaid taxes back in 1998. A Spanish newspaper printed legal notices about the proceedings — standard operating procedure for a daily paper, in Spain or in America — and then in 2009, Costeja asked Google to stop linking to the old notices in searches for his name.

Google refused, Costeja took Google to court and the court sided against Google.

Requests run rampant

That was Tuesday afternoon. On Wednesday came the first undetailed reports that Google was received an unspecified number of takedown requests, and by Thursday morning, the BBC shared some specifics: a politician running for re-election wants Google to stop linking to old news stories about his behavior in office.

A pedophile wants Google to stop linking to news articles about his previous criminal conviction for possession of child pornography, and a doctor wants Google to stop linking to negative reviews written by his patients.

Those are the only three examples the BBC mentioned; Google has not officially commented on just how many takedown requests it has received.

According to E.U. commissioner Viviane Reding, the court decision is “a clear victory for the protection of personal data of Europeans,” though it's uncertain where or if Reding and the E.U. Court draws any distinction between “protecting personal data” and “trying to erase history.”

As of press time, there's no word on whether Google will, for example, comply with the takedown requests from the pedophile or the politician, nor whether Google is even legally obligated to do so — the court decision, as written, leaves much room for interpretation.

The E.U. has no equivalent to America's First Amendment's free-speech guarantees; you can be successfully sued for libel even if you're telling the truth. Whether the court will revisit its decision in light of recent developments is also unknown-as-of-presstime detail.

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How the 'selfie' is boosting mobile security

Better front-facing smartphone cameras aid eyeprint app

Everyone, it seems – from President Obama on down – is posing for 'selfies,” those self-portrait photographs taken by extending a smartph...

PhotoEveryone, it seems – from President Obama on down – is posing for 'selfies,” those self-portrait photographs taken by extending a smartphone as far as an arm can reach and snapping a picture.

While it might seem like an exercise in narcissism, Toby Rush, CEO of EyeVerify, sees it as a tool to vastly expand his firm's biometric security product.

EyeVerify, a Kansas City start-up, has developed an application that takes an “eyeprint” of your eye, to work in the place of a password. A great idea, perhaps, but somewhat cumbersome to implement.

But then the “selfie” trend came along, prompting device manufacturers to respond in a way that benefits EyeVerify, and Rush contends, also benefits mobile security.

“This year you're seeing a significant upgrade in front-facing camera capabilities,” Rush told ConsumerAffairs. “As manufacturers upgrade those cameras we are able to use them to image and pattern match the blood vessels of your eye.”

Front camera usually an after-thought

When you look at marketing material for smartphones you often find a short list of specs. They include processor speed, graphics capability, screen resolution and the resolution of the rear-facing camera.

Little mention has been made of the front-facing camera, since it was rarely used and, when it was, mostly for video chats.

“Now we're seeing enough use-demand for the selfie camera that manufacturers are beginning to upgrade it,” Rush said. “We've seen in the last few weeks, and we have information about phones that are coming, where the front-facing camera is now making it on the short list of specs.”

Big upgrade

In the last week Chinese manufacturer Huawei has launched a new smartphone featuring an 8 MP front camera, an obvious bow to consumers who now select a device, in part, for its ability to snap a “selfie.”

By comparison, the new Samsung Galaxy S5 has a 2 MP front-facing camera, more than ample optics capability to work with EyeVerify's eyeprint system, according to Rush.

Optics are only part of the equation. A smartphone needs the processor speed to handle the complex software required to process the EyeVerify system.

“We have been able to enhance our algorithms and leverage these newer cameras to do that with a common smartphone,” Rush said. “What we're doing is leveraging existing hardware on smartphones and tablets that are already widely deployed and will continue to be widely deployed.”

Mobile banking security

The eyeprint system's principal application at present is for mobile financial services, though Rush says future uses will quickly emerge. Currently the mobile banking app NetTeller uses it, primarily in Australia.

“When they want to log you into the banking app you hold the phone up 8 to 12 inches away from your face where it would capture the image of your eye,” Rush said. “We capture that, process it in under a second and log you in with the equivalent of a 50-character complex password.”

It's not just secure, Rush points out, it's also convenient for the consumer.

“We're giving you very high security with something you never have to remember, type in or change,” he said.

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Counting calories for your pet

It's the most effective way to keep your dog or cat slim and trim

It's been shown that one effective way for people to maintain a healthy weight is to keep track of the number of calories consumed each day.It's simple m...

PhotoIt's been shown that one effective way for people to maintain a healthy weight is to keep track of the number of calories consumed each day.

It's simple math. You burn a certain number of calories each day. Your daily calories should balance out.

This is also true for cats and dogs, and just as there is a growing obesity problem among humans a growing percentage of pets are overweight or obese. And much like humans, carrying this extra weight can take a toll on your pet's health.

"Overweight animals also have certain health issues," said Susan Nelson, clinical associate professor and veterinarian at the Kansas State University Veterinary Health Center. "It can aggravate joint disease. It can lead to Type 2 diabetes. It can aggravate heart conditions, and it can lead to skin diseases as folds in the pet's skin get bigger. It can even shorten their life span."

Unlike controlling your own weight, controlling your pet's weight doesn't require willpower. You, after all, are the one handing out the food each day.

Over-feeding

But Nelson said in almost every case of an overweight dog or cat, its owner is over-feeding it.

It starts with an accurate measurement of the pet's food. Nelson says it's important to define terms. For example, a recommendation of one 8-ounce cup of food is a precise measurement. It isn't the same as using a Big Gulp drink cup to dispense food.

Next, it's important to know how many calories are in that cup of food. The pet food company should list the number on the packaging. If it doesn't, contact the manufacturer to get this information.

The number of calories per cup can vary widely between different brands and types of food – the difference can easily be as much as 200 to 300 calories per cup. Adjust the amount accordingly or you could easily double the number of daily calories your pet consumes.

Also, Nelson says the feeding guides you find on the bags are broad guidelines. They may or may not be ideal for your pet.

"In the testing facilities, these animals are typically mandated to have a certain amount of exercise per day because they are research animals," Nelson said. "In reality, a lot of the pets that we own don't get as much exercise as those dogs and cats in the research facilities."

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Exercise is critical

Exercise is the second part of a weight control plan for your dog or cat, just as it is for you. Nelson recommends at least 20 to 30 minutes of daily exercise for your dog or cat. This isn't always easy to do for indoor pets.

A dog or cat that lies around most of the day takes very few calories to meet its daily requirements, which makes it hard to lose weight. Exercise will increase its metabolic rate and burn more calories.

Most people often find it easier to exercise a dog than a cat. But if your cat is both an indoor and outdoor pet, making sure the cat spends as much time outside as possible will help it remain active and burn calories.

For indoor cats, Nelson has a few tricks up her sleeve to encourage exercise.

"You can try scattering the food around in small portions throughout the house so that they have to hunt for it and get more exercise that way or you can place the food in a location where the cat has to go up and down stairs," Nelson said. "There are also items call food puzzles that you fill with food and the pet needs to work at it to slowly retrieve the kibble."

Worrisome numbers

In its annual survey for 2012, the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention (APOP) found the number of overweight cats in the U.S. had reached an all-time high. Veterinarians rated 52.5% of dogs and 58.3% of cats overweight or obese.

Insurance companies that write health policies for pets have noted this alarming trend.

“Diabetes, heart and lung diseases, bone and joint diseases, skin conditions and different types of cancer are more common in overweight animals, as is a shorter life expectancy,” VPI Pet Insurance, part of Nationwide, said in a recent statement.

In 2009, the company said its policyholders filed more than $17 million in claims for conditions and disease caused by excessive weight. The company suggests pet owners are adding to the problem by over-feeding their animals or feeding them the wrong types of food.

You may find it hard not give your pet any treats, but you can substitute attention for extra calories. If your pet can't go cold turkey, try switching to lower-calorie treats, such as veggies, and limit the total calories from treats to no more than 10 percent of you pet's daily allotted caloric intake.

"I think it's important to realize that food does not equal love," Nelson said. "It's hard to resist those big, brown eyes, but those extra calories can really add up."

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Oregon county votes on banning GMOs, claiming to protect organic farmers

Critic argues vilification of genetically modified food is misplaced

According to the rules for organic production – written, edited and finalized by organic indus...

Editor's note: Voters in Jackson County, Oregon, will vote next Tuesday on banning GMOs from food. But in this op-ed, Mischa Popoff, a former organic food inspector, says the measure is ill-conceived.

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Mischa Popoff

According to the rules for organic production – written, edited and finalized by organic industry stakeholders – there is no such thing as contamination of an organic crop by genetically modified organisms (GMOs). And yet, supporters of Measure 15–119 to ban GMOs in Jackson County, Oregon, claim to be trying to protect organic farmers.

Read the standards. Organic farmers are not allowed to use GMOs; but since GMOs are perfectly safe, contact with them does not result in the decertification of an organic crop. Indeed, not a single organic crop in North America has ever been decertified due to contact with a GMO.

Activists claim GMOs don’t perform as advertised. But American farmers choose to grow them for the same reason European farmers wish they could grow them: decreased weed and pest pressure, increased yields, improved nutrition, reduced fuel consumption, and reduced soil erosion.

So, why are organic activists so dead-set opposed to this new science? Simple, because GMOs deliver on everything the organic industry once promised. As such, the people who brought you certified-organic food in America that tests positive for prohibited pesticides a whopping 43% of the time, seek to ban GMOs from the face of American agriculture.

Pure and nutritious

I grew up on an organic grain farm and became an organic inspector in 1998. I believed it was important to produce food that was pure and nutritious, while minimizing our impact on the land. But rather than pursue these goals that were once the backbone of the organic movement, an urbanized leadership replaced all the fulltime farmers who used to run the organic movement, and launched a full-frontal assault on ALL forms of science-based farming, with genetic engineering in the forefront.

Many activists pretend that banning GMOs has nothing to do with advancing organics. But the National Director of The Organic Consumers Association, Ronnie Cummins (a vocal supporter of 15–119), spells it all out: “The challenge will be to see if organic consumers, environmental organizations, farm activists, churches, and public interest groups can begin making headway in the bigger battle — driving genetically engineered crops off the market all over the world.”

Still think Measure 15–119 has nothing to do with the self-serving aims of urban organic activists? If their way is better, why not prove it instead of trying to ban the competition?

To avoid providing an answer, some activists claim to be organic but not certified. But the rules of organic production apply to anyone who uses the term “organic.” This was done by organic stakeholders to prevent anyone from misusing the term. So there’s no escaping the rules that stipulate no threat to an organic crop from GMOs.

"GMO contamination"

Others, like organic farmer-activist Chris Hardy – director of GMO Free Jackson County – claim the rules don’t apply because their buyers demand a 100% GMO-free product. This led Hardy to actually sabotage his own crop by plowing it down – without bothering to test it first! – under the pretense that he was avoiding GMO “contamination.” Read America’s organic standards Mr. Hardy; even a buyer can’t change them.

The person who threatened Hardy’s crop wasn’t his neighbor growing GMOs. It was him and his buyer. But it’s against the law to claim to exceed America’s organic standards, which is precisely what such zero-tolerance for GMOs tries to do.

While most organic farmers are honest and hardworking, and would never plow down a crop for political reasons, they’re saddled with a litany of useless rules that make organic farming in America less efficient than when their grandparents farmed. And it’s all thanks to the tax-funded, anti-GMO leadership of the organic movement.

Genetic engineering gave us synthetic insulin for diabetics! And it could prevent a half-million kids from going blind and dying each year in the Majority World due to Vitamin-A deficiency. GMO Golden Rice could already be saving these kids, but for the fact that anti-GMO organic activists stopped it from being approved on the claim it will harm organic rice, which is nothing but a bald-faced lie.

Vote “NO” on Measure 15–119, and tell the activists in Jackson County to read their own rule book. Otherwise, you can rest assured, farming in America will go back in time.

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Mischa Popoff is a former organic farmer and USDA-contract organic inspector. He is the author of Is it Organic? and has co-authored articles alongside Dr. Patrick Moore, one of the co-founders of Greenpeace, and leader of the Allow Golden Rice Now! campaign.

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Canadian consumers more likely to experience a "good death" than Americans

Study finds cancer deaths in urban Canadian settings were "good to excellent"

You might not like to think about it but one service all us consumers will be buying one of these days is "death services" -- the euphemism of the funeral ...

PhotoYou might not like to think about it but one thing all consumers will be buying one of these days is "death services" -- the euphemism of the funeral industry. 

And just before that, we may be in the market for "dying services" -- which can range from having an intern pound on our chest in an emergency room to drifting peacefully away under hospice care.

You may say that while dying is often unpleasant, we only have to do it once, so it's not so bad. But that argument also works the other way -- since we only do it once, we're often not very good at it. Let's face it -- unless an air conditioner falls on us while we're walking down the street, the pathway to our exit may be a lengthy and painful one.

But if we lived in Canada, it might be a lot better, a recent study finds. Researchers from the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre in Toronto said they found that the overall quality of death of cancer patients who die in an urban Canadian setting with ready access to palliative care was good to excellent in the large majority of cases, helping to dispel the myth that marked suffering at the end of life is inevitable.

"Fear of dying is something almost every patient with advanced cancer or other life-threatening illness faces, and helping them, to achieve a 'good death' is an important goal of palliative care," said the center's Dr. Sarah Hales.

"We know a lot about disease and the physical symptoms that it may produce, but only recently have we focused on approaches to relieve the fear of death in patients and families and to address the emotional, spiritual and existential concerns that support the quality of the dying experience," she said.

Story continues after video

402 deaths studied

Thirty-nine percent (39%) of the sample scored in the "good' to "almost perfect" range of a scale measuring the dying experience, with 61% of the sample scoring in the "neither good nor bad" range of the scale.

Better scores were linked to older patients, high social support (most patients were not living alone), older caregiver age, English as the primary language of the caregiver, greater length of relationship between the caregiver and patient, less caregiver bereavement distress (i.e. grief, stress-response, and depressive symptoms) and home death.

The study examined 402 deaths of cancer patients between 2005 and 2010 in the three acute care hospitals of University Health Network and from the Tammy Latner Centre for Palliative Care, a home palliative care program at Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto.

Caregivers of the patients who spoke and read English were contacted and, those who agreed, were interviewed about the quality of death and dying using the Quality of Dying and Death (QODD) questionnaire, the most widely used and best validated tool to assess the dying experience.

Although the dying and death experience ratings were generally positive, for a substantial minority, symptom control and death-related distress at the end of life were problematic. Fifteen per cent (15%) of the sample scored in the "terrible" to "poor" range for symptom control, with 19 percent scoring in the same range for Transcendence – feeling unafraid of or making peace with dying. These could be areas in which further interventions are needed to improve outcomes, say the authors.

The study is being published in the Journal of Pain and Symptom Management.

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Smokers doubt that e-cigarettes are safer than traditional tobacco cigarettes

Usage is still low, with only 6% of the U.S. population having tried e-cigs

Fewer smokers believe e-cigarettes are a safer alternative to cigarettesInvestigators find rise in overall e-cigarette awareness, but note decline in the...

 

Photo
A e-cigarette ad

E-cigarettes are gaining mainstream attention as a competitor to traditional cigarettes, but a new study finds that smokers are less inclined to consider them safer than cigarettes.

 

Researchers from the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign found that in 2010, 84.7% of smokers surveyed believed e-cigarettes were less harmful than traditional cigarettes, but according to this new study in 2013, that number dropped to just 65%.

The study also looked at the perceived harmfulness of e-cigarettes among current smokers. In 2010, 84.7% of smokers surveyed believed e-cigarettes were less harmful than traditional cigarettes, but according to this new study in 2013, that number dropped to just 65%.

"This apparent decline in smokers' beliefs about reduced harm of e-cigarettes compared with regular cigarettes is perplexing against the background of advertising and media messages touting e-cigarettes as safer alternatives and cessation aids," said co-investigator Cabral Bigman, PhD, College of Liberal Arts & Sciences, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

"One possible explanation is that the increased media attention over the lack of FDA approval and regulation of this emerging tobacco product, injuries arising from e-cigarette-induced fires, and health concerns from toxic chemicals in e-cigarettes in recent years may have conveyed conflicting information about the relative safety of e-cigarette use," Bigman said.

Low usage levels

While levels of awareness have increased rapidly, use percentage is still very low with only 6% of U.S. adults reporting ever using e-cigarettes. This small number means that e-cigarettes may not yet be a threat to tobacco control programs, but at the same time, means any claim that e-cigarettes are helping to reduce the harm done by regular cigarettes is probably premature.

"There is an ongoing debate within the public health community about whether e-cigarettes are a viable alternative for harm reduction and whether smokers are merely supplementing or truly replacing their smoking with e-cigarettes and achieving smoking cessation," said co-investigator Andy Tan, MBBS, MPH, MBA, PhD, Center of Excellence in Cancer Communication Research, Annenberg School for Communication, University of Pennsylvania.

"It is uncertain whether increased population e-cigarette awareness and perceptions about reduced harm might play a role in encouraging smoking-cessation behaviors. However, public health professionals should systematically scrutinize the nature of marketing activities and media coverage of e-cigarettes, their impact on population awareness and perceptions of e-cigarettes, and how these factors may influence e-cigarette use and smoking prevalence in the U.S. population."

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Consumer prices up again in April

Overall, though, prices are stable

Rising energy and food costs helped push the government's consumer price index (CPI) moderately higher in April. On a seasonally adjusted basis, the CPI w...

PhotoRising energy and food costs helped push the government's consumer price index (CPI) moderately higher in April.

On a seasonally adjusted basis, the CPI was up 0.3% last month following an 0.2% increase in March. For the last 12 months, inflation is running at an annual rate of 2.0% -- the largest 12-month increase since last July.

Food and energy

The cost of food was up 0.4% in April, with meet prices surging 2.9% the biggest increase in more than 10 years. Prices for meats, poultry, fish, and eggs 1.5%, while dairy products were up 0.5% the sixth advance in as many months.

Energy prices were up 0.3% for the first advance in 3 months. index increased 0.3% in April after declining in February. The biggest increase was the cost of gasoline (+2.3%) followed by natural gas (+0.3%). In contrast, fuel oil costs were down 3.0%, while electricity costs fell 2.6% -- the largest decline since 1986.

When those volatile categories are stripped out, the “core Rate” of inflation was up 0.2% -- the same as in March.

Other costs

Looking at costs beyond food and energy, shelter was up 0.2%, medical care costs rose 0.3% and airline fares jumped 2.6% -- the largest increase since November 2009.

The full May CPI report is available on the Labor Department website.

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GM recalls Silverados, Sierras and Tahoes

The tie rod to separate from the steering rack

General Motors is recalling 477 model year 2014 Chevrolet Silverado vehicles manufactured May 23, 2013, through March 25, 2014, 2014; GMC Sierra vehicles m...

PhotoGeneral Motors is recalling 477 model year 2014 Chevrolet Silverado vehicles manufactured May 23, 2013, through March 25, 2014, 2014; GMC Sierra vehicles manufactured May 25, 2013, through March 31, 2014; and 2015 Chevrolet Tahoe vehicles manufactured January 29, 2014, through March 27, 2014.

In the affected vehicles, the tie rod threaded attachment may not be properly tightened to the steering gear rack. An improperly tightened tie rod attachment may allow the tie rod to separate from the steering rack, resulting in a loss of steering, increasing the risk of a vehicle crash.

Owners are advised not to drive their vehicles until they have been inspected and repaired. Owners should contact GM to have their vehicles towed to the dealership.

GM has notified all owners, and dealers will inspect the inner tie rods to make sure that they are correctly tightened, replacing the steering gear, as necessary, free of charge.

The recall began on May 14, 2014. Owners may contact General Motors customer service at 1-800-222-1020 (Chevrolet), or 1-800-462-8782 (GMC). GM's number for this recall is 14204.

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GM recalls Chevy Malibus

The vehicles may experience a complete loss of brake vacuum assist

General Motors is recalling 140,067 model year 2014 Chevrolet Malibus manufactured June 12, 2013, through May 2, 2014, and equipped with a 2.5L engine with...

PhotoGeneral Motors is recalling 140,067 model year 2014 Chevrolet Malibus manufactured June 12, 2013, through May 2, 2014, and equipped with a 2.5L engine with the auto stop/start option.

The vehicles may experience a complete loss of brake vacuum assist, disabling the hydraulic boost assist. If the hydraulic boost assist is disabled, slowing or stopping the vehicle will require additional brake pedal effort and a lengthened stopping distance. Both of these effects increase the risk of a crash.

GM will notify owners, and dealers will update the electronic brake control module software, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin around May 30, 2014.

Owners may contact General Motors customer service at 1-800-222-1020. General Motors number for this recall is 14201.

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Bravo recalls dog and cat foods

The products may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes

Bravo is recalling select lots and product(s) of Bravo Pet Food. The products have the potential to be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes. The comp...

PhotoBravo is recalling select lots and product(s) of Bravo Pet Food.

The products have the potential to be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes.

The company has received a limited number of reports of dogs experiencing nausea and diarrhea that may be associated with these specific products.

There have been no reports of human illness as a result of these products.

The recalled product was distributed nationwide to distributors, retail stores, internet retailers and directly to consumers. The product can be identified by the batch ID code (best used by date) printed on the side of the plastic tube or on a label on the box.

The recalled products are as follows:

1) These products are being recalled because they may have the potential to be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes:

PRODUCT: RAW FOOD DIET BRAVO! BEEF BLEND FOR DOGS AND CATS (Made in New Zealand) 
All 2lb., 5lb., and 10lb. tubes
Product Numbers: 52-102, 52-105, 52-110 
Best Used By Date: 10/10/15 or earlier

PRODUCT: RAW FOOD DIET BRAVO! BEEF BLEND FOR DOGS AND CATS (Made in New Zealand) 
All 2lb., 5lb., and 10lb. tubes 
Product Numbers: 52-102, 52-105, 52-110 
Best Used By Date: 10/10/15 or earlier

2) These products are being recalled out of an abundance of caution because while they did not test positive for pathogens, they were manufactured in the same manufacturing facility or on the same day as products that did test positive:

PRODUCT: RAW FOOD DIET BRAVO! LAMB BLEND FOR DOGS AND CATS (Made in New Zealand)
All 2lb., 5lb., and 10lb. tubes 
Product Numbers: 42-102, 42-105, 42-110
Best Used By Date: 10/10/15 or earlier

PRODUCT: RAW FOOD DIET BRAVO! LAMB BASIC FOR DOGS AND CATS (Made in New Zealand) 
2lb. tubes 
Product Number: 42-202 
Best Used By Date: 10/10/15 or earlier

PRODUCT: RAW FOOD DIET BRAVO! BEEF & BEEF HEART FOR DOGS AND CATS (Made in New Zealand)
5lb. tubes 
Product Number: 53-130
Best Used By Date: 10/10/15 or earlier

PRODUCT: RAW FOOD DIET BRAVO! 100% PURE & NATURAL PREMIUM GRASS-FED BUFFALO FOR DOGS AND CATS (Manufactured by: Bravo! Manchester, CT) 
NET WT 2LBS (32 OZ) .91KG (Tubes)
Product Number: 72-222 
Best Used By Date: 1/7/16

PRODUCT: BRAVO! TURKEY BALANCE FORMULA (Manufactured by: Bravo! Manchester, CT) 
NET WT 2 LBS (32 OZ) .09KG, Chub (tube)
Product Number: 31-402 
Best Used By Dates: 1/7/16 and 2/11/16

NET WT 5 LBS (80 OZ) 2.3KG, Chub (tube) 
Product Number: 31-405
Best Used By Dates: 1/7/16 and 2/11/16

PRODUCT: RAW FOOD DIET BRAVO! LAMB BLEND FOR DOGS AND CATS (Manufactured by: Bravo! Manchester, CT)
5 LBS (80 OZ) 2.3KG, Chub (tube)
Product Number: 42-105
Best Used By Date: 2/11/16

Pet owners who have the affected product should dispose of this product in a safe manner (example, a securely covered trash receptacle). They can return to the store where purchased and submit the Product Recall Claim Form available on the Bravo website www.bravopetfoods.com for a full refund or store credit.

Consumers may contact Bravo toll free at (866) 922-9222.

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Dimension Industries recalls outdoor dining chairs

The legs of the chairs can bend and break

Dimension Industries of Taipei, Taiwan, is recalling about 6,700 Fairview 7-Piece Patio Woven Dining Sets. The legs of the chairs can bend and break, posi...

PhotoDimension Industries of Taipei, Taiwan, is recalling about 6,700 Fairview 7-Piece Patio Woven Dining Sets.

The legs of the chairs can bend and break, posing a fall hazard to the user.

The company has received three reports of the chair legs bending or breaking and causing falls, including one consumer who bumped his head when falling.

The recall includes the chairs sold with the Fairview 7-piece woven patio dining set. The set includes an 80-inch long by 42-inch wide by 29-inch high rectangular table with a tan with white border porcelain tile table top and black metal framed base and six chairs.

The chairs have a black metal frame with brown woven wicker seats and seatbacks, and measure 24 inches wide by 27 inches deep by 40inches high. “7 piece Woven Dining Set” and “Imported by Costco Wholesale” is printed on the product packaging. The item number is printed on the instructions sold with the set and reads “ITM./ART. 966630.”

The sets, manufactured in China, were sold exclusively at Costco Wholesale stores nationwide from January 2014, to March 2014, for about $1,300.

Consumers should immediately stop using the recalled chairs and contact the firm for instructions on receiving a full refund for the set. Costco has contacted its customers directly.

Consumers may contact Dimension at (800) 598-6532 from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. ET Monday through Friday.

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US Trading Company recalls crushed chili powder

The product may be contaminated with Salmonella

US Trading Company of Hayward, Calif., is recalling Dragonfly brand Crushed Chili Powder in 6.3-ounce plastic tubs with lot code 359XP. The product has th...

PhotoUS Trading Company of Hayward, Calif., is recalling Dragonfly brand Crushed Chili Powder in 6.3-ounce plastic tubs with lot code 359XP.

The product has the potential to be contaminated with Salmonella.

No illnesses have been reported to date.

The product was distributed nationwide in retail stores and food wholesale.

The Crushed Chili Powder, imported from Thailand, comes in a 6.3-ounce clear plastic tub, and was distributed nationwide in retail stores and food wholesale. The bar code 7 21557 53317 8 is printed on the front of the tub, and the code 359XP is affixed to the bottom of container.

Consumers who have purchased the recalled product are urged to return it to the place of purchase for a full refund.

Consumers with questions may contact the company at 510-781-1818 Monday-Friday 8:30am-5:00pm.

http://www.fda.gov/Safety/Recalls/ucm397234.htm

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Third-party energy providers can be a poor choice

Illinois utility board warns residents of "rip-offs"

For all the countless types of goods and services consumers can buy, they basically fall into one of two different payment categories: those where you know...

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What Millennials need to know about credit scores

Despite their financial savvy, there are gaps in their knowledge

Recent surveys have indicated that the Millennial generation, those 18 to 34 years old, have adopted prudent, frugal habits when it comes to money.They s...

PhotoRecent surveys have indicated that the Millennial generation, those 18 to 34 years old, have adopted prudent, frugal habits when it comes to money.

They shun debt, tend to use cash, and see the value of saving money. Coming of age amidst a near-economic collapse and resulting Great Recession will form those kinds of attitudes.

But a new survey shows one area where Millennials come up short financially. They're pretty much in the dark when it comes to their credit score and why it is so important.

The survey by the Consumer Federation of America (CFA) and VantageScore Solutions, LLC shows Millennials know less about credit scores than other adults. They know less about the businesses that use the scores, less about who collects information on which the scores are based and less about how scores can be improved.

Bad information

For example, they are more likely than other adults to think that credit repair companies can always or usually be useful in removing errors and improving scores. In reality, the best way to raise a credit score is to pay your bills on time.

Because of this knowledge gap, Millennials are less likely than other adults to take advantage of the federal law that allows you – once a year – to get free copies of your credit report from all three credit reporting agencies.

“Obtaining their free credit reports not only allows consumers to check the accuracy of the reports but also appears to motivate them to learn more about credit scores,” said CFA Executive Director Stephen Brobeck.

Looking in the wrong places

Because of a lack of knowledge or awareness about credit reports, Millennials may also be prone to look in the wrong place for their credit report. There are a number of commercial services that offer credit reports – some even saying it's “free,” but there is always some service you have to sign up for in order to obtain the report.

The easiest way – and the way with no strings attached -- to obtain a credit report is to visit www.annualcreditreport.com or call a toll-free number, 877-322-8228.

What else should Millennials know about their credit score? For one thing, having and using some credit is helpful to your credit score.

For example, if you have a couple of credit cards and charge a few regularly-budgeted items like groceries and gasoline each month, it helps your credit score – if you pay the full balance each month. That last part is important.

Responsible use of credit

Credit agencies look at how much credit you have and how you use it. If you carry a credit card balance, the credit card companies will love you but it lowers your credit rating. Paying off the balance in full each month tells creditors you use credit responsibly.

Millennials should also know that that credit card issuers and mortgage lenders will use these scores when deciding whether or not to extend credit and at what rate. The better your score the lower your interest rate.

Experian, the credit reporting agency, offers a couple of other points of credit advice. Only apply for a new credit account when you need it. Don't open an account just to get a discount on a purchase.

Also, Experian says you should not open accounts just to have a better mix of credit. In fact, it probably won't help you score.

Balance transfer cards don't help

Balance transfer credit cards are a popular way to reduce credit costs but moving credit around doesn't help your score. Better to pay off debt rather than move it.

Don't close unused credit accounts thinking that will help your credit score. In fact, it is likely to have the opposite effect. Owing the same amount of money but having access to less credit will lower your credit rating.

Millennials, by and large, don't kid themselves about their credit knowledge. Only 40% think they have good or excellent knowledge about credit scores, while 62% of those 35 years and older think they have this knowledge.

The survey did identity a group of Millennials that actually possesses a lot of credit information. Those who have obtained their credit reports know more about credit scores than those who haven't.

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Researchers find $1.9 billion in Medicare waste

Harvard study suggests there is a lot more but identifying it isn't always easy

In 2009 Medicare, the health insurance program for Americans 65 and older, spent $1.9 billion on 26 tests and procedures that studies have shown offer litt...

PhotoIn 2009 Medicare, the health insurance program for Americans 65 and older, spent $1.9 billion on 26 tests and procedures that studies have shown offer little or no health benefit.

In other words, the money was wasted. And the researchers who advance this claim say it's “just the tip of the iceberg.”

Harvard Medical School researchers analyzed Medicare claims data, focusing on the tests and procedures that had been identified as essentially useless. They found that a least one in four – 25% – of Medicare recipients received one or more of those services in 2009.

Those 26 tests and procedures aren't the only identified as having little or no value. The researchers claim there are hundreds more.

"We suspect this is just the tip of the iceberg," said study author J. Michael McWilliams, associate professor of health care policy.

Other warnings

This is not the first alarm bell to go off over Medicare spending. Last year a Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) report found improper Medicare payments in Fiscal 2013 surged by nearly 19%, to just over $35 billion.

In April The New York Times reported a small number of doctors raked in nearly a quarter of the $77 billion paid out in U.S. government health programs, including Medicare.

The report said in 2010 just 100 doctors received a total of $610 million, including a Florida ophthalmologist who collected $21 million in Medicare payment. Researchers compiling this latest study say the numbers are shocking.

"We were surprised that these wasteful services were so prevalent," said Aaron Schwartz, lead author of the Harvard study. "Even just looking at a fraction of wasteful services and using our narrowest definitions of waste, we found that one quarter of Medicare beneficiaries undergo procedures or tests that don't tend to help them get better."

Unneeded services

The commonly prescribed but ineffective services identified by the researchers include arthroscopic debridement for knee osteoarthritis and a form of back surgery that involves filling collapsed disks with cement.

These services, the researchers claim, almost never provide any health benefit to patients. In fact, they claim they are almost always wasteful, pointing to recent empirical studies that have been conducted on the effectiveness of the procedures.

Other procedures were identified as wasteful, even though they can provide significant benefits for patients under very specific circumstances.

Exceptions

For example, lower back imaging provides little help for a patient with muscle soreness but it can be lifesaving when used to identify cancer or a spinal abscess.

With hundreds of medical procedures to consider, the researchers zeroed in on 26 that would stand out using the kind of information available in Medicare claims data. Then they looked for examples of those services that were likely to be a waste of money.

Waste was hard to isolate, they found, because the criteria used to measure it tends to vary widely.

Some might disagree

"How much waste you find varies greatly depending on how you define it,” Schwartz said. “Removed from the clinical details of a particular patient, it is hard to know whether a given procedure might be useful or not."

But finding and eliminating waste in Medicare can be expected to get increased attention in coming months. According to AARP, the Affordable Care Act shifts Medicare's focus to keeping older people healthy.

As a result, some coverages may be improved while procedures identified as wasteful or ineffective may no longer be covered, with the money diverted to other uses.

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Buckyballs, Buckycubes recalled ... again

The tiny magnets can be deadly if swallowed by children

Another round of Buckyball and Buckycube recalls is getting underway, in an attempt to curtail serious injuries to children who swallow the small but power...

PhotoAnother round of Buckyball and Buckycube recalls is getting underway, in an attempt to curtail serious injuries to children who swallow the small but powerful magnets.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) said it has reached a settlement with Craig Zucker, the former CEO and President of the company that manufactured Buckyballs and Buckycubes, Maxfield and Oberton, which was dissolved in 2012.

The bb-shaped smooth balls and cubes connect to one another with a strong magnetic bond. The magnets are individual balls or cubes that are sold in packages of many individual balls. They were originally sold as toys to children over 13 years of age, but after a recall in 2010, they are sold only to consumers age14 and older.

But the CPSC said the new warning label that has appeared on the package of Buckyballs since the 2010 recall has not resulted in a decrease in serious injuries to children. In November of 2011, CPSC issued a safety warning to consumers about this product but the injuries continue to occur. In July of 2012, CPSC filed a lawsuit against that resulted in the settlement announced earlier this week.

The magnets are of great interest to children of all ages: younger children mistakenly believe they are candy while older children use these products as faux facial piercings. The consequences of inhaling or swallowing more than one of the magnets can be severe. Children are at risk of developing serious injuries such as small holes in the stomach and intestines, intestinal blockage, blood poisoning, and even death.

Removing magnets surgically often requires the repair of the child’s damaged stomach and intestines. In the past, physicians have likened the internal damage caused by magnets to that of a bullet wound.

“We applaud the recall of Buckyballs and Buckycubes. High powered magnets have caused serious injuries to children. These incidents should not happen and can be prevented,” stated Rachel Weintraub, legislative director and senior counsel with Consumer Federation of America. “It is critical to get these products off of the market, out of people’s homes and away from children who could be harmed by ingesting two or more of these balls or cubes.”

Consumers will have six months to participate in the recall by requesting a refund. The recall trust will be funded by Craig Zucker and will be overseen by the CPSC.

It is illegal under federal law for any person to sell, offer for sale, manufacture, distribute in commerce, or import into the United States any Buckyballs or Buckycubes.

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Mortgage applications post second consecutive gain

Refinance applications were also higher

After rebounding last week from two straight declines, mortgage applications posted their second straight advance last week. According to data from the Mo...

PhotoAfter rebounding last week from two straight declines, mortgage applications posted their second straight advance last week.

According to data from the Mortgage Bankers Association’s (MBA) Weekly Mortgage Applications Survey, applications were up 3.6% for the week ending May 9.

In addition, the Refinance Index jumped 7% to its highest level since the week ending April 11, pushing the refinance share of mortgage activity from 49% to 50% of total applications.

The adjustable-rate mortgage (ARM) share of activity slipped to 8% of total applications.

Contract interest rates

  • The average contract interest rate for 30-year fixed-rate mortgages (FRMs) with conforming loan balances ($417,000 or less) fell 4 basis points -- from 4.43% to 4.39%, the lowest rate since November 2013 -- with points increasing to 0.22 from 0.21 (including the origination fee) for 80% loan-to-value ratio (LTV) loans. The effective rate decreased from last week.
  • The average contract interest rate for 30-year FRMs with jumbo loan balances (greater than $417,000) was unchanged at 4.29%, with points increasing to 0.16 from 0.14 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate increased from last week.
  • The average contract interest rate for 30-year FRMs backed by the FHA decreased to 4.09%, the lowest rate since November 2013, from 4.13%, with points decreasing to -0.17 from -0.03 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate dropped from last week.
  • The average contract interest rate for 15-year FRMs was down 4 basis points to 3.48%, the lowest rate since November 2013, with points falling to 0.12 from 0.22 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate decreased from last week.
  • The average contract interest rate for 5/1 ARMs dipped to 3.17% from 3.21%, with points decreasing to 0.24 from 0.29 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate fell from last week.

The survey covers over 75 percent of all U.S. retail residential mortgage applications.

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Airline on-time performance in March shows improvement from February

The year-over-year stats, though, left something to be desired

The on-time arrival rate of nation’s largest airlines improved to 77.6% in March from the preceding month. However, it was down 2.2% from the March 32013 r...

PhotoThe on-time arrival rate of nation’s largest airlines improved to 77.6% in March from the preceding month. However, it was down 2.2% from the March 2013 rate of 79.8%.

In even better news from the Department of Transportation (DOT), carriers reported no tarmac delays of more than three hours on domestic flights, and only one tarmac delay of more than four hours on an international flight.

The Air Travel Consumer Report, which is available on the DOT website, also includes information on cancellations, chronically delayed flights, and the causes of flight delays, data on passengers denied confirmed space (oversales/bumping), mishandled baggage reports and airline service complaints received by the Department’s Aviation Consumer Protection Division.

Also to be found are reports of incidents involving the loss, death, or injury of pets traveling by air.

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The long-term effects of bullying

There may be health effects well into adulthood

The effects of bullying may not end once the kids leave the school yard. Researchers at Duke University School of Medicine say children who are bullied ma...

PhotoThe effects of bullying may not end once the kids leave the school yard.

Researchers at Duke University School of Medicine say children who are bullied may experience chronic, systemic inflammation that persists into adulthood, and that bullies may actually reap health benefits of increasing their social status.

"Our findings look at the biological consequences of bullying, and by studying a marker of inflammation, provide a potential mechanism for how this social interaction can affect later health functioning," said William E. Copeland, Ph.D., associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Duke Medicine and the study's lead author.

The study, conducted in collaboration with the University of Warwick, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Emory University, is published online in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences the week of May 12, 2014.

Far-reaching effects

Earlier studies have suggested that victims of childhood bullying suffer social and emotional consequences into adulthood -- including increases in anxiety and depression. However, they also report health problems -- such as pain and illness susceptibility -- which may extend beyond psychological outcomes.

"Among victims of bullying, there seems to be some impact on health status in adulthood," Copeland said. "In this study, we asked whether childhood bullying can get 'under the skin' to affect physical health."

Copeland and his colleagues used data from the Great Smoky Mountains Study, a robust, population-based study that has gathered information on 1,420 individuals for more than 20 years. Individuals were randomly selected to participate in the prospective study, and therefore were not at a higher risk of mental illness or being bullied.

Participants were interviewed throughout childhood, adolescence and young adulthood, and among other topics, were asked about their experiences with bullying. The researchers also collected small blood samples to look at biological factors. Using the blood samples, the researchers measured C-reactive protein (CRP), a marker of low-grade inflammation and a risk factor for health problems including metabolic syndrome and cardiovascular disease.

"CRP levels are affected by a variety of stressors, including poor nutrition, lack of sleep and infection, but we've found that they are also related to psychosocial factors," Copeland said. "By controlling for participants' pre-existing CRP levels, even before involvement in bullying, we get a clearer understanding of how bullying could change the trajectory of CRP levels."

Varying effects found

Three groups of participants were analyzed: victims of bullying, those who were both bullies and victims, and those who were purely bullies. Although CRP levels rose for all groups as they entered adulthood, victims of childhood bullying had much higher CRP levels as adults than the other groups. In fact, the CRP levels increased with the number of times the individuals were bullied.

Young adults who had been both bullies and victims as children had CRP levels similar to those not involved in bullying, while bullies had the lowest CRP -- even lower than those uninvolved in bullying. Thus, being a bully and enhancing one's social status through this interaction may protect against increases in the inflammatory marker.

While bullying is more common and perceived as less harmful than childhood abuse or maltreatment, the findings suggest that bullying can disrupt levels of inflammation into adulthood, similar to what is seen in other forms of childhood trauma.

"Our study found that a child's role in bullying can serve as either a risk or a protective factor for low-grade inflammation," Copeland said. "Enhanced social status seems to have a biological advantage. However, there are ways children can experience social success aside from bullying others."

The researchers concluded that reducing bullying, as well as reducing inflammation among victims of bullying, could be key targets for promoting physical and emotional health and lessening the risk for diseases associated with inflammation.

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Pyramid scheme ordered to pay $7.75 million in restitution

Fortune Hi-Tech Marketing enticed 350,000 consumers into its multi-level marketing plan

Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan has announced a settlement to ban a global pyramid scheme and provide at least $7.75 million in restitution for cons...

PhotoIllinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan has announced a settlement to ban a global pyramid scheme and provide at least $7.75 million in restitution for consumers as part of a joint agreement with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and attorneys general from Kentucky and North Carolina.

The settlement bans Fortune Hi-Tech Marketing (FHTM) from multi-level marketing after it enrolled more than 350,000 program participants – in particular consumers from the Latino community – throughout the United States, Puerto Rico and Canada in the last four years.

The settlement requires the Kentucky-based operation to surrender assets totaling at least $7.75 million for affected participants.

The agreement is the result of a January 2013 lawsuit filed by Madigan, the FTC and the attorneys general, alleging that FHTM deceived its members by claiming that they would earn significant income by selling various products and services if they signed up as FHTM representatives. Participants were required to pay substantial start-up costs and monthly fees to retain their positions with the company.

“This pyramid scheme promised big returns but resulted in significant financial losses for thousands of families in Illinois,” Madigan said.

"Get rich opportunity"

Consumers paid a $249 fee to join FHTM to sell satellite television service, home security systems, beauty products, and other consumer goods and services. In promotional materials and at recruitment events, consumers were told they could “get rich” if they sold FHTM-affiliated products.

But unlike legitimate multi-level marketing programs, FHTM distributors had no incentive to sell products, Madigan said. For example, FHTM distributors only received pennies in commissions for selling multi-year service contracts but received substantial payments for every new FHTM member they signed up. FHTM’s promotional presentations and materials focused almost entirely on recruiting new members rather than selling products.

After conducting its own investigation, a court-appointed receiver determined that FHTM’s main business was to recruit new members and not sell products and services as it claimed, confirming the allegations made by Madigan, FTC and the states.

The overwhelming majority of participants – more than 98 percent – lost money in the program. At least 88 percent of members did not even recoup their enrollment fees. To the extent that participants could make any income, it was mainly for recruiting other people into FHTM’s scheme. 

In addition to the multi-level marketing ban, the settlement order permanently prohibits Thomas A. Mills, Fortune Hi-Tech Marketing Inc., FHTM Inc., Alan Clark Holdings LLC, FHTM Canada Inc., and Fortune Network Marketing (UK) Limited from misrepresenting material facts about any product or service, including claims concerning how much money people can earn. The order also bans the defendants from selling or otherwise benefitting from customers’ personal information, failing to properly dispose of customer information and collecting any additional money from customers.

The order imposes a judgment of more than $169 million, which will be partially suspended when the defendants have surrendered certain assets at an estimated value of at least $7.75 million for consumer restitution. 

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European Union rules against Google in privacy case

Old news stories can stay online, but Google can't link to them

(Warning: This article might be illegal in the European Union. More specifically, it might be illegal for search engines such as Google to link to this art...

Photo(Warning: This article might be illegal in the European Union. More specifically, it might be illegal for search engines such as Google to link to this article in the European Union. Why? This article says nothing about how to commit crimes or acts of violence, but it does make mention of a Spanish back-taxes real-estate auction from 1998 and names the individual involved.)

Who owns your personal information? When people ask that question in America, it's usually in the context of sensitive info which (in theory) is supposed to remain confidential: who owns your Social Security and bank account numbers? Employment and salary history? What about your credit-card history detailing everything about you from what you eat and wear to where and when you travel, and how much money you spend on it all … and what, if anything, can you do to protect yourself from getting hurt when some company is careless with all this data?

In short, Americans' “personal information” is usually of the sort that's not supposed to show up on an ordinary online search engine. Also, for Americans, the answer to the question “Who owns your information” seems to be “Nobody knows, but definitely not you.”

Opposite extreme

In the European Union, a high court's answer to that question appears to be at the opposite extreme: not only do you own your personal information, you may also have some control over publicly available information about you, if it's too old or perhaps even unflattering, and while you can't make such information vanish, you can (in some instances) demand that Google or other search engines refrain from linking to it. Though in E.U. terms, it's not so much “the right to control your information” as it is “a right to be forgotten.”

The Court of Justice of the European Union (the E.U. equivalent to the U.S. Supreme Court, more or less) announced on May 13 that “An internet search engine operator is responsible for the processing that it carries out of personal data which appear on web pages published by third parties,” which is another way of saying “Google and other companies are responsible for removing links to certain information, upon request.” An English-language press release summarizing the case is available in .pdf form here.

The Court of Justice ruling was in regards to a case which a Spanish national named Mario Costeja González brought before the court in 2010. But the start of Costeja's complaint goes back much further, to 1998, when he owed some tax debts high enough that some real estate was auctioned off as part of attachment proceedings for repayment.

Public information

In Spain as in America, auctions for tax repayment are public information and thus count as legitimate news, so a Spanish daily newspaper called La Vanguardia published legal notices of the proceedings in January and March 1998. In 2009, those 11-year-old notices still turned up in Google searches for Costeja's name. Costeja asked La Vanguardia to take down the stories and asked Google to stop linking to them, on the grounds that old stories about his debt issues were no longer relevant, now that his debts had been resolved.

Google and the newspaper both refused Costeja's request, so in 2009 he took his complaints to the Spanish Data Protection Agency which, in July 2010, ordered Google to remove the links but did not order La Vanguardia to remove the stories.

Google challenged the order, the E. U. Court of Justice agreed to hear the appeal, and this week ruled against Google.

A footnote in the Court of Justice release notes that the ruling was based on “Directive 9 5/46/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 24 October 1995 on the protection of individuals with regard to the processing of personal data and on the free movement of such data.”

No First Amendment

There is, of course, no First Amendment in most European countries. This means that would be an open-and-shut case in the U.S. came become quite muddied elsewhere.

There are, for example, few sites like ConsumerAffairs or Yelp in Europe, for the simple reason that businesses can bring libel charges against anyone who speaks ill of them with a reasonable certainty of winning, even if the criticism is accurate. 

In the U.S., the press has over the years developed accepted standards for handling sensitive information that it might have a legal right to publish. For example, most publications voluntarily withhold the identity of rape victims except in the most extreme cases. The Googles of the world largely ignore such niceties.

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Slow-moving Jeep retrofit creeps along, as trailer hitch production gets underway

Trailer hitch assembly will supposedly protect gas tank in rear-end collisions

The trailer hitch-equipped Jeep in which Cassidy Jarmon, 4, was killed. (Photo credit: Center for Auto Safety)Chrysler says its suppliers are starting ...

Photo
The trailer hitch-equipped Jeep in which Cassidy Jarmon, 4, was killed. (Photo credit: Center for Auto Safety)

Chrysler says its suppliers are starting to manufacture the trailer hitch assemblies that supposedly will protect the fuel tanks of older Jeep SUVs from rupturing and exploding into flames in rear-end crashes.

The assemblies are expected to begin arriving at Jeep dealers late this summer for installation on more than 1.5 million 1993-98 Jeep Grand Cherokees and 2002-07 Jeep Libertys. 

Jeep May 13, 2014, 2:23 p.m.
Consumers rate Jeep

Chrysler executives and then-Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood agreed on the retrofit in a secret, off-the-record meeting last year at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport after a four-year investigation that began when safety advocates filed a 69-page petition with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) seeking action on the alleged defect.

Chrysler's proposed trailer hitch assembly drew fire from some of those same safety advocates, who said it had not been scientifically tested and shown to be effective.

LaHood, an Illinois Republican named to the Transportation Dept. post by President Obama, a former Chicago politician, was on his way out the door as the NHTSA-Chrysler discussions dragged on. He announced his decision to step down in January 2013 but said he would stay on until his successor was confirmed; the trailer-hitch plan was agreed to June 18. On June 27, the Senate confirmed Charlotte, N.C., mayor Anthony Foxx as his successor. LaHood is now working as a lobbyist, mostly on behalf of transportation interests, as is former NHTSA Administrator David Strickland.

Decision denounced

Safety advocates say the location of the fuel tank creates a greater risk of fire in rear-end collisions and question whether the trailer hitch is an adequate fix. They say at least 270 people have died in such fires. Chrysler and NHTSA dispute that and cite a number in the 50s.

"It is tragic that NHTSA approved Chrysler’s sham trailer hitch recall for Jeeps that explode in rear impacts," said Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, who filed the 2009 petition that led to the NHTSA investigation. "NHTSA Administrator David Strickland will be remembered as the Administrator who took a job with one of Chrysler’s law firms rather than save more children like Cassidy Jarmon from burning to deaths in Jeeps with trailer hitches. 

"In strong contrast former NHTSA Administrator Joan Claybrook is remembered for saving lives by standing up to Ford and demanding crash tests and an improved remedy when Ford tried to foist off an inadequate remedy for the Pinto which exploded in rear impacts just like the Jeep.”

Ditlow cited a photo of the trailer hitch-equipped Jeep in which Cassidy Jarmon, 4, died when her family's Grand Cherokee was rear-ended.

No bankruptcy dodge

Although Chrysler has been lambasted by safety advocates for its handling of the issue, it has not played the pre-bankruptcy card, as General Motors did in April, when it said it should not be held responsible for injuries and deaths resulting from defective ignition switches in millions of Chevy Cobalts and Saturn Ions. 

GM said the cars in question were built by its predecessor -- "Old GM," the company that went through a government-engineered bankruptcy in 2009 -- and that today's GM is a different legal entity.

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Financial goals are changing

Polls find consumers are worrying more about retirement

At one time Americans planned for a home of their own, or perhaps saved for a new car. When times were good many counted on a nice vacation every year.Th...

PhotoAt one time Americans planned for a home of their own, or perhaps saved for a new car. When times were good many counted on a nice vacation every year.

These days Americans' financial priorities appear to be more future oriented. A Harris survey finds that 50% of American adults say having enough money for retirement is their top financial goal.

You might expect that shift among the Baby Boom generation, which is already in or nearing retirement. In fact, this thinking cuts along all demographics.

The Great Recession appears to have been the catalyst. While retirement security has risen in importance, home ownerships has declined.

Home-ownership losing its appeal

In 2011, 17 percent said homeownership was their most-important financial goal, compared to just 13 percent in the latest findings.

“People are more in tune with the importance of saving for their retirement years,” says Ted Beck, president and CEO of the National Endowment for Financial Education (NEFE), which commissioned the poll. “Economic recovery is inching forward yet many individuals and families still are experiencing difficulty getting back on track.”

As a result, he says, people are taking comfort in their long-term financial comfort rather than material things. But even people who believe they have their retirement planning under control don't always sleep well at night.

An unrelated survey of investors, commissioned by Legg Mason, found 88% believe they will have enough money to retire but fear their plans could be derailed by a catastrophic event.

"We fear the unpredictable, the catastrophic event that can decimate retirement savings," said Matthew Schiffman managing director and head of global marketing at Legg Mason Global Asset Management. "As a result, we encourage financial advisors and investors to take a realistic approach when planning for retirement. We call it 'realtirement' and it includes trying to anticipate the unpredictable. For instance, have you planned for your long-term living situation?  What if you suddenly need assisted living or even greater care? Are you prepared for that event? We all need to be.”

Finding the money

While the Legg Mason poll measured more affluent investors the NEFE survey found 63% believe “not being able to save enough” is the biggest obstacle to reaching financial goals. Costs of food and gasoline have risen sharply while wages have remained stagnant, so how is it possible to save in today's economy?

The U.S. Department of Labor says fewer than half of Americans have even calculated how much they need to save for retirement, much less put a plan in place to save it.

In 2012 30% of people in the private work force who had access to a defined contribution plan, such as a 401(k), did not put money into it.

The Department of Labor estimates that you will need at least 70% of your pre-retirement income to maintain your standard of living when you stop working. Some may need less but others may need more.

Nuts and bolts

How do you get there? Saving is important but how you invest that savings may be equally as important in the long run.

Personal finance expert Ric Edelman says most people will receive income from a variety of sources in retirement; Social Security, a pension, perhaps an inheritance. Beyond that they need income from a diversified portfolio with some assets that produce income and some that don't.

Edelman suggests what he calls a systematic withdrawal plan (SWP). Instead of withdrawing dividend and interest income you take out the same amount of money each month, reinvesting the dividend and interest income.

But how can you carve out the money from your monthly budget to invest in a retirement account? Personal finance guru Suze Orman says that requires having a budget, with money going into a 401 (k), an Individual Retirement Account (IRA) or a Roth IRA before it ever gets to your checking account.

In other words, saving for retirement should be a fixed expense you have to make each month, just like a mortgage or utility bill.

There's one exception to that advice, however. Orman says before saving for retirement you must pay off all credit card debt.

“Getting out of debt is the most important priority before investing for retirement,” she writes.

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Post office stamp-machine customers: check your account, now!

You should always watch out for skimmers; the problem isn't limited to the USPS

Warning to anyone who buys postage stamps at USPS vending machines: look carefully before you swipe your credit or debit card for payment, because identity...

PhotoWarning to anyone who buys postage stamps at USPS vending machines: look carefully before you swipe your credit or debit card for payment, because identity thieves might have installed a skimmer that records your account number, password and other data necessary for a thief to enjoy a fraudulent shopping spree in your name. And an additional warning: if you've already made such a swiped purchase, check the recent history on your card to see if there's any suspicious activity.

Actually, “always look for skimmers” is good advice for any credit- or debit-card swipers, not just postal customers, but the USPS deserves specific mention today since the US Postal Inspection Service is investigating reports of skimmer fraud from stamp vending machines across the United States.

Security blogger Brian Krebs reported on May 13 that his sources in the banking industry noted a disturbing recent trend: fraudulent debit card activity on a variety of accounts with one purchase in common: official USPS self-serve stamp machines in certain areas.

When Krebs emailed the USPIS for comment, he received an email of valid (though generic) advice:

“USPIS recommends customers who use the APC [Automated Postal Center] machine should personally visually inspect the machine prior to use … Look for any type of plastic piece that looks like it has been slid over the actual credit card reader. Look for any other type of marking on the machine that looks as though it has been applied by a third-party.”

And if you see any of these things, avoid using the vending machine, but do let your local postal authorities know about it.

Though the USPIS declined to give specifics, Krebs' sources said the problem apparently dates back to last November, and affected machines were in Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Nebraska, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Utah, Virginia, and Washington, D.C.

If you've bought stamps at a self-serve kiosk in any of those states these past six months, give extra scrutiny to your accounts, and if you detect fraudulent activity, contact your bank or card isuer immediately.

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Round-the-clock wearable spy tech for babies

Who needs privacy when you have nifty monitoring gadgets?

It's a fact of modern life: anything with a wireless connection has the potential to be hacked, so once wireless baby monitors went on the market, it was o...

PhotoIt's a fact of modern life: anything with a wireless connection has the potential to be hacked, so once wireless baby monitors went on the market, it was only a matter of time before hackers hijacked those monitor feeds so they could spy on strangers' babies.

But if wireless baby monitors aren't high-tech enough for your taste, check out this Wall Street Journal article about the possible shape of things to come: wearable baby monitors that measure everything from your baby's heart rate to sleeping position and send it wirelessly to your smartphone.

Aleks Swerdlow, who is expecting her first baby in July, owns several wearable devices, including a fetal heartbeat monitor. She wants her newborn to eventually wear devices, too.

"I love gadgets, wearables specifically," said Ms. Swerdlow, 29 years old. "So it seemed a natural extension to have that available for my child, especially if it allows me to not worry about how the baby is sleeping and breathing."

….

Swerdlow, of Santa Clara, Calif., recently paid more than $200 for Mimo Baby, a set of three baby bodysuits that includes a device used to measure respiration, skin temperature and body position. The product sends the vital-sign information to a smartphone. Ms. Swerdlow also is on the wait list for a $250 so-called smart sock made by startup Owlet Baby Care Inc. that senses a baby's oxygen saturation and heart rate.

Though the Journal does discuss possible downsides or concerns related to this wearable new monitoring technology, it doesn't mention anti-privacy or hacker-danger concerns, focusing instead on the possible dangers of babies wearing battery packs or any electronics devices: is there any danger of batteries overheating? Are those electronics made with toxic metals?

Though companies like Owlet say they eventually hope to have their items receive official medical-device status, for now they are careful to state that these are not meant as medical devices of any sort.

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Millennials kind of clueless about credit scores

Study suggests younger consumers get their annual credit reports ... and read them

Millennials may be experts on the latest Starbucks concoctions and "Portlandia" episodes but a new study finds they're not quite as plugged in when it come...

PhotoMillennials may be experts on the latest Starbucks concoctions and "Portlandia" episodes but a new study finds they're not quite as plugged in when it comes to credit scores. 

In fact, a survey by the Consumer Federation of America (CFA) and VantageScore Solutions reveals that millennials know less about these scores than other adult Americans. 

Those 18-34 years of age know less about which businesses use the scores and less about who collects information on which the scores are based, while being more likely to erroneously think that credit repair companies can always or usually be useful in correcting errors and improving scores.

An important reason for their lower knowledge appears to be that millennials are much less likely than other adult Americans to have ever obtained the free credit reports (49% vs. 74%) on which their credit scores are based. 

“Obtaining their free credit reports not only allows consumers to check the accuracy of the reports but also appears to motivate them to learn more about credit scores,” noted CFA Executive Director Stephen Brobeck.  The easiest way to obtain one’s reports is to visit www.annualcreditreport.com or call the toll-free number, 877-322-8228.

CFA also recommends that consumers take the free online credit score quiz at www.creditscorequiz.org.  “This easy-to-use quiz provides basic information about the complex world of credit scores and how consumers can improve their scores,” said Brobeck. 

To date, nearly 45,000 Americans have taken the quiz, which was developed and has been updated by CFA and VantageScore Solutions, displays no advertising, and collects no personal data.  Everyone who completes the quiz in May will be given the opportunity to enter a drawing for a $500 gift card.

The telephone survey was undertaken by ORC International April 17-19, 2014, using a representative sample of 1004 adult Americans interviewed on landlines or cell phones.  The margin of error is plus or minus three percentage points.

Survey findings

The survey found that most Americans have a grasp of these essentials:

  • Well over four-fifths know that credit card issuers (88%) and mortgage lenders (87%) might use these scores.
  • Well over four-fifths know that missed payments (92%), personal bankruptcy (87%), and high credit card balances (87%) are factors used to calculate credit scores.
  • Nearly three-quarters (72%) know that they have more than one generic credit score.
  • Nearly three-quarters (72%) know that the three main credit bureaus – Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion – collect the information on which credit scores are most frequently based.
  • Nearly three-quarters (72%) know that it is very important to check the accuracy of one’s credit reports at the three credit bureaus.
  • Nearly three-quarters (74%) know that the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is the federal agency best suited to help consumers solve individual problems.

However, far fewer Americans understand other important facts about credit scores. 

“Most troubling is that only 42 percent know that a credit score measures the risk of not repaying a loan rather than factors such as knowledge of, or attitude to, consumer credit,” noted Brobeck.  “Consumers should be aware that they can take steps to reduce this risk and improve their scores, most importantly, by making all loan payments on time,” he added.

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E-cigarettes have strong appeal to the mentally ill

Today's users aren't like the characters in "Mad Men"

A new study finds that people suffering from mental health disorders are three times more likely than others to be current e-cigarette users.  Resea...

PhotoA new study finds that people suffering from mental health disorders are three times more likely than others to be current e-cigarette users.  

Researchers at University of California, San Diego School of Medicine also found that people living with depression, anxiety or other mental health conditions are twice as likely to have tried e-cigarettes.

They are also more susceptible to trying e-cigarettes in the future in the belief that doing so will help them quit smoking traditional cigarettes, even though the FDA has not approved e-cigarettes as a smoking cessation aid, the scientists said.

"The faces of smokers in America in the 1960s were the 'Mad Men' in business suits," said lead author Sharon Cummins, PhD, assistant professor in the Department of Family and Preventive Medicine. "They were fashionable and had disposable income. Those with a smoking habit today are poorer, have less education, and, as this study shows, have higher rates of mental health conditions."

By some estimates, people with psychiatric disorders consume approximately 30% to 50% of all cigarettes sold annually in the U.S.

"Since the safety of e-cigarettes is still unknown, their use by nonsmokers could put them at risk," Cummins said. Another concern is that the widespread use of e-cigarettes could reverse the social norms that have made smoking largely socially unacceptable.

The study shows that smokers, regardless of their mental health condition, are the primary consumers of the nicotine delivery technology. People with mental health disorders also appear to be using e-cigarettes for the same reasons as other smokers – to reduce potential harm to their health and to help them break the habit.

"So far, nonsmokers with mental health disorders are not picking up e-cigarettes as a gateway to smoking," Cummins said.

"People with mental health conditions have largely been forgotten in the war on smoking," Cummins said. "But because they are high consumers of cigarettes, they have the most to gain or lose from the e-cigarette phenomenon. Which way it goes will depend on what product regulations are put into effect and whether e-cigarettes ultimately prove to be useful in helping smokers quit."

Study details

The study is based on a survey of Americans' smoking history, efforts to quit and their use and perceptions about e-cigarettes. People were also asked whether they had ever been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, depression or other mental health condition.

Among the 10,041 people who responded to the survey, 27.8% of current smokers had self-reported mental health conditions, compared with 13.4% of non-smokers; 14.8% of individuals with mental health conditions had tried e-cigarettes, and 3.1% were currently using them, compared with 6.6% and 1.1% without mental health conditions, respectively.

In addition, 60.5% of smokers with mental health conditions indicated that they were somewhat likely or very likely to try e-cigarettes in the future, compared with 45.3% of smokers without mental health conditions.

The study will be published in the May 13 online issue of Tobacco Control.

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Osteoporosis drugs: benefits versus risks

Long term use may not be necessary for some patients

If you're one of the 44 million people at risk for osteoporosis -- a disease in which bones become weak and are more likely to break -- you may be taking b...

PhotoIf you're one of the 44 million people at risk for osteoporosis -- a disease in which bones become weak and are more likely to break -- you may be taking bisphosphonates.

In an effort to slow or inhibit the loss of bone mass, doctors prescribe bisphosphonates, which include such brand-name drugs as Actonel, Atelvia, Boniva, and Fosamax (as well as a number of generic products). In fact, more than 150 million prescriptions were dispensed to patients between 2005 and 2009.

Lately, researchers at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have taken a close look at the long-term benefit of bisphosphonates. An FDA review of clinical studies measuring the effectiveness of long-term use shows that some patients may be able to stop using these drugs after three to five years and still continue to benefit from their use, says Marcea Whitaker, M.D., a medical officer at FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research.

How long is long enough?

Whitaker one of the co-authors of the FDA review, which was published in the May 31, 2012 issue of The New England Journal of Medicine, says these drugs clearly work, adding, "We just don't know yet the optimum period of time individual patients should be on the drug to both maximize its effectiveness and minimize potential risks."

According to the study, more research is needed on patients' risk of fracture after they stop taking bisphosphonates, and whether taking them again later on could prove beneficial.

The studies suggest that patients at low risk of fracture -- for example, younger patients without a fracture history and with a bone mineral density approaching normal -- may be good candidates for discontinuation of bisphosphonate therapy after three to five years.

In contrast, patients at increased risk for fractures (for example, older patients with a history of fracture and a bone mineral density remaining in the osteoporotic range) may benefit further from continued bisphosphonate therapy.

How they work

Bones go through a continual process of remodeling, in the form of bone resorption (disintegration) and bone formation. Bone loss related to osteoporosis occurs when resorption is greater than formation. Bisphosphonates decrease bone resorption, thereby slowing bone loss.

During treatment, bisphosphonates become part of the newly formed bone and can stay there for years, through many cycles of resorption and formation. Patients continue to be exposed to the effects of the drug even long after they’ve stopped taking it.

The studies that FDA considered focused on patients who had been using bisphosphonates for at least three years and as many as 10. They looked at outcomes related both to bone mineral density and bone fractures.

"Bisphosphonates have been proven very effective in protecting against bone fractures in clinical trials lasting three to four years," says Whitaker. But it's still unknown whether the benefit lasts longer than that in decreasing the risk of fractures.

Caveats

Bisphosphonate labels have carried a safety warning about severe jaw bone decay (osteonecrosis of the jaw) since 2002. In October 2010, FDA warned patients and health care professionals about the increased risk of unusual thigh bone fractures and directed manufacturers to include the warning in the safety labels and medication guides that come with prescription medications.

FDA continues to evaluate the possible association of bisphosphonates with esophageal cancer. These associations would suggest that health care professionals may want to reconsider how long patients should continue taking the drugs.

What to do

Decisions to continue treatment must be based on individual assessments of risks and benefits and on patient preference.

If you are taking bisphosphonates:

  • Talk to your physician about whether you should continue this therapy. Re-evaluate the decision on a periodic basis.
  • Don't stop taking these (or any) prescribed drugs without talking to your physician first. If you do make the decision to discontinue use, talk to your physician before stopping therapy.
  • Tell your health care professional if you develop new hip or thigh pain (commonly described as dull or aching pain), or have any concerns with your medications.
  • Report unusual side effects of your bisphosphonate medication to FDA's MedWatch program.

A number of factors put both men and women at risk for osteoporosis, including age, race, family history, and a sedentary lifestyle. But there are also several ways you can reduce that risk, including:

  • getting adequate amounts of calcium and Vitamin D through foods
  • staying physically active, including weight-bearing exercise such as walking, jogging, skipping rope, and skiing
  • not smoking
  • limiting alcohol use
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Retail sales rise in April but at a slower pace

Gasoline and auto sales were major factors

Retail sales rose in April for a third straight month but the rate of increase slowed considerably from March. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, sales...

PhotoRetail sales rose in April for a third straight month but the rate of increase slowed considerably from March.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, sales inched up 0.1% and were up 4.0% from the same time a year ago. As it released its April report, the government revised its March number to show an increase of 1.5% instead of the 1.1% reported earlier.

Winners and losers

Among the sectors showing sales gains were gas stations (+0.8%), autos (+0.7%) and clothing and accessory stores (+1.2%). Those advances were offset by a decline of 2.3% at electronics and appliance stores and drop of 0.9% at restaurants and bars.

After one of the worst winters in years, analysts expected sales would be strong in the early months of 2014. However, Sterne Agee Chief Economist Lindsey Piegza says the pent up demand for goods purchases, “appears to have been satisfied in just two months time" and that the "robust spending levels of February and March have all but disappeared into a lackluster near zero pace of spending” at the start of the second quarter.

Because consumer spending accounts for about two-thirds of all economic activity, she says this does not bode well for those looking for the economy to expand at a rate of 3 to 4%.

The full report is available on the Census Bureau website.

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This free tool can guard against identity theft

Placing a fraud alert on your credit file makes it harder for a thief to access it

With data breaches occurring with more frequency and hackers devising more clever ways to access your personal information, identity theft now affects more...

PhotoWith data breaches occurring with more frequency and hackers devising more clever ways to access your personal information, identity theft now affects more people.

The results are devastating. Armed with your Social Security number and other bits of information about you, an identity thief can open credit card accounts and take out loans in your name.

Your credit will be ruined and you will spend months – maybe years – untangling the mess. Fortunately there is a simple and free way to reduce your chances of becoming a victim.

Work with credit agencies

Contact each of the three credit reporting agencies – Experian, Equifax and Transunion and request a fraud alert – or even an extended fraud alert -- on your credit file. This simply means that no one can access your credit file without verifying your identity first.

For example, if someone steals your Social Security number and tries to get a bank loan, the bank would first have to take steps to make sure the person sitting in front of them is who they say they are. That might mean placing a call to you to ask if you are, indeed, trying to take out a loan.

According to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), an extended fraud alert is free but primarily intended for victims of identity theft and those who believe they are at risk. Today, however, that covers just about everyone.

If you have reason to believe that any of your personal data has been compromised – if your credit card was one of the 40 million exposed in the Target breach, for example – you may be justified in asking for an extended fraud alert on your account. Anyone is eligible for a 90-day fraud alert, which can be renewed.

Where to start

Request fraud alerts here:

The FTC advises that you contact each of the credit reporting agencies to place an extended fraud alert, with lasts 7 years instead of 90-days, on your credit file. The company may have you fill out a request form and provide other documentation.

Equifax cautions that a fraud alert, while a powerful tool, will not guarantee a cunning identity thief can't open an account in your name. In particular for an initial fraud alert, a creditor is not required by law to contact you.

“You should also pay close attention to your credit file to make sure that the only credit inquiries or new credit accounts in your file are yours,” the company says on its website. “Other measures may also be warranted depending on your particular situation.”

Credit freeze

A fraud alert is different from a “credit freeze” in one important respect. With a credit freeze, your existing creditors can still get access to your file without your knowledge. It will also not stop misuse of your existing accounts or some other types of identity theft.

To place either a fraud alert or a credit freeze, you will need to provide appropriate proof of your identity, which may include your Social Security Number. If you ask for an extended alert, you may have to provide an identity theft report.

An identity theft report includes a copy of a report you have filed with a federal, state or local law enforcement agency, plus any additional information requested. For more detailed information about the identity theft report.  

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What it means when 43% of homebuyers pay cash

Banks are now less important; small investors and owner-occupants are scooping up bargains

The financial crisis of 2008 had a huge impact on the real estate market, sending both sales and prices plummeting.Since then some of the housing trends ...

PhotoThe financial crisis of 2008 had a huge impact on the real estate market, sending both sales and prices plummeting.

Since then some of the housing trends have reversed themselves but one has not -- many buyers now shun mortgage lenders and purchase homes with cash.

Month after month nearly one-third of buyers have paid cash rather than jump through the hoops mortgage companies now require. Many of the cash buyers have been investors, who have “flipped” foreclosed homes for a profit or converted them to rental property.

In the first three months of 2014 the cash trend has accelerated. According to RealtyTrac, a foreclosure marketer, 43% of homes sold in the first quarter were purchased without the aid of a lender.

“Strict lending standards combined with low inventory continue to give the advantage to investors and other cash buyers in this housing market,” said Daren Blomquist, vice president at RealtyTrac. “The good news is that as institutional investors pull back their purchasing in many markets across the country, there is still strong demand from other cash buyers — including individual investors, second-home buyers and even owner-occupant buyers — to fill the vacuum of demand left by institutional investors.”

Who's buying?

So, if institutional investors – companies – aren't buying homes for cash, who is? Blomquist suggests it is small investors and even owner-occupants, who are picking up principal and second homes.

The National Association of Realtors (NAR) shares that view. But strangely, NAR statistics show the share of distressed sales within the market – those usually favored by cash buyers – continue to fall.

“Distressed home sales, most popular with investors who pay cash, have declined notably in the past two years, yet the share of all-cash purchases has risen,” said Lawrence Yun, NAR's chief economist. “At the same time, investors have declined as a market share, indicating other changes have been underway in the marketplace.”

Demographic trend

What other changes? Perhaps a demographic trend, Yun suggests.

“The restrictive mortgage lending standards are a factor, but the higher levels of cash sales may also come from the aging of the baby boom generation, with more trade-down and retirement buyers paying cash with decades of equity accumulation,” he said.

Something else may be at work here as well. Foreign buyers looking for a place to park their cash appear to increasingly favor U.S. real estate over bonds, which pay very little, and stocks, which may now be overvalued.

In Florida, for example, more than half of all home purchases in the first quarter were made with cash. South Florida real estate, which remains priced well below its housing bubble peak, is favored by many Latin American investors.

West Virginia anomaly

But that doesn't explain the rise in cash home sales in West Virginia. In West Virginia, all-cash sales went from about one-third of buyers in 2012 to nearly 4 out of 10 buyers in 2013. At the same time, distressed sales declined from a quarter of the market to less than 1 in 5.

It's possible we are seeing the declining importance of mortgages in the housing market. Banks have made it much harder to get a loan.

With 43% of buyers paying with cash, we are also seeing the declining presence of first-time homebuyers in the market. It's fair to say that very few first-time buyers are able to pay in cash.

Even buyers who can qualify for a mortgage must submit to so much financial inspection and hoop-jumping that they simply don't think it's worth it. Historically low interest rates have failed to attract borrowers.

However, those low interest rates have helped inflate the stock market over the last five years. Investors who have remained in stocks have made a lot of money, cash they may now be putting into real estate.

If so, that may bode well for all concerned. Buyers don't have to convince a bank to loan them the money. The seller can be more certain that the deal won't get derailed by a last minute financing issue.

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Edible insects: dietary staple of the future

Insect protein might help end world hunger someday

Modern diets are changing all the time—not “diet” in the sense of the latest weight-loss fad, but the everyday foods eaten by ordinary people. ...

PhotoModern diets are changing all the time — not “diet” in the sense of the latest weight-loss fad, but the everyday foods eaten by ordinary people. And if you look at your household's typical weekly menu, it's almost certain to be radically different from what your ancestors were eating 200 years ago.

Some of these changes are due to technological and agricultural innovations, while others have to do with cultural intermingling. To offer a personal example: I generally like sushi, but if you traveled back in time and told my ancestors “Your great-great-great-granddaughter will eat raw fish,” they'd probably be horrified and think it's because I live either in miserable poverty or on some godforsaken desert island.

And if you assured them: “No, it's not out of desperation, it's her choice! She'll actually pay more money for raw fish than a cooked hamburger, because in the year 2014, raw fish is popular enough that America has thousands of restaurants dedicated to selling it” …. well, that little conversation would probably end badly for you, when you found yourself imprisoned in an insane asylum from that era.

Ick factor

The point is, there are many edible and nutritious foods which people in one culture (or time period) embrace, though people in other places or times think it appalling. Snails in America are mostly considered “yuck,” except in upscale French restaurants where they are haute cuisine.

Cheese is another example: super-popular in some countries, including America (and my own household within), yet disgusting in other places, including China. If you think about it, cheese actually does sound pretty gross: “So, you take milk but don't drink it while it's fresh; instead, you wait for it to go bad, deliberately contaminating it with bacteria if that's what it takes, and then don't eat it until after it congeals? Eew.”

And insects are another example. In modern America and most Western countries, bug-eating falls firmly within the “yuck” category. Yet in the future, insect protein might play a huge role in every person's diet, including our own American descendants'.

Ounce for ounce (or calorie for calorie), insect protein is cheaper and easier to grow, and far more environmentally sustainable, than protein from beef cattle or any other form of common food livestock.

Photo

Locustovores

Though mostly ignored in the modern Western world, eating insects remains common in other regions as it has been throughout history, dating back to the earliest Middle Eastern civilizations. It is also mentioned several times in the Judeo-Christian Bible. The dietary restrictions in the book of Leviticus put certain insects on the “approved foods” list; chapter 11, verse 22 says “Of these you may eat any kind of locust, katydid, cricket or grasshopper” (New International Version).

And in the New Testament book of Matthew, when John the Baptist is first introduced, it's mentioned that he ate “locusts and wild honey.”

So there's both historical and religious precedents for eating insects, plus pressure to provide sufficient protein for a growing world population while reducing the environmental damage caused by raising larger livestock.

The problem, again, is overcoming the “ick” factor. But Wired UK last week reported on a new effort to make insects “delectable to western palates,” telling the story of an Icelandic designer named Búi Bjarmar Aðalsteinsson, who has invented what he calls a Fly Factory “that restaurants can use to grow delicious suppers for their clientele. He has a recipe for larvae pudding, too.”

Of course, Aðalsteinsson doesn't intend customers to simply be given a bag of dead flies and told bon appetit, but he does apparently produce a fairly tasty “meat paté” by combining wheat, eggs, onion, salt, milk and various spices with liquified larvae to pack a protein punch.

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Similar to meat

Aðalsteinsson told architectural magazine Dezeen.com that he was inspired by a 2013 United Nations report (available in .pdf form here) called “Edible Insects: Future prospects for food and feed security,” which studied how insects, if raised as a food source, could reduce if not outright eliminate food shortages throughout the world. As Aðalsteinsson said: “Larvae are similar to meat when it comes to protein, fat and nutrients … But larvae need 5 to 10 times less feed to produce the same amount of growth. Larvae, and insects in general, are also very resourceful when it comes to feeding, as they are able to digest almost any biomass available in the natural environment.”

Indeed, the larvae in his Fly Factory (and similar fly-raising setups) feed mainly on organic waste — the vegetable peelings and other unwanted leftovers from ordinary food preparation. Where raising protein for human consumption is consumed, a protein source that feeds on garbage is much easier to support than, say, a cow requiring several acres of good grazing land.

And if the thought of eating larva paté makes you queasy, remember: there's millions of people today who feel the same way about eating cheese or sushi, pork or beef, and sundry other popular American foods, including a few of your own favorites.

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Photo credits: Edible insects: future prospects for food and feed security, United Nations, 2013

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Investors file class action against Herbalife

Wall Street's battle over marketer continues

The Pomerantz Law Firm, a corporate class action specialist with offices in New York, Chicago, Florida, and San Diego, has filed a class action lawsuit aga...

PhotoThe latest chapter in the long-running controversy over Herbalife is a class action lawsuit that charges the firm made misleading statements to its investors.

The suit was filed by the Pomerantz Law Firm on behalf of shareholders who purchased Herbalife stock between May 4, 2010 and April 11. 

The complaint claims the company failed to disclose that it is based on a pyramid scheme – a charge leveled by hedge fund manager Bill Ackman in December 2012 but vigorously denied by Herbalife.

Herbalife is a marketing company that sells weight management, nutritional supplement and personal care products through a network of independent distributors. The suit maintains they are usually people with “little marketing expertise who were recruited to buy Herbalife products in the hope that they would be able to resell the product to other consumers or distributors.”

Multilevel marketing

Herbalife May 12, 2014, 1:18 p.m.
Consumers rate Herbalife
Herbalife, like many multilevel marketing enterprises, has been the subject of complaints for years. It has been accused to being all about recruiting people to sell the product and less about the product itself.

In spite of that, Herbalife has continued to grow. Its stock is publicly traded on Wall Street with a total value in excess of $6 billion.

Ackman, who operates Persian Square Capital Management, a large hedge fund, has been a fierce critic of Herbalife and in late 2012 took a huge “short” position in the company's stock.

That means Ackman stands to gain if the value of Herbalife stock goes down. However, he stands to lose money if Herbalife stock stays the same or goes up in value.

Company value has increased

When Ackman first leveled the pyramid scheme charge against the company in December 2012 Herbalife was trading between $45 and $46 a share. For Ackman's short play to be profitable, he needs Herbalife stock to fall below that level.

Instead, the stock has sharply risen. Herbalife currently trades at around $61 a share with a 12-month price target of $85.

Some have questioned the appropriateness of Ackman's very public campaign against Herbalife. After all, he has a financial stake in the demise of this publicly traded company.

However, Yale law professor Jonathon Macey, writing in Forbes, argues that Ackman has every right to lobby government regulators to take action against Herbalife.

“Investors should use every legal means at their disposal – especially lobbying — to further their positions,” Macey wrote. “If it is legitimate for a company whose shares are being shorted to use shareholders’ money to fight investigations investors must be free to deploy their own resources to push back.”

Herbalife, meanwhile, claims Ackman has spent more than $20 million on a campaign against the company. In a recent press release it accused Ackman of “a calculated, coordinated and well-funded effort to destroy a 34-year old company and support his $1 billion bet against Herbalife.”

Ackman isn't the only one taking on Herbalife. In January Sen. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) called on the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to investigate Herbalife's business practices.

Neither agency publicly discloses which companies are under investigation.

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FTC mailing checks to EDebitPay customers

The company deceptively offered a $10,000 credit line, the feds charged

The FTC is mailing checks totaling over $3.7 million to 26,176 consumers whose bank accounts were debited without their consent by EDebitPay LLC and i...

PhotoThe FTC is mailing checks totaling over $3.7 million to 26,176 consumers whose bank accounts were debited without their consent by EDebitPay LLC and its owners.

The defendants deceptively offered a $10,000 credit line that was really a membership to a website where consumers could buy goods, the agency said.

“The FTC strives to return as much money as possible to defrauded consumers;” said Jessica Rich, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “It is particularly gratifying when we can make consumers whole again.”

In 2011, a federal district court ordered the defendants to pay more than $3.7 million after finding that the defendants were in contempt of court for violating a 2008 court order by selling a bogus “$10,000 credit line”, and a “no cost” prepaid debit card with hidden fees, to consumers who were unemployed or had poor credit.

After obtaining the judgment, the FTC collected it in full. Many affected consumers will receive more than $100; the amounts vary based upon the victim’s loss.

Those who receive the checks from the FTC’s refund administrator should cash them within 60 days of the mailing date. The FTC never requires consumers to pay money or to provide information before refund checks can be cashed. Those with questions should call the refund administrator, Gilardi & Co. LLC, at 1-877-290-6229, or visit www.FTC.gov/redress for more general information.

The Federal Trade Commission works for consumers to prevent fraudulent, deceptive, and unfair bu

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Apple promises faster refunds from its online store

But the company hopes customers won't even think of returning the new MacBook Air

Hotels would like for you to deal directly with them instead of using third-party sites. So would airlines. And so, it turns out, would Apple, which isn't ...

PhotoHotels would like for you to deal directly with them instead of using third-party sites. So would airlines. And so, it turns out, would Apple, which isn't very surprising when you think about it.

Hoping to entice more customers to come directly to the Apple Online Store for iPhones, iPads, iMacs, MacBooks and so forth, Apple says is cutting in half the time it will take to process refunds who want to return their purchase.

That would mean customers could expect their refunds in less than a week, compared to 10 days previously.

StellaService, a retail-intelligence firm, says it first noted the speed-up in November but thought it might be related to the expected holiday crush.

Fresh Air

Apple's not expecting many returns of the updated MacBook Air, though, thanks to its faster processors and lower prices, which Apple says are "making the perfect everyday notebook an even better value."

Now starting at $899, MacBook Air features powerful processors, fast flash storage, 802.11ac Wi-Fi, up to 12 hours of battery life and Apple’s iLife and iWork apps.

“With MacBook Air starting at $899, there’s no reason to settle for anything less than a Mac,” said Philip Schiller, Apple’s senior vice president of Worldwide Marketing. “Macs have never been more popular, and today we’ve boosted the performance and lowered the price of MacBook Air so even more people can experience the perfect everyday notebook.”

Power-efficient fourth generation Intel Core i5 and Core i7 processors work in conjunction with OS X Mavericks to give the 13-inch MacBook Air up to 12 hours of battery life and the 11-inch MacBook Air up to 9 hours of battery life, according to Apple.

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Hachette says Amazon is delaying its book shipments

Other sites ship Hachette books within 24 hours; Amazon waits up to several weeks. Why?

If you're visiting online booksellers, hoping to buy something by J.D. Salinger, Stephen Colbert or other authors published under the Hachette Book Group, ...

PhotoIf you're visiting online booksellers, hoping to buy something by J.D. Salinger, Stephen Colbert or other authors published under the Hachette Book Group, be warned: though most online retailers will ship your book right away, or at most within a day or two, Amazon.com might delay shipping anywhere from two to five weeks.

Amazon.com May 12, 2014, 6:34 p.m.
Consumers rate Amazon.com
Why? Hachette says this is a negotiating tactic on Amazon's part, whereas Amazon says – nothing, actually, since the company has declined media requests for comment.

The New York Times first reported the matter last Friday, noting that while most popular titles listed on Amazon are available within two days, a curiously large percentage of Hachette books have listed shipping times of two to three weeks.

Though Amazon was unwilling to speak to the Times, Hachette spokesperson Sophie Cottrell did:

“We have been asked legitimate questions about why many of our books are at present marked out of stock with relatively long estimated shipping times on the Amazon website, in contrast to immediate availability on other websites and in stores,” said Sophie Cottrell, a Hachette spokeswoman. “We are satisfying all Amazon’s orders promptly.”

But, she added, “Amazon is holding minimal stock” and restocking some of Hachette’s books “slowly, causing ‘available 2-4 weeks’ messages.”

Whatever the reason for the Hachette Books shipping delay, it's limited to Amazon; many of the same titles whose Amazon shipping dates are listed several weeks in the future will ship within 24 hours from Barnes and Noble.

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Who should take aspirin to prevent heart attacks?

Cardiac screening test may hold the answer

Like a lot of things, aspirin can be both good and bad. It can help prevent heart attack and stroke but it can also cause internal bleeding in some patient...

PhotoLike a lot of things, aspirin can be both good and bad. It can help prevent heart attack and stroke but it can also cause internal bleeding in some patients. It's not always easy for doctors to weigh the risk-benefit equation for a given individual -- to determine who exactly should take a daily aspirin.

New research published today in Circulation: Cardiovascular Quality and Outcomes may help answer that question. It shows that your coronary artery calcium (CAC) score, a measurement of plaque in the arteries that feed the heart, may help determine whether or not you are a good candidate for aspirin.

“Many heart attacks and strokes occur in individuals who do not appear to be at high risk,” said lead author, Michael D Miedema, MD, MPH. “Individuals with known CVD [cardiovascular disease] should take a daily aspirin, but the best approach for individuals without known CVD is unclear.

"If we only treat high-risk individuals with aspirin, we are going to miss a substantial portion of patients who eventually suffer heart attacks. However, liberally prescribing aspirin increases the bleeding risk for a significant number of people who were never going to have a heart attack in the first place. With this study, we wanted to see if there is potentially a better way to determine who to treat with aspirin beyond simply using traditional risk factors,” Miedema said.

The American Heart Association (AHA) guidelines currently recommend aspirin to prevent cardiovascular disease (CVD) in people who have known CVD or who are considered to be at high risk for a CVD event but not for the population at large.

Study details

In this retrospective study, researchers studied 4,229 participants in the Multi-Ethnic Study of Atherosclerosis (MESA) from six centers across the country. Participants included had no known CVD or diabetes, were not on aspirin therapy, and were followed for approximately 7 years.

Participants were grouped according to their CAC score and the rates of heart attacks in each group were calculated. Based on these rates, the research team weighed the likelihood of an individual to benefit from aspirin therapy (the potential of the aspirin to prevent a heart attack) against the likelihood of harm (the potential for the aspirin to cause major bleeding).

They estimated that participants with elevated CAC scores were 2−4 times more likely to benefit from aspirin therapy than to be harmed, even if they did not qualify for aspirin use according to current AHA guidelines. Conversely, study participants with no calcified plaque were 2−4 times more likely to be harmed by aspirin use than to benefit. The results in both groups held true even after accounting for traditional risk factors.

“We estimate that individuals with significant plaque buildup in the arteries of the heart are much more likely to prevent a heart attack with aspirin use than to suffer a significant bleed” explains Miedema. “On the opposite end of the spectrum, if you don’t have any calcified plaque, our estimations indicate that use of aspirin would result in more harm than good, even if you have risk factors for heart disease such as high cholesterol or a family history of the disease.”

Miedema added, “A CAC score of zero is associated with a very low risk of having a heart attack. That means individuals with a score of zero may not benefit from preventive medications, such as aspirin as well as the cholesterol-lowering statin medications. Approximately 50% of middle-aged men and women have a CAC score of zero, so there is a potential for this test to personalize the approach to prevention and allow a significant number of patients to avoid preventive medications, but we need further research to verify that routine use of this test is the best option for our patients.”

Miedema is a preventative cardiologist at the Minneapolis Heart Institute at Abbott Northwestern Hospital and a clinical investigator with the Minneapolis Heart Institute Foundation (MHIF). 

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Study finds brand names are losing ground to store brands

A huge majority of shoppers push their shopping carts past the better-known names

Do you think that its worthwhile to shell out extra money for the nationally-know brands of products that sit side-by-side with store brands? If so, you're...

PhotoDo you think that it's worthwhile to shell out extra money for the nationally-know brands of products that sit side-by-side with store brands? If so, you're in a growing minority of consumers.

According to Deloitte’s American Pantry Study of more than 375 brands across 30 product categories, 71% of shoppers say they’re spending less on food, beverage and household goods -- but don’t feel like they’re sacrificing much.

In fact, only 31% of brands are considered a “must have” -- one that shoppers would buy whether on sale or not -- consistent with the last four years that Deloitte has conducted the survey.

Feeling the pressure

“National brands are pressured on all sides, from persistent consumer frugality and low brand loyalty to rival and store brand competition,” said Pat Conroy, vice chairman, Deloitte LLP and U.S. Consumer Products leader. “While consumers initially resented buying less-expensive products out of necessity a few years ago, they have changed their tune. They have shifted from a feeling of settling for lower-priced brands to settling in to store brands distinguished by high quality.”

Eighty-eight percent of those responding to the survey say they have found several store brands that are just as good as national brands and that allow them to feel as though they are saving money without giving up anything.

Across 28 of the 30 consumer packaged goods (CPG) categories studied, Deloitte found that most consumers perceive store brand quality to be the same or better in most of them. Consumers find the highest private label quality in categories such as bottled water, tabletop disposable paper products, food storage, deli meats, condiments and salty snacks.

However, year after year, the study shows certain categories where consumers remain committed to their national brands and less likely to switch, even despite price increases, including beer, pet foods, soft drinks and coffee.

How we shop

The study found that 91% of consumers noted that they have become more resourceful, which has manifested itself through different savings tactics across consumer segments. Deloitte's analysis categorizes consumers into four groups: super savers (26%), sacrificers (19%), planners (23%) and spectators (32%).

  • Super savers: These consumers enjoy the hunt, and make a concentrated effort to use coupons and visit multiple stores. They describe themselves as price-conscious and deal-seeking, and are most likely to conduct product research and price comparisons through mobile and online channels.
  • Sacrificers: They are more likely than others to switch to store brands and only 16% describe themselves as brand loyal; however, these compromises are accompanied by feeling of resentment. Sacrificers report the lowest mean income among the consumer segments, and are most likely to have large household sizes.
  • Planners: This group is most focused on resourceful pantry management and planning ahead to maximize their budgets. Although coming from smaller households, planners are similar to super savers in that 60% describe themselves as “deal-seeking.”
  • Spectators: The least affected by economic conditions, spectators are more likely to buy higher-priced products by a brand they trust rather than cheaper or store alternatives, with convenience carrying more importance than price when it comes to selecting a retailer. Spectators have the highest income average compared to the other segments.

Focus on brands

Deloitte’s study found a narrow set of brands winning the loyalty game primarily on trust, but also on price and product positioning.

The top 10% of must-have brands differed significantly from the bottom 10% of brands -- most notably with a 27 percentage point rating difference as a product that tastes or works better. Additionally, the majority (68%) of the top 10% of must-have brands have a more focused price positioning and outperform those that are relatively scattered.

“Traditional thinking that targets consumers at multiple price points with good, better or best offerings often misses the mark,” added Conroy. “Given the bifurcation of consumers between higher and lower income levels, brands should instead address different shoppers’ ability and willingness to spend by moving to an OK, better and excellent brand portfolio.”

A matter of trust

Trust also trumps other brand qualities when convincing a consumer to pay a little more, though health and convenience also earn points with consumers. Nearly 8 in 10 (78%) consumers indicate they have purchased a higher-priced newly-launched product in the past year. Among them, 54% selected a more expensive product because it was a brand they trust, followed by healthier option (38%) and a company they trust (30%). Nearly 3 in 10 (28%) skipped a lower-cost alternative for one that was easy to prepare or use.

“CPG brands are suffering from a crisis of the similar, where consumers don’t see a lot of difference between branded products on the shelf,” Conroy noted. “Rather than exit a crowded category, brands should consider new growth opportunities where categories are beginning to blur -- such as extending their products into new meal times, form factors and store aisles, or making a move to support from-scratch cooking or prepared meals.”

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A sense of purpose could add years to your life

Having a reason to get up in the morning wards off more than boredom

To a lot of people, retirement means having time on your hands and nothing to do. According to research published in Psychological Science, that's not a g...

PhotoTo a lot of people, retirement means having time on your hands and nothing to do.

According to research published in Psychological Science, that's not a good thing. In fact, researchers say feeling that you have a sense of purpose in life may help you live longer -- no matter what your age.

The research has clear implications for promoting positive aging and adult development.

“Our findings point to the fact that finding a direction for life, and setting overarching goals for what you want to achieve can help you actually live longer, regardless of when you find your purpose,” says lead researcher Patrick Hill of Carleton University in Canada. “So the earlier someone comes to a direction for life, the earlier these protective effects may be able to occur.”

Previous studies have suggested that finding a purpose in life lowers risk of mortality above and beyond other factors that are known to predict longevity. But, Hill points out, almost no research examined whether the benefits of purpose vary over time, such as across different developmental periods or after important life transitions.

Taking the long view

Hill and colleague Nicholas Turiano of the University of Rochester Medical Center decided to explore this question, taking advantage of the nationally representative data available from the Midlife in the United States (MIDUS) study.

They looked at data from over 6000 participants, focusing on their self-reported purpose in life (e.g., “Some people wander aimlessly through life, but I am not one of them”) and other psychosocial variables that gauged their positive relations with others and their experience of positive and negative emotions.

Over the 14-year follow-up period represented in the MIDUS data, 569 of the participants had died (about 9% of the sample). Those who had died had reported lower purpose in life and fewer positive relations than did survivors.

Greater purpose in life consistently predicted lower mortality risk across the lifespan, showing the same benefit for younger, middle-aged, and older participants across the follow-up period.

“There are a lot of reasons to believe that being purposeful might help protect older adults more so than younger ones,” says Hill. “For instance, adults might need a sense of direction more, after they have left the workplace and lost that source for organizing their daily events. In addition, older adults are more likely to face mortality risks than younger adults.”

Wide ranging implications

Purpose had similar benefits for adults regardless of retirement status, a known mortality risk factor. And the longevity benefits of purpose in life held even after other indicators of psychological well-being, such as positive relations and positive emotions, were taken into account.

“These findings suggest that there’s something unique about finding a purpose that seems to be leading to greater longevity,” says Hill.

The researchers are currently investigating whether having a purpose might lead people to adopt healthier lifestyles, thereby boosting longevity.

Hill and Turiano are also interested in examining whether their findings hold for outcomes other than mortality. “In so doing, we can better understand the value of finding a purpose throughout the lifespan, and whether it provides different benefits for different people,” Hill concludes.

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Coping with catastrophe

Check these tips for staying safe during and after severe weather

A good chunk of the nation’s midsection has been, is being or is about to be walloped by severe weather, including heavy rain, high winds, hail the chance ...

PhotoA good chunk of the nation’s midsection has been, is being or is about to be walloped by severe weather, including heavy rain, high winds, hail, the chance of tornadoes and -- in some rare instances -- snow.

The loss of power from weather emergencies compromises the safety of stored food, but consumers can take steps to reduce food waste and the risk of foodborne illness.

What to do

Here's a rundown from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) of food safety recommendations:

If the power goes

  • Keep appliance thermometers in both the refrigerator and the freezer to ensure temperatures remain food safe during a power outage. Safe temperatures are 40 degrees or lower in the refrigerator, 0 or lower in the freezer.
  • Freeze water in one-quart plastic storage bags or small containers prior to a storm. These containers are small enough to fit in around the food in the refrigerator and freezer to help keep food cold. Remember, water expands when it freezes so don’t overfill the containers.
  • Freeze refrigerated items, such as leftovers, milk and fresh meat and poultry that you may not need immediately; this helps keep them at a safe temperature longer.
  • Know where you can get dry ice or block ice.
  • Have coolers on hand to keep refrigerator food cold if the power will be out for more than four hours.
  • Group foods together in the freezer. This ‘igloo’ effect helps the food stay cold longer.
  • Avoid putting food outside in ice or snow, because it attracts wild animals or could thaw when the sun comes out.
  • Keep a few days’ worth of ready-to-eat foods that do not require cooking or cooling.
  • Keep the refrigerator and freezer doors closed as much as possible. A refrigerator will keep food cold for about 4 hours if the door is kept closed. A full freezer will hold its temperature for about 48 hours (24 hours if half-full).
  • Place meat and poultry to one side of the freezer or on a tray to prevent cross contamination of thawing juices.
  • Use dry or block ice to keep the refrigerator as cold as possible during an extended power outage. Fifty pounds of dry ice should keep a fully-stocked 18-cubic-foot freezer cold for two days.

After a weather emergency

  • Check the temperature inside your refrigerator and freezer. Discard any perishable food (such as meat, poultry, seafood, eggs or leftovers) that has been above 40°F for two hours or more.
  • Check each item separately. Throw out any food that has an unusual odor, color or texture or feels warm to the touch.
  • Check frozen food for ice crystals. The food in your freezer that partially or completely thawed may be safely refrozen if it still contains ice crystals or is 40°F or below.
  • Never taste a food to decide if it’s safe.
  • When in doubt, throw it out.
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Chrysler recalls Town and Country and Dodge Grand Caravan vehicles

The vent window switch in the driver's door armrest may overheat

Chrysler Group is recalling 644,850 model year 2010-2014 Chrysler Town and Country and Dodge Grand Caravan vehicles manufactured August 25, 2010, through O...

PhotoChrysler Group is recalling 644,850 model year 2010-2014 Chrysler Town and Country and Dodge Grand Caravan vehicles manufactured August 25, 2010, through October 31, 2013.

The vent window switch in the driver's door armrest may overheat, resulting in a vehicle fire.

Chrysler will notify owners, and dealers will replace the vent window switch with a newer version, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin in June 2014.

Owners may contact Chrysler customer service at 1-800-853-1403. Chrysler's number for this recall is P25.

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Disaster is headed your way -- might as well get ready

Once you know a disaster is coming, it's usually too late to prepare

How can Americans lose electricity through no fault of their own? Let me count some of the ways: tornado, derecho, hurricane, nor'easter, tropical storm, t...

PhotoHow can Americans lose electricity through no fault of their own? Let me count some of the ways: tornado, derecho, hurricane, nor'easter, tropical storm, thunderstorm, windstorm, rainstorm, snowstorm, ice storm, earthquake, volcano, lightning strike, falling branch and random bad drivers crashing into utility poles.

There's a similarly long list of reasons, including chemical spills, water main breaks and sundry natural disasters, why your tap water could either become dangerously contaminated or shut off altogether for awhile.

Point is, no matter who you are or where you live, you need to be prepared in case your power, water or other vital utilities disappear for awhile. Yet if you search online for information about emergency food storage, emergency power, disaster preparedness or similar topics, the results are usually cluttered by pages catering to so-called “preppers” or “survivalists,” people preparing in case modern civilization falls and all its life-sustaining amenities go on permanent leave.

Disclaimer: I personally am not particularly concerned about civilization permanently collapsing in my lifetime, and if it did, I doubt I'd outlast it much longer than a fortnight anyway. But like many Americans these days, I've occasionally suffered through days or even weeks of temporary storm-generated utility loss.

I spent a cold wintry week without heat or electricity after the Halloween blizzard of 2011 knocked out the power to more than half the state of Connecticut. This happened a mere two months after Hurricane Irene knocked out the power to more than half the state of Connecticut, which in turn happened only a couple weeks before some unnamed mid-September rainstorms knocked down power lines and washed out roads all throughout my own city in Connecticut.

PhotoCapable of taking a hint, the following summer I moved to northern Virginia and hadn't even lived there a full week before that monster “derecho” storm of 2012 walloped the region and — you guessed it! — knocked down power lines for miles in every direction from me.

The good thing about repeated power outages is that trial and error makes you progressively better at handling each one. It also drives home the lesson that the time to get your emergency-supply kit is now, before you think you'll need it, because by the time you know for certain a power-killing storm's headed your way, the stores have already sold out of everything useful.

So here's some things I've learned, without necessarily wanting to, ever since my power-outage-avoidance luck ran out a couple years back.

Emergency power generators

If you have the money for one, and a dedicated outdoor space where you can safely operate it, then buying a generator might be a good option for you. However, it generally isn't an option at all for most apartment- and condominium-dwellers. I've muddled through my various power outages without one.

Emergency lighting

PhotoEven with a generator you'll still want battery-operated flashlights and lanterns, because the cost of the batteries is orders of magnitude cheaper than the cost of fuel to run the generator to power your regular home electric lights. Luckily, we live in a Golden Age of absurdly inexpensive LED lighting, which require very little battery power to shine.

In addition to lanterns, I have several inexpensive LED keychain flashlights with glow-in-the-dark cases, which I keep in strategic locations around my house near various electric lights. The theory is that if a sudden power outage leaves me in the dark, I can find one of the glowing flashlights to light the way to the rest of my emergency supply cache.

Battery storage

For lanterns, flashlights, radios or other rarely used emergency appliances powered by alkaline batteries (AA, AAA, C or D-cell) as opposed to lithium “button” batteries, always store the batteries separately—or perhaps I should say, never store emergency appliances with their alkaline batteries in them, in case the batteries corrode.

Home climate control

PhotoIf you're lucky, your extended power outage will coincide with a period of clement temperatures – not too hot and not too cold, so the lack of heat and air-conditioning won't be a problem.

Chances are, you won't get lucky.

For outages in too-hot weather, you always want some battery-operated fans on hand: ideally, a minimum of one fan for each person in your household, plus an extra fan or two for drawing air in or out of open windows.

If you live in a hot but dry climate, you have various options for using fans, water and damp cloth to create a makeshift “evaporative” or “swamp cooler” system sufficient to cool a small space — or you might even invest a few (very few) extra dollars in making a dedicated swamp cooler for such emergencies.

Unfortunately, swamp coolers don't work in humid climates.

Generating heat in a cold-weather power outage is much easier, even if you lack amenities like a fireplace or wood-burning stove. During my post-snowstorm week without power, when nighttime temperatures dropped to the teens or low 20s, I closed off the bedrooms in my apartment and managed to get the kitchen and common areas up to 66 degrees at night, by burning vegetable-wax candles in space heaters I'd made from coffee cans.

Granted, mine is an all-adult household; if I lived with small children, rambunctious pets or anyone else incapable of showing proper respect for fire safety, I'm not sure I'd have wanted to try this.

Water

PhotoIf ever you've been in an area where a hurricane's forecast to strike, the authorities will urge you to fill bottles and jugs with water now, in case storm runoff contaminates public water supplies. You might also be urged to seal your bathtub with a leak-proof plug and fill it with water, for flushing your toilets.

But calamities ranging from chemical spills to broken mains to earthquakes are perfectly capable of contaminating or cutting off the water with no prior warning. That's why you should always keep on hand enough bottled water to keep everybody in your household going for seven hot and sweaty days. (The official FEMA recommendation is to only have three day's worth of water on hand. They established this guideline before Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast in 2005, and did not revise it afterward despite massive anecdotal evidence suggesting that in a truly bad emergency, “three days of supplies” isn't remotely enough.)

Drinks

You should have some individual-size servings of your favorite juice or soda over and above your drinking-water supply, because a power outage is boring enough without drinking flavorless lukewarm water, too. If you have young children, you should also consider getting boxes of no-refrigeration-needed milk for them. As with all food and drink purchases, keep an eye on the expiration dates and rotate/replace your stock as required.

Bear in mind: as a consumer-news source, this website usually urges food and drink shoppers to check the unit prices and buy whichever size offers the lowest one — for example, buying a gallon jug (128 ounces) of fruit juice for $3 is much cheaper than paying $2 for a six-pack of seven-ounce single-serving juice boxes or cans (42 ounces).

But that's assuming you have a working refrigerator to safely store that gallon of juice after you open it. When storing food and drink for a power outage sans refrigeration, any canned or bottled food or drink must be consumed soon after opening, before it goes bad. So, unless you have an unusually large household big enough to consume a “giant economy size” in a single sitting, your emergency food and drink supply should primarily consist of small single- or double-serving sizes, even though they do cost more than larger bulk purchases.

Food

PhotoOf course the obvious choice for emergencies is food that can be stored without refrigeration and eaten without cooking: crackers and peanut butter, canned fruit, granola or energy bars, pudding cups and the like.

If you do want to cook, remember the first and most important rule of cooking in a power outage: never, under any circumstance, try cooking indoors with a barbecue grill, liquid or gas-powered camp stove, or similar items. They all generate toxic fumes or exhaust, and can only be used in outdoor situations where the fumes can dissipate.

During my week without power, I didn't do any true “cooking,” in the sense of transforming raw ingredients into a meal. However, I was able to warm up various canned heat-and-serve items over a small can of ethanol gel of the sort used under chafing dishes. The key word is “warm”; ethanol is good enough to heat canned spaghetti, not enough to boil water or anything like that.

Dishes and cookware

If you lose power but still have clean (though cold) running water, you can use your regular dishes, cookware and utensils and, in a pinch, hand-wash them using dish soap and cold water. But if you suffer a loss of power and clean water, you can't even do that, so make sure you have plenty of disposable utensils and paper plates on hand. I also keep a supply of inexpensive disposable aluminum chafing dishes just the right size to heat a can of soup or baked beans over ethanol gel.

Cash in small bills

If the power's out in your area, the ATMs will stop working — and a lot of businesses, even if they manage to stay open, won't be able to accept credit cards. During my week without power, there were a couple of stores and sandwich shops in walking distance of me that stayed open on generator power, but until the regular power came back they operated on a cash-only basis. Thanks to my cache of cash, during that miserable chilly week I was at least able to kick off each morning with a cup of hot coffee; it's just too bad I had to walk two blocks each way to get it.

Medicines and medical supplies

If you or anyone in your house requires regular doses of medication, always have at least a few days' worth on hand, if possible.

Whether you require medication or not, make sure you have a well-stocked first aid kit available. There are plenty of companies that will sell you a pre-stocked first aid kit, but in most cases, if you look at what those kits actually contain, it's much cheaper for you to buy the individual components and put the kit together yourself. That's usually the case for any pre-stocked emergency kit offered for sale: anything from a three-day emergency food supply to an all-purpose lost-in-the-wilderness survival bug-out backpack might well be a good kit to have, but you'll get a better kit for less money if you put it together yourself.

And do it now, when you don't need it, rather than wait until you do.

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How clean is your toothbrush?

You may be shocked and disgusted to learn what one dentist says

Here's a factoid we're pretty sure you don't want to even think about; the toothbrush you shove in your mouth each morning may be crawling with germs.Nas...

PhotoHere's a factoid we're pretty sure you don't want to even think about; the toothbrush you shove in your mouth each morning may be crawling with germs.

Nasty little things like staphylococci, coliforms, pseudomonads, yeasts, intestinal bacteria and — yes — even fecal germs. How do they get there?

“The oral cavity is home to hundreds of different types of microorganisms, which can be transferred to a toothbrush during use,” said Maria L. Geisinger, DDS, assistant professor of periodontology in the School of Dentistry at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB).

Making matters worse, most toothbrushes are stored in bathrooms, which exposes them to gastrointestinal microorganisms that may be transferred via a fecal-oral route. One only has to recall a scene from a Seinfeld episode when germ-a-phobe Jerry knocks his girlfriend's toothbrush into the toilet.

“The number of microorganisms can vary wildly from undetectable to 1 million colony-forming units, Geisinger said. “Proper handling and care of your toothbrush is important to your overall health.”

How it happens

But can bacteria from the toilet actually reach your toothbrush? Geisinger says it can and the toothbrush doesn't actually have to fall into the toilet. It can happen if you don't adequately wash your hands or through microscopic droplets released from the toilet during flushing.

The Discovery Channel program “Mythbusters” recently explored the cleanliness of the average toothbrush and found all 24 that it tested contained intestinal microorganisms. Geisinger says toothbrushes may even be contaminated right out of the box since they aren't packaged in a sterile environment.

You can reduce the number of germs on your toothbrush by proper cleaning and storage. After each use thoroughly rinse toothbrushes with clean tap water to remove any remaining toothpaste and debris.

Antibacterial rinse helps

If you're really serious about germs, you can soak toothbrushes in an antibacterial mouth rinse; this has been shown to decrease the level of bacteria that grow on toothbrushes. Next, the way you store your toothbrush between brushing makes a difference.

“The American Dental Association recommends that you not store your toothbrush in a closed container or routinely cover your toothbrush, as a damp environment is more conducive to the growth of microorganisms,” Geisinger said.

Storing toothbrushes in an upright position, allowing them to dry, is also preferable to storing them in a horizontal position. It's also a good idea to keep brushes separate, preventing cross-contamination, if multiple brushes are stored in one location.

Cold germs

How about when you're sick with a cold or the flu? Do those germs remain on the brush you used while you were ill?

In fact, they do. Geisinger says the toothbrush used by a sick person should be kept a safe distance from other toothbrushes and, if economically feasible, should be discarded and replaced with a new one.

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Ergobaby loses bid to suppress reports about its products' safety -- or does it?

The disputed report still doesn't appear on the government's website and apparently never will

Source: ErgobabyIt's not unusual these days for companies to sue consumer review sites in a nearly always futile attempt to suppress negative comments ...

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Source: Ergobaby

It's not unusual these days for companies to sue consumer review sites in a nearly always futile attempt to suppress negative comments about their products.

It's a bit more eye-raising when a company sues to prevent a federal agency -- in this case, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) -- from publishing reports about it.

But that's just what Ergobaby did. The company sued the CPSC in 2011 to block a report naming its product that blamed a baby's death on an Ergobaby infant carrier from being included in the saferproducts.gov web site. A federal appeals court recently ruled that the company's name cannot be kept secret -- but stopped short of ordering the disputed report to be published.

Now that its identity has been revealed, Ergobaby has issued a statement claiming that its carriers are "absolutely safe."

"The experts AND the court determined that the baby choked on a foreign object and it was a sad and unfortunate coincidence that this tragic event occurred in an Ergobaby carrier. No Ergobaby carrier has ever caused a fatality," the company said.

Company Doe

A federal court initially agreed to protect the company's identity, referring to it only as "Company Doe." But the Circuit Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit has now ruled that the case must be unsealed and the company disclosed.

The Consumer Federation of America joined with Public Citizen and Consumers Union, the advocacy arm of Consumer Reports, to object to the sealing of the court documents.

The appeals court found in April that injury to corporate reputation is not enough to justify sealing court records under the First Amendment and that permitting a company to use a pseudonym to challenge the inclusion of a report in the CPSC database, saferproducts.gov, was an abuse of discretion in light of the public interest of the database.

“This is an important victory for consumers, for transparency, and for the saferproducts.gov database,” stated Rachel Weintraub, legislative director and senior counsel for the Consumer Federation of America. “Saferproducts.gov is a database designed to increase transparency of important product safety information to the public. This case shows that the public interest is served by disclosure, not by secrecy.”

And so it may be, someday. But even after all the litigation, saferproducts.gov still does not display any information about Ergobaby.

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And why would that be, you might ask. Ergobaby explains it this way:

"CPSIA [the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act passed in 2008] mandates that only reports of 'harm relating to the use of consumer products' may be posted. Because Ergobaby carriers were not at fault for this tragic incident, the information was not and will never be published on the site."

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Feds blocked import of 12.5 million unsafe consumer items

Children's products were the most commonly blocked by CPSC inspectors

A lot of products that you really don't want to deal with were kept out of the hands of consumers in fiscal 2013. The Consumer Product Safety Commission’s...

PhotoA lot of products that you really don't want to deal with were kept out of the hands of consumers in fiscal 2013, the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) says.

The agency says its inspectors seized about 12.5 million consumer items that violated U.S. safety rules or that were found to be defective during the year.

Of course, like any federal project, there's an acronym -- in this case, RAM or Risk Assessment Methodology. It enables CPSC investigators to analyze Customs data to identify high-risk shipments arriving at U.S. ports of entry.

Children's products dominate

About 550 of the 600 product shipments investigators stopped were children’s products totaling about 2.1 million items.

The leading hazards identified in shipments of children’s products in that 6-month span continued to be lead content or lead in paint in higher than allowable amounts. Additional hazards identified were products that contained phthalates and toys and other articles with small parts that present a choking hazard for children younger than 3 years old.

During the period when retailers imported products for the Memorial Day and Independence Day holidays in 2013, investigators stopped 51 shipments of violative fireworks. The more than 4.1 million units of fireworks made up the bulk of non-children’s products that were stopped in the six-month time frame.

A shipment of 100,000 disposable lighters was also stopped and seized for destruction due to the importer’s failure to demonstrate that the lighters successfully met performance safety requirements, including child resistance. Before cigarette lighters were required to be child-resistant, fire loss data revealed an estimated annual average of 7,250 residential structure fires, 190 deaths and 1,290 injuries that resulted from children younger than 5 playing with lighters.

A complete list of products found in violation of safety requirements enforced by CPSC is at http://www.cpsc.gov/en/Recalls/Violations.

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Researchers find cell defects in children with autism

The deficits are found in granulocytes, cells that protect the body from infection

Children with autism experience deficits in a type of immune cell that protects the body from infection. Called granulocytes, the cells exhibit one-third t...

PhotoResearchers at UC Davis say they have found that children with autism have deficits in a type of immune cell -- called granulocytes -- that protect the body from infection.

In children with autism, the cells exhibit one-third the capacity to fight infection and protect the body from invasion compared with the same cells in children who are developing normally.

The cells, which circulate in the bloodstream, are less able to deliver crucial infection-fighting oxidative responses to combat invading pathogens because of dysfunction in their tiny energy-generating organelles, the mitochondria.

The study is published online in the journal Pediatrics.

“Granulocytes fight cellular invaders like bacteria and viruses by producing highly reactive oxidants, toxic chemicals that kill microorganisms. Our findings show that in children with severe autism the level of that response was both lower and slower," said Eleonora Napoli, lead study author and project scientist in the Department of Molecular Biosciences in the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine. "The granulocytes generated less highly reactive oxidants and took longer to produce them."

The researchers also found that the mitochondria in the granulocytes of children with autism consumed far less oxygen than those of the typically developing children — another sign of decreased mitochondrial function.

The study was conducted using blood samples of children enrolled in the Childhood Risk of Autism and the Environment (CHARGE) Study and included 10 children with severe autism age 2 to 5 and 10 age-, race- and sex-matched children who were developing typically.

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Maryland bans grain alcohol

Lawmakers hopes the move helps reduce binge drinking on campus

The Maryland legislature has put grain alcohol back in the spotlight, passing a law banning its sale. Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley signed the bill into la...

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More fruits, vegetables=decline in stroke risk

You may also look and feel better

Want to cut your risk of stroke? Silly question. Of course, everyone would like to do that. And it may not be as hard as you think. New research in the Am...

PhotoWant to cut your risk of stroke? Silly question. Who wouldn't? And here's the good part: It may not be as hard as you think.

New research in the American Heart Association's journal Stroke determined that eating more fruits and vegetables could do it for you.

Researchers conducted a meta-analysis of 20 studies published over the last 19 years to assess the effects of fruit and vegetable consumption on risk of stroke globally. The combined studies involved 760,629 men and women who had 16,981 strokes.

A declining risk

Stroke risk decreased by 32% with every 200 grams of fruit consumed each day, and 11%t with every 200 grams of vegetables consumed each day.

"Improving diet and lifestyle is critical for heart and stroke risk reduction in the general population," said Yan Qu, M.D., the study's senior author, director of the intensive care unit at Qingdao Municipal Hospital and professor at the Medical College of Qingdao University in Qingdao, China. "In particular, a diet rich in fruits and vegetables is highly recommended because it meets micronutrient and macronutrient and fiber requirements without adding substantially to overall energy requirements."

Macronutrients (carbohydrates, protein and fat) provide calories or energy. Our bodies need smaller amounts of micronutrients such as vitamins and minerals.

Favorable BMI effects

The researcher cited studies demonstrating that high fruit and vegetable consumption can lower blood pressure and improve microvascular function. It has favorable effects on body mass index (BMI), waist circumference, cholesterol, inflammation and oxidative stress.

The beneficial effects of fruits and vegetables applied consistently to men and women, stroke outcome and by type of stroke (caused by clot or bleeding). Researchers found no significant difference in the effect on age (younger or older than 55).

The researchers adjusted the study findings for factors such as smoking, alcohol, blood pressure, cholesterol, physical activity, BMI and other dietary variables.

World-wide comparisons

Researchers combined the results of 6 studies from the U.S., 8 from Europe and 6 from Asia (China and Japan). They note that low fruit and vegetable consumption is prevalent worldwide, and especially in low- and middle-income countries.

Increasing the consumption of fruits and vegetables up to 600 grams each day could reduce the burden of ischemic stroke by 19% globally, according to the World Health Organization.

In China, stroke is the leading cause of death, with an estimated 1.7 million people dying in 2010. In the U.S., it's the No. 4 cause of death and a leading cause of disability.

What to do

The American Heart Association advises the average adult to eat 4 to 5 servings each of fruits and vegetables daily, based on a 2,000-calorie diet.

A diet rich in a variety of colors and types of vegetables and fruits is a way of getting important nutrients that most people don't get enough of, including vitamins, minerals, and dietary fiber.

They are also naturally low in saturated fat.

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Raclette and Montboissie Cheeses recalled

The products may be contaminated with Salmonella

Ste Fromagere du Livradois of Fournols, France, is recalling Haut Livradois brand Raclette and Montboissie cheeses – lot#350. The products may be contamin...

PhotoSte Fromagere du Livradois of Fournols, France, is recalling Haut Livradois brand Raclette and Montboissie cheeses – lot#350.

The products may be contaminated with Salmonella.

No illnesses have been reported to date.

The products were distributed nationwide in supermarkets and gourmet stores between March 10th, 2014, and May 6th, 2014.

Raclette du Haut Livradois and Montboissie du Haut Livradois -- lot # 350 -- come as a 13-lb wheel and are usually cut and wrapped. The Montboissie has a vegetable ash line in the middle of the cheese. The Raclette does not.

Distributors and retailers are being contacted in an effort to recall any and all remaining product in the marketplace.

Consumers who have purchased the recalled products should contact their distributor or retailer for a full refund.

Consumers with questions may contact Ste Fromagere du Livradois at (201) 448 8787 Monday-Friday from 9am to 5pm (EST).

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Measles, once-banished, making a comeback

Many parents fail to have their children innoculated

The measles, a once-common childhood disease, is back. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the U.S. is seeing the biggest me...

PhotoThe measles, a once-common childhood disease, is back. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the U.S. is seeing the biggest measles outbreak in decades.

Most older Americans probably remember getting the measles. It usually meant missing a couple of weeks of school.

Measles, also known as rubeola, is a highly contagious respiratory disease caused by a virus, which meant if a kid in your class got it, sooner or later you probably would too. Besides the fever, runny nose, cough, people with measles also had a rash all over their body.

Once you had it, you usually didn't get it again. While it might not sound all that serious, it could be. For every 1,000 kids who got the disease, one or two would die, according to the CDC.

Measles all but died out after the 1960s. The first measles vaccine was licensed in 1963 and nearly 19 million people were vaccinated over the next 12 years.

The end of measles

Over the years other vaccines followed and the disease started to disappear. In 2000 the CDC declared endemic measles had been eradicated but U.S. residents remained at risk for infection from imported cases.

“We are seeing a rise in children in the U.S. with measles because international travel has become so common. People bring it back from endemic areas and because it’s highly contagious,” said Nadia Qureshi, MD, pediatric infectious disease specialist at Loyola University Health System. “If your child is not vaccinated they are at-risk.”

But vaccination rates in the U.S. have fallen, which may be another reason for the measles resurgence. The dramatic rise in autism coincided with the use of many childhood vaccines, leading many worried parents to suspect a connection.

Lancet article

In 1998 the British medical journal Lancet published – and later retracted – a study that seemed to imply a connection between the MMR (measles-mumps-rubella) vaccine and the development of autism in children.

Because it's a disease that many of today's parents' parents had as children, some think skipping the vaccine is the lesser of the risks. The CDC begs to differ.

No treatment

It points out that measles is caused by a virus and there is no specific treatment for the infection. It simply has to run its course and the child's immune system has to be strong enough to recover. Most are but a few aren't.

“We don’t have a specific treatment and can only address the symptoms of the infection. But, we do have a very effective vaccine that can prevent the virus. Children in the U.S. usually get two doses of the vaccine. After the first dose 95 percent are protected and 98 percent protected after the second. It is a safe vaccine that can protect children from a potentially deadly disease,” said Qureshi.

Even with a vaccinated population Qureshi says there will be 1-2% who are still at-risk. Since the virus was considered eliminated from the U.S. for nearly a decade there are many doctors who have never seen an actual case.

“Vaccine rates were so good in this country that many physicians have seen it in books or photos, but no live cases. This can make it difficult to diagnose and people can be walking around with the contagious virus not even knowing it. The best way to keep your family safe is to vaccinate,” said Qureshi.

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FTC: Snapchat deceived consumers, hid security breach that exposed users' information

Company agrees to submit to 20-year privacy management program

Snapchat had a great thing going. Or at least it seemed to. The mobile messaging app promised consumers that they could say anything without worrying about...

PhotoSnapchat had a great thing going. Or at least it seemed to. The mobile messaging app promised consumers that they could say anything without worrying about it coming back to haunt them and promised that all communications were secure.

But the Federal Trade Commission says it wasn't so, and charged that Snapchat deceived consumers with promises about the disappearing nature of messages sent through the service.

The FTC case also alleged that Snapchat deceived consumers about the amount of personal data it collected and the security measures taken to protect that data. In fact, the case alleges, Snapchat’s failure to secure its Find Friends feature resulted in a security breach that enabled attackers to compile a database of 4.6 million Snapchat usernames and phone numbers.

“If a company markets privacy and security as key selling points in pitching its service to consumers, it is critical that it keep those promises,” said FTC Chairwoman Edith Ramirez. “Any company that makes misrepresentations to consumers about its privacy and security practices risks FTC action.”

Snaps don't always disappear

Touting the “ephemeral” nature of “snaps,” the term used to describe photo and video messages sent via the app, Snapchat marketed the app’s central feature as the user’s ability to send snaps that would “disappear forever" after the sender-designated time period expired. Despite Snapchat’s claims, the complaint describes several simple ways that recipients could save snaps indefinitely.

Consumers can, for example, use third-party apps to log into the Snapchat service, according to the complaint. Because the service’s deletion feature only functions in the official Snapchat app, recipients can use these widely available third-party apps to view and save snaps indefinitely. Indeed, such third-party apps have been downloaded millions of times.

Despite a security researcher warning the company about this possibility, the complaint alleges, Snapchat continued to misrepresent that the sender controls how long a recipient can view a snap.

In addition, the complaint alleges:

  • That Snapchat stored video snaps unencrypted on the recipient’s device in a location outside the app’s “sandbox,” meaning that the videos remained accessible to recipients who simply connected their device to a computer and accessed the video messages through the device’s file directory.
  • That Snapchat deceptively told its users that the sender would be notified if a recipient took a screenshot of a snap. In fact, any recipient with an Apple device that has an operating system pre-dating iOS 7 can use a simple method to evade the app’s screenshot detection, and the app will not notify the sender.
  • That the company misrepresented its data collection practices. Snapchat transmitted geolocation information from users of its Android app, despite saying in its privacy policy that it did not track or access such information.

Collected contact info

The complaint also alleges that Snapchat collected iOS users’ contacts information from their address books without notice or consent. During registration, the app prompted users to, “Enter your mobile number to find your friends on Snapchat!” Snapchat’s privacy policy claimed that the app only collected the user’s email, phone number, and Facebook ID for the purpose of finding friends.

Despite these representations, when iOS users entered their phone number to find friends, Snapchat also collected the names and phone numbers of all the contacts in their mobile device address books. Snapchat continued to collect this information without notifying or obtaining users’ consent until Apple modified its operating system to provide such notice with the introduction of iOS 6.

Finally, the FTC alleges that despite the company’s claims about taking reasonable security steps, Snapchat failed to secure its “Find Friends” feature.

For example, the complaint alleges that numerous consumers complained that they had sent snaps to someone under the false impression that they were communicating with a friend. In fact, because Snapchat failed to verify users’ phone numbers during registration, these consumers were actually sending their personal snaps to complete strangers who had registered with phone numbers that did not belong to them.

The complaint also alleges that Snapchat’s failure to secure its Find Friends feature resulted in a security breach permitting attackers to compile a database of 4.6 million Snapchat usernames and phone numbers. According to the FTC, the exposure of this information could lead to costly spam, phishing, and other unsolicited communications.

Under the terms of its settlement with the FTC, Snapchat will be prohibited from misrepresenting the extent to which it maintains the privacy, security, or confidentiality of users’ information.

In addition, the company will be required to implement a comprehensive privacy program that will be monitored by an independent privacy professional for the next 20 years.

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Standard annual promotional Mother's Day whatever

You know your mom better than random advertisers do

With Mother's Day fast approaching, companies are going out of their way to assure you that whatever it takes to make your mom happy happens to be exactly ...

PhotoWith Mother's Day fast approaching, companies are going out of their way to assure you that whatever it takes to make your mom happy happens to be exactly what that company is selling.

Granted, this is technically true — for most mothers, what makes them happy is you spending time with them (or at least calling, if you can't be there in person). And if you give her a card or a gift or any other tangible item, the mere fact that you bothered to get her anything at all will make her happy.

What's trickier is finding something your mom inherently likes for its own sake, without the added sentimental value of coming from you. You could go the thoughtful route; i.e., actually think about your mom and what sorts of things she likes, which authors she reads, what TV shows she enjoys, the style of home décor she favors, your standard personality-profile stuff.

Or you can try the desperation-shopping method: wander aimlessly through stores or shopping sites (might be too late for the latter now, with M-Day falling this Sunday) in desperate hope that something somewhere strikes your eye.

If you're doing desperation shopping, you're unlikely to find much inspiration in the sort of promotional come-ons that have been flooding mine and my colleagues' in-boxes this past week.

A free cup of tea

PhotoStarbucks, for example, is taking the opportunity to push its new double-trademarked celebrity-endorsed five-words-in-its-name beverage product, urging people to “Bring Mom to Starbucks® …. When you try our new Teavana® Oprah Chai Tea Latte on Sunday, we'll treat your mom to one, too.

(Though this doesn't apply only to mother/child combinations; it's a standard buy one get one free offer for any tea-drinker visiting Starbucks this Mother's Day.)

Still, strip away the Oprah, Starbucks or Teavana-specific branding and the fact remains: provided your mom actually likes tea, taking her out for some is a perfectly adequate way to mark Mother's Day. Replace “tea” with anything else and it's still useful advice: if she likes ice cream, take her out and buy her some. If there's a movie she wants to see, go watch it with her. In other words, find something catering to her personal interests and/or hobbies.

Would-be underwear designer

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A yummy mummy?

With one exception. Despite certain (ahem) biological requirements necessary for a “woman” to become a “mother,” chances are you do notwant to think about your mom That Way.

At least I don't, which is why I was much happier and less-squicked-out before I got a press release (with photos) about a British would-be underwear designer who “has pledged to conquer the dreaded ‘camel toe’ with the re-launch of a Kickstarter crowd funding campaign that will see [not-yet-for-sale] sports bras and underpants sent as gifts to 25 A-list new mothers. The promo corresponds with US Mother’s Day on May 11 which makes it the perfect date to capture the attention of yummy mummies....”

Is or was my own mother one of those “yummy mummies” whose attention they're hoping to catch? Is yours? I don't know. I don't even want to think about it. I bet you don't, either.

No matter how desperate you are to find the right Mother's Day gift for your own personal mom, remember: even if she actually does want underwear, sexy lingerie, sexy books or even a Porn-of-the-Month Club subscription, let her acquire them on her own. And try to scrub all such thoughts out of your head before you call or visit your mom this Mother's Day.

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Feds: No need to park recalled GM cars until ignition switches are replaced

Statement raises more questions than it answers, two senators charge

There's no need to tell owners of recalled General Motors small cars to stop driving them, according to U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx.In a w...

PhotoU.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx has refused a request from two U.S. senators that General Motors be ordered to tell owners of recalled cars to stop driving them until their ignition switches can be replaced.

Sens. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) had formally asked Foxx to take the action but in a written response, Foxx said federal safety regulators had determined it wasn't necessary. 

A federal judge reached the same conclusion in April. 

Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos of the U.S. District in Corpus Christi, Texas, said federal safety regulators are better able to manage the massive recall than the courts as she refused a request that General Motors issue a "park it" order until the ignition switches in 2.59 million recalled cars can be replaced.

No judge has ever issued such an order.

Switch can slip

Ignition switches in the recalled cars can slip out of the "on" position, shutting off the engine and cutting power to air bags, power steering and other systems.

At least 13 deaths have been linked to the problem and GM has admitted knowing about the problem for at least a decade prior to the recall.

GM's advice to owners of the recalled cars -- mostly Chevrolet Cobalts and Saturn Ions -- is that they remove everything except the ignition key from their key rings, to lessen the weight that's exerted on the ignition switch. Also, drivers should avoid bumping the switch with their knee.

This sounds fine to Foxx.

"NHTSA is satisfied that for now, until the permanent remedy is applied, the safety risk posed by the defect in affected vehicles is sufficiently mitigated by GM's recommended action," the letter says.

It doesn't sound so great to Markey and Blumenthal.

“We remain extremely concerned that GM and NHTSA are not doing enough to convey the seriousness of this defect to owners of the affected cars, unnecessarily putting more lives at risk," the two said in a statement and they charged that in his response, "Secretary Foxx has raised more questions than he has answered."

"We are encouraged that NHTSA has analyzed data GM provided on the affected vehicles, but Secretary Foxx’s letter again emphasizes that drivers must take extraordinary precautions to ensure the safety of passengers still driving the recalled cars," they said. 

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Grocers bite back at "Fed Up" documentary

Katie Couric narrates the tale of an overfed nation

Even before its release tomorrow, the food industry is pushing the panic button over "Fed Up," a Katie Couric-narrated documentary that portrays the excess...

PhotoEven before its release tomorrow, the food industry is pushing the panic button over "Fed Up," a Katie Couric-narrated documentary that portrays the excessive use of sugar in food as Public Enemy No. 1.

Three years in the making, "Fed Up" tells the story of several young people struggling with obesity intercut with experts, politicians and health advocates who blame the U.S. diet for the country's declining health, indicting everyone from food manufacturers to the federal government.

The hard-hitting film is causing a serious case of indigestion at the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA), the powerful lobbying organization for the food industry. It has set up a website and prepared a blizzard of press releases to respond to the documentary's charges.

“Rather than identifying successful policies or ongoing efforts to find real and practical solutions to obesity, it adopts a short-sighted, confrontational and misleading approach by cherry-picking facts to fit a narrative, getting the facts wrong, and simply ignoring the progress that has been made over the last decade in providing families with healthier options at home and at school,” said GMA CEO Pam Bailey in a statement.

But before it goes completely over the top with its PR counter-attack, the food lobby might want to consider how its public relations efforts are portrayed in the film.  

"The PR sector of the food industries come off especially bad in footage of them shamelessly defending their focus on children as young as infants, the most outrageous being a McDonald’s spokeswoman arguing to Congress about the magic and wonder of Ronald McDonald as if he were Santa Claus," said film industry trade publication Indiewire.

So alarmed is the GMA that it put together a long list of actions the food biz has taken to "allow Americans to achieve and maintain a healthy lifestyle," including:

  • Full-calorie soft drinks were voluntarily removed from schools and total calories available from beverages in schools have been cut by 90% in the last decade.
  • Supported the 2010 Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act, which ensured both fruits and vegetables were offered to students daily; increased consumption of foods rich in whole grains; limited calories based on age to ensure proper portion sizes; and eliminated full-fat milk options.
  • Worked through the Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative to voluntarily adopt\ strict nutrition criteria so that 100% of CFBAI participant ads seen on children's programming promote healthier diet choices.
  • Began putting key nutrition information on the front of packaging through the Facts Up Front program.
  • Food and beverage CEOs formed the Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation, through which the food industry removed 6.4 trillion calories from the U.S. marketplace since 2007.

Overwrought?

There are those who think the grocers and their allies are getting a little too fired up about what may turn out to be, well, just another documentary rather than another "Fast Food Nation," which covered much of the same ground back in 2006.

"You’ll probably want to skip the popcorn if you go see director Stephanie Soechtig’s sobering chronicle of our country’s obesity epidemic. Despite the film’s worthy goals, there are some empty calories. Katie Couric’s narration and Soechtig’s uninspired style make it feel more like a TV special than a feature documentary," wrote New York Daily News film critic Elizabeth Weitzman in a review today.

"The film also presents too many of its obvious claims — Exercise is good! Sugar is not! — as stunning exposés. But there’s definite value to its outrage, especially when turned toward the lobbyists and government cowards who are dedicated to drowning our kids in corn syrup, among many other unhealthy culprits," said Weitzman.

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Buying positive pregnancy tests: don't. Just don't.

Some things are better left unsold

If you hear someone describe a gathering place as “a wretched hive of scum and villainy” it can indicate one of two things: a Star Wars fan quo...

PhotoIf you hear someone describe a gathering place as “a wretched hive of scum and villainy” it can indicate one of two things: a Star Wars fan quoting what Obi-Wan Kenobi said about Mos Eisley, or anybody else responding to the latest “seedy side of Craigslist” story.

Like this piece by CBS New York, offering an unusually cynical take to the usual pre-Mother's Day media pieces: if you're not a mother-to-be yet want people to think you are, you can buy positive pregnancy tests online!

Granted, the CBS piece relied entirely on anonymous quotes and secondhand information (no surprise that anybody who does buy or sell such things would prefer to remain anonymous): an unnamed mother in Dallas who sold positive tests to a woman hoping to trick her boyfriend into marrying her, another unnamed woman in New Jersey last year, who posted a Cragslist ad offering tests for sale and adding “Wanna get your boyfriend to finally pop the question? Play a trick on mom, dad or one of your friends? I really don’t care what you use it for.”

Prices vary by location 

Interestingly enough, despite Washington, D.C.'s overall reputation for dishonesty, a May 8 search for “pregnancy test” (not even with the added word “positive”) on the Washington, DC-area Craigslist yielded only three possibly outdated offers to sell a positive test, specifically for “a prank” or “April Fools,” rather than hopes of tricking a man into a fraudulent marriage likely to fail once the expected kid never actually arrives. All three asked for $20, though one offered to arrange a discount for multiple purchases.

By contrast, on the New York City Craigslist boards, positive pregnancy tests were much more commonplace, at a going rate of $35. On the other side of the country, in Los Angeles, prices ranged from $60 to $70.

If you, for whatever reason, are actually tempted to buy somebody else's urine-soaked medical waste, there is no point in shopping around to hunt for bargain prices; your best bet is to completely abandon any plan requiring a false-positive pregnancy test to succeed.

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Nothing to sneeze at: Allergies are plaguing millions this spring

However, there are plenty of medications to give you a fighting chance

A popular topic of conversation these days seems to be, “How are your allergies?” Nearly everyone is sneezing, has itchy eyes and is feeling just plain mi...

PhotoA popular topic of conversation these days seems to be, “How are your allergies?”

Nearly everyone is sneezing, has itchy eyes and is feeling just plain miserable. But seasonal allergies are more than just a talking point or a nuisance -- they're real diseases that can interfere with work, school or recreation, and can range from mild to severe.

If you're a sufferer, you may be in luck. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has recently approved many allergy treatment options that could bring you some relief. Among them are three sublingual (under the tongue) prescription products to treat hay fever (also called “allergic rhinitis”) -- with or without eye inflammation (called “conjunctivitis”) -- caused by certain grass pollens and short ragweed pollen.

The new products -- Grastek, Oralair and Ragwitek -- can be taken at home, although the first dose must be taken in a doctor's office.

These things called allergies

An allergy is a heightened immune system reaction to a substance that your body has identified as an invader. If you have allergies and encounter a trigger -- called an “allergen” -- your immune system fights it by making antibodies, which cause your body to release chemicals called histamines.

These are what are responsible for symptoms such as repetitive sneezing and itchy, watery eyes.

Allergic rhinitis affects more than 30 million children and adults in the U.S. and more than 500 million people worldwide. It may be seasonal or year-round.

The seasonal allergy, often called “hay fever,“ typically occurs in the spring, summer or fall. If you have this, you may suffer from repetitive sneezing, and stuffy or runny nose and itching in the nose, eyes or on the roof of the mouth. Eye inflammation can occur when your eyes react to allergens with symptoms of reddening, itching and swelling.

Plant pollens usually cause seasonal allergies. Pollen allergies are common, and allergy-causing pollen can come from trees, weeds and grasses, according to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. Trees and grasses are typical spring culprits, while ragweed and other weeds ramp up in late summer and early fall.

Think you're safe if you stay indoors? Think again. Dust mites often cause the year-round type of allergies, and molds can cause seasonal and year-round allergies.

Getting yourself tested

If you suspect you have an allergy, see your health care provider, as conditions such as upper respiratory infections, sinus infections and eye infections can have similar symptoms.

“The first step is to get appropriate testing to determine what you’re actually reacting to,” says Jay Slater, M.D., an allergist and director of FDA’s Division of Bacterial, Parasitic and Allergenic Products.

Your health care provider can test you using injectable allergen extracts, sterile liquids made from natural substances such as molds, pollens or animal hair. FDA has licensed these products. Tests include:

  • a skin prick test, which involves placing the allergen extract on your skin and pricking so it goes under the skin’s surface. Your skin is studied for swelling or other signs of a reaction, which usually occurs in about 15 minutes.
  • an injection of a small amount of an allergen, or
  • a blood test, which can detect and measure antibodies to certain allergens.

Allergy meds for symptoms

“After testing, you need to sort out results with your health care provider,” Slater says. “Take the results of the test and combine it with reflective thinking about when and where you’re experiencing symptoms. Then determine the best course of action.”

For instance, if you have a spring oak tree allergy you can try to avoid the allergen by limiting outdoor activities on high pollen-count days and keeping your windows closed. But airborne pollen can be hard to avoid, so your doctor may also recommend prescription or over-the-counter medications to relieve symptoms.

Antihistamines reduce or block symptom-causing histamines and are available in many forms, including tablets and liquids.

“There are several different antihistamines. First-generation antihistamines include medications such as diphenhydramine, marketed under the brand name Benadryl. They have been available over the counter for a long time,” says Narayan Nair, M.D., a medical officer at FDA. “Newer second generation antihistamines have not been available over the counter as long. They include medications such as fexofenadine and loratadine, which are marketed under the brand names Allegra and Claritin, respectively.”

When choosing an over-the-counter antihistamine, patients should read the Drug Facts label closely and follow dosing instructions, Nair says. “Some antihistamines can cause drowsiness and interfere with the ability to drive or operate heavy machinery. The drowsiness can be made worse by taking sedatives or consuming alcohol,” he explains. “Also, patients with chronic conditions such as glaucoma, or an enlarged prostate should talk to their health care provider before taking certain antihistamines.”

In addition to the antihistamines, nasal sprays and eye drops can help improve some allergic symptoms. “Nasal sprays can help relieve nasal symptoms but they should only be used for a limited time without talking to a health care provider. If some nasal sprays are used longer than intended they can make the congestion worse,” Nair notes.

Medications to attack the allergy

If you don’t respond to medications to relieve symptoms, you may be a candidate for allergen immunotherapy, often given via “allergy shots” that have small amounts of the allergen. These shots can decrease sensitivity to inhaled allergens.

Patients can receive weekly injections from a health care provider for two to three months, during which time the dose increases. After the maximum dose is reached, treatment can continue monthly for three to five years.

The prescription sublingual treatments approved in April -- Grastek, Oralair, and Ragwitek -- also are an immunotherapy option. “These medications have the potential for dialing down the immune response to allergens, doing more than just treating the symptoms of allergies,” says Slater. Sublingual therapy should start three to four months prior to allergy season so, depending on your geographic location, it may be something to explore in the next year.

Allergenic treatments can result in reactions such as swelling in the place where they are administered, or systemic reactions that can affect the airway. “For injection therapy, local side effects like itching and swelling can be annoying but not life-threatening,” Slater explains. But for the medications taken under the tongue, you must be especially careful to pay attention to side effects such as swelling.

Due to the potential for serious complications, you must take the first sublingual treatment under medical supervision. After that, you can take treatments daily at home, and your health care provider must prescribe an autoinjectable epinephrine device in case you need it for a severe reaction. You should read the medication guide that is distributed with Grastek, Oralair and Ragwitek each time you fill a prescription.

“For sublingual therapy, the fact that it’s not an injection will be an advantage to some individuals,” Slater says. “And the fact that, aside from the first visit, it doesn’t require follow-up office visits will also be an advantage.”

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Mortgage "lead generator" used deceptive ads to lure consumers

GoLoansOnline.com agrees to pay $225,000 penalty to settle FTC charges

One of the ads challenged by the FTCA company that used online ads to lure consumers looking for a home mortgage will pay $225,000 to settle Federal Tr...

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One of the ads challenged by the FTC

A company that used online ads to lure consumers looking for a home mortgage will pay $225,000 to settle Federal Trade Commission charges that it deceived consumers about the terms of the mortgages.

“Buying a home is one of the most important financial decisions a consumer can make,” said Jessica Rich, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “When companies deceive consumers about the true cost of the mortgages they offer, and consumers take on a mortgage they can’t afford, the harm can last a long time. The FTC’s message is clear: Mortgage advertising must be truthful.”

The FTC charged that GoLoansOnline.com, a Houston-based lead generator that operates several websites,, advertised low interest-rate loans as fixed-rate mortgages, when in fact they were adjustable-rate mortgages that could become more expensive for borrowers over time.

The company also allegedly failed to include important disclosures, such as the annual percentage rate, amount of downpayment, and repayment terms that figure into the advertised payment amounts and interest rate. 

Unlike fixed-rate mortgages, adjustable-rate mortgages carry an interest rate that fluctuates based on credit markets, so the cost to borrowers can increase and decrease over the course of the loan.

The complaint charges GoLoansOnline.com with violating the Federal Trade Commission Act and the Mortgage Acts and Practices Advertising Rule, or “MAP” Rule and Regulation N, by deceptively advertising variable interest rate mortgages as having fixed interest rates.

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Gluten-free diet cuts diabetes risk in mice

But Danish researchers say more study is needed to confirm the findings

Type 1 diabetes is generally regarded as genetic, but new experiments on mice show that mouse mothers can protect their pups from developing type 1 diabete...

PhotoType 1 diabetes is generally regarded as genetic, but new experiments on mice show that mouse mothers can protect their pups from developing type 1 diabetes by eating a gluten-free diet and reseachers at the University of Copenhagen say the findings may apply to humans.

"Preliminary tests show that a gluten-free diet in humans has a positive effect on children with newly diagnosed type 1 diabetes. We therefore hope that a gluten-free diet during pregnancy and lactation may be enough to protect high-risk children from developing diabetes later in life," said assistant professor Camilla Hartmann Friis Hansen from the Department of Veterinary Disease BiologyFaculty of Health and Medical Sciences.

The findings have recently been published in the journal Diabetes.

Findings from experiments on mice are not necessarily applicable to humans, but the study's co-author, Prof. Axel Kornerup, says that may not be the case with diabetes.

"Early intervention makes a lot of sense because type 1 diabetes develops early in life. We also know from existing experiments that a gluten-free diet has a beneficial effect on type 1 diabetes," he said.

Experiments of this type have been going on since 1999, originally initiated by Prof. Karsten Buschard from the