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    Consumers pay more for new cars but enjoy them less

    Could longer finance terms have something to do with it?

    For yet another month, the new car market has been booming. J.D. Power and LMC Automotive are forecasting August new car sales to hit the highest level of the year.

    Light-vehicle sales are projected to hit 1.3 million units and total light-vehicle sales are expected to reach nearly 1.5 million in August. That would be a 3% increase over August 2013.

    But other recent trends are giving some industry analysts pause. Just this week the American Customer Satisfaction Index showed that overall consumer satisfaction with their new cars has fallen for the second straight year.

    Before you write that off as fallout from GM's high-profile recall issues this year, consider this. The only brands that actually improved customer satisfaction were GM nameplates – Chevrolet and Buick.

    Claes Fornell, ACSI Chairman and founder, says it's notable that imports from Asia and Europe have begun to lose the allegiance of American consumers.

    “The other notable finding is that several of the luxury brands do poorly,” he said. “That didn’t use to be the case, and suggests that consumers now expect more for their money when they pay a premium price.”

    Less bang for the buck

    Could declining satisfaction be linked to the fact that consumers who buy a luxury car must pay more than what their parents once paid for a house?

    In July, Kelley Blue Book reported the average transaction price (ATP) for light cars and trucks in June was $32,343. That's average, not just luxury models. New car prices were up by $454 since June 2013.

    It seems odd that car sales keep going up, and prices keep going up, while consumer's incomes have been mostly stagnant over the last 5 years. How are we affording these increasingly expensive cars?

    Expanding payment terms

    In years past people took out a new car loan for 3 to 4 years. Today, trying to pay off a car in that length of time might give you a monthly payment the size of a mortgage.

    Increasingly, consumers are opting for a 5-year loan and, in some cases, automakers are offering terms as long as 7 years. Longer loans carry higher interest rates and the consumer pays down the principal at a slower rate.

    With a minimal down payment and a 7-year term, the value of the car can easily fall below what the consumer still owes before the loan is paid off. Sound familiar?

    That's what happened during the housing bubble, when creative financing was the only way some consumers could afford an increasingly expensive home. If the loan was in the subprime category, the odds against the consumer were even greater.

    Subprime bubble?

    Subprime auto loans are most often used to finance used cars but have been used to purchase new vehicles as well. The Center for Responsible Lending (CRL) notes that investigations into the subprime underwriting standards and securitization at large lenders have raised concerns that the subprime credit bubble is repeating itself, only this time with car loans.

    Probably not, says Dennis Carlson, deputy chief economist at Equifax.

    "The lending landscape today is not the same as it was in 2007, both because lenders generally have a reduced appetite for risk and because regulatory scrutiny has increased," Carlson said. “We believe that while the subprime lending segment needs to be monitored carefully, the evidence at this time does not suggest there is a bubble forming."

    Still, consumers considering an auto purchase would be advised to keep affordability in mind when shopping for a car. If the monthly payment is only affordable if it is stretched over 7 years, the car probably costs too much.

    For yet another month, the new car market has apparently been booming. J.D. Power and LMC Automotive are forecasting August new car sales to hit the highes...
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    JP Morgan Chase hacked, plus unnamed other banks

    Why don't companies let customers know when their information has been stolen?

    Add JP Morgan Chase and “at least four other [still-unidentified] banks” to the ever-growing list of businesses and financial institutions whose customers are now at high risk of fraud and identity theft, since hackers broke into their database and stole the confidential information therein.

    Bloomberg BusinessWeek first broke the news of this latest hacking. So far, all that customers can know for sure is “JP Morgan Chase and some other banks were hacked some time ago, possibly by Russians” – and we only know that much thanks to the anonymous sources who tipped off the Bloomberg reporters.

    A lot of company database breaches come to public notice that way. When you first discover such a hacking has put your credit card or other personal financial information at risk, chances are you didn't learn this because the company contacted you about the security breach; you only know because you read about it yourself, here or on some other news site or security blog, which in turn only learned about it thanks to an anonymous tipster.

    Notorious example

    Perhaps the most notorious recent example of this is the massive security breach at credit-reporting data broker Experian, which made the records of up to five out of six American adults available to a Vietnamese identity thief.

    Consumers rate Chase Bank
    Security blogger Brian Krebs first discovered (and announced) the Experian breach in October 2013. The following April, after various state attorneys general opened a multi-state investigation into the Experian case, Experian released a set of talking points to discuss what it called “an unfortunate and isolated issue – one that we take very seriously and continue to address,” which inspired Krebs to publish a point-by-point rebuttal of Experian's misleading claims — once again, the best information customers could find about the Experian problem came not from Experian but from an outside security expert chatting with anonymous sources.

    Another thing many company database breaches have in common is this: a disturbingly long time passes between “the moment the company first discovers its customers are at risk” and “the moment the customers themselves learn of this, and can take steps to protect themselves.”

    In May 2014, when we first told you that PayPal and eBay had been hacked, we also told you this: “The break-in was detected about two weeks ago, the company said.”

    When we told you about the AT&T hacking in June 2014, this was the article's subtitle: “Hacked two months ago, discovered one month ago, now announced.”

    Or the August 2014 database breach at SuperValu grocery and liquor stores: “Breach discovered four weeks ago, announced yesterday.”

    Why wait?

    Why do businesses and financial institutions sit on such information for so long, knowing their customers are at risk yet not bothering to inform them? The Washington Post's technology-and-policy blog, writing about the JP Morgan Chase breach this week, asked the same thing, and noted:

    This reticence is both deeply rooted within corporate America and, to some consumer advocates, deeply infuriating. Had a family's precious jewelry been stolen from a safe deposit box, any bank would have quickly notified the affected customer. Yet loss of personal information, especially when it happens on a mass scale, is treated differently, both by the law and by industry custom.

    There are plenty of laws and regulations regarding what businesses or financial institutions are supposed to tell you after they let your confidential information fall into a hacker's hands, so very many laws that in some cases it might genuinely be difficult for the companies to comply with them all: various states have their own customer-disclosure laws, any of which can be overruled by federal laws specific to banks and financial institution, which are distinct from the state or federal laws specific to publicly traded companies … and, since hacking and identity theft are criminal matters, there's always the possibility that state or federal law-enforcement authorities might want to keep the hacking out of the news for awhile, to help with their own investigations.

    None of which helps you, the ordinary person who has no idea your account passwords and Social Security numbers might be in some identity thief's hands right now. And, of course, if you do find out your information got lost in the latest hacking du jour, you might have to spend hours or days straightening out the mess – and you won't be compensated for your time, either.

    Add JP Morgan Chase and “at least four other [still-unidentified] banks” to the ever-growing list of businesses and financial institutions whose customers ...
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    Google X testing delivery drones

    Third major company to do so, after Domino's and Amazon

    Google X, the secret tech-research division of Google, is developing and testing a series of autonomous aerial vehicles (better known as “drones”), with the stated hope of eventually using them to make deliveries in places conventional vehicles can't reach.

    Google X's “Project Wing” has been successfully tested in remote farm regions of Queensland, Australia; BBC News said the project was originally conceived as a way to deliver defibrillators to heart-attack victims more quickly than regular ambulances could.

    Google also says the drones could be used to deliver small, lightweight items, such as batteries or medicines, to disaster-stricken areas land-based vehicles won't be able to reach.

    Of course, Google is hardly the first private company to experiment with delivery drones; last year Domino's announced it had developed a drone capable of delivering pizzas, and this year Amazon started testing drones it hopes can one day deliver items to customers' homes.

    Of course, none of this means you'll see delivery drones flying to American suburbs anytime soon. FAA regulations currently ban most commercial drone use although, as the Wall Street Journal noted, “The Federal Aviation Administration is considering regulations to change that and in June approved the first commercial drone flight over land — for energy giant BP in Alaska.”

    Then again, the fact that the FAA would allow an oil company to fly a single exploratory drone over some remote Alaskan wilderness doesn't necessarily mean it will change its mind about the prospect of however-many delivery drones regularly flying through heavily populated commercial or residential areas.

    Last June, Amazon formally asked the FAA for permission to test its drones in American airspace, saying it hoped to one day offer 30-minute order delivery (at last in certain areas). Of course, as the Journal said, “Amazon has acknowledged that regulatory approval could take several years.”

    Google X, the secret tech-research division of Google, is developing and testing a series of autonomous aerial vehicles (better known as “drones”), with th...
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      When is a service dog not a service dog?

      The simplest answer: when it doesn't act like one

      We have all seen the service dogs waking in a grocery store or a mall, maybe even a restaurant. You look and they look back and then the cute little dog wa..

      ReWalk may have many in wheelchairs walking again

      Exoskeleton suit is designed for victims of spinal cord injury

      It's been a dream of health researchers for decades – to help victims of spinal cord injury, confined to wheelchairs, to one day get up and walk again. So far, it's been an elusive goal.

      But in June the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) gave its approval to a medical device that has the potential to allow thousands of people with spinal cord injuries to walk again. The device, called ReWalk, doesn't heal them. In a way, it makes them bionic.

      ReWalk is a motorized device worn over the legs and part of the upper body that helps an individual sit, stand, and walk with assistance from a trained helper. The company calls it an exoskeleton.

      Life-changing impact

      “This revolutionary product will have an immediate, life-changing impact on individuals with spinal cord injuries,” said Larry Jasinski, CEO of ReWalk Robotics. “For the first time individuals with paraplegia will be able to take home this exoskeleton technology, use it every day and maximize on the physiological and psychological benefits we have observed in clinical trials. This is truly the beginning of ‘ReWalking’ as a daily reality in the U.S.”

      It won't work for all spinal cord injury victims. The FDA has cleared it for those with paraplegia due to spinal cord injuries at the seventh thoracic vertebra to fifth lumbar vertebra. The agency also approved a version of the device for use in rehabilitation settings, where the victim has suffered injuries at the fourth thoracic vertebra to the sixth thoracic vertebra.

      Those using ReWalk will be somewhat limited in their motion. They can't climb stairs and they will need the use of crutches and the support of another human being. Still, that might be considered a small trade-off when you consider they will no longer be confined to a wheel chair.

      How it works

      ReWalk is a system of braces, computers and motors the provides user-initiated mobility. The motors supply movement at the hips, knees, and ankles. A backpack contains the computer and power supply.

      Crutches provide the user with extra stability when walking, standing, and getting out of a chair. Using a wireless remote control worn on the wrist, a user operates the device, telling it to stand up, sit down or walk. The company says it allows independent, controlled walking while mimicking the natural gait patterns of the legs, similar to that of an able-bodied person.

      In announcing its approval for the marketing of ReWalk, the FDA struck a hopeful tone.

      “Innovative devices such as ReWalk go a long way towards helping individuals with spinal cord injuries gain some mobility,” said Christy Foreman, director of the Office of Device Evaluation, at the FDA’s Center for Devices and Radiological Health. “Along with physical therapy, training and assistance from a caregiver, these individuals may be able to use these devices to walk again in their homes and in their communities.”

      Thousands of potential beneficiaries

      The FDA says there are about 200,000 people in the United States living with a spinal cord injury, many of whom have complete or partial paraplegia. It's not known how many will qualify for use of ReWalk but it isn't unrealistic to expect the number to be in the tens of thousands.

      U.S. Marine Corps Captain Derek Herrera will be one of the first to get ReWalk. Herrera, a paraplegic, trained on the ReWalk Personal System as part of the trial.

      “I see this as a milestone for people in my same situation who will now have access to this technology – to experience walking again, and all of the health benefits that come with ReWalking,” Herrera said.

      The trial data shows that the ReWalk system has other benefits besides helping a paraplegic to walk again. Because it gets them up and walking, study subjects showed improvements in cardiovascular health, loss of fat tissue, building of lean muscle mass, and improved bowel function.

      Rewalk is now available for purchase by rehabilitation hospitals. The company has not published price information on it's website.

      It's been a dream of health researchers for decades – to help victims of spinal cord injury, confined to wheelchairs, to one day get up and walk again. So ...
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      BloomNation sees itself as the budding Uber of the flower business

      Start-up claims to come to the aid of consumers and local florists

      There are plenty of ways to send flowers to someone in another city. You can use national distributors like 1800flowers, or search Google for a florist in the city where you want the delivery to happen.

      Both methods can turn out well sometimes but they can also go awry, as we're reminded every Valentine's Day when consumers complain that the flowers that were delivered looked nothing like the arrangement featured on the company's website. 

      Contacting a local florist directly can be OK too, although the drawback is that the local florist may put your into their database and bombard you with email messages about specials and promotions that are of no interest to you. After all, many times when we send flowers it's a onetime thing -- flowers sent to a distant city where a co-worker's parent died, for example.

      BloomNation.com sees itself as the answer to these and other problems. The venture-backed start-up is, as we say, disintermediating the flower business; just as Uber has taken cab dispatchers and taxi fleet owners out of the local ride business so BloomNation says it puts consumers directly in touch with local florists while relieving them of the chore of finding a florist and negotiating the details from faraway, without giving up sensitive personal information and credit card numbers to the local florist.

      "BloomNation sends you photos of your completed arrangement before anything’s sent out the door, only features florists’ actual designs (no stock photos permitted) and is bringing business back to the heart of the flower industry (giving florists 90% of all sales where other sites only give 50%)," the company says..

      But whereas Uber, Lyft & Co. are often accused of putting local cabbies out of business, BloomNation says it will be helping local florists survive, and claims that larger flower sites have been putting local flower shops out of business for years.

      There are plenty of ways to send flowers to someone in another city. You can use national distributors like 1800flowers, or search Google for a florist in ...
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      Can "organic" food be verified?

      A new study suggests yes, at least where the fertilizer's concerned

      The good news, for consumers who want to buy organic food but don't know if the “organic” label can be trusted, is that the American Chemical Society put out a press release announcing “How to prevent organic food fraud,” which strongly suggests that this can, in fact, be done.

      The bad news is that doing so requires a technique called nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy, which has been used to analyze tomatoes grown in either conventional or organic fertilizer and determine the differences among them. This is not something your average supermarket shopper can do while choosing among offerings in the produce section.

      The ACS' Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry published a study by researchers from Germany's Wuerzburg University and the Bavarian Health and Food Safety Authority indicating some success with the nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy technique. If adopted, this technique would presumably be used to test organic status when the food is labeled, to ensure it actually deserves the organic designation.

      Studies suggest that organic food is no healthier than its conventional equivalents, and that preference for organic foods might reflect hype more than health matters.

      Still: if someone wants and is willing to pay more for food fertilized with (for example) natural animal manure rather than artificially produced chemical fertilizers, they should be able to do so rather than be defrauded into paying increased “organic” prices for “non-organic” food.

      The good news, for consumers who want to buy organic food but don't know if the “organic” label can be trusted, is that the American Chemical Society put o...
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      Sea to Ski Vacations ordered to pay $7 million in penalties, restitution

      "Free airline ticket" offers were used to rope in customers

      Travel club memberships can be great when they work. But when they don't, they can be a major source of frustration and monetary distress.

      Take Sea to Ski Vacations. It's been ordered to pay $7 million in fines and consumer restitution for violating the Colorado Consumer Protection Act. 

      Denver District Court Judge Robert McGahey also prohibited the club's owners from owning, managing, or operating travel-related businesses again because of their deceptive business practices.

      “Consumers complained that they were told membership in the travel club would entitle them to deep discounts on condos and cruises,” said Attorney General John Suthers. “Yet, after paying as much as $9,000 for a membership, the Sea to Ski ‘deals’ were no better than what the consumer could purchase on popular internet travel sites."

      According to testimony from ex-employee witnesses, Sea to Ski employees regularly used Expedia and Priceline to book travel while pretending to be working with an exclusive provider of travel services. 

      Sea to Ski attracted its customers by mailing postcards claiming that the recipient had won two free airline tickets. The “free airline ticket” offers often require substantial up-front fees, and such onerous travel restrictions that consumers are unable to redeem the travel vouchers. American Airlines sued the club for copyright infringement for the unlawful use of their logo.

      The Colorado Attorney General warns that similar postcards using the Southwest, United, and Delta logos have also been used to attract consumers to other travel club presentations. Consumers should carefully read any fine print or conditions attached to “free” offers received by mail or email. Anyone who believes they may have been scammed is encouraged to file a complaint by calling the Colorado Consumer Protection Hotline at 800-222-4444.

      Travel club memberships can be great when they work. But when they don't, they can be a major source of frustration and monetary distress. Take Sea to Ski...
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      Despite rising incomes, consumers tightened their belts in July

      Personal consumption spending fell as the savings rate rose

      Personal incomes rose in July, but it was only about half the advance posted the month before.

      Figures released by the Bureau of Economic Analysis show personal incomes inched ahead just 0.2% last month, which translates to $28.6 billion.

      At the same time, personal consumption expenditures (PCE) fell $13.6 billion, or 0.1%. Disposable

      personal income (DPI) -- personal income less personal current taxes -- increased $17.7 billion.

      Wages and salaries

      Private wages and salaries were up $12.9 billion in July, well short of the $25.6 billion gain posted in June. Goods-producing industries' payrolls advanced $0.7 billion after increasing $8.8 billion the month before. Manufacturing payrolls, which rose $5.1 billion in June, were unchanged last month

      Services-producing industries' payrolls added $12.3 billion, while government wages and salaries increased $1.7 billion.

      Outlays and personal savings

      Personal outlays -- PCE, personal interest payments, and personal current transfer payments -- fell $12.0 billion in July, after climbing $51.2 billion in June.

      Personal saving -- DPI less personal outlays -- was $739.1 billion in July, versus $709.4 billion in June. The personal saving rate -- personal saving as a percentage of DPI -- rose 0.3% in July to 5.7% the highest rate since December 2012. 

      The full report is available on the Cemmerce Department website.

      Personal incomes rose in July, but it was only about half the advance posted the month before. Figures released by the Bureau of Economic Analysis show pe...
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      Dole-branded spinach recalled

      The spinach may have been contaminated by walnuts, a known allergen

      Dole Fresh Vegetables is recalling the following products:

      PRODUCT NAMEBAG CODEBEST-BY DATE
      DOLE Baby Spinach 6 oz bag
      UPC 071430009642
      B23110209/4/2014
      B23110219/4/2014
      B23110229/4/2014
      B23110239/4/2014
      DOLE Spinach 8 oz bag
      UPC 071430009765
      B23110209/4/2014
      B23110219/4/2014
      B23110229/4/2014
      B23110239/4/2014
      B23110249/4/2014
      B23110259/4/2014

      The product may be contaminated by walnuts, a known allergen, which fell from a tree into spinach bins being delivered from a field.

      No illnesses or allergic reactions have been reported.

      The recall is for Arizona, Nevada and New Mexico, for Dole Baby Spinach 6-oz bags and Dole Spinach 8-oz bags with the specific Bag Codes and Best-by dates listed above. The bag code and best-by date are on the top right-hand corner of the front of the bag.

      Consumers who have purchased the recalled products should not consume them.

      Consumers may call the Dole consumer center toll-free at 1-800-356-3111 from 8am to 3 pm PT, Monday through Friday, for a refund.

      Dole Fresh Vegetables is recalling spinach products that mayhave been contaminated by walnuts, a known allergen, which fell from a tree into spinach bins b...
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      Ford recalls Focus and C-Max vehicles

      Steering gears may have been assembled incorrectly

      Ford Motor Company is recalling 508 model year 2014 Focus and C-Max vehicles manufactured August 8, 2014, to August 15, 2014.

      The affected vehicles may have steering gears that were incorrectly assembled. The incorrectly manufactured steering gears may cause impaired steering, including the loss of steering control, increasing the risk of a crash.

      Ford will notify owners, and dealers will replace the steering gears, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin on September 8, 2014.

      Owners may contact Ford customer service at 1-800-392-3673. Ford's number for this recall is 14S18.

      Ford Motor Company is recalling 508 model year 2014 Focus and C-Max vehicles manufactured August 8, 2014, to August 15, 2014. The affected vehicles may h...
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      PEDIGREE Brand Adult Complete Nutrition dog food recalled

      The product may contain a foreign material

      Mars Petcare is recalling 22 bags of PEDIGREE Adult Complete Nutrition dry dog food products.

      The product may contain a foreign material.

      The company has not received any reports of injury or illness associated with the affected product.

      The recalled bags, which were sold between August 18 and August 25 in 12 Dollar General stores in Mississippi, Arkansas, Tennessee and Louisiana, may contain small metal fragments, which could have entered the packages during the production process.

      Consumers who have purchased affected product to discard the food or return it to the retailer for a full refund or exchange. We have not received any reports of injury or illness associated with the affected product. The lot codes indicated below should not be consumed.

      Only 15-pound bags of the product with the production code shown below are included in this recall. Each product will have a lot code printed on the back of the bag near the UPC code that reads 432C1KKM03 and a Best Before date of 8/5/15.

      UPCDESCRIPTION
      23100 10944PEDIGREE® Brand Adult Complete Nutrition dry dog food in 15 pound bags

      The recalled product would have been sold in Dollar General Stores in these cities:

      • Arkansas:
        • Perryville
        • Cabot
      • Louisiana
        • Baton Rouge
        • Calhoun
        • Hineston
        • Jonesville
        • Pineville
        • Slaughter
      • Mississippi
        • Magnolia
        • Vicksburg
      • Tennessee
        • Memphis

       Pet owners who have questions about the recall may call 1-800-305-5206.

      Mars Petcare is recalling 22 bags of PEDIGREE Adult Complete Nutrition dry dog food products. The product may contain a foreign material. The company h...
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      American Woodcrafters recalls bunk beds

      The bed’s side mattress support rails can break

      American Woodcrafters of High Point, N.C., is recalling about 1,900 bunk beds.

      The bed’s side mattress support rails can break, posing a fall hazard.

      The company has received two reports of bed support rails breaking, in which children fell from the bed and sustained bruising.

      This recall involves Cottage Retreat II bunk beds with a side ladder. The white finish beds were sold in twin over twin, and twin over full combinations. American Woodcrafters, Made in Indonesia and SKU number 6310-9771 are printed on a label attached to the inside of one of the four rails.

      The bunk beds, manufactured in Indonesia, were sold exclusively at Havertys stores nationwide and online at havertys.com from September 2011, through March 2014, for between $600 and $1,000.

      Consumers should immediately stop using the beds and contact Havertys to arrange for the free installation of free replacement rails. American Woodcrafters and Havertys are contacting their customers directly.

      Consumers may contact Havertys toll-free at (888) HAVERTY(428-3789), from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. ET Monday through Saturday.

      American Woodcrafters of High Point, N.C., is recalling about 1,900 bunk beds. The bed’s side mattress support rails can break, posing a fall hazard. The...
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      HD audio, video calling coming to Verizon Wireless

      Advanced Calling 1.0 rolls out later this year

      Telephone connections have never been known for great audio quality. Traveling over copper wire, telephone audio has always operated on very narrow bandwidth.

      Cell phones haven't improved audio quality but, if anything, have made it worse. Does “can you hear me now” ring a bell?

      But with digital technology, telecom providers are in the process of replacing scratchy, thin voice quality with HD audio. The transformation will eventually come to landlines but it's already arriving in the mobile world.

      Verizon Wireless is in the process of rolling out what it calls Voice over LTE, or VoLTE. While it has its limitations, VoLTE should provide noticeable improvement in audio clarity.

      Limitation

      The limitation has to do with how you'll notice it. First, the call must be placed using an HD-capable Verizon phone using the 4G LTE network.

      If the call is placed to a landline or someone on another carrier, or someone using a 3G phone, you won't get the HD quality. And once you've heard both, you'll be able to tell the difference.

      Verizon Wireless says VoLTE vastly improves the quality of the call by enhancing clarity of the person who is speaking. At the same time, the technology reduces the background noise.

      Here's an example. If you've listened to a talk radio program, you know there is a distinct difference in the audio quality of the host and that of the caller. HD audio will produce telephone quality closer to the sound of the radio host, who is sitting in a studio speaking into a microphone.

      Video calls

      What may be more important to some mobile customers is the video component of VoLTE. Verizon Wireless says video calling is simplified when using VoLTE technology.

      The contact list in the user's phone will clearly indicate, with a video camera icon next to the name, who can receive a video call. By tapping on the phone the user initiates the call.

      Suppose you don't want to receive a video call. Recipients of these calls can easily switch back and forth from video to voice only.

      Again, the video side of VoLTE works exactly like the voice feature – both parties to the call must be on Verizon's 4G LTE network and be using phones enabled for VoLTE.

      Advanced Calling 1.0

      The VoLTE package will be a service upgrade when it is offered in the coming weeks. The package is called Advanced Calling 1.0. Verizon Wireless says HD Voice will be billed according to your existing calling plan.

      AT&T also have HD audio plans in the works and may roll them out before the end of the year. Earlier this year T-Mobile said HD was available on some of its phones.

      Telephone connections have never been known for great audio quality. Traveling over copper wire, telephone audio has always operated on very narrow bandwid...
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      Feds take aim at undocumented watermelons

      Supermarkets throughout the land are displaying watermelons without nutrition labels

      Some people spend all their time inveighing against the ever-encroaching federal government getting its nose into every aspect of modern life. Somedays it's pretty hard to argue with that notion.

      Take the case of the rogue watermelons. The feds are concerned because watermelons don't come with nutrition labels and are working on rules that would correct this oversight.

      Perhaps genetic modification will someday enable watermelons to produce their own nutrition labels but for now, it looks like we'll be stuck with the stick-on variety.

      Blame Obamacare

      As far as we've been able to determine, it's only sliced watermelons that are currently being considered as outlaws. Apparently, a provision in the Affordable Care Act -- yes, that's right, Obamacare -- stipulates that as soon as a watermelon is sliced open, it becomes a potential restaurant serving and must be labeled with calorie information.

      The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is, with a straight face, working on a rule to implement this provision, according to information harvested by the Food Marketing Institute (FMI), a food industry trade group.

      Besides watermelons bound for restaurants, melons arrayed in supermarkets may also need labels, as the act of slicing them open makes them "food on display," which would require calorie information "directly affixed to or adjacent to the item, not just on a menu or menu board, which is the required method for restaurant food," as FMI puts it. 

      This might all seem rather absurd but it gets worse as one considers the practicality of the matter. After all, the caloric content of a given slice of watermelon varies with a number of factors -- like, uh, weight and degree of ripeness. Estimating could spell trouble. Stores that get it wrong could be subject to a penalty.

      Exploratory slicing

      Jennifer Hatcher, who is FMI's Senior Vice President, Government and Public Affairs and a self-described watermelon fan, says that leaving watermelons unmolested doesn't do the trick either.

      "The first thing a grocery store produce manager does to expose his customers to the two best attributes of that watermelon – color and smell – is to cut it open," she notes, a practice that would be imperiled by the FDA's rules. 

      "Both our senses and the way food retailers do business are being threatened," Hatcher laments. And, just like those obsessed with ongoing federal power grabs, she warns that government's overreach won't stop with wastermelons.

      Birthday cakes displayed in bakery departments and olives left exposed in olive bars could be next, she warns. Much as Paul Revere did in his day, Hatcher is sounding the alarm and rounding up supermarket managers and, presumably, watermelon farmers to descend on Washington seeking redress.

      Maybe they'll throw watermelons into the Potomac?

      Some people spend all their time inveighing against the ever-encroaching federal government getting its nose into every aspect of modern life. Somedays it'...
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      Samsung's new Gear S may be the smartest smartwatch, at least for now

      It's basically a smartphone that wraps around your wrist. It even tells time.

      How smart is your watch? Chances are, it can't do much more than tell you the date and time. But that's about to change, as the computer world begins cranking out smartwatches -- expected to be this year's Big New Thing.

      What's so smart about a smartwatch? Well, basically, it's like the difference between a dumb old cell phone -- you know, the kind that just makes phone calls -- and the smartphones that are really miniature personal computers that do nearly everything a desktop does but are so small you can put them in your hip pocket. 

      And, just as the first smartphones weren't all that smart, the first smartwatches have been a little on the slow side but that's expected to change over the next few months as Samsung, Google, Apple and the other usual suspects bring their new models to market.

      Samsung opened the bidding this week with the intro of its Galaxy Gear S, which the company says "redefines the idea of the smart wearable and the culture of mobile communication. It will let consumers live a truly connected life anywhere, anytime.”

      Wearable experience

      Burbling on happily, Samsung assures us the Gear S "delivers an up-to-date smart wearable experience with 3G connectivity and wearable optimized features to meet the evolving needs of consumers."

      The Gear S, which has a rather startling curved screen, includes 3G as well as Bluetooth and WiFi connectivity, keeping us plugged into social networks, calendars and mobile apps even when the smartphone has slipped out of our hip pocket and gone astray. 

      It's worth noting that the Gear S is a standalone device. It doesn't have to be tethered to a smartphone or other device, which was the curse of many earlier wearables

      And, yes, Gear S users can make and receive calls directly from their wrist, or get calls forwarded from their smartphones. It will even tell you where to go, providing turn-by-turn pedestrian navigation and keep track of how many calories you burn en route with apps like Nike+ Running.

      Snicker if you must but anyone who's managed to get lost while running -- come on, you know who you are -- qualifies as an ideal Gear S purchaser.  

      The Gear S goes on sale in October. 

      How smart is your watch? Chances are, it can't do much more than tell you the date and time. But that's about to change, as the computer world begins crank...
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      As costs rise, alternative health care options emerge

      Walk-in clinics and online diagnostics may be all you need in some cases

      While health care costs have skyrocketed, more low-cost alternatives have emerged to help consumers manage their health. They might not replace your doctor, but could reduce the number of times you need to see her – and the money you'll spend doing so.

      Walk-in health clinics are springing up all over the U.S. in high-traffic retail stores. Drug chain CVS operates Minute Clinic, which is one of the largest and best-known of these health care providers.

      It's not a place you would go with a serious ailment, like symptoms of a heart attack or an extremely high fever. But CVS says its practitioners can diagnose, treat and write prescriptions for common family illnesses such as strep throat, bladder infections, pink eye, and infections of the ears, nose and throat.

      They can also treat minor wounds, run basic lab tests and conduct sports physicals.

      Online diagnosis

      The University of Alabama Birmingham Medical School (UAB Medicine) has just launched an online service for the diagnosis and treatment of common conditions, such as colds, allergies, bladder infections and pink eye.

      Patients pay a $25 fee, but only if the clinician can diagnose their condition through the service (ask your doctor if you can get that kind of deal). If symptoms are too complex or advanced, patients will be be referred to a doctor for additional care.

      “eMedicine is an urgent care service that enables patients to use their desktop or mobile devices to interact with our providers,” said Stuart Cohen, M.D., medical director of primary care in UAB’s School of Medicine. “This will add to patient convenience for those who are suffering from upper respiratory infections, flu, allergies and other things very common in an urgent-care setting. It’s really a novel way to extend the physician-patient relationship.”

      House call

      Using the online service means not having to leave the comfort of a home, which may be important during weather extremes. UAB says the online visit takes approximately five minutes to complete, with the patient responding to a number of questions.

      The system uses a diagnosis and treatment software system, Zipnosis, to collect a patient’s symptoms, soliciting the same information a clinician would in a face-to-face meeting. The responses are reviewed by a UAB clinician who provides a diagnosis and personalized treatment plan.

      While this particular service is limited to consumers in Alabama, UAB officials believe it could be a model for highly flexible and inexpensive treatment options everywhere.

      24/7

      It's available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and a diagnosis will be provided within an hour if the case is submitted during normal eMedicine hours of operation.

      “The patient can go online at 2 a.m. if they aren’t feeling well and complete the questionnaire, and when they wake up in the morning, everything will be rendered and taken care of,” Cohen said.

      Patients get a text or email when their diagnosis is ready. Any prescriptions are sent to the pharmacy of their choice.

      Relieving the ER

      Currently, many consumers lacking health insurance or a family doctor often show up at hospital emergency rooms (ER) for treatment of minor ailments that might be more effectively treated through one of these low-cost alternatives.

      And it isn't just the uninsured who use the ER for non-urgent healthcare. According to a recent study from Truven Health Analytics, 71% of ER visits made by patients with private insurance coverage are for conditions that don't require emergency treatment.

      “Inappropriate use of emergency department services has become a major source of healthcare system aste,” said John Azzolini, director of practice leadership at Truven Health Analytics. “Conventional wisdom has previously suggested that this issue was confined to the Medicaid, Medicare and uninsured populations, but our new research shows that the privately-insured population’s use of the ER is avoidable approximately three quarters of the time. This is important data to consider as we start to evaluate the effective use of healthcare resources under the Affordable Care Act.”  

      While health care costs have skyrocketed, more low-cost alternatives have emerged to help consumers manage their health. They might not replace your doctor...
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      Hackers break into Dairy Queen's database

      How many customers and which Dairy Queen stores were hit still isn't known

      Bad news for Dairy Queen lovers: a company spokesman confirmed today that yes, hackers have breached their customer database, stealing numbers and making fraudulent purchases with the accounts of an unknown number of customers from an unspecified number of DQ locations.

      More specifically, Dairy Queen confirmed that the U.S. Secret Service had contacted them about “card-stealing malware.”

      Security blogger Brian Krebs first reported on Aug. 26 that his sources in the financial industry were seeing signs indicating a Dairy Queen database breach. Banks, credit unions and other debit- or credit-card-issuing institutions from around the country were getting huge numbers of fraudulent-charge reports from customers who all had one thing in common: they'd recently used their cards at various Dairy Queen locations.

      But Krebs updated his story today to report that a Dairy Queen spokesman confirmed that the Secret Service had recently contacted the company about “suspicious activity” involving malware that had been used to steal card information from “hundreds” of other retailers.

      So far, that's all anybody knows: some customers, who “recently” visited some Dairy Queen locations, are at risk. As for how many customers, which specific locations in which states, and what actual time frame counts as “recently” … right now, chances are even Dairy Queen and the U.S. Secret Service don't know for sure.

      Bad news for Dairy Queen lovers: a company spokesman confirmed today that yes, hackers have breached their customer database, stealing numbers and making f...
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      Keurig competitors crack company's DRM code

      This is why your old K-cups won't work in new Keurig machines

      Last March, when we first reported that Keurig planned to require RFID-limited K-cup pods for its upcoming version 2.0 machines, we rhetorically asked “Wil..

      Americans more satisfied with U.S. schools, survey finds

      48% of Americans are "completely" or "somewhat satisfied" with the education their children receive

      Kids seldom celebrate the end of summer vacation but parents are more satisfied with the quality of their children's education than at anytime in the last 10 years.

      Gallup finds 48% of Americans are "completely" or "somewhat satisfied" with the quality of kindergarten through high school education in the country, the highest Gallup has measured since 2004. For the first time since 2007, Americans are now about as likely to say they are satisfied as dissatisfied.

      Gallup has asked U.S. adults about their satisfaction with education since 1999, including each August since 2001, as part of its annual Work and Education poll.

      The high of 53% satisfaction was reached in 2004, the only year more Americans were satisfied with education than dissatisfied. Americans were most negative about the state of education in 2000, when education was a major presidential campaign issue and more than six in 10 said they were dissatisfied.

      Satisfaction has largely been stable in recent years, ranging from 43% to 46% from 2005-2013. However, satisfaction ticked up this year, and is now similar to what was seen in the early 2000s.

      Americans who have children in grades K-12 are generally more satisfied than U.S. adults as a whole. A majority of these parents (57%) are satisfied with education in the country. Parents may be basing their evaluations at least partly on their own child's education, not just on what they hear in the news.

      Optimism gap

      For as long as Gallup has measured it, U.S. parents of school-aged children are more likely to be satisfied with the quality of their child's education than Americans are with the quality of education in the country. Most parents are satisfied with their child's education, while historically the majority of Americans have been dissatisfied with the quality of U.S. education.

      This long-evident "optimism gap" may result from Americans focusing on press reports of inadequate schooling in problem school districts when they are asked about education nationally, but focusing on what they perceive as a much more positive local situation when asked about the education of their own children.

      Kids seldom celebrate the end of summer vacation but parents are more satisfied with the quality of their children's education than at anytime in the last ...
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