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Study: Most Corporate “Best-Of” Awards Pretty Much As Meaningless As You Thought

Thu, 2014-09-18 20:18

(Patrick)

(Patrick)


We’ve all been there: some company you really hate runs an ad singing praises about all the awards they’ve gotten claiming they’re “number one!” in something. You frown at the TV, thinking, “Who the heck named them best of anything?” Now, a new study has found that the instinct to call shenanigans on those corporate awards is exactly right. Far from being meaningful recognitions of performance, those “awards” show exactly one thing: how much a company is willing to spend on marketing.

A research team at UMass – Amherst has recently published a study (PDF) looking at the origins of all those corporate awards. It turns out, they’re all pretty much as fictitious and contrived as you’d think. Their case study? T-Mobile, who between 2011 and 2013 basically went all-out getting others to tout their supposed greatness.

During the three-year span the research team studied, T-Mobile received 47 “best-of” awards. Most of them were either “good place to work” type awards (for example, being the best call center in a given city) or related to overall corporate governance. Of these, pretty much all come from “self-nomination,” which means T-Mobile found potential ratings organizations and then sent their own application materials in. That, in and of itself, is not particularly nefarious; it’s how major awards like the Emmys and Oscars work, too. But, the study found, everything keeps getting dodgier from there.

The programs T-Mobile submitted those application materials to had some major problems of their own. They “lack transparency in terms of the criteria used for evaluation,” the study found, meaning there’s no rubric or guidance out there that says what standard(s) an award-winning organization should meet. There’s also no independent verification of the data. T-Mobile (or another company) submits their own information, and nobody checks to see if it’s true.

That may-or-may-not-be-true data comes from surveys given to employees. Employee surveys can be meaningful, but only if they’re done in some very specific ways. In general, the study found that the surveys used in these instances did not adhere to well-known best practices in survey research. The surveys also typically have “low and unrepresentative response rates,” which makes their data questionable. And they’re also administered by the employer, instead of by a neutral third party, which seriously calls the validity of the data into question. (Not many people are really honest about displeasure with their companies and their working conditions when they think those comments can come back to hurt them.)

And as a bonus, the researchers found that, “Many of the firms conducting national evaluations also provide consulting services to the very companies they are rating. This,” they observe, “creates a strong potential for conflict of interest.”

Yes, it would seem to, wouldn’t it.

Calling the validity of the awards further into question? Consulting better-known, better-run organizations that use “more rigorous and objective measures” to check out the same criteria finds basically the opposite of what the awards-giving groups say.

The study’s authors conclude, “These ratings and awards cannot be seen as objective measures of corporate performance. Instead, they are best understood as parts of marketing programs operating in the guise of contests and competitions.” They add, “Rather than evaluating actual company performance, the ratings are a better indicator of a company’s allocations of resources to win awards and its work to create a facade of good behavior.”

Makes you wonder what a company could do if they spent all that time and energy on improving their business instead.

White House Acknowledges Over-Use Of Antibiotics In Farm Animals, Shrugs

Thu, 2014-09-18 20:07

(Patrick Dockens)

(Patrick Dockens)

Last year, the FDA released voluntary guidance for the pharmaceutical industry, which sells 80% of all antibiotics in the U.S. to farmers, primarily because they promote growth in animals. That guidance asked drug companies to please stop selling antibiotics for that purpose, but allows them to keep selling just as many drugs for “disease prevention,” even though it’s been proven that continuous, low-dose use of antibiotics renders their medical use less effective and contributes to the development of drug-resistant pathogens. Today, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology issued a report that some had hoped would recommend the FDA take a harder line on this issue. Those people are probably a bit disappointed.

The PCAST report [PDF] does acknowledge that there is a growing problem with the over-use of antibiotics, not just in agriculture, but also in the medical field, where about half of the antibiotics given every year are unnecessary or prescribed in a way that doesn’t maximize their effectiveness.

It also makes note of the financial costs of infections from drug-resistant bacteria, with direct health care costs of upwards of $35 billion a year, and another $35 billion lost annually in productivity from all the time taken off work, including the 8 million total days spent in hospitals.

“And the problem is worsening,” reads the report. “A number of bacterial diseases are almost or entirely untreatable because the causal agents have acquired resistance to all of the antibiotics that can be deployed against them.”

PCAST makes several recommendations for stemming the tide to antibiotic resistance, from the bureaucratic — appointing a member of the National Security Council staff as White House Director for National Antibiotic Resistance Policy (DNARP) — to the financial — expanding funding for state and local public health departments for programs targeted at the detection of antibiotic resistance, reponse to outbreaks, and “aggressive” prevention activities — to the innovative — supporting research into new antibiotics and alternatives to antibiotics.

But where the recommendations fall short is on agricultural use of antibiotics, even though farm animals consume four times the amount of antibiotics as those prescribed to the entire U.S. population.

PCAST even writes in the report that “it is clear that at least some drug-resistant pathogens have evolved under selective pressure from antibiotic use in agriculture and may have contributed significantly to resistance in clinical settings.”

It also states that any national strategy to reduce the emergence and incidence of antibiotic resistance must include “substantial changes in the use of antibiotics in agricultural settings, in order to preserve antibiotic utility in human medicine.”

And yet, the report takes a wait-and-see approach to this issue, offering its support to the previous FDA guidance (which only came about as the result of a lawsuit filed by the Natural Resources Defense Council and others who wanted the FDA to fulfill the decades-old legal obligation it had been ignoring).

PCAST says the FDA should, rather than actually force farmers to stop using drugs for growth promotion, sit back and assess the progress of its voluntary guidance “by monitoring changes in total sales of antibiotics in animal agriculture and, where possible, in usage of antibiotics; and by developing and undertaking studies to assess whether decreases are observed in antibiotic resistance among farm animals.”

And only if the FDA eventually determines that its guidance is as pointless as it appears to be, does PCAST recommend that it “should take additional measures,” though it offers no recommendations on what those measures might be.

“Waiting for an agency that has failed for over 40 years to take action on the overuse of antibiotics in livestock feed is not a wise strategy,” reads a statement from advocacy group Keep Antibiotics Working. “To make matters worse, the report fails to make a strong call for FDA to put in place a system to collect information on antibiotic use that is needed to determine if FDA’s policies that [PCAST] endorses are actually working.”

Additionally, KAW points out that many farmers will go the cheapest and easiest route, so as long as they are able to get their hands on low-cost antibiotics that are proven to increase animal growth, they have no incentive to look into alternatives.

“Today’s report from the President’s science advisors underscores the crisis we’re facing as bacteria become increasingly resistant to antibiotics,” says Mae Wu, health attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “Unfortunately, much more follow through is needed from the Administration. Just as the administration is taking steps to deal with abuse of antibiotics in humans, it must take steps to curb the overuse of antibiotics in animals, which consume about 80 percent of the antibiotics sold in the United States. Shying away from taking these needed steps will not yield the ‘substantial changes’ that PCAST says are necessary.”

Congresswoman Louise Slaughter from New York, an outspoken critic of over-use of antibiotics and the only microbiologist in the House, says that she appreciates PCAST’s recommendations for greater surveillance of antibiotic use in agriculture, but also takes issue with the report’s failure to recommend stronger actions from the FDA.

“I maintain that voluntarily asking industry to change labels is not enough to protect human health,” said Rep. Slaughter in a statement. “Not only does it give industry two more years to begin complying, it leaves a loophole a mile wide for using antibiotics daily to prevent disease when they are clearly only meant for treatment.”

While some defenders of the use of antibiotics in animal feed claim that farmers do use discretion and primarily use these drugs for disease prevention, a recent investigative report found that many of the nation’s largest chicken farms are providing drugs — some of them belonging to classes of antibiotics that are considered “critically important” to humans — without regard to whether their birds were at risk for illness.

That same report spoke to a farmer who has raised chickens for Perdue for years, including some flocks that were antibiotic free. He claims there was no difference in the mortality rate between those fed the drugs and those who were not, implying that the antibiotics fulfill no medical need and are used solely for growth promotion. But he also says that both types of flocks grew to full size, which makes one wonder if farmers aren’t throwing away money on medically unnecessary drugs that also don’t result in bigger animals.

Some In Wisconsin Upset Over Local Stores Selling “Slender Man” Costume After Attack On 12-Year-Old

Thu, 2014-09-18 20:05

Disapproving pumpkin. (Kmo139)

Disapproving pumpkin. (Kmo139)

Residents of a Wisconsin town where two young girls are accused of repeatedly stabbing a third girl, as part of an attempt to please a fictional online character known as “Slender Man,” aren’t too happy with some local stores for selling Slender Man Halloween costumes.

The 12-year-old victim survived the May attack, which has left the southeastern Wisconsin town and the country shocked by nature of its viciousness. So the fact that two nearby stores are selling a Slender Man costume isn’t going over well with many locals.

“Just the reaction with the neighborhood and the girl’s finally back in school and feeling good… and I just think this would set her back,” one shopper told WITI in Milwaukee.

The two stores carrying the costume tell WISN they have no plans to remove them from the shelves, but another local store owner says he won’t carry it.

“We don’t mind scary, but we try not to be sick. I have two daughters and I try to run my business so that they would be proud. So we try and carry a selection of stuff that is appropriate for families and having fun,” he said.

The two 12-year-old suspects have both been charged as adults with attempted murder. One has been ruled not competent to stand trial and committed, while a judge is currently deciding if the other is fit to do so.

Bad taste, or just an oversight? Stores selling “Slenderman” Halloween costume [WITI]
Some area stores selling Slenderman costume [WISN]

Radar From The Future Can Catch Drivers Texting Behind The Wheel

Thu, 2014-09-18 19:22

(frankieleon)

(frankieleon)

Law enforcement officials may soon be getting a high-tech helping hand in their fight against distracted driving. A Virginia company is reportedly working on a radar gun that detects, not speeding, but text messaging.

The Virginian-Pilot reports that ComSonics is developing a detection gun that could make it simpler for police officers to enforce texting while driving bans.

The device works by detecting the radio frequencies being emitted from the vehicle. But what about other, legal cellphone activities that can happen behind the wheel such as hands-free calls?

Officials with the company, which manufactures and provides calibration for speed enforcement equipment, say the device’s capabilities allow it to differentiate between text messages, phone calls and data transfer frequencies to pinpoint the likelihood that the driver is indeed shooting off a text message.

As for any concerns about privacy, the company says the device is unable to decrypt the information being transmitted by drivers.

Malcolm McIntyre, ComSonics’ calibration services manager, say the new equipment is similar to products used by cable technicians to detect leaks.

While McIntyre says the device is close to production, it would have to garner legislative approval and adoption by law enforcement agencies before actually being used on our roadways.

New device in the works to catch texting drivers [The Virginian-Pilot]

Toy Company Brings Production Of Lincoln Logs Back To The U.S.

Thu, 2014-09-18 19:01

(pjpink)

(pjpink)

With John Lloyd Wright (son of Frank Lloyd Wright) as its creator and President Abraham Lincoln’s childhood home as inspiration, Lincoln Logs are about as American as they come. It’s fitting, then, that the toy will once again be made in the United States after a stint in China.

K’NEX, the company that holds the product license from Hasbro right now, announced that the wooden toys will be produced entirely at a factory in central Maine, reports the Press Herald, while some of the plastic pieces in certain sets will still be produced in China.

A company called Pride Manufacturing — which makes wooden things like golf tees and cleats, and cigar tips — says the Lincoln Log production will bring about five to 10 jobs to the company of 130, which is a lot of jobs in a town of 1,100 people, a town selectwoman added.

“Five jobs really is a lot when you have a small population,” she explained. “Pride (Manufacturing) is very important to our town. We have so many people, locals that are employed by Pride, and they carry a large percentage of our tax base. We want to do everything we can to help them get the machinery and equipment they need.”

The toys were invented by Wright in 1916, and have always been made from real wood, according to the company website, and made every little kid want to live in a log cabin, according to me.

“We couldn’t be happier to bring these jobs back to the United States and specifically to Maine,” said K’NEX’s senior vice president of operations, Larry Fanelle, according to the Associated Press.

Manufacturing of Lincoln Logs shifts to Maine, and fits nicely [The Press Herald]
Production of Lincoln Logs Toy Returning to US [Associated Press]

This Taco Bell Now Closed Afternoons After Becoming High School Fight Club

Thu, 2014-09-18 18:37

closedbellIf I ran a Taco Bell or any other fast food restaurant, I’d do anything to keep my doors open during the afternoon hours to make money from customers grabbing late lunches, early dinners, and mid-afternoon snacks. But one Bell eatery in California says it can’t be open in the afternoons thanks to local high school kids who have turned the franchise into a fight club.

According to CBS San Francisco [Warning: multiple auto-play video ads that you can't stop or mute], a Taco Bell in Antioch, CA, has not only become an after-school hangout for local teens, but also a place for angry adolescents to work out their personal disputes without fear of being called to the principal’s office.

“At school you get suspended or something for that,” explains one student, “If you’re not at school you go to the plaza and fight and get away with it.”

Another student tells CBS that people are bringing weapons with them.

And with a new school year creating all sorts of new feuds between pimply pugilists, Taco Bell employees tell CBS that the fighting has reached a new level.

“One time a girl knocked over all of our stuff,” says one worker. “All the stuff on the front counter, she just knocked everything off and she threatened one of my coworkers and told her she was going to kill her.”

She says that was enough for the coworker to quit. And even the students who fight outside of the restaurant end up coming to the Bell to regroup and plan their next bout.

“It’s getting worse,” says the employee.

Her boss recently posted a notice explaining that the Taco Bell will be closed from 3 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday.

Police say they are working with the businesses in the area, but that it’s hard to police hundreds of teenagers.

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Sears Promises 5-Minute Returns And Exchanges Without Leaving Your Car

Thu, 2014-09-18 18:05

Pete Kraynak

(Pete Kraynak)

Sears is expanding the number of in-person services that they offer to customers who are horrified at the prospect of walking into a Sears. Now you can perform in-person returns and exchanges at your local store, but without getting out of your car. What kind of wizardry is this? It’s the department store chain’s new bid to win over customers with ease and convenience.

How does it work? Sears produced this handy little animation, which explains how the service works, but also shows the customer inexplicably abandoning his dog in the Sears parking lot. Most of this animation is identical to oone that the department store released earlier this year for their curbside pickup service, right down to the ending where the dog runs after the car as it pulls away from Sears.

Things might go a little differently than planned if employees use the same methods to game this service that they were spotted using for the chain’s in-store pickup service. Customers were also promised service within 5 minutes for that, which employees quickly solved by just stopping the clock before it reached 5 minutes. Simple enough.

This is a benefit for Shop Your Way Rewards members, an elite privilege that you can only earn by giving your e-mail address to a Sears or Kmart cashier. It requires you to request a return or exchange ahead of time using the company’s website, then showing up in the designated parking spot at the Sears store and signaling an employee with a smartphone app that you’re ready to swap your merchandise. Thanks to the online request that you already made, the item you’re exchanging for will already be ready to go at the store’s pick-up window. In theory.

The retail-biz site Racked has some misgivings about this plan, mainly on behalf of the workers whose behinds will be on the line if customers are forced to wait longer than five minutes to finish their transactions.

Sears’s Drive Thru Service Has Employees Literally Running (via Business Insider)

Can’t Make It Up: GM Recalls Vans For Explosion Risk, Fiat Recalls Cars For Leg Airbag Irregularities

Thu, 2014-09-18 18:04

(funky_abstract)

(funky_abstract)

The only time I want to see a car blow up is in an action movie where it’s filled with bad guys. I don’t want to see a van driving down the highway burst into flames because of a natural gas leak. That’s probably why General Motors issued yet another recall Thursday, just a few hours after Fiat Chrysler announced the recall of several thousand cars because of an issue with leg airbags.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, GM issued a recall [PDF] of nearly 3,200 natural gas-powered vans because of an increased risk of fire or explosions related to a leak.

The recall covers Chevrolet Express vehicles made between September 10, 2010 and April 28 of this year, as well as GMC Savana vehicles made between May 23, 2011 and April 21 of this year.

The affected vans may leak gas from their compressed natural gas high-pressure regulators, which could, in some situations, lead to fire or explosions.

In an unrelated issue, Fiat Chrysler announced [PDF] that it would recall nearly 25,500 model year 2014 and 2015 Fiat 500L vehicles because of issues in the driver’s knee airbag.

Yes, that’s right, the Fiat 500L comes equipped with a knee airbag designed to protect the driver’s leg in the event of a frontal impact crash.

According to the NHTSA, irregularities in the “knee airbag folding process,” which was done at a plant in Serbia, could prevent the airbag from inflating properly.

The issue was first detected during crash tests conducted by NHTSA. The tests found the airbag did not meet requirements set forth by the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard “Occupant Crash Protection.”

In the event of a crash, the improper deployment could cause injury to drivers if they are not wearing a seatbelt.

In both recalls, dealers will notify owners and fix the issue free of charge.

The 5 States (Plus D.C.) With The Highest Levels Of Credit Card Debt

Thu, 2014-09-18 17:33

(lemonjenny)

(lemonjenny)

If you were asked to guess which states had the highest average credit card debt, you might assume it would be dominated by places with high real estate costs, where consumers need to spread out their other purchases in order to make the rent or mortgage every month. Or you might go the other way and guess that states with low costs of living but high unemployment rates would top that list. But a new analysis of credit card data paints a different picture than either of these assumptions.

The folks at Credit.com looked at credit card debt data from Experian, one of the three major credit reporting agencies, and compiled a list of the states with the highest level of average per-card debt.

Alaska topped the list, with an average per-card debt of $2,299, making it the only state with an average above $2,000. With above-average costs of everything from housing to transportation to food, the vast northern state was recently ranked as the fourth most-expensive place to live in the U.S., so it may not surprise many people to find that Alaskans have a high level of credit card debt.

But many of the remaining states with the highest level of credit card debt fall have average costs of living.

Like Virginia, which came in second on the Credit.com list with an average per-card debt of $1,817. Given that it beats out neighboring Washington, D.C., ($1,793 average) by only a small amount, we have a hunch that the residents in the more-expensive D.C. suburbs are bringing up the average for the rest of the state.

D.C.’s other neighbor, Maryland, comes in fourth with an average debt of $1,750. Again, we have to wonder how much of this debt is concentrated near the capital.

But for the rest of the high-debt states, you’ve got to travel far from the I-95 corridor. The Credit.com list doesn’t include many of the country’s most expensive places to live, like Hawaii, Connecticut, New York, California, or Massachusetts.

Instead, there’s Washington state and its per-card average debt of $1,741. And Colorado, with $1,697 in per-card debt.

What’s important to point out about the Credit.com report is that it deals with per-card debt, not per-person debt. Many consumers have multiple credit cards, meaning someone in Virginia could have three cards for a total of $5,451 in debt and still be considered average.

One positive trend from the data is that the per-card debt is declining in all of these states, except D.C., where there was a slight year-over-year increase in the average balance.

FTC: Yelp To Pay $450,000 For Collecting Personal Information From Children

Thu, 2014-09-18 17:29

(jdong)

(jdong)

With each new settlement the Federal Trade Commission announces, it appears more likely that mobile apps and children just don’t go together. In the most recent case, Yelp settled allegations that it improperly collected children’s’ personal information – a big no-no that means the online review site will pay hundred of thousands of dollars to rectify.

The FTC announced that Yelp agreed to pay a $450,000 civil penalty to settle charges it violated the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), which requires that any company collecting personal information from children must get express consent from parents and clearly disclose how the information is used.

According to the complaint, from 2009 to 2013 Yelp was not in compliance with the rules set forth by COPPA. Instead, the company allegedly collected the personal information from children through its app without first notifying parents and obtaining consent.

Because the Yelp mobile app registration process includes a step in which users must enter their date of birth, the FTC charges that the company was aware of the issue.

An investigation found that several thousand registrants provided a date of birth showing they were under 13 years of age and Yelp continued to collect information such as their names, email addresses, location and subsequent reviews.

Although Yelp has an age-screen mechanism on its website, by allowing young users to register on the mobile device, they were able to access the web version as well.

The FTC found the company failed to implement a functional age-screen in its app and did not adequately test said apps for issues.

Under the settlement, Yelp must pay the $450,000 civil fine and must delete information it collected from consumers who stated they were 13 years of age or younger. Additionally, the company must submit COPPA compliance reports to the FTC for one year.

In another, related enforcement action, the FTC announced a settlement in which mobile app company TinyCo will pay a $300,000 civil penalty for violating the COPPA Rule.

The FTC alleges that through the use of themes appealing to children, brightly colored animated characters and simple language, TinyCo targeted consumers under the age of 13 and in some instances collected personal information from those children.

According to the complaint, some of the company’s apps included measures where the submission of an email address would provide extra in-game currency that could be used to buy items within the game or speed up gameplay.

In addition to paying a civil fine TinyCo is required to delete information collected from children under 13 years of age and must submit a compliance report to the FTC.

Yelp, TinyCo Settle FTC Charges Their Apps Improperly Collected Children’s Personal Information [FTC]

No, You Can’t Shampoo Your Hair With Mayo (Or Anything) In Public Fountains

Thu, 2014-09-18 17:26

Another unrelated fountain that you cannot bathe in. (Hammerin Man)

Another unrelated fountain that you cannot bathe in. (Hammerin Man)

Sure, public fountains look just like giant showers, but the thing is, they’re not. They’re available to the public for viewing, listening to, sometimes throwing money into, but definitely not for bathing. Not with mayonnaise in your hair, not for any other reason.

It seems we must be clear on this point, because there are those out there who apparently don’t understand — or don’t want to understand — how public resources are to be used.

NewsOK.com reports that an Oklahoma City man was arrested this week after people reported that a guy was freaking everyone out and causing a ruckus in a public fountain.

When an officer arrived, she talked to the suspect, who happened to be soaked and breathing hard, and he had a good reason: He said he’d been washing his hair with mayonnaise in a nearby fountain. So you know, you get wet when you’re shampooing your hair, unless you’re very careful or at the salon.

The 23-year-old man was arrested on a complaint of bathing in a prohibited public area. He also probably has very shiny hair right now because I heard somewhere that mayo is great for getting a bit of a glow.

Arrested man tells police he was washing hair in fountain with mayonnaise [NewsOK.com]

Busch Gardens Guests Find Severed Head Halloween Displays A Little Too Timely

Thu, 2014-09-18 17:02

The terrorist group ISIS (or ISIL) is in the headlines on a daily basis, and the group uses films and displays of their captives’ and opponents’ heads and bodies as a potent weapon. How potent? Complaints from guests led the theme park Busch Gardens to change a Halloween display that features (fake, rubber) severed heads.

headguy

When TV station WAVY interviewed theme park guests, their opinion was mixed on whether the heads were all a bunch of harmless Halloween fun, or too close to what’s currently in the headlines.

headrow

Here’s the full statement from Busch Gardens:

Many of the scenes depicted at Busch Gardens’ Howl-O-Scream are graphic in nature, but they are fictional and are not intended to provide commentary on current world events. The props in this year’s event were designed and purchased several months ago. In light of recent events, some of these props have the unintended consequence of appearing insensitive and are being removed. Busch Gardens apologizes for any offense they may have caused.

Busch Gardens pulls gory display amid complaints [WAVY]

Chick-Fil-A Customer Buys $1,000 Worth Of Food For Customers In Drive-Thru Line Behind Him

Thu, 2014-09-18 16:35

(frankieleon)

(frankieleon)

The one and only time it’s probably great to still be in the drive-thru line instead of already through it? When someone in front of you decides to shell out $1,000 to pay for the orders of all the strangers in line behind him, like one generous Chick-fil-A customer did this week.

It was a normal busy evening at the Abilene, TX restaurant, until a man handed over $1,000 and asked workers to use it to pay for all those in the drive-thru line behind him, reports KTXS News.

The man only gave his first name, and said he’d given the money to make Monday a better day for everyone.

The franchise owner says the money paid for a whole lot of people, in just over an hour.

“He paid for 88 cars in a little over an hour,” he explained. “He pretty much bought everyone’s meal in the drive-thru for a little over an hour.”

The employees said they saw a whole lot of emotions during that hour, including some tears of joy.

“One lady actually cried because she had a really tough day,” one worker said. “She had a lot of bad stuff happen to her.”

This reminds us of a pay-it-forward chain, except with the paying part already done. Either way, we all get to feast on warm and happy feelings, right? (Except for whoever was in the car right in front of the generous donor, of course. That person is probably bummed to have missed out.)

Man pays $1,000 to feed those in drive-thru at Abilene Chick-Fil-A [KTXS.com]

Power Company Screw-Up Results In $2,113 Electric Bill For Customer

Thu, 2014-09-18 16:30

powerbillAfter years of paying only around $20/month for her electricity, a woman in Seattle was recently hit with an electric bill worth ten times that amount because the city’s power utility didn’t realize it had screwed up her meter four years earlier.

KOMOnews reports that the meter on the woman’s rented South Seattle home has been under-reporting her usage since June 2010. In all that time, neither the City Light utility company nor the meter reader who made regular visits to the property noticed anything was amiss.

And when City Light finally did realize there was a problem with the meter, it didn’t send the customer a notice explaining the issue and suggesting a payment plan. No, she just got a bill for $2,113.56 that she was supposed to pay in full by the end of the monthly billing period.

“That’s a lot of money,” says the tenant, “and a lot of money I don’t have.”

A rep for City Light tells KOMO that the figure was arrived at by averaging the previous use and then calculating what wasn’t collected over the time period during which the meter was under-reporting. Additionally, the company apparently can’t just say “our bad” and write off the debt, saying it is required by law to collect payment for any electricity used.

“If any one customer is not paying for the energy that the consumer uses, that shifts the cost to everyone else,” the City Light rep explains, adding that the customer should probably have known something was wrong when her bill was showing zero usage. Of course, one could argue that the meter reader should have noticed this lack of usage in an occupied home.

The company says it has offered to accept payment for the past bills through monthly installments of $88.07, but the tenant says even that will be an issue on her fixed income.

City Light is now trying to get the customer onto a discounted energy plan for low-income residents, but doesn’t know if it can apply that discount retroactively to bring down the total owed for the four years the meter was screwed up.

CFPB Proposes Rule To Oversee Automakers’ Financial Units, Stop Discriminatory Lending

Thu, 2014-09-18 16:09

(frankieleon)

(frankieleon)

The lending arms for national car dealers, such as Ford and Toyota, may soon have to answer to federal regulators. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau released a proposed rule that would give the agency oversight of automakers’ financing units in a step to prevent discrimination and other harmful practices.

Under the proposed rule [PDF] the Bureau would extend oversight to cover 38 auto finance companies providing financing for more than 10,000 loans and leases each year.

According to the CFPB, these entities originate about 90% of nonbank auto loans and leases, and in 2013 provided financing to nearly 6.8 million consumers.

While the CFPB currently oversees large banks making auto loans, it does not supervise nonbank auto finance companies; meaning indirect financing provided when a dealer facilitates a loan from a third-party.

In some case, the nonbank finance companies are “captive” nonbanks, meaning they are finance companies owned by auto manufacturers.

If the oversight rule goes into effect, the CFPB will have the authority to conduct on-site examinations that could result in enforcement actions.

Officials with the Bureau say the oversight rule was born out of concern that consumers are being misled about the loan in which they qualify for and about the terms and benefits of product add-ons.

Auto loans make up the third largest category for household debt in the United States, which currently has 87.4 million outstanding auto loans valued at about $900 billion.

Additionally, officials are troubled by what they call discriminatory pricing practices in the auto-lending market.

“When consumers receive indirect financing, often the finance company or other indirect lender authorizes the dealer to mark up the interest rate. Markups lead to dealers and indirect lenders charging different rates to similarly situated consumers, which increases the risk of discrimination. Discriminatory markups on auto loans may result in tens of millions of dollars in consumer harm each year.”

When examining banks offering auto-loans that are currently under CFPB supervision, investigators found that indirect lenders had discretionary pricing policies that resulted in discrimination against African-American, Hispanic and Asian and Pacific Islander borrowers and these consumers paid more for their loans than similarly situated non-Hispanic white borrowers, the CFPB reports.

Under the proposed rule, the CFPB aimed to make sure auto lenders treat consumers fairly and discontinue discriminatory actions by:

Fairly marketing and disclosing auto financing: The Bureau wants to make sure that auto finance companies who market directly to consumers are not using deceptive tactics to market loans or leases. The Bureau would be concerned if consumers are being misled about the benefits or terms of financial products. The Bureau is also looking to ensure that consumers are getting terms they understand and accept.

Providing accurate information to credit bureaus: The Bureau wants to make sure that information provided to the credit bureaus is accurate. The CFPB recently took an enforcement action against an auto finance company that distorted consumer credit records by inaccurately reporting information like the consumer’s payment history and delinquency status to credit bureaus. The CFPB is looking to prevent inaccurate information from being reported in the future.

Treating consumers fairly when collecting debts: The Bureau wants to make sure that auto finance companies are not using illegal debt collection tactics. The Bureau has received complaints from consumers who say that their autos have been repossessed while they are current on the loan or have a payment arrangement in place. The Bureau also is looking to ensure that collectors are relying on accurate information and using legal processes when they collect on debts or repossess autos.

CFPB Proposes New Federal Oversight of Nonbank Auto Finance Companies [CFPB]

Apple: We Won’t Unlock Devices When The Police Ask, Because iOS 8 Doesn’t Let Us

Thu, 2014-09-18 15:55

(713Avenue)

(713 Avenue)

After nude photos of celebrities stolen off the iCloud showed up all over the Internet, Apple had a whole lot of egg on its face from customers worried about their own privacy. It seems the company is taking steps to counteract some of those concerns, at least so far as devices are involved, announcing last night that with the iOS 8 software update comes another layer of privacy: The company itself will no longer be able to unlock customers’ devices, even when served with a search warrant.

The company announced a new privacy policy last night in connection with the release of iOS 8, and also wrote on its website that even with a warrant in hand, law enforcement won’t be able to make Apple open up any device running the software, because only the customer’s passcode will unlock it.

As Apple explains it:

On devices running iOS 8, your personal data such as photos, messages (including attachments), email, contacts, call history, iTunes content, notes, and reminders is placed under the protection of your passcode. Unlike our competitors, Apple cannot bypass your passcode and therefore cannot access this data. So it’s not technically feasible for us to respond to government warrants for the extraction of this data from devices in their possession running iOS 8.

Eventually, only those devices incapable of running iOS 8 — which means any iPhones or iPads a few years old — will be able to be unlocked by Apple.

Of course, this doesn’t apply to the iCloud, from which Apple still has a legal responsibility to turn over certain user data if its served with the right paperwork from law enforcement. So if you don’t want your photos, videos, emails, music or anything else that could go to the iCloud accessed by the police, you’ll have to adjust your settings to keep that data from going to the cloud.

So while the Supreme Court says that police will most likely always need a search warrant to check out your phone or collect data from it, now Apple won’t have to comply with those requests based on the fact that it can’t do anything. Only you can.

FCC Chair: Current Definition Of Broadband Isn’t Fast Enough

Thu, 2014-09-18 15:48

(frankieleon)

(frankieleon)

The FCC’s current definition of “broadband” Internet is 4Mbps downstream and only 1Mbps up. These were adequate speeds in a world where you occasionally watched a grainy YouTube video, but they don’t reflect the needs or uses of most consumers, and those benchmarks are only going to grow more irrelevant with each passing day. FCC Chair Tom Wheeler admitted as much to Congress yesterday.

“When a single HD video requires 5 Mbps of capacity, it’s clear that the FCC’s current benchmark for broadband – 4 Mbps– isn’t adequate,” wrote Wheeler in his prepared remarks before the House Committee on Small Business.

Earlier this summer, the FCC proposed that if broadband providers wish to receive Universal Service funds from the Commission — money raised through phone bill surcharges and disbursed to help deploy needed services — these companies would need to adopt 10Mbps downstream as the new benchmark.

“When 60% of the Internet’s traffic at prime time is video, and it takes 4 or 5Mbps to deliver video, a 4Mbps connection isn’t exactly what’s necessary in the 21st century,” Wheeler explained to the Committee. “And when you have half a dozen different devices, wireless and other connected devices in a home that are all going against that bandwidth, it’s not enough. What we are saying is we can’t make the mistake of spending the people’s money, which is what Universal Service is, to continue to subsidize something that’s subpar.”

Both AT&T and Verizon have come out against increasing the benchmark to 10Mbps, claiming it is a “casual, back-of-the-envelope calculation of bandwidth requirements of the highest-volume households that are simultaneously using multiple bandwidth-intensive applications.”

[via Ars Technica]

23AndMe Decides To Not Enroll Users Automatically In Relative-Matching Service

Wed, 2014-09-17 23:08

23AndMe, the DIY DNA-sequencing service, wanted to make a change to its privacy settings. Since the Food and Drug Administration stopped the company from offering and marketing information about customers’ health and vulnerability to certain diseases and medications last year, the company has turned to marketing itself as a service to figure out your ethnic origins and find hidden distant relatives. That sounds fun…until it destroys your family, anyway.

When 23AndMe announced the planned change, which was supposed to go into effect a week ago on September 12, they framed it as an exciting way to match up more people with even more relatives. However, Vox pointed out that there are some really, really good reasons why you might not want to be matched up with your missing relatives.

destroyfamily

What’s insidious about the change in privacy settings is that the company’s plan wasn’t to just opt in new members who signed up beginning on September 12. Nope: they planned to e-mail current customers who hadn’t chosen whether they wanted to be part of that program. These customers had 30 days to sign in and opt out: otherwise, they would be opted in. If you changed e-mail addresses or are offline for an extended period since signing up for 23AndMe, well, too bad.

Sure, people who are cautious about their privacy probably aren’t about to have their genomes sequenced and stored online by a company backed by Google in the first place, but matching people up with hidden relatives or bringing up other secrets hidden in our genetic code can have serious consequences. Vox interviewed one man, a reproductive biologist, who decided to sign up for 23AndMe. He was teaching a class about the genome, see, and thought it would be interesting to share some of the results with his students. He sent his parents test kits, too, which he thought would make the results more interesting.

They did, but by “interesting” I mean “destroyed his family relationships and led to his parents’ divorce.” Using the relative-finding service, the professor found a man who was flagged as being either his grandfather or his half-brother. It turned out that their father had a child before marrying, but hadn’t told anyone in his family about their missing relative, who had been given up for adoption. The revelation led to his parents’ divorce and general tumult in the family.

He turned to 23AndMe with his concerns. “I’m not sure all your customers realize that when they participate in your family finder program, they’re participating in what are essentially really advanced paternity test,” he recounts telling an employee. The company really didn’t have an answer for his complaint. He argues that simply warning customers that the relative-finding service needs a much stronger warning: the current notice that it could reveal “life-changing information” simply isn’t strong enough.

This isn’t just a matter for online genome-sequencing services, either. While performing blood or genetic testing for medical reasons, sometimes doctors discover that a patient’s genetic parents aren’t who they were previously assumed to be. Errors in in-vitro fertilization, for example, could mean that a couple raises a child that isn’t genetically theirs. Should physicians let patients know about that? Just a few months ago, an article in the Journal of Pediatrics proposed not telling families about an “incidental finding of nonparentage.”

Your genome isn’t just yours. Parts of it also belong to your genetic parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, siblings, and cousins. Spitting into a tube to upload that information to the cloud can be really interesting and cool, but can also lead to unforeseen problems.

23AndMe probably took all of this into consideration after announcing the privacy settings change, and yesterday announced that they would not be opting existing users in automatically. “The Close Relatives features can potentially give a customer life changing information, like the existence of an unknown sibling or the knowledge that a relative is not biologically related to them,” CEO Wojcicki wrote in a letter to customers, apparently having just figured this out. The company’s logic in wanting to opt customers in (roughly half of its members had not chosen whether or not to participate in the program) was to provide more data to users. That makes sense: when the company is now forced to only promote itself as a service to find your ancestry and maybe uncover hidden relatives, they need as much data as possible.

Wojcicki also announced that 23AndMe would be hiring a chief privacy officer––hey, wait, this company has more than 650,000 sequenced human genomes on its servers and it didn’t already have a chief privacy officer?!

Genetic testing brings families together (And sometimes tears them apart) [Vox] (Thanks, Kelly and David!)
With genetic testing, I gave my parents the gift of divorce [Vox]
Incidental Findings of Nonparentage: A Case for Universal Nondisclosure [Pediatrics]

Authorities Look Into Cruelty Allegations At Dairy Farm Supplying Major Pizza Chains

Wed, 2014-09-17 23:02
An animal welfare activist secretly shot video of alleged animal abuse at a New Mexico dairy farm. The dairy supplies milk used to make cheese and then supplied to national pizza chains.

An animal welfare activist secretly shot video of alleged animal abuse at a New Mexico dairy farm. The dairy supplies milk used to make cheese and then supplied to national pizza chains.

A New Mexico dairy farm, a cheese supplier and the national pizza chains that receive said cheese are under fire after an activist working with an animal welfare group went undercover at the farm to record workers allegedly punching and kicking cows, and assaulting them with whips, chains, and cables..

The New Mexico Livestock Board launched an investigation into the practices at the currently closed Winchester Dairy, while activist group Mercy for Animals called on national pizza chains, such as Domino’s, that receive cheese produced by the dairy’s milk to implement animal welfare policies, the Detroit Free Press reports.

Mercy for Animals released the video, which was shot by an activist working at the farm in August and September, and includes footage of dairy employees kicking and punching cows, and shocking them with electric prods. Other scenes from the video show calves being tossed into the back of a truck and cows being dragged with heavy equipment or lifted with clamps.

A spokesperson for the Livestock Board says the group is investigating the issue aggressively.

Following the video’s release, Winchester sent a statement to the Associated Press saying that the company fired all employees and referred the abusive workers to law enforcement officials for further review.

Additionally, the company halted milking operations, stopped shipments to vendors and dispersed thousands of cows to other dairies. It’s unclear whether the farm’s closure is temporary pending the New Mexico board’s investigation.

Domino’s vice president of communications, Tim McIntyer tells the Detroit Free Press, the incident paints all dairy farms in a bad light.

“No act of cruelty can ever be condoned. Ever,” he says. “What we do know is that this is not an issue with our cheese supplier – it was an isolated case of sadistic acts by employees at a single dairy farm in southern New Mexico.”

Still, Mercy for Animals is calling out Leprino Foods, which produces cheese from the milk supplied by Winchester and supplies it to chains including Papa John’s, Pizza Hut, and Domino’s, to adopt a zero-tolerance policy for kicking, punching and shocking cows, as well as requiring suppliers to provide safe and sanitary environments for animals.

The activist group says the issues detailed in the video from Winchester Dairy are not isolated. Investigations at six other dairy farms around the country produced similarly shocking treatment of animals.

“So this isn’t a matter of a single dairy farm failing to meet industry standards. This is a matter of industry standards allowing for blatant animal abuse,” Matt Rice, the group’s director of investigations, tells the AP. “That’s why we’re calling on the industry to make improvements at all of its facilities to prevent this type of abuse.”

Below is the video shot by Mercy for Animals activists depicting the alleged animal abuse at Winchester Dairy.

WARNING: disturbing images.

Group levels abuse allegations against NM dairy [Associated Press]

Domino’s Pizza targeted after abuse at dairy farm [Detroit Free Press]

Krispy Kreme Announces Special ‘Ghostbusters’ Doughnuts For Movie’s 30th Anniversary

Wed, 2014-09-17 22:30

(Krispy Kreme)

(Krispy Kreme)

Prepare to feel old: Ghostbusters hit theaters 30 years ago (June 17, 1984 to be specific). Now prepare to feel old and maybe hungry: To celebrate that anniversary, Krispy Kreme has announced it will sell two Ghostbusters-themed doughnuts from Sept. 29 through Oct. 31.

The pastries are frosted in two varieties — one with the recognizable Ghostbusters logo and a splash of ectoplasm, and the other with the visage of the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man, according to the Hollywood Reporter.

Alas, no green gooey filling for Slimer — both have a “marshmallow Kreme-filled shell topped with white icing” with their respective sugary drawings on top.

“We are truly excited to collaborate with Sony Pictures in celebration of the 30th anniversary of the iconic Ghostbusters brand,” said Dwayne Chambers, Krispy Kreme chief marketing and innovations officer told the Hollywood Reporter, adding that the doughnuts are “as unique, creative and joyful as this beloved film franchise.”

Also, we are all old, he didn’t add, though it was totally implied.

The real ones aren’t quite as pretty as the press image doughnuts, but we get the point:

Now there's something you don't see every day. @Krispykreme announces #Ghostbusters 30th anniversary donuts. pic.twitter.com/tQ7fdNRNYq

— Ghostbusters (@Ghostbusters) September 16, 2014

Krispy Kreme to Offer ‘Ghostbusters’ Doughnuts for Film’s 30th Anniversary [The Hollywood Reporter]

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