Current Events in August 2016

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    Why home prices may continue to rise

    Because there simply are not enough of them for sale

    Month after month it seems to be the same story. Home prices go up, even if sales for the month are flat, or even lower.

    It's a trend that has been in place since the housing recovery began, and it has begun to affect affordability.

    The National Association of Home Builders (NAHB)/Wells Fargo Housing Opportunity Index (HOI) released last week found that 62% of new and existing homes sold between the beginning of April and the end of June were affordable to families earning the median income of $65,700. That's down from 65% in the first quarter.

    Nationally, the median home price increased $17,000, from $223,000 in the first quarter to $240,000 in the second quarter. Interest rates are below 4%, but that's not what's driving the dramatic price rise.

    During the housing bubble, prices rose because almost anyone could qualify for a mortgage. The demand for housing sent prices skyrocketing to unsustainable levels.

    Not enough homes for sale

    Demand is also responsible for rising prices today, but for very different reasons than a decade ago. There simply are not enough homes for sale. Fewer existing homes and fewer new homes.

    Jonathan Smoke, chief economist for realtor.com, says new home construction has failed to keep up with demand since the recovery. He doesn't expect to see that changing soon.

    “Single-family is continuing to show gains, but the gains in permits are weaker than the gains in starts,” Smoke said in an email to ConsumerAffairs. “Builders are starting what they already permitted earlier this year but are not bullish about demand this fall and winter.”

    New homes typically cost more than existing homes and housing experts say construction costs have gone up since the housing crash. For that reason, builders have largely focused on multi-family units and luxury single-family homes.

    Smoke says the seasonally adjusted rate of permitting in July was not statistically significant. On a year-to-date basis, permits are up in every region but the Northeast.

    Shrinking inventory

    At the same time, there are fewer existing homes for sale. In its June existing home sales report, the National Association of Realtors (NAR) noted that inventory levels continue to decline. Total housing inventory at the end of the month was 2.12 million homes, nearly 6% fewer than a year ago. Inventory was at a 4.6-month supply, down form 4.7 months in May.

    With supply and demand out of balance, the result is fewer renters can afford to buy. Those who can afford it may have difficulty finding a house they like.

    Month after month it seems to be the same story. Home prices go up, even if sales for the month are flat, or even lower.It's a trend that has been in p...

    Child safety hazards you may have overlooked

    Tips for preventing household accidents

    Many young children are adept at finding trouble around the house. There’s often no predicting where kids’ curiosity will lead them, but parents can try to make sure their home is safe at every turn.

    But even if you’ve padded sharp corners and installed childproof locks on the kitchen cabinets, your home may still be unsafe for kids. Parents overlook a number of hidden household hazards, experts say.

    Windows and window coverings may pose an especially big risk to children. In fact, corded window coverings are among the top five hidden hazards in American homes, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC).

    Kids may become entangled in window covering cords, but parents and caregivers can prevent accidents like this from happening by making one important change.

    Go cordless

    In homes with young children, safety advocates say cordless window coverings (or those with inaccessible cords) are the way to go.

    Instead of using window blinds and corded shades, the Window Covering Safety Council recommends using cordless products. (Bonus points if they come with a Best for Kids label certification.)

    In addition to preventing accidental entanglement by swapping corded window coverings for cordless coverings, parents may also want to address the following child safety hazards.

    Other hidden hazards

    Accidents are bound to happen in homes with toddlers and young children, but not every potential accident will be as innocuous as spilled juice. To keep kids safe, parents should watch out for the following hazards.

    • Plants. Certain common plants may be dangerous if ingested. Plants that should be kept off limits to kids include: Lily of the Valley, Hydrangea, Rhododendron, Poinsettia, Purple Nightshade, Mountain Laurel, Mistletoe, and Water Hemlock.
    • Vehicles. Even on a temperate day, a parked car isn’t a safe place for kids to play. Temperatures inside a vehicle can rise 30 to 40 degrees in an hour, according to WebMD. Parents should keep vehicles locked and keys hidden from children.
    • Open windows. Letting a cool breeze circulate throughout your home may be pleasant, but having the windows open can be dangerous in homes with children. Opening windows from the top instead of the bottom can help prevent falling accidents. Additionally, parents can install window guards and stoppers.
    • Non-anchored furniture. Unsecured furniture and TVs also made the CPSC’s list of top five hidden hazards in the home. To prevent tip-over accidents, parents should anchor tall, heavy furniture that is capable of tipping.
    • Hot playground equipment. When your backyard playset isn't in use, the sun may be beating down on its slides, swings, and other equipment. Before letting kids play, parents should check equipment to make sure it won’t cause burns.  

    Many young children are adept at finding trouble around the house. There’s often no predicting where kids’ curiosity will lead them, but parents can try to...

    Revised fees proposed for taxpayers using installment plan

    Some are rising, others remain the same

    If you're a taxpayer who uses the installment plan to settle up with Uncle Sam, you need to know that the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) is proposing a revised schedule of user fees that would take effect on Jan. 1, 2017.

    Federal agencies are required to charge a user fee to recover the cost of providing certain services to the public that confer a special benefit to the recipient. While some installment agreement fees will go up, the IRS will continue providing reduced-fee or no-cost services to low-income taxpayers.

    Changes on the way

    The revised installment agreement fees of up to $225 would be higher for some taxpayers than those currently in effect, which can be up to $120. However, under this revision, any affected taxpayer could qualify for a reduced fee by making a request online using the Online Payment Agreement application on IRS.gov.

    Additionally, there would be no change to the current $43 rate that applies to the approximately one in three taxpayer requests that qualify under low-income guidelines. These guidelines, which change with family size, would qualify a family of four with total income of around $60,000 or less to pay the lower fee.

    Also, for the first time, any taxpayer regardless of income would qualify for a new low $31 rate by requesting an installment agreement online and choosing to pay what is owed through direct debit.

    The top rate of $225 applies to taxpayers who enter into an installment agreement in person, over the phone, by mail, or by filing Form 9465 with the IRS. However, a taxpayer who establishes an agreement in this manner can substantially cut the fee to just $107 by choosing to make monthly payments by direct debit from their bank account.

    Alternatively, a taxpayer who chooses to set up an installment agreement using the agency’s Online Payment Agreement application will pay a fee of $149. Similarly, this amount can be cut to just $31 by also choosing direct debit.

    Proposed fees

    Here is the proposed schedule of user fees:

      Regular installment agreement$225
      Regular direct debit installment agreement$107
      Online payment agreement $149
      Direct debit online payment agreement$31
      Restructured or reinstated installment agreement  $89
      Low-income rate$43

    If you're a taxpayer who uses the installment plan to settle up with Uncle Sam, you need to know that the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) is proposing a rev...

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      Chrysler recalls Jeep Renegades with factory-installed trailer hitch package

      The trailer hitch assembly may separate from the vehicle

      Chrysler (FCA US LLC) is recalling 8,561 model year 2015-2016 Jeep Renegades manufactured August 25, 2014, to June 25, 2016, equipped with a factory-installed optional trailer hitch package.

      The trailer hitch assembly may have been attached with only a single fastener per side, not three per side as required.

      Without the proper number of fasteners, the trailer hitch assembly may separate from the vehicle, and any towed vehicle may no longer be properly connected, increasing the risk of a crash.

      What to do

      Chrysler will notify owners, and dealers will install two additional fasteners per side, free of charge. The manufacturer has not yet provided a notification schedule.

      Owners may contact Chrysler customer service at 1-800-853-1403. Chrysler's number for this recall is S62.

      Chrysler (FCA US LLC) is recalling 8,561 model year 2015-2016 Jeep Renegades manufactured August 25, 2014, to June 25, 2016, equipped with a factory-instal...

      Model year 2013 Elantras recalled

      The brake light switch plunger can remain extended when the brake pedal is released

      Hyundai Motor America is recalling 64,500 model year 2013 Elantras manufactured December 1, 2012, to April 30, 2013.

      The brake pedal stopper pad can deteriorate allowing the brake light switch plunger to remain extended when the brake pedal is released.

      If the brake light switch plunger does not retract as it should when the brake pedal is not being pressed, the brake lights may stay illuminated preventing accurate communication to following vehicles that the vehicle is slowing or stopping.

      Additionally, if the brake switch plunger is not retracted, then the transmission can be shifted out of PARK without depressing the brake pedal. Either condition increases the risk of a crash.

      What to do

      Hyundai will notify owners, and dealers will replace the brake pedal stopper pad with an improved part, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin on September 30, 2016.

      Owners may contact Hyundai customer service at 1-855-371-9460. Hyundai's number for this recall is 146.

      Hyundai Motor America is recalling 64,500 model year 2013 Elantras manufactured December 1, 2012, to April 30, 2013. The brake pedal stopper pad ca...

      Researchers identify four risk factors linked to preterm births

      Controlling for these factors can help expecting mothers avoid a dangerous situation

      One of the natural things that most couples do when they’re having a baby is to make a timetable for when the birth is expected to happen. Unfortunately, life usually has a plan of its own, and babies can sometimes come sooner than expected.

      According to the March of Dimes Perinatal Data Center, the preterm birth rate in the U.S. was 9.6% last year. The risks associated with these kinds of births include cognitive disabilities, visual and hearing impairments, and poor overall health; some experts have even gone so far as to link preterm births with behavioral and emotional problems.

      However, a new study has found that up to a quarter of all preterm births in the U.S. may be avoidable. The researchers say that a large number of preterm births come down to only a few factors that parents have control over.

      “The highest risks for premature birth were in women who were underweight, had poor weight gain during pregnancy, or short periods of time between pregnancies. However, excessive weight gain in obese women also increased risk,” said Emily DeFranco, physician-researcher at the Center for Prevention of Preterm Birth at Cincinnati Children’s.

      Risk factors

      DeFranco and her colleagues came to their conclusions after analyzing birth records for the state of Ohio between the years of 2006 and 2011. These statistics included information on over 400,000 live, non-multiple births.

      The researchers found that the four aforementioned risk factors were present in 90% of all preterm cases in the Ohio samples. Weight issues were a particular problem with these women, as only 90% of them began their pregnancy at an ideal weight and only 32% achieved the recommended weight during their pregnancy.

      Ohio is not the only state that is plagued by preterm births, though. A study conducted by March of Dimes shows several states had much higher preterm birth rates. The worst offenders include Alabama (11.7%), Louisiana (12.3%), and Mississippi (12.9%). The states with the lowest preterm birth rates were Washington (8.1%), Idaho (8.1%), Vermont (7.9%), and Oregon (7.7%).

      Lowering preterm birth rates

      DeFranco believes that the best way to lower preterm birth rates is to make sure women are educated and informed about optimal pregnancy conditions.

      “Attention should be paid to educational interventions on the importance of birth spacing, achieving an optimal pre-pregnancy weight, and ensuring adequate nutrition and weight gain during pregnancy,” she said.

      “Improvements in these modifiable risk factors could have significant influence on premature birth and infant mortality worldwide.”

      The full study has been published in Maternal and Child Health Journal

      One of the natural things that most couples do when they’re having a baby is to make a timetable for when the birth is expected to happen. Unfortunately, l...

      Oil prices keep trying to push higher

      What's that going to mean for gasoline prices?

      Motorists are still enjoying relatively low gasoline prices, but they should keep a wary eye on the price of oil. This week it has marched consistently higher, with Brent crude now topping $50 a barrel.

      That's significant because the main reason gas prices are so low is the over-abundance of crude oil. For the last two years, Saudi Arabia has been trying to put U.S. shale oil producers out of business, and it has been fairly successful. The result has been a huge oversupply of oil and falling prices.

      But the latest data from the Department of Energy shows the glut of oil is getting smaller and the market has responded by bidding up the price of crude oil, expecting it will go even higher once OPEC goes back to normal production.

      Bull market for oil

      According to Business Insider, oil is about to re-enter a bull market phase, which could be bad news for consumers. In a bull market, the smart money bets a commodity will go higher, and the inflow of cash usually guarantees that result.

      One only has to look back to 2008, when the U.S. was already in a recession, but traders were convinced oil prices would keep going up – and they did, topping out well over $100 a barrel in July of that year.

      The Business Insider report cites four reasons why it thinks oil prices will keep going up; a weak dollar, a strong likelihood OPEC will trim production; falling U.S. stockpiles; and hedge funds now sense a change in direction.

      That last one could be huge. Once hedge funds start buying oil futures, look out. Prices could quickly escalate.

      Gas prices react

      Already, gasoline prices have started to react. The AAA Fuel Gauge Survey shows the national average price of self-serve regular is $2.14 a gallon, up a penny from the day before and up two cents from seven days ago.

      Still, that price is six cents lower than a month ago and – providing some perspective – 51 cents lower than a year ago. So even a sharp move higher in oil prices shouldn't drive gasoline prices to a level where drivers feel pain.

      In 2008, the national average price at the pump topped out at more than $4 gallon. That's not likely to happen again for one simple reason. The U.S. oil industry, which has basically gone into hibernation the last two years, can quickly spring to life should oil prices reach the level where it is profitable for them to do so.

      Fortunately for consumers, that price isn't much higher than the current price of oil.

      Motorists are still enjoying relatively low gasoline prices, but they should keep a wary eye on the price of oil. This week it has marched consistently hig...

      Eddie Bauer reports data breach

      It's the second retail intrusion report this week

      If you recently used a debit or credit card at Eddie Bauer, your card information could be compromised.

      The company reports its point of sale systems at its stores were infected with malware, giving hackers access to payment card data. If you used a card to make an online purchase at eddiebauer.com, no worries – the online portal was not affected.

      According to the investigation, in-store payments between January 2 and July 17 may have been compromised. “May have been,” because the company says not all cardholder transactions during this time were affected. The problem is, there is no way to know which ones were and which ones weren't.

      “The security of our customers’ information is a top priority for Eddie Bauer,” said CEO Mike Egeck, Chief Executive Officer of Eddie Bauer.

      Egeck says Eddie Bauer has already beefed up its cyber-security and no customers will be responsible for any fraudulent charges to their accounts.

      Getting to be a common occurrence

      This is just the latest in a string of data breaches in which hackers have targeted large retail operations. Security experts say these targets are more attractive than individual consumers because the payoff is potentially much greater.

      In recent years, major retailers like Michael's, Target, and TJ Maxx have been victims of point of sale data intrusions. Earlier this week, a major hotel chain announced it had become a victim.

      On Monday, HEI Hotels & Resorts, which operates Hyatt, Sheraton, Marriott, and Westin hotels, revealed that hackers had penetrated the company's point-of-sale systems. Consumers who used a card at the bar or to pay for a room may have been compromised, the company said.

      HEI reported malware in its system at 20 hotels across the country and says that data collection may have started as early as March, 2015.

      What do you do now?

      Eddie Bauer says not all transactions at its stores were affected, but it is still offering identity protection services to everyone who used a card to make a purchase during the period of the breach. The company said it has contracted with Kroll to provide free service for 12 months.

      Additionally, consumers who used a debit or credit card at Eddie Bauer during the affected period should notify their card issuer and ask for a new card.

      It is also a good idea to go back and review account statements beginning in January to look for unauthorized charges that might have been overlooked.

      If you recently used a debit or credit card at Eddie Bauer, your card information could be compromised.The company reports its point of sale systems at...

      The good and bad news about underwater homeowners

      Negative equity down sharply since the housing collapse, but still pretty high

      It's not as bad as it was, but it's still not very good.

      That's the bottom line of Zillow's latest report on negative equity in residential real estate, the percentage of homeowners who still owe more on their mortgages than their homes are worth.

      Nationally, 13.7% of urban homeowners are underwater, compared to 11.2% of homeowners in the suburbs.

      The numbers, of course, present something of a “glass is half full/empty” scenario. While the percentage is double digits five years after the housing market began its recovery, it is down sharply from the nearly one-third of homeowners who found themselves underwater on their mortgages immediately after the housing market crash.

      At that time, real estate values plunged because so many homes financed with subprime mortgages had gone into foreclosure. Home values had inflated to unrealistic proportions because almost anyone could qualify for some kind of mortgage, increasing demand for homes beyond anything sustainable.

      Bad timing

      People who purchased homes in 2006 or 2007, when prices reached their peak, were the most likely to find themselves owning tens of thousands of dollars more on their homes than they could sell them for. Not only could they not sell their homes, they could not refinance them either. That led to many foreclosures when homeowners who purchased homes with low “teaser” interest rates could not refinance to a lower rate and more affordable payment.

      Now, eight years after the housing market collapsed and five years after it started to recover, the Zillow Negative Equity Report finds a remarkable parity between urban and suburban property. That's largely due to the fact that home prices recovered sharply in cities because younger home buyers prefer an urban setting.

      But Zillow found some metro areas where the spread between urban and suburban negative equity rates is significant. Cleveland and Detroit have the biggest difference – 13.6 and 10.8 percentage points, respectively. In these metros, urban home values aren't reflecting the national trend and are trailing behind the overall region's recovery.

      Nearly everyone was affected

      "At its worst, negative equity touched all kinds of homeowners in all kinds of markets," said Zillow Chief Economist Dr. Svenja Gudell. "The type of community a given home was in – urban or suburban – mattered little.”

      That's not the case now. In some cities, new residents have flocked to the urban core, renovating properties and revitalizing neighborhoods. It's these developments, says Gudell, that has helped to raise urban home values.

      The overall rise in home prices over the last five years has also helped shrink the negative equity rate from crisis levels. And for the first time since then, Zillow notes, none of the largest housing markets in the nation have negative equity rates over 20%.

      It's not as bad as it was, but it's still not very good.That's the bottom line of Zillow's latest report on negative equity in residential real estate,...

      Are smartphones in cars just too distracting?

      Drivers are now more likely to be accessing apps than texting

      For years now safety experts have preached to drivers about the dangers of texting behind the wheel. And though people still do it, many are getting the message. Fewer admit to doing it than in the past.

      But the danger isn't going away, and it appears to be tied directly to the smartphone. Drivers – especially young drivers – aren't texting as much because they are too busy using apps while they drive.

      A survey released this month by Liberty Mutual Insurance and Students against Destructive Driving (SADD) found just 27% of teen drivers report texting behind the wheel but 68% admit to using an app, usually reading or posting to social media.

      Needless to say, the experts stress, that's not just as bad – it's worse. But teen drivers overwhelmingly don't see it that way. Eighty percent of the teens in the study insist that using an app while driving is not distracting.

      Not a distraction, teens say

      “Teens as a whole are saying all the right things, but implicitly believe that using their phone while driving is safe and not a stressor or distraction behind the wheel,” said Dr. Gene Beresin, senior advisor on adolescent psychiatry with SADD.

      Teens aren't the only offenders. Plenty of adults of all ages have been caught texting or posting to Snapchat behind the wheel. A Pennsylvania TV station aired a photo supplied by a viewer that appears to show a woman steering with one foot while she uses both hands to access her smartphone.

      Newly-passed state laws against texting while driving appear to have had little impact, even though insurance companies will raise your rates should you be ticketed for an infraction.

      The SADD study suggests many teens consider navigation and music apps on their phones as “utilities,” lessening the perception of dangers of accessing them while driving. Vehicle Bluetooth systems that provide hands-free access for smartphone apps through the vehicle's infotainment system may have fostered what some believe to be a false sense of security.

      AAA study

      A 2013 study by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety found even hands-free devices are dangerous, because the mental workload and distractions can slow reaction. Drivers scan the road less and miss visual cues, potentially resulting in not seeing items right in front of them, including stop signs and pedestrians.

      It is in this light that automakers are speeding up efforts to produce self-driving cars. While some safety advocates worry these autonomous vehicles will be inherently dangerous, there are plenty of others who think they will make the roads safer, because the people who would ordinarily be driving them are in the back seat, updating their Facebook profiles.

      In the meantime, insurance companies make clear that it isn't just texting that is the problem. It's the device itself, and all the things a driver may be tempted to do with it. Dr. William Horrey, a research scientist at Libery Mutual, says it's not the apps that pose the danger. It's how people interact with them.

      For years now safety experts have preached to drivers about the dangers of texting behind the wheel. And though people still do it, many are getting the me...

      Study shows U.S. consumers are saving more for retirement

      Younger demographics are leading this financially-conscious movement

      About a year ago, a survey showed that U.S. consumers were becoming less inclined to save for retirement because they didn’t want to sacrifice their current quality of life. While they considered tools like a 401(k) plan to be integral towards future security, many just weren’t willing to commit to it.

      Now, a new study conducted by Bankrate.com shows a reversing trend; it says that more American workers are saving for retirement. Experts say that this could be a positive sign for a growing economy.

      “More working Americans are saving more for retirement and fewer aren’t saving at all,” said Greg McBride, Bankrate.com’s Chief Financial Analyst. “Both readings are indicative of an improving economy, where people are earning more and saving more.”

      Gen Xers and Millennials lead the way

      The results of the study show that 21% of working Americans are now saving more for retirement than they were a year ago, the strongest improvement in five years. Additionally, fewer people are completely forgoing the saving process; only 5% of survey respondents admitted that they hadn’t saved anything this year or last year, the lowest result in the history of the study.

      So which generations are leading the way in this new financially-conscious movement? Experts say that consumers belonging to Generation X (age 34-54) are saving the most, followed by Millennials (age 18-25). Members of the Silent Generation (age 71+) are saving the least, followed by younger Baby Boomers (ae 52-61).

      McBride says that members of the Silent Generation may be less inclined to save because they are reaching the phase of life where they will be entering retirement; however, not saving can still be very problematic for this group and Baby Boomers.

      “Younger Baby Boomers saving less for retirement than last year is troubling because they’re more likely in their peak earning years and should be utilizing higher catch-up contribution limits to get on track for retirement. Those in the Silent Generation that are saving less may be a function of earning less as they phase into retirement,” he said. 

      About a year ago, a survey showed that U.S. consumers were becoming less inclined to save for retirement because they didn’t want to sacrifice their curren...

      Autism friendly initiatives making shopping less stressful for kids

      Low lights and no music are helping retailers create a sensory-friendly experience

      For children with autism, the chaos of back-to-school shopping is felt on a different level. Busy department stores can be overwhelming with their bright lights, music, and hordes of people.

      For this reason, JC Penney decided to host a special shopping event for families of children with autism and special needs. In the interest of making back-to-school shopping a more sensory friendly experience, the retailer dimmed the lights and cut the music for two hours.

      “We’re in about 50 percent lighting,” General Manager Jay Tollett told CW33. Beyond reducing brightness and turning off the music, employees were asked to wear neutral colors and no perfume on August 14.

      Autism-friendly service

      In addition to coming clad in neutrals, employees were trained to provide autism-friendly customer service as part of a collaboration with the Dallas Independent School District.

      The shopping event was met with appreciation from parents like Lacinetta Coxon, a mother of two autistic daughters. Coxon said she felt understood and included rather than “on the outskirts.”

      Employees were just as happy to provide the experience, said Tollett, who hopes to make the event an annual tradition at more locations.

      Other initiatives 

      JC Penney isn’t the first retailer to roll out a welcome mat to families of children with autism. In Glasgow, an entire shopping mall has taken steps to become more autism friendly. In 2014, 61 Toys R Us locations in England became autism friendly for a day.

      One Walmart-owned store in England introduced a "quiet hour" every Saturday morning to make shopping less stressful for kids with autism and disablities. 

      "When we open our doors, you will be able to hear a pin drop," store manager Simon Lea told the Manchester Evening News. "We have a lot of disabled customers and we want to make the shop better for them."

      A shopping mall in Holyoke, Massachussettes has also introduced a sensory-friendly shopping experience, complete with sensory-friendly time with Santa near the holidays.

      For children with autism, the chaos of back-to-school shopping is felt on a different level. Busy department stores can be overwhelming with their bright l...

      Scientists discover potential target for treating Huntington's disease

      Using a process that allows harmful proteins to be removed is the key

      Neurodegenerative diseases have always been a problem for the scientific and medical communities because of how difficult they are to treat. Some diseases, like Huntington’s, currently have no treatment options that can stop or slow its progression.

      But a potential new treatment for the disease may be on the horizon thanks to scientists at the Gladstone Institutes. Researchers there have found that using a process called phosphorylation can help prevent symptoms of Huntington’s disease by changing a key protein to be less toxic and damaging.

      Reducing symptoms

      Being able to change this one protein could make all the difference for those suffering from Huntington’s disease. Up to this point, the disease was caused by a faulty gene that forced the “Huntingtin protein” to fold up incorrectly. This folded protein causes a lot of damage to surrounding cells, and it is not a problem that our bodies can deal with on their own.

      However, using phosphorylation allows the protein to be changed so that the body can dispose of it more easily. Researchers tested the process in mice models with positive results.

      “I was shocked at the profound effect phosphorylation had on the Huntington’s model mice. They showed few signs of the motor dysfunction, depression, or anxiety that are characteristic of the disease. In most of our tests, they were virtually indistinguishable from healthy mice,” said first author Dr. Ian Kratter.

      Treating other diseases

      The researchers believe that this process could also be potentially beneficial for treating other neurodegenerative diseases.

      “Phosphorylation helps control how proteins fold and the systems in cells that clear proteins. This is exciting because a lot of work we’ve done points to these protein removal pathways as being important not only for Huntington’s disease, but also for other neurodegenerative disorders. Understanding how phosphorylation links to these pathways could help treat several different brain diseases,” said senior investigator Steve Finkbeiner.

      The researchers are currently working towards finding a way to mimic the effects of phosphorylation so that it can be used in drug form. The full study has been published in the Journal of Clinical Investigation.

      Neurodegenerative diseases have always been a problem for the scientific and medical communities because of how difficult they are to treat. Some diseases,...

      Sprint joins Southwest, Delta in bad backup derby

      9-1-1 service fails throughout the Washington, D.C., area

      Everyone tries to be on their best behavior in Washington, hoping Congress won't get annoyed and crush them. Too bad no one told Sprint about that before it joined Southwest and Delta airlines in staging a spectacular display of poor redundancy.

      It all started Tuesday when the Fairfax County (Va.) Police Department issued a warning that some cell phone calls weren't getting through to its 9-1-1 center. Then it narrowed it down a bit more, pinpointing Sprint as the carrier that was having problems.

      As the day wore on, the problem spread to D.C. and on into Maryland, Delaware, Pennsylvania, and the tristate peninsula known locally as the Eastern Shore. Sprint chimed in and said that some landline calls were also going nowhere.

      What could it have been?

      Like the Southwest and Delta failures, the Sprint debacle started small and then quickly got out of hand when backups didn't work as expected and small failures cascaded into big ones.

      Sprint said a fire in D.C. caused problems at Sprint's data center in Reston, Va. How a fire across the street from Sprint's switch in D.C. caused issues 20 miles away wasn't quite clear, but apparently, emergency Sprint generators in D.C. didn't kick in as they were supposed to and, as so often happens, one thing led to another.

      Things were apparently back on track Wednesday morning. As far as is known, no one was harmed because of the outage, but it was another reminder that the systems consumers count on to be there when they need them don't always come through. 

      And by the way, emergency responders for years have insisted on referring to the nationwide emergency number as "9-1-1" -- with dashes -- on the theory that if we call it "nine-eleven," panicked callers may look in vain for the "11" button on their keypad. 

      Could be, but in the age of texting, do we really expect anyone to text "9," then "-," then "1," then "-" and so on?

      Just asking.

      Everyone tries to be on their best behavior in Washington, hoping Congress won't get annoyed and crush them. Too bad no one told Sprint about that before i...

      Google offers how-to-vote information

      No, it's not telling you which candidate to vote for

      We ask Google for information, instructions, and directions everyday, so why not ask it how to vote? No, not which candidate to vote for, but how to register, when and where to go to the polls, and other information that's specific to our locality.

      After all, the United States may be the world's greatest democracy, but it is also the world's greatest patchwork of local laws and customs and few things differ more from one place to another than local registration and voting procedures.

      Google is riding to the rescue with what it calls an in-depth search result when consumers use the search term "how to vote." You may have to specify which state you're in but, let's be honest, Google pretty much knows everything about you, so it will most likely get it right even without your input.

      Here's what Google coughed up when we asked it how to vote in hotly contested Virginia:

      Google isn't the only company to think of doing this, of course, but it is by far the largest and most far-reaching. Google's special search does seem to downplay one vital piece of information -- whether you're already registered to vote, although it does provide accurate information on how to register, although it provides an obscure link under the heading "More voting info." The link will take you to your state voter registration site.

      Whether you are already registered is something you can also find out at Vote.org, which has an "Am I Registered to Vote" search function that will take you to your state registrar. We tried that out as well and found that, sure enough, it had our voter info, including precinct number, polling place, and hours of operation.

      Will Google's efforts make a difference this year? No one can really say. Experts already disagree on whether to expect a record turn-out this year. Since both candidates have sky-high unlikeability ratings, you can argue it either way.

      Some say that since both candidates are roundly despised by a significant slice of the popular, turn-out will be low. Others say it will be high, for just the same reason, theorizing that those who really, truly, vehemently dislike one candidate may be highly motivated to go vote for the other one. 

      Who's right? We'll know in a few months.  

      We ask Google for information, instructions, and directions everyday, so why not ask it how to vote? No, not which candidate to vote for, but how to regist...