Current Events in July 2016

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    Online obituary sites collected unauthorized charitable donations

    Legacy.com and Tributes settle Vermont charges, agree to reform their practices

    It's not just undertakers and florists who profit from death. Local newspapers and online sites have found a steady stream of revenue in the obituary business and now routinely gouge families to run even the simplest death announcement.

    Finding a profitable business model frequently results in looking for ways to milk more revenue out of each transaction, and that's what Vermont says online obit sites have been up to lately. 

    Legacy.com and Tributes have agreed to pay more than $30,000 to settle charges by Vermont that they ran a scheme to solicit unauthorized donations to nonprofits in lieu of flowers.

    “We are pleased to end this practice, which has cost Vermonters unnecessary fees at a time of vulnerability. This is a good outcome for Vermont donors and nonprofits alike.” Attorney General William H. Sorrell said.

    According to Sorrell, the sites directed mourners wanting to donate to nonprofits like the American Cancer Society to Givalike, a third-party website that collected the money, deducted its cut, and sent the remainder to the charity.

    Didn't get consent

    The problem with this is that, in Vermont and many other states, it is illegal to solicit donations for a charity without first getting the charity's consent. Additionally, the state charged that in some instances, neither the deceased nor the immediate family had asked for donations to be solicited for a charity.

    The sites also failed to register as paid fundraisers in Vermont and failed to follow the state's laws regarding charitable solicitations.

    Under the terms of the settlement, Legacy.com and Tributes agreed not to allow software in the obituary of any Vermonter, or in any obituary where a Vermont nonprofit is listed without disclosing that a third-party’s website will be used and disclosing all fees. 

    As part of the settlement, both Legacy.com and Tributes will pay the state for penalties and attorneys’ costs and fees totaling more than $30,000.

    Sorrell's office is still investigating the three California-based principals of Givalike, which is no longer in business.

    It's not just undertakers and florists who profit from death. Local newspapers and online sites have found a steady stream of revenue in the obituary busin...

    Prenatal vitamins: are they worth it?

    Some doctors say expensive prenatal vitamins may not be all they're cracked up to be

    Prenatal vitamins have long been considered a crucial element to a healthy pregnancy. But are they really necessary?

    When it comes to preventing heart disease and cancer, a study published recently in the Archives of Internal Medicine finds that being diligent about taking a daily multivitamin may not be as beneficial as simply having a nutrient-rich diet.

    And the same idea holds true regarding the benefits of taking prenatal vitamins during pregnancy, says Charles Lockwood MD, the chief of obstetrics and gynecology at Yale-New Haven Hospital.

    “If you eat a balanced diet and are not iron deficient, it is not clear that prenatal vitamins result in any health benefits during pregnancy,” Lockwood told Health.com.

    Folic acid and vitamin D

    According to a paper published recently in the British Medical Journal's Drug and Therapeutics Bulletin, there is no evidence that any vitamins and nutrients other than folic acid and vitamin D helped to prevent birth complications.

    "Women can be reassured that taking a folic acid supplement ... and vitamin D is all they need to do, and can save themselves a great deal of money not buying expensive branded multivitamins," Dr. James Cave, editor-in-chief of the bulletin and a practitioner at the Downland Practice in Newbury, Berkshire told CNN.com.

    Still, doctors here in the U.S. say there are benefits in having pregnant women take prenatal vitamins. One of which being that it’s often easier for moms-to-be to take one supplement rather than many.

    Recommended minimums

    The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists doesn't offer any glowing praise of prenatal vitamins, specifically. Instead, they stand behind the following evidence-based minimums of nutrients during pregnancy:

    • 400 micrograms of folic acid
    • 27 milligrams of iron
    • 1,000 milligrams of calcium
    • 600 international units of vitamin D

    Individualized choice

    While prenatal vitamins may not be as imperative to the healthy development of a fetus as many mothers, grandmothers, and doctors would have expectant mothers believe, experts say they shouldn’t be forgotten altogether.

    "It's not time to abandon the multivitamin or prenatal vitamin and it's not one size fits all," Dr. Scott Sullivan, an associate professor at the Medical University of South Carolina, told CNN.

    "Nutrition is important in pregnancy, and should be maximized," he says, adding that the task of choosing a prenatal vitamin should be an individualized choice made alongside a woman's OB-GYN while paying close attention to the aforementioned nutrient minimums.  

    Prenatal vitamins have long been considered a crucial element to a healthy pregnancy. But are they really necessary?When it comes to preventing heart d...

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      Mixed results for new home construction in June

      The same holds true for building permits

      It's truly a good-news-bad news situation for the home construction industry.

      The Commerce Department reports builders broke ground on privately-owned homes in June at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 1,189,000. While that's 4.8% above the May figure, it's down 2.0% from the same period a year earlier.

      Construction of single-family houses rose 4.4% from May to a rate of 778,000 and 13.4% from June 2015. The rate for units in buildings with five units or more was 392,000, up 1.6% for the month, but suffered a year-over-year plunge of 23.6%.

      Building permits

      Building permits, an indicator of what developers are planning in the months ahead, were issued at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 1,153,000 -- up 1.5% from May, but down 13.6% on a year-over-year basis.

      Authorizations for future construction of single-family homes were at a rate of 738,000 in June, a gain of 1.0% from May and 5.1% from a year earlier.

      Permits for units in buildings with five units or more posted a month-over-month advance of 1.9% to 384,000, but plunged 35.8% from June 2015.

      The complete report is available on the Commerce Department website.

      It's truly a good-news-bad news situation for the home construction industry.The Commerce Department reports builders broke ground on privately-owned h...

      Mercedes-Benz recalls vehicles with seat belt issue

      The right rear seatbelt anchor bolt may be incorrectly installed

      Mercedes-Benz USA (MBUSA) is recalling 423 model year 2015 ML250, ML350, ML350 4Matic, ML400 4Matic, ML63 AMG; and 2016 GLE450 AMG 4Matic vehicles manufactured from April 27, 2015, through May 19, 2015.

      The recalled vehicles may have had the right rear seatbelt anchor bolt incorrectly installed.

      In the event of a vehicle crash, the right rear seatbelt anchor bolt could fail to secure the passenger, increasing their risk of injury.

      What to do

      MBUSA will notify owners, and dealers will inspect and, if necessary, correct the installation of the right rear seat belt anchor bolt, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin in July 2016.

      Owners may contact MBUSA customer service at 1-800-367-6372.

      Mercedes-Benz USA (MBUSA) is recalling 423 model year 2015 ML250, ML350, ML350 4Matic, ML400 4Matic, ML63 AMG; and 2016 GLE450 AMG 4Matic vehicles manufact...

      White House funds 5G effort despite health advocates' objections

      The ultra-high-speed broadband technology poses unknown risks, critics say

      The White House is throwing $400 million into an effort that's supposed to speed development of the Internet of Things (IoT) and 5G wireless technology, a move some health advocates say is premature and unwise.

      The federal dollars will be flowing into something called the Advanced Wireless Research Initiative, which is supposed to test and ultimately implement new 5G wireless networking and IoT technologies in the U.S.

      The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) last week voted to adopt new rules that open up the 24 GHz spectrum for so-called 5G (5th generation) high-speed broadband. When fully deployed, 5G will make the internet about 100 times faster and supposedly enable widespread development of "connected" cars and appliances.

      FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler calls U.S. leadership in 5G "a national priority."

      "High-speed, high-capacity, low-latency wireless networks will define our future," Wheeler said at Friday's announcement of the funding for the initiative. 

      More towers

      Because of the extremely high 24 GHz frequencies, the waves emitted by transponders are extremely short and don't travel very far, meaning that there will need to be many more -- though smaller -- cell towers than today.  

      Not everyone thinks this is a good idea. Richard H. Conrad, a biochemist and consultant, says the White House and FCC are putting the cart before the horse -- deploying new technology without first ensuring that it is safe.

      "I am a biochemist with a Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins and know without a doubt, from the findings of thousands of research papers published by scientists with independent research funding, that there are many harmful biological effects of non-thermal levels of EMF that are relevant to humans," Conrad said in an open letter to FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler.

      Conrad contends that boosters of wireless technology have argued, in effect, that critics must prove the technology is unsafe by showing exactly how it causes harm.

      "This is a myth; no one yet knows how smoking causes cancer, or the actual mechanism behind gravity," Conrad said. "Honest and independent research into health effects of 5G is absolutely necessary before actual deployment, and is therefore desirable before 5G system designs and standards have progressed very far."

      "Increased productivity"

      In a statement, The White House compares the IoT effort to historic breakthroughs achieved by Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Edison, George Washington Carver, and Samuel Morse.

      "This effort will help spur innovation in many ways, from pushing the frontiers of tele-medicine through robot-assisted remote surgeries, to testing of autonomous vehicles that talk to each other to keep us safe, to the roll-out of smart manufacturing equipment in factories, to providing more connectivity for more people," administration officials Jason Furman and R. David Edelman said in a blog posting.

      "Each one of these innovations has the potential to support increased productivity growth that can put more money in the pocket of American families," said Furman, chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors, and Edelman, Special Assistant to the President for Economic and Technology Policy.

      Like the FCC's Wheeler, Furman and Edelman have no training in biological sciences, a sticking point for Conrad.

      "Wheeler is a businessman, lobbyist and politician with no training in biological or medical sciences, no understanding of biochemistry or biophysics, no biological research experience, and he listens to advice on biological safety only from scientists who have been bought by industry and tell him what he wants to hear," Conrad said in an email to ConsumerAffairs.

      "Wheeler is relying on myths and 'tobacco science' to sweep real science under the carpet, the enormous body of science that shows harmful effects of even low levels of pulsed microwave, yes, non-ionizing, radiation," Conrad said.

      The White House is throwing $400 million into an effort that's supposed to speed development of the Internet of Things (IoT) and 5G wireless technology, a ...

      Obama administration lets automakers off the 54.5 mpg hook

      Low gas prices encourage consumers to buy more trucks and SUVs, feds lament

      U.S. regulators are backing off their 54.5 mile per gallon fuel economy target for the 2025 model year. It's not that car manufacturers can't hit the target but rather that consumers keep buying SUVs and pick-up trucks that pull down the average fuel economy figures.

      In a joint report, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), National Highway Traffic Safety Adminitration (NHTSA), and California Air Resources Board (CARB) said automakers are adopting new technology "at unprecedented rates." But, unfortunately, at the rate consumers keep buying bigger vehicles, manufacturers likely won't be able to reach the "corporate average fuel economy" -- or CAFE -- targets by 2025. 

      Some consumer advocates say the feds are letting automakers off the hook too easily. After all, who is it that advertises all those big tough trucks and hulking SUVs?

      “The question remains as to what vehicles automakers are heavily promoting.  Many of the high profit trucks and SUVs happen to get lower MPG ratings than less profitable smaller vehicles," said Jack Gillis, director of public affairs for the Consumer Federation of America. 

      "We are calling upon the EPA and NHTSA to ask the automakers about their promotion efforts and compare the fuel efficiency ratings of heavily promoted vs. less promoted vehicles. The industry spends about $15 billion on advertising which has a great deal of influence on what consumers actually buy,” Gillis said.

      Mark Cooper, director of research for CFA, said the organization's most recent survey finds that more than four out of five consumers said gas mileage will be an important consideration the next time they shop for a vehicle.

      “Staying the course on fuel economy standards is what American drivers want -- whether it’s a pick-up, SUV or hybrid, they want vehicles that go farther on a gallon of gas," Cooper said. "Even in a year when gas prices are low, consumers understand that buying a fuel-efficient vehicle saves money and, most importantly, protects them from inevitable gas price spikes.”

      Stay the course

      Consumers Union also said automakers have shown they can meet the tougher mileage standards. 

      “Car technologies improve every year. Robust fuel economy standards help to ensure that advances also are deployed to improve fuel economy and help consumers keep transportation costs down.” said Shannon Baker–Branstetter, energy policy counsel for ConsumersUnion.

      “[T]he federal government should stay the course on improving fuel economy standards for model years 2022-2025. The data show that improving fuel economy puts money in the pockets of consumers even in times of low gas prices,” said Baker-Branstetter.

      Could be, but government officials say the 54.5 mpg goal is off the table. They put most of the blame on lower gas prices, which have kept demand SUVs and pickups higher than expected.

      On a conference call with reporters, senior Obama administration officials said the 54.5 mpg goal was never a mandate but more of an estimate of where the industry could be by the 2025 model year -- based on an assumption that 67 percent of hte market would be cars and 33 percent would be SUVs and trucks.

      U.S. regulators are backing off their 54.5 mile per gallon fuel economy target for the 2025 model year. It's not that car manufacturers can't hit the targe...

      Food dye pops up where you least expect it, like in 'chocolate' snacks

      Little Debbie Swiss Rolls use food dyes to make up for the lack of chocolate, critics say

      Little Debbie isn't what she seems. That's the message from the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest, which says Little Debbie Swiss Rolls are short on chocolate but long on food coloring.

      CSPI says the popular treats have a combined 32 milligrams of Yellow 5, Red 40, and Blue 1 per serving. That level of artificial food dye is troubling, according to the group, since clinical trials have shown that modest percentages of children experience adverse behavioral reactions after consuming about that much.

      All that dye makes up for the absence of cocoa, according to CSPI. It says the primary ingredients in Little Debbie Swiss Rolls, manufactured by McKee Foods, are sugar, water, flour, and oil. Less than two percent of the product is cocoa, which means that much of the dark, chocolatey brown color of the product comes from yellow, red, and blue dye. 

      “Keeping dyed foods away from children is not easy,” said CSPI deputy director of nutrition policy Jessica Almy.  “The FDA could make an enormous difference for hundreds of thousands of children and their families by eliminating dyes altogether, or at least requiring a warning label.”

      A bad crowd

      Little Debbie isn't alone, and, in fact, some foods have even more dye per serving. Betty Crocker’s Black Decorating Cake Icing has 80 mg of dyes per serving, Pillsbury Supreme Collection Red Velvet Mix has 66 mg, and Blue Bunny Red Carpet Red Velvet Premium Ice Cream has 49 mg of dye per serving, CSPI said.

      In a letter to McKee Foods president and CEO Mike McKee, CSPI urged the company to make a public commitment to eliminate the use of dyes by the end of 2017. CSPI also pointed out that at least one of Little Debbie’s competitors, Hostess, is making a chocolate snack cake that doesn’t contain synthetic dyes.

      “As many parents have told us, behaviors triggered by the dyes in foods impair the health and wellbeing of the child and the entire family,” CSPI wrote. 

      Little Debbie isn't what she seems. That's the message from the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest, which says Little Debbie Swiss Rolls a...

      A slip in builder confidence

      Shortages of lots and labor may be factors

      Builder confidence in the market for newly built, single-family homes stayed positive in July, even though there was a bit of slippage.

      The National Association of Home Builders (NAHB)/Wells Fargo Housing Market Index (HMI) edged down one point during the month -- to a reading of 60.

      “The economic fundamentals are in place for continued slow, steady growth in the housing market,” said NAHB Chief Economist Robert Dietz. “Job creation is solid, mortgage rates are at historic lows and household formations are rising. These factors should help to bring more buyers into the market as the year progresses.”

      The HMI

      The HMI, which is derived from a monthly survey, gauges builder perceptions of current single-family home sales and sales expectations for the next six months as “good,” “fair,” or “poor.” The survey also asks builders to rate traffic of prospective buyers as “high to very high,” “average” or “low to very low.” Scores for each component are then used to calculate a seasonally adjusted index where any number over 50 indicates that more builders view conditions as good than poor.

      All three HMI components edged lower in July. The components measuring current sales expectations and buyer traffic each fell one point to 63 and 45, respectively. The index measuring sales expectations in the next six months dipped three-points to 66.

      The three-month moving averages for regional HMI scores held steady. The Northeast, Midwest, and South were unchanged at 39, 57, and 61, respectively. The West edged one point higher to 69.

      “For the past six months, builder confidence has remained in a relatively narrow positive range that is consistent with the ongoing gradual housing recovery that is underway,” said NAHB Chairman Ed Brady. “However, we are still hearing reports from our members of scattered softness in some markets, due largely to regulatory constraints and shortages of lots and labor.”

      Builder confidence in the market for newly built, single-family homes stayed positive in July, even though there was a bit of slippage.The National Ass...

      Mercedes-Benz recalls GLE450 AMG 4Matic Coupes

      The engine may shut-down while the vehicle is braking

      Mercedes-Benz USA (MBUSA) is recalling 5,826 model year 2016 GLE450 AMG 4Matic Coupes manufactured December 10, 2014, to June 6, 2016.

      An error within the engine control unit (ECU) software may allow the engine to shut-down while the vehicle is braking, possibly confusing the driver into thinking the shut-down was planned due to the ECO start/stop function.

      If the engine shuts down unintentionally, there may be an increased risk of a crash.

      What to do

      MBUSA will notify owners, and dealers will update the ECU software, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin in July 2016.

      Owners may contact MBUSA customer service at 1-800-367-6372.

      Mercedes-Benz USA (MBUSA) is recalling 5,826 model year 2016 GLE450 AMG 4Matic Coupes manufactured December 10, 2014, to June 6, 2016. An error wit...

      Nissan recalls model year 2016 Sentras

      The vehicle may not start or the engine may stall

      Nissan North America is recalling 1,522 model year 2016 Sentras manufactured April 11, 2016, through April 26, 2016.

      The engine room harness may have a terminal pin too large to maintain a connection with the Engine Control Unit (ECU).

      If the engine room harness loses connection to the ECU, the vehicle may not start or the engine may stall, increasing the risk of a crash.

      What to do

      Nissan will notify owners, and dealers will replace the terminal pin on the engine room harness, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin by August 26, 2016.

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

      Nissan North America is recalling 1,522 model year 2016 Sentras manufactured April 11, 2016, through April 26, 2016. The engine room harness may ha...

      Consumer groups try to put the brakes on self-driving cars

      'Consumers should never be guinea pigs for beta programs'

      Consumer organizations are trying to rein in what they see as premature attempts to put self-driving cars on the nation's highways. Consumer Reports magazine, a part of nonprofit Consumers Union, wants Tesla to disable its Autopilot feature, and a coalition of consumer groups wants President Obama to put the brakes on his administration's "undue haste" to put self-driving cars on the road.

      Consumer Reports says the Autopilot driving-assist system should be turned off until Tesla updates it to confirm that the driver's hands remain on the steering wheel at all times. 

      Tesla should also change the name of the Autopilot feature because it promotes a potentially dangerous assumption that the Model S is capable of driving on its own, Consumer Reports said. The auto company is under intense scrutiny for how it deployed and marketed the Autopilot system after a series of crashes, including a fatal crash involving a Tesla and a tractor-trailer in Florida.

      “By marketing their feature as ‘Autopilot,’ Tesla gives consumers a false sense of security,” said Laura MacCleery, Vice President of Consumer Policy and Mobilization for Consumer Reports. “In the long run, advanced active safety technologies in vehicles could make our roads safer. But today, we’re deeply concerned that consumers are being sold a pile of promises about unproven technology."

      "‘Autopilot’ can't actually drive the car, yet it allows consumers to have their hands off the steering wheel for minutes at a time. Tesla should disable automatic steering in its cars until it updates the program to verify that the driver’s hands are kept on the wheel,” MacCleery said in a prepared statement.

      "Victim to hype"

      Meanwhile, Consumer Watchdog and other consumer groups think the Obama administration is just a little bit too eager to let self-driving cars loose on the nation's roads.

      “The error in rushing autonomous vehicle technology into cars and onto public highways without enforceable safety rules was underscored by the recent tragic fatal crash of a Tesla Model S in Florida while autopilot was engaged,” the coalition said in a letter to Obama

      The letter to Obama was signed by Joan Claybrook, President Emeritus of Public Citizen and Former NHTSA Administrator; Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety; Rosemary Shahan, president of Consumers for Auto Safety and Reliability; and John M. Simpson, Privacy Project Director for Consumer Watchdog.

      The letter said safety officials in the administration "have apparently fallen victim to the hype of the developers of self-driving cars at the expense of public safety” and said self-driving technology should be parked "until adequate Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards covering autonomous technologies are implemented through a public rulemaking process.”

      Instead, the letter said, the administration’s policies on automated technologies have been “developed in the shadows.”

      It noted that, without any public notice, “NHTSA granted Google the right to consider the robot the ‘driver’ in its autonomous vehicles" and also "announced an agreement with 20 automakers on voluntary standards for automatic emergency braking that were substantially lower than the findings of NHTSA’s own scientists."

      "The rules of the road for automated technologies that would dramatically alter transportation in this country should be developed thoughtfully, in the light of day and with the highest level of transparency and public participation," the letter argued.

      "Speculation by media"

      Consumer Reports contacted Tesla about its concerns, and the company sent this response via email:

      “Tesla is constantly introducing enhancements, proven over millions of miles of internal testing, to ensure that drivers supported by Autopilot remain safer than those operating without assistance. We will continue to develop, validate, and release those enhancements as the technology grows. While we appreciate well-meaning advice from any individual or group, we make our decisions on the basis of real-world data, not speculation by media.”

      Tesla also defended the safety record of the system, writing that “130 million miles have been driven on Autopilot, with one confirmed fatality.”

      MacCleery said automakers must commit immediately to name automated features with descriptive, not exaggerated, titles, noting that these companies should roll out new features only when they are certain they are safe.

      “Consumers should never be guinea pigs for vehicle safety ‘beta’ programs,” she said.

      Consumer organizations are trying to rein in what they see as premature attempts to put self-driving cars on the nation's highways. Consumer Reports magazi...

      New maternity wear may protect fetuses from EM radiation

      Startup creates comfortable and affordable electromagnetic radiation screening fabric

      On the heels of the FCC’s decision to approve new “5G” broadband rules, concerns over electromagnetic radiation may be even more heightened.

      As we reported, at least 10% of the population has already developed “electro-sensitivity." Those who suffer from the condition have an intolerance to wireless transmissions which may be marked by symptoms such as headaches, sleep disturbances, and dizziness.

      Keeping the effects of radiation emitted by cell phones and other wireless technology at bay has become increasingly important to consumers -- especially those with a bun in the oven.

      But soon, it may not take banishing wireless technology altogether to keep out the effects of EM radiation. Pregnant women who want to protect their fragile, growing babies from the effects of radiation may be able to do so simply by purchasing a new kind of fabric.

      Flexible fabric

      The innovators at Tiny Tech, a startup that began in the Virginia Commonwealth School of Engineering, believe that clothing made of electromagnetic shielding technology could be an answer to growing concerns over radiation.

      In a statement, Erdem Topsakal, Ph.D., professor and chair of the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, explained that fetuses and infants have thinner skills, which could make them even more vulnerable to the effects of radio waves. 

      Tiny Tech protected clothing would selectively screen out EM radiation, says Topsakal, who developed the clothing with Umar Hasni, a Ph.D candidate in electrical engineering and Margaret Karles, a student in the Brandcenter’s Experience Design Program.

      Screens out 99.9%

      Why selectively? In short, other types of EM shielding clothing are stiff, uncomfortable, and expensive, says Topsakal. In addition, 100% reflective clothing tends to have openings around the arms and neck which allow radio waves in.

      Tiny Tech’s patent-pending flexible fabric, on the other hand, would contour to an expectant mother's baby bump while screening out 99.9 percent of EM radiation waves. The clothing would also be affordable and durable.

      “We will wash the garments a hundred times to make sure they are still effective,” Topsakal said. “We will also have people trying them on to make sure the clothes are comfortable.”

      Prototypes are being released to pregnant women this summer. In the next year, the team hopes to see a soft launch as well as the beginning of online sales. Eventually, they would like to see their brand become as trusted as cotton.

      “People will see our logo and know, ‘Oh, Tiny Tech is protecting these clothes,’” Karles said.

      On the heels of the FTC’s decision to approve new “5G” broadband rules, concerns over electromagnetic radiation may be even more heightened. As we repo...

      Delivery wards of the future may have a robot on staff

      MIT researchers create a robot resource nurse

      Upon entering a hospital to give birth, parents-to-be place their trust in the medical staff. But what if an integral member of the hospital staff happened to be a robot?

      Researchers from MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory have spent two years attempting to answer this question by studying whether or not a robot could serve as an effective resource nurse.

      Filling the shoes of a resource nurse requires quick decision making, a thorough understanding of patients' needs, and the ability to handle scheduling decisions. 

      The job also entails making sound decisions in a stressful and often unpredictable environment. Who better to remain unfazed by such an atmosphere than a robot?

      Context-specific decisions

      Researchers from MIT trained the Nao robot to learn from scheduling decisions while taking into account patient complexity and nurse availability. They also sought to help the robot understand why nurses chose certain decisions over others.

      The robot was then sent to Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, where nine out of 10 times it gave “high-quality recommendations” that doctors and nurses ultimately implemented, according to CNN Money.

      “This indicates that a hospital service robot may be able to learn context-specific decision strategies and apply them to make reasonable suggestions for which tasks to perform and when,” the authors wrote in recently published paper.

      Senior author of the study, MIT professor Julie Shah, says “measured steps” are being taken in the advancement of the technology. Verifying the safety and effectiveness of using a robot in a medical setting will require future studies in other hospitals.

      See 'Ginger’ the robot nurse in action in the video below.

      Upon entering a hospital to give birth, parents-to-be place their trust in the medical staff. But what if an integral member of the hospital staff happened...

      Additional research shows that overeating leads to more eating

      High-fat diets can be especially bad for gut-to-brain communication, researchers say

      Last month, we reported on a study which showed that overeating leads to even more eating. The premise of the research was that eating too much in one sitting suppresses a hormone that tells your brain that you’re full.

      Now, a new study conducted by the University of Georgia, Binghamton University, and Pennsylvania State University have reached similar conclusions. Researchers found that foods that are high in fat disturb neural messages to the brain that allow you to feel full. However, they believe that manipulating microbes in the stomach may reverse the effect.

      Stifled communication

      The study involved examining the “gut-to-brain” neural pathways in mice, who were sustained on a high-fat diet. The researchers found that regions of the brain responsible for processing feeding behavior became inflamed when high amounts of fat were introduced.

      In order to determine the cause, they began examining microbiota in the stomach to see if the diet influenced composition. After finding a connection, lead researcher Dr. Claire de La Serre and her colleagues began injecting mice with low doses of a spectrum antibiotic that was able to reverse the negative effects.

      Potential impact

      There is potential for the impact of this study to be great. It precisely demonstrates to what extent stomach microbiota are affected by a high-fat diet. Information gleaned from the research could allow the medical community to come up with new therapies and medications that counter trends in overeating and obesity, two major health concerns.

      One additional study has already made some progress by showing that eating certain types of foods can benefit microbiota composition in the stomach. Researchers found that eating blueberries, which have high levels of anthocyanin, can help lessen inflammation and lead to more stable blood sugar levels. Additional research into other bioactive foods will almost certainly follow.

      Research conducted by De la Serre et al is scheduled to be presented at the Annual Meeting of the Society for the Study of Ingestive Behavior (SSIB), which takes place from July 12-16.  

      Last month, we reported on a study which showed that overeating leads to even more eating. The premise of the research was that eating too much in one sitt...

      Retail sales post third consecutive monthly advance

      However, the May increase was revised downward

      Increases in nearly every category pushed retail sales up 0.6% in June to $457.0 billion -- the third straight monthly increase -- and 2.7% above the same month a year ago.

      At the same time, though, the Census Bureau revised its May figures to show an advance of 0.2% instead of the 0.5% initially reported.

      Sales at building material & garden equipment & supplies dealers led last months advance, rising 3.9%. Also on the increase were sales at gas stations (+1.2%), nonstore retailers (+1.1%), and miscellaneous store retailers (+0.9%). Sales at auto and parts dealers inched up 0.1%.

      Sales fell at clothing & clothing accessories stores (-1.0%) and restaurants (-0.3%)

      The complete June retail sales report is available on the Census Bureau website.

      Increases in nearly every category pushed retail sales up 0.6% in June to $457.0 billion -- the third straight monthly increase -- and 2.7% above the same ...

      Consumer prices creep higher

      An increase in energy costs offset falling food prices

      The cost of living rose in June for a fourth consecutive month.

      According to the Department of Labor (DOL), the Consumer Price Index (CPI) increased at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 0.2% largely on the strength of a jump in gasoline prices. For the last 12 months, prices are up 1.0%.

      Energy prices were up 1.3% -- the fourth straight increase, although they're down 9.4% over the past year.

      The big factor in the June increase was a surge of 3.3% in the cost of both gasoline and fuel oil. Meanwhile, electricity prices fell 0.5% and natural gas dipped 0.4%.

      Food prices fall

      The cost of food slipped 0.1% on top of a decline of 0.2% in May. Four of the six major grocery store food groups were lower: meats, poultry, fish, and eggs (-0.7%), nonalcoholic beverages (-0.7%) -- its largest decline since May 2013 -- dairy and related products (-0.3%), and fruits and vegetables (-0.1%) percent.

      Over the past year, what's known as the food at home category is off 1.3%, its largest 12-month decline since February 2010.

      Core inflation

      The “core rate” of inflation, which strips out the volatile food and energy sectors, was up 0.2% in June. The cost of shelter led the way with a gain of 0.3%, with medical care, education, airline fares, motor vehicle insurance, and recreation also rising. On the other hand, prices for used cars and trucks, apparel, communication, and household furnishings and operations were lower.

      For the 12 months ending in June, the core rate of inflation was up 1.0% -- the same increase as for the 12 months ending in May, but well below the 1.7% average annual increase over the past 10 years.

      The complete June CPI report is available on the DOL website.

      The cost of living rose in June for a fourth consecutive month.According to the Department of Labor (DOL), the Consumer Price Index (CPI) increased at ...

      FCC approves 5G broadband rules, promising faster wireless services

      Some consumer groups say the commission has not adequately studied the health risks

      As expected, the Federal Communications Commission today voted to adopt new wireless broadband rules that will open up so-called "5G" networks that will move more data faster than ever before.

      The vote opens frequencies above 24 GHz, a move the FCC says makes the United States "the first country in the world to make this spectrum available for next generation wireless services," but the decision is causing static among health advocates who say it disregards a growing body of evidence that wireless communications is to blame for a supposed epidemic of brain cancers.

      Because the frequencies are so high, the signals don't travel as far as lower frequencies do and therefore will require many times more cell towers than current technologies. As Wheeler put it in a June 20 speech at the National Press Club: “5G build out is going to be very infrastructure intensive, requiring a massive deployment of small cells.”

      Engineers say that nearly every home and lampost will be outfitted with a small "tower" -- a tiny antenna that transmits and receives signals for nearby residents and acts as a relay station for other wireless traffic.

      "An epidemic"

      This is alarming to some health advocates, who say that at least 10% of the population has already developed "electro-sensitivity" -- heightened sensitivity to wireless transmissions, similar to allergies. 

      “We are currently in the midst of an epidemic,” said Dafne Tachover, CEO of "We Are The Evidence," an advocacy group representing people who say they have been injured by wireless radiation.

      Representatives of various activist groups descended on Washington this week to lobby Congress and regulators about the potential dangers of wireless radiation and to "convey the views of a growing number of people who would choose health over an 'Internet of Everything,'" as the California Brain Tumor Association and other groups said in a news release.

      More tasks, faster

      The wireless industry says 5G is safe and will make it possible for wireless devices to perform more tasks and to do so more quickly and efficiently than is now possible.

      Industry trade group CTIA lists these benefits of 5G

      1. 5G will be at least 10 times faster than 4G.

      2. 5G will allow for more than 100 times the devices for everything from cars to homes to health monitors.

      3. 5G will be five times more responsive so that there’s very little delay time.

      4. If you stopped a car in 4G, it would take 4.6 feet to apply its brakes while a 5G car would start braking in 1 inch.

      As expected, the Federal Communications Commission today voted to adopt new wireless broadband rules that will open up...