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The Consumerist

Nestle Investigation Results: Yep, Your Cat’s Food May Have Been Caught By Slaves

Mon, 2015-11-23 22:30

(eren {sea+prairie})In a series of recent lawsuits, consumers have taken issue with the treatment of workers on fishing boats from Thailand that work far out to sea. The issue got consumers’ attention after reports from non-governmental organizations and a New York Times investigative series this summer, and companies that buy and sell fish conducted their own investigations. Nestle has now concluded theirs, and admits that yep, there were vendors who severely mistreated along their supply chain.

Nestle hired a third party, the nonprofit Verite, to investigate the claims that workers in their supply chain––who catch the fish used in Fancy Feast cat food––were hired and kept in similar conditions. Verite confirmed that they were.

Seafood companies out of Thailand recruit workers from neighboring countries, then hold them in conditions that are effectively slavery. Job brokers find them work, then charge fees that the men are unable to repay. Instead, they stay on the boats for years on end. You can read about this horror in plenty of detail in reporting by the Associated Press and the New York Times. Thousands of the captive fishermen have since been freed, and companies now want to make sure that their supply chains are free of mistreated workers.

Nestle has promised to make the reports public, but says that the reports demonstrate that it’s difficult for multinationals sourcing seafood from Asia to avoid the offending boats, or avoid buying from seafood farms that use fish caught using slave labor to feed their fish in turn.

Nestle confirms labor abuse among its Thai seafood suppliers [AP]

Reminder: There Are No Fees To Claim Your Prize When You Win The Publishers Clearing House Sweepstakes

Mon, 2015-11-23 21:15

pchThe day has finally come — you’ve won the Publishers Clearing House sweepstakes! At least, that’s what the guy on the phone is telling you. But don’t send your thanks to the ghost of Ed McMahon just yet: if someone is telling you to fork over huge wads of cash in order to claim your prize from PCH, it’s a scam and you should hang up the phone and start hoping anew.

An 88-year-old PCH loyalist living in Pittsburgh thought her big moment was finally upon her when she got a call from a man who said he was Dave Sayer of the PCH Prize Patrol, and that she’d won $3 million. Sayer is a real person, and one that the widow is very familiar with: she’s been entering the sweepstakes dutifully for almost a decade, reports the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

It sounded right to her, as the day she got the call, PCH was set to announce who had won $7,000 a week for life.

“He tells me he’s Dave Sayer from Publishers Clearing House,” she told the paper. “I believed him because I recognized the name from some of the Publishers Clearing House letters.”

So when the man on the phone said she had to wire $500 in fees to North Carolina in order to collect her winnings (including a 2016 Mercedes Benz), she figured that was just part of the routine. Then she sent $500 to Orlando to cover taxes, as well.

But the man on the phone was relentless, asking her for an additional $15,000 to cover personal income taxes on the prize.

“He really made it sound like it was for a good purpose,” she said, noting that after all, “You don’t get nothing for nothing.”

She was told to mail the $15,000 in cash, wrapped in newspaper (a huge red flag) and secured in a double envelope. She got a cash advance from a credit card to cover the funds. Once the money was mailed, she received yet another phone call, now demanding $22,000. The man told her to use all her credit cards and get advances, and at this point, she finally refused.

Though he tried several more times to contact her, she says she stopped answering the phone. She’s now given away $16,000.

“Obviously it’s a horrible story,” a spokesman for Publishers Clearing House told the Post-Gazette. “It’s one we are hearing, unfortunately, on a more frequent basis.”

Though she was at first ashamed to even tell her family she’d been scammed, she finally reported the fraud to AARP, the Social Security Administration and the U.S. Postal Service, and filed a complaint with her local police.

After all that, she realized the scammer had been calling her from an area code in Jamaica… and billing the calls to her number. That could make it hard to catch the villain.

“The challenge [in catching the culprits] is that most of the scammers are not operating from the United States,” the PCH spokesman said. “That makes it much more difficult for law enforcement to make arrests and get extraditions.”

If you’re ever unsure if you’ve actually won a big prize, know that any legitimate sweepstakes, contest or lottery doesn’t require winners to pay any taxes, insurance, handling or shipping charges or any other fees to collect a prize upfront. Never. Not for any reason. You might have to declare winnings on tax returns, but that’s it.

“If they are asking for money, it’s not real,” the PCH spokesman noted. PCH doesn’t contact winners by phone, either, so keep waiting for that Prize Patrol to show up to your doorstep, or, for smaller prizes, look for a notice by certified mail.

For Pittsburgh woman, dedication to Publishers Clearing House begat nightmare [Pittsburgh Post-Gazette]

Man Uses LifeLock To Track Ex-Wife; Company Didn’t Care

Mon, 2015-11-23 20:53

lifelockImagine you found out that your former spouse had opened a fake LifeLock credit monitoring account in your name, and then used it to follow your every financial move for two years? Then imagine that no one at LifeLock will take your query seriously, even after the police get involved.

That’s the story of an Arizona woman who learned in March that her ex-husband had been keeping track — literally, their son found a five-page Excel spreadsheet on his computer — of her bank accounts, credit cards and other financial activities.

“He knew everything I did,” she tells the Arizona Republic. “I had no idea about all the things he knew.”

That spreadsheet didn’t just have financial info. It also included his ex-wife’s passwords and answers to her security questions. When she reviewed the file — which her son had sent her after finding it on dad’s computer — she saw mention of a LifeLock account that her ex was paying for.

So she went on the service’s website, checked out this account: It had her name, her Social Security number, but all the alerts were going to her ex.

Now that she had access to the account, she was able to lock her ex out and subsequently get an order of protection against him, prohibiting him from “in-person contact with companies or doing so telephonically or cyber stalking,” and from contacting any one about her accounts with “credit card companies, LifeLock, credit agencies, bank accounts, e-mail address, Facebook, etc.”

But while the police and the court listened to her, LifeLock could apparently not be bothered to care.

Not only did the company not respond to her queries about the situation, she tells the Republic that LifeLock actively tried to block her access to the account — in order to protect the privacy of her ex-husband.

“I had this overwhelming feeling that nobody was taking me seriously,” she explains. “Like this was the 1950s or something and that this is something I should just live with.”

While she was able to block her ex from having access to the service, he was still able to close the account because he was the one who had paid for it. Rather than help her by providing the requested documents or keeping the account open, LifeLock advised that she open an entirely new account.

“They told me I could have all of the account info and then they did a flip-flop and told me I couldn’t get the information once an account was closed,” she tells the Republic.

Then there were the contradictory e-mails from LifeLock reps. Like the one stating that the tech support team had explained that “when an account is cancelled and then reinstated following cancellation, past records from the old profile cannot be retrieved or made available online,” followed by another e-mail admitting that records were still available “to any law enforcement agency or via a subpoena.”

And yet, when a law enforcement officer tried to obtain this information, he hit nothing but roadblocks.

“The information is necessary for me to obtain a search warrant,” wrote an investigator for the sheriff’s office to LifeLock in July. “As the days and weeks go by, I fear that the information in my affidavit may go stale.”

The investigator didn’t get any of that info until November, after the Arizona Republic got involved.

That’s when LifeLock, presumably fearing public humiliation, released the requested documents to the investigator and apologized to the victim, offering to also pay her legal fees.

But even in the company’s public statement on the matter, the company still refers to the victim as the man’s “wife,” which is in line with her claims that the company repeatedly treated this harassment as a domestic spat between spouses, and not a case of illegal stalking.

This is just the latest in a long string of problems for LifeLock. Its most infamous gaffe involves the company’s CEO having the hubris to publicly share his Social Security number, claiming LifeLock would prevent him from identity theft… only to have his identity stolen at least 13 times.

That same year, LifeLock was hit with a $11 million settlement by the Federal Trade Commission for false and misleading statements made in its advertising.

“While LifeLock promised consumers complete protection against all types of identity theft, in truth, the protection it actually provided left enough holes that you could drive a truck through it,” then-FTC Chair Jon Leibowitz said at the time.

Then, around the same time that LifeLock was ignoring e-mails from the sheriff’s office, the FTC filed a new complaint, alleging that the company had violated that 2010 settlement by continuing to make false representations in its marketing.

For its continued tradition of non-excellence, LifeLock recently made Consumer Reports’ Naughty list for 2015.

Good Weather Means Bad Sales For Some Retailers, Good Deals For You

Mon, 2015-11-23 20:33

(Andrea Allen)In climates with four distinct seasons, most people appreciate when winter shows up a little late. Who doesn’t? Plow services getting paid by the job, regional ski resorts, and clothing retailers that sell winter coats. Retailers are stuck with a lot of cold-weather clothing right now that nobody is interested in because the weather isn’t cold.

In the long run, that’s good news for sweater-wearing humans. Retailers who based their shipments on last year’s weather patterns will be stuck with lots of coats, sweaters, and other cold-weather wear in stock, and they need to get rid of it before their spring merchandise arrives.

“Those [cold weather] businesses have been tough and obviously often you go to the store to buy the coat when it gets cold, so it’s impacting other categories as well because it’s less traffic,” the chief financial officer of Macy’s explained to Reuters. When you head to the department store to buy this year’s coat, you might also buy a matching hat, scarf, and mittens, and pick up a sweater that catches your eye.

competitors of Macy’s cite similar problems: they blame falling sales on the loss of that important traffic from customers coming in to buy winter coats. Kohl’s and JCPenney both report that sales are down and blame the problem on the weather. While this might mean falling profits and stock prices for the retailers, it will most likely translate to fabulous sales for consumers once the weather gets cold.

Weather Woes Spell Red for Retailers [AdAge]

Samsung Offering To Pay Customers Who Sign Up For Its Mobile Payment System

Mon, 2015-11-23 20:22

(Janitors)When it comes to competing in the mobile payment arena, Samsung has a plan to convince customers to pay for stuff with its technology: the company is offering up free gift cards to people who sign up for Samsung Pay.

While it’s not a cash payment you can use anywhere you want, anyone who activates the mobile payment system between Nov. 20 and De. 31 on their Samsung Galaxy S6, S6 Edge, S6 Edge+ or Note 5 can register to claim a $50 Best Buy e-gift card, the company says on its site. Supported carriers include all the big ones: Verizon Wireless, AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and U.S. Cellular.

Samsung Pay works much like other mobile payment systems, allowing shoppers to pay for things from their phone using NFC (Near Field Communications), after they’ve linked their device to a credit card.

Samsung announced recently that it has one million users in South Korea, but it’s got some work to do with U.S. customers, hence, the Best Buy promotion. Apple has said in the past that Apple Pay had more than one million sign-ups in the first three days, but it hasn’t come out with any updated figures since then.

California Taco Bell Offers Valet Parking For Customers

Mon, 2015-11-23 20:05

tacobellwalnutTaco Bell has made its name selling high-cal, low-price junk food (note: that’s not an insult), but one California Bell is classing things up — at least temporarily — by offering a valet parking service to customers.

The San Jose Mercury News reports that the Bell in Walnut Creek, CA — about 20 miles east of Oakland — is mixing in valet parking with its chalupas and Dorito-shelled tacos, but not because it’s trying to fancy up the joint.

Instead, this Taco Bell is trying to keep customers happy during the ongoing construction to its surrounding shopping center. By using valet parking, customers don’t have to deal with looking for parking.

The restaurant is only offering the service during the lunch rush (11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m.) and dinner (5-10 p.m.) hours, and it will likely come to an end when the construction is complete.

Costco Won’t Sell Genetically Engineered Salmon

Mon, 2015-11-23 19:36

(Mike Mozart) Genetically engineered salmon recently received the stamp of approval from the Food and Drug Administration, but it might have a hard time reaching a lot of customers. Costco has joined the list of major food sellers who say they won’t offer the controversial product to customers.

“Although the FDA has approved the sale of GM [genetically modified] salmon, Costco has not sold and does not intend to sell GM salmon at this time,” a rep for the warehouse chain told the AP.

Nearly two years before AquAdvantage salmon — which is engineered to grow to market size faster than traditional farm-raised salmon — got the go-ahead from regulators, a number of retailers, including Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, and Aldi, were already saying they had no plans to sell the product. These retailers have since been joined by other, larger supermarkets, like Target and Kroger.

Because the FDA says that the AquAdvantage salmon is safe to consume and nutritionally the same as traditionally raised salmon, the product will not require any special labeling when it eventually hits store shelves.

Earlier this year, Costco, which purchases around 600,000 pounds of salmon each week, decided to cut back significantly on how much of the fish it imports from Chile over concerns that farmers there were using too many antibiotics to treat their salmon.

All You Have To Do To Fly Free Forever Is Put A $170M Purchase On Your American Express Card

Mon, 2015-11-23 19:22

(frankieleon)Are you sick and tired of shelling out money every time you want to fly somewhere? If you’ve got the right credit card and an urge to spend some millions, you’ll be set: a billionaire who won a rare painting at auction for $170 million will never have to pay for a flight again when the sale goes through on the American Express card he plunked down to buy the artwork.

The winning bidder for Amedeo Modigliani’s “Reclining Nude” at a Christie’s auction earlier this month will reportedly be paying for his acquisition with American Express (though he hasn’t confirmed it, and AmEx won’t either, citing privacy reasons). But it can happen.

“In theory, it’s possible to put a ($170 million purchase) on an American Express card,” an American Express spokeswoman told the Associated Press. “It is based on our relationship with that individual card member and these decisions are made on a case-by-case basis, based on our knowledge of their spending patterns.”

If he does use his American Express Centurion Card — aka the “black card,” an invitation-only card that only the biggest spenders get — he’ll earn a ton of points for his purchase: based on a one point-per-dollar reward plan, he’ll get 170,400,000 membership points for the painting. He and his wife told the New York Times that all those points will go toward allowing their family to travel for free for the rest of their lives.

It’s not going to be too difficult to achieve that, according to the points pros: Zach Honig, editor-in-chief of the travel rewards site, told the AP that if, the painting’s owner converts his Membership Rewards points into an airline frequent flier program, say, Singapore Airlines, he could fly about 3,000 times between the U.S. and Europe in the ultra-deluxe first class suites at $17,800 round trip. Or if he keeps his points with AmEx, he could still use them for hundreds of first class flights anywhere in the world.

While you’re waiting to build up the buying power to earn an AmEx black card, it might be time to start making best friends with billionaires, eh?

How to fly free forever: Buy a $170 million painting with your AmEx card [Associated Press]

Ford Becomes The Latest To Halt Use Of Scandal-Shadowed Takata Airbags

Mon, 2015-11-23 18:49

(saguarosally) In the middle of a massive recall scandal involving airbag inflators that can explode and spew potentially lethal shrapnel at passengers, auto parts company Takata has already lost business from Nissan, Toyota, and Honda. Now comes news that Ford is also ending its use of Takata inflators.

A rep for the carmaker tells the Detroit News that Ford will purchase its ammonium nitrate airbag inflators from new vendors, though it will continue to purchase other parts from Takata.

Shrapnel-throwing Takata inflators have been linked to at least eight deaths and hundreds of injuries, resulting in nearly 20 million vehicles being recalled by a dozen different manufacturers in the U.S. alone. That includes more than 1.5 million Ford vehicles.

In addition to the huge list of affected vehicles, Takata — already hit with a $70 million penalty from federal regulators — has faced scrutiny for questions about its ability to live up to its obligations to repair all of the affected cars.

In a letter sent earlier this month to NHTSA chief Mark Rosekind, Sens. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut and Ed Markey of Massachusetts said they “have concerns about Takata’s financial solvency, which is now at risk … and that as a result, consumers could be left with defective airbags that no one will be forced to fix.”

Comcast Can Interrupt Your Web Browsing With Warnings About Potentially Illegal File-Sharing

Mon, 2015-11-23 18:27

comcastalertDid you miss last night’s episode of The Walking Dead (where they finally reveal that Glenn shot J.R., but didn’t kill Laura Palmer) because you don’t have cable and just plan on grabbing a pirated version of it from the Internet? If you’re a Comcast customer who has been flagged a potential copyright violator, your web-browsing experience may be interrupted with pop-up warnings.

Last week, a developer and Comcast user posted the above screengrab to GitHub, showing how Comcast is now injecting these warnings into customer’s web browsers when they believe that some sort of illegal file-sharing may have occurred.

The warnings appear to be an extension of the existing Copyright Alert System, better known as “Six Strikes,” that sends alleged violators a half-dozen “stop doing that” notices until eventually deciding whether to penalize the customer by throttling their data speed or terminating their access.

But rather than a letter, e-mail, or phone call, Comcast is stepping into the middle of your browsing of a non-Comcast site to communicate with you. The company tells ZDNet that it outlined its use of such alerts several years back in this white paper.

Even if you don’t do any questionable file-sharing, the developer who posted the grab to GitHub tells ZDNet that Comcast’s ability to modify content on unencrypted connections may lead to “scarier scenarios where this could be used as a tool for censorship, surveillance, [or] selling personal information.”

It appears that the notices only show up on sites with standards HTTP connections (as opposed to the more secure HTTPS) are vulnerable to these interruptions. As Neowin points out, there are ways to increase your use of HTTPS, like the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s HTTPS Everywhere plugin for Chrome and Firefox.

FAA Task Force Recommends Requiring Registration For All Drones

Mon, 2015-11-23 18:06

(Northwest dad)A task force directed by the Federal Aviation Administration to recommend guidelines for drone operators has announced the results of its work, issuing a report today that covers which unmanned aircraft will need to be registered before taking to the skies.

A report from the special task force [PDF], created in October and made up of drone manufacturers, state regulators, airline pilots, and police recommends that the FAA require all drones between 250 grams (0.55 pounds and 55 pounds that are operated outdoors to be registered. Right now, the FAA requires commercial drones or those operated by public agencies other than the military to be registered the same as manned aircraft.

Each registration is owner-based, which means whether you have one drone or 501, you can use one registration number to cover them all. Registration will never expire, but if you sell a drone to someone else, the registration number would be removed from that drone and the new owner would have to register with the FAA.

Registration is mandatory at the time of operation, and not when you buy it, so if you get a drone for Christmas and never fly it, you won’t need to register it. The minimum age to register is 13, and the process will require owners to provide their name and street address.

There’s no fee for registration — so again, stay away from any private businesses promising to register your drone for you for a price.

The FAA is now going to take the time to mull over the task force’s recommendations for final implementation, as well as take into account the 4,500 comments from the public it’s received so far. FAA Administrator Michael Huerta and Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx previously said they have a goal of creating a registry by Dec. 20 under a proposed rule that is still under development, based on the recommendations and public comments.

“The objective is safety and education-focused,” said the co-chairman of the task force, Earl Lawrence, who is the director of drone integration at the FAA, speaking on a conference call this morning (h/t MarketWatch). “Just the fact that someone registers allows us to educate them.”

Stock Analysts Believe That Chipotle Sales Will Be Down This Quarter For Some Reason

Mon, 2015-11-23 17:44

(Josh Bassett)Are people heading somewhere other than Chipotle when a burrito craving strikes them? Stock analysts think so: while the company won’t release their fourth-quarter sales results for another few months, the after-effects of what is now a six-state E. coli outbreak will keep at least some customers out of restaurants for the immediate future. Especially if the chain and public health officials aren’t able to figure out what caused the outbreak.

The E. Coli infections at first appeared to be a regionally-limited phenomenon, which is why all of the restaurants in the region were closed. A logical guess was that the pathogen hitched a ride into customers’ intestines on some kind of fresh produce distributed in restaurants in the Pacific Northwest.

Then patients with the same strain of E. coli turned up in other parts of the country, reporting that they had visited Chipotle restaurants in their respective hometowns, not during a vacation in Seattle. What caused their illnesses? Fear could keep at least some of the chain’s customers away until they find the answer.

The CDC, for its part, isn’t warning people to avoid Chipotle: since the company doesn’t keep ingredients around for long, the source of the contamination is probably gone by now. They are, however, warning people to visit their health care provider if they experience bloody diarrhea or other typical E. coli symptoms.

The company’s stock has fallen 16% since the original recall news broke, but analysts sound mostly optimistic as long as investors see the stock as something to hold on to long-term.

E.coli outbreak looks set to infect Chipotle’s same-outlet sales

Eavesdropping Barbie, Books About Famous Brands, Bratz Selfie Sticks Lead List Of Year’s Crassest Toys

Mon, 2015-11-23 17:34

Not all toys are equal; just ask those ungrateful children who will throw a tantrum on Christmas morning for getting a GoBot instead of a Transformer (wait — that was me). But some kid-targeted products cross the line from being blah to being truly terrifying.

That’s why, once again, the folks at Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood have come out with their annual list of TOADY (Toys Oppressive And Destructive to Young children) Award nominees for the year’s most crass and questionable toys.

The TOADY name is a play on the Toy Industry Association’s TOTY award for Toy of the Year, but it’s a trophy that no toy company really wants to take home. Last year’s winner — chosen from a slate of nominees that included a DIY toy mall (complete with real brands), and a McDonald’s-sponsored app serving up 15-second clips of Cartoon Network shows — was a co-branded Baby First/AT&T U-Verse iPad app that introduced infants to the whole “stare at the glowing screen” concept as early as possible.

Without further ado, here are this year’s nominees. Voting is open over on the CCFC site.

Hello Barbie by Mattel ($74.99)

hellobarbieHere’s a talking toy that got privacy advocates talking — before it ever hit store shelves. Hello Barbie doesn’t just converse with your kid; it records what your child says and can send those recordings back to a third party “to perform, test or improve speech recognition technology and artificial intelligence algorithms, or for other research and development and data analysis purposes.”

Says CCFC: “Prepare your daughter for a lifetime of surveillance with Hello Barbie, the doll that records children’s private conversations and transmits them to cloud servers, where they are analyzed by algorithms and listened to by strangers. Girls will learn important lessons, like that a friend might really be a corporate spy, and that anything you say can and will be used for market research.”

Bratz #Selfie Stick with Doll by MGA Entertainment ($24.99)

bratzHere’s a toy that uses the popular Bratz line of toys to aid your child in developing their solipsistic worldview. It’s basically yet another Bratz doll, just packaged with a selfie stick so that your child can learn their best angle and how to pout like a fish for self-portraits.

CCFC it’s “great practice for her future Tweeting, Facebooking, and Instagramming of every moment! The lip-shaped phone holder will encourage your daughter to practice her duckface wherever she goes, making this the ideal gift for your aspiring Kardashian.”

Tube Heroes Collector Pack by Jazwares ($20)

Speaking of pseudo-celebrities, here’s a toy that doesn’t merely try to inspire America’s youth to be a vain, self-obsessed social media star, but celebrates the lives and achievements of those who have already reached that plateau.

“Forget outdated concepts of heroism like selflessness, compassion, and sacrifice,” says CCFC. “Instead, today’s Tube Heroes know how to ‘publicize their personality in the Digitalverse’ and expose the most intimate parts of their lives to content-hungry strangers.”

Brands We Know by Bellwether Media ($22.95 each)

Because your child isn’t inundated with brand names, logos, and advertising at every turn, here are some books to make sure that even reading time can be used to educate the youth of today on household names like Coke, Nike, Hershey’s, Target, and Disney.

“If your little bookworm isn’t as brand loyal as his screen-saturated peers, then Brands We Know is the perfect way to instill proper devotion to the world’s biggest corporations,” writes CCFC. “Each book is packed with glossy product descriptions and photos, and features indisputable facts such as, ‘With so many choices available, Coca-Cola is sure to have a beverage for every person’s taste!'”

Nerf Rebelle Charmed Dauntless Blaster by Hasbro ($12.99)

We’d always thought of Nerf and guns as lacking any sort of gender, but this foam-dart shooter is clearly being marketed to the girls.

“The Nerf Rebelle Charmed Dauntless Blaster comes with a bracelet and charms, guaranteeing your daughter will enjoy hours of stylish, accessorized gunplay,” says CCFC. “And if her brother reaches for her weapon, she can tell him, ‘Hands off, buddy—this gun’s for re-belles!’ If only it came with lipstick-shaped bullets…oh wait, it does!”

Sky Viper Video Drone by Skyrocket Toys ($79.99)

Though this flying machine, equipped with a camera that can shoot HD video from 200 feet in the sky, is listed as recommended for children ages 12 and up, CCFC notes that it’s advertised to much younger kids during shows like Phineas and Ferb and The Sylvester & Tweety Mysteries.

“Foster affinity for military-style surveillance while enabling your child to be the little snoop you always knew he could be with the Sky Viper Video Drone,” says CCFC, which says this “remote-controlled drone is the perfect tool for transforming your friendly neighborhood into a hotbed of discomfort and hostility.”

Google’s Latest Secret Prototype: A Communicator Straight Out Of Star Trek

Mon, 2015-11-23 17:25

Captain Picard is not so sure about this.
In the future, you talk to your computers. That’s what Star Trek taught us, anyway, so I’m just going to go ahead and assume it’s true. And apparently some engineers over at Google, who actually can make it so, feel the exact same way.

For those of us who grew up watching Star Trek: The Next Generation every week, the communicator was a bold new idea: tap a gadget on chest, or just talk to the air, and a context-sensitive computer will know exactly when you want to talk to it and, theoretically, do exactly what you ask. In the era when a one-piece Macintosh computer with a mouse was still a brand-new and very expensive gadget, the entire concept was still squarely in the realm of science fiction.

In 2015 — a world with Kinect and Cortana, Siri and Google Now — that communicator no longer seems quite so farfetched. So when Time reports that a team at Google basically made one to see what would happen, well, that seems unsurprising too.

The prototype device doesn’t have the fancy asymmetrical rounded triangle shape we’ve come to expect from the Federation, because that’s Paramount’s intellectual property. But the round device Google made does work almost the same way, using existing tech.

Basically, it’s a microphone and a Bluetooth connection, Google explained to Time. You talk to the pin, and it talks to a local smartphone. Majel Barrett sounding as synthetic as possible it isn’t, but it is as likely to return search results as basically anything else.

The point of the prototype, Time explains, was to see how people interact with their wearable tech. If you give them a pin you can tap on and talk to, with sound outputs either through an embedded speaker or to headphones, will people actually use it for quick search instead of digging their phones out of their pockets or bags? (Or, specifically, will they use it for anything other than “Beam me up” jokes?)

Google didn’t share how the research is going, so who knows if you’ll be buying your own hands-free communicator anytime soon. But improvements in voice control, natural-language interaction, and hands-free wearables are being pushed in a big way across the entire tech industry tight now. It could happen.

And why? Well, because all the nerds who make the stuff were watching TNG as kids, too.

“I always wanted that pin,” Amit Singhal, the executive in charge of Google’s search initiatives, told Time. “You just ask it anything and it works. That’s why we were like, ‘Let’s go prototype that and see how it feels.'”

Google Made a Secret Prototype That Works Like the Star Trek Communicator [Time]

McDonald’s Has A Plan To Make Sure What You Order At The Drive-Thru Is What You Get

Mon, 2015-11-23 16:53

(Mike Mozart) You probably know the feeling: the little hunger monkeys in your stomach are pitching a fit,demanding to be fed, and you’re finally opening up the bag of food the drive-thru worker has handed you… and your order is wrong. The hunger monkeys fly into a rage and you’re forced to go back and ask the restaurant to make it right. McDonald’s is trying to make sure that doesn’t happen with a new plan to prevent orders from getting mucked up.

McDonald’s has already tried speeding up the drive-thru process by simplifying its menu, but since this summer it’s been working on a way to ensure that your cheeseburger doesn’t arrive cheeseless, or your crispy chicken sandwich finds itself grilled: the chain is trying to make outdoor ordering more personal, and in the meantime, more accurate, by pushing a new optional method called “ask, ask, tell” that provides three chances to check the order, reports Bloomberg.

The first ask happens when the drive-thru worker repeats the customer’s order back to them and asks if it’s correct. When the customer arrives at the window to pay, a worker again repeats the order and asks if everything is as it should be. The “tell” happens when the food changes hands from the worker to the customer, with another change — no more folded over paper bags, so the customer can look inside and see what’s there.

Will this potentially slow things down? Maybe, but it could be worth it for franchisees.

“You’re probably going to add a couple seconds, which I don’t think will be huge as long as you’re creating a friendly experience — and getting the order right,” one franchisee who owns three McDonald’s restaurants in New Jersey told Bloomberg. “Customers are getting the items that they want.”

Franchisees have also been asked to turn off the impersonal recorded greeting that some locations use, in favor of a personal “hello” from a live person. This is a nice change for everyone involved, the New Jersey franchisee notes, after he turned off the prerecorded message at the one location he owns that used it.

“It creates at least a little, quick dialog that they both enjoy,” he said.

McDonald’s Knows You’re Sick of Screw-Ups at Drive-Thru Windows [Bloomberg]

Pfizer To Buy Allergan For $160B, Create World’s Largest Drug Company

Mon, 2015-11-23 15:55

(Chris Rief)If the giant pharmaceutical companies of the world seem quite big enough to you already, well, that just means you probably aren’t a major investor in or CEO of one. But the major investors and CEOs do think bigger is better, and so to that end two of them are merging to create an even bigger drug behemoth and take it overseas.

The Wall Street Journal reports that Pfizer and Allergan have announced a merger. The $160 billion deal will make the combined entity into the world’s biggest pharmaceutical company.

Pfizer is the world’s second-largest drug-maker (behind Johnson & Johnson), perhaps best known for such drugs as Lipitor, Zoloft, and of course Viagra. Meanwhile, you may remember Allergan from such products as Botox, Juvederm, and the never-ending drug commercials for Restasis.

The deal itself is a little tricky. Technically, Pfizer will become a part of Allergan, but the combined company will then rename itself Pfizer after the deal is done. Why? Because Allergan is based in Ireland, not the United States. Although Pfizer will retain global offices in New York, the new company will be considered Irish and therefore subject to Irish, not American, tax laws and subsidies.

It’s a deal called a tax inversion, and the point for the companies is that in the end, it’ll be a lot cheaper for the new Pfizer to be able to list Dublin, and not Manhattan, as its main address.

Money-wise, it’s a bigger merger than any of the other mega-mergers announced this year, according to the WSJ, with a total value of over $150 billion. For comparison, beer mega-merger bringing Anheuser-Busch InBev and SABMiller under one frothy roof is valued at about $105 billion, while the deal that Charter, Time Warner Cable, and Bright House Networks are negotiating comes in at more like $57 billion.

Of course, the value of a company doesn’t matter to the vast majority of consumers… but the price of its goods does. The sky-high and ever-climbing prices of prescription drugs are already a major concern to individuals and lawmakers alike, as the cost of medical care in the U.S. continues to increase.

So how is this merger likely to affect consumers? Nobody is entirely sure yet. But that is sure to be one of the major questions regulators consider as this deal gets its months-long antitrust review.

Pfizer, Allergan Agree on Historic Merger Deal [Wall Street Journal]

Walmart Starting Cyber Monday On Sunday Because That’s What Happens Now

Mon, 2015-11-23 15:32

(Pixteca | Len & Pix【ツ】)Here’s a proposal: why don’t we toss out all the special names for the big holiday shopping days and just accept the fact that retailers are going to throw sales at the public before, during and after Thanksgiving? Walmart seems cool with that, as it’s moving its Cyber Monday sale-a-palooza to Sunday.

If the early bird gets the worm, then Walmart is betting its feathers that it’ll scoop up shoppers excited about online discounts to its sales before other retailers have a chance to hawk their Cyber Monday deals: the big box store says its first round of sales will start at 8 p.m. ET on Sunday, Nov. 29, as part of its “Cyber Week,” which starts Nov. 28 and runs through Dec. 4.

Walmart wants to make sure you get you’re getting enough sleep, the company’s top executive says.

“When Cyber Monday was originated many, many years ago people didn’t have access to the high-speed Internet at their homes or easy access (to it),” Fernando Madeira, President and CEO of told USA Today (warning: link contains video that autoplays). “Now that the Internet is everywhere with smartphones and broadband connections… it doesn’t make any sense to stay awake just to have access to the early, best special deals during Cyber Monday,” he said of the decision to start deals early.

Walmart is pushing a 48-inch Samsung 4K TV for $598, an Xbox One with an additional wired controller for $299.96, a 65-inch LG 4K TV for $799 and a Microsoft Surface Pro 3 tablet for $599 and says it’ll release more sale details closer to Cyber Monday. Or Cyber Sunday, or Cyber Monday Sunday.

If you want to pick up your Cyber Whenever purchases at a Walmart store it’ll be free as usual, but unlike other retailers, Walmart isn’t offering free shipping for all online shoppers: you’ll have to reach a minimum of $50 for your order to ship for free.

Walmart Cyber Monday deals start next Sunday night [USA Today]

Does The Laser Razor Yanked From Kickstarter Actually Work? Well, Sort Of

Mon, 2015-11-23 15:00

laserbeamsThe prospect of shaving oneself with a laser is, in theory, unfathomably cool. That’s what made the Skarp razor an incredibly successful project on Kickstarter before the platform canceled the campaign due to the apparent lack of a working prototype. Was that really true? How well would the razor work for an unbiased observer? CNET sent a reporter and his arm hair to find out.

Arm hair? Yes, the product is still being tested on arms. (Warning: auto-play video) the razors still aren’t at the point where you’d want to brush them along your face… and they also don’t exist as standalone razor units yet. There’s a fiber with a laser passing through it, and there are sculpted razors that the fiber will eventually pass through, but the whole thing hasn’t been put together in one item yet. That’s the issue that Kickstarter had.

Picture a cheese slicer, which uses a thin wire to make the slices uniform. The razor’s fiber sits in the head in a similar way, and the fiber passes over your skin. Where it encounters a hair, the laser beam, which is normally confined to the fiber, escapes it and zaps your hair.

The founders explained that the reason why they turned to crowdfunding was so they wouldn’t be beholden to venture capitalists or share their product information with anyone else. The founders claim that they didn’t set out to mislead the users of Kickstarter about how complete their product was, and perhaps they should have hired someone to handle the marketing and present the product accurately.

Their explanation that the prototype doesn’t really work as a hair removal device actually checks out, CNET’s Sean Hollister learned after consulting actual experts: they would need a larger investment to have higher quality fiber that can cut more than one hair at a time.

In summary: the razor works, but only about as well as it did in that demonstration video. They won’t even know for sure whether it can really run on a single AAA battery until the fiber goes into production.

We tried the laser razor [CNET]

Which Stores Are Open On Thanksgiving And Black Friday, And When?

Sat, 2015-11-21 00:39

(Mahat Tattva)There are two reasons why you might want to know which stores are open or closed on Thanksgiving Day this year: you want to go shopping, or you want to know which stores to boycott (or at least vaguely scorn) because they choose to open on the holiday.

Remember that if you live in one of the states where being open for business on Thanksgiving Day is actually illegal, any Thanksgiving hours on this page don’t apply. You can run for the border or boycott accordingly, though.

We’ve mostly left off stores that tend to be part of enclosed malls; they will generally follow the lead of the mall management and/or the larger anchor stores.

Best Buy: Opening at 5 PM Thanksgiving Day; closed from 1 AM to 8 AM on Friday morning, then open until 10 PM.
Costco: Closed on Thanksgiving Day. Open 9 AM to 8:30 PM on Friday.
GameStop: Closed Thanksgiving Day. Open 5 AM on Friday.
Kmart: Open 6 AM Thanksgiving Day until 10 PM on Friday.
Kohl’s: Open 6 PM Thanksgiving Day, closing at midnight. Open 8 AM to midnight on Friday.
Lowe’s: Closed Thanksgiving Day. Open 5 AM on Friday.
Macy’s: Opening at 6 PM on Thanksgiving Day, and will stay open overnight until 10 PM on Friday, though closing times will vary by location.
Sears: Opening at 6 PM on Thanksgiving Day, closing at midnight. Reopening from 6 AM to 9 PM on Friday.
Staples: Closed Thanksgiving Day. Open at 6 AM on Friday.
Target: Opening at 6 PM on Thanksgiving Day, and will stay open overnight until 11 PM or midnight on Friday.
Toys/Babies ‘R’ Us: Opening at 5 PM on Thanksgiving Day; stores will keep their doors open until 11 PM on Friday.
Walmart: Most stores will already be open, but the Black Friday event starts at 6 PM on Thanksgiving Day.

Chipotle E. Coli Outbreak Has Now Spread To 6 States, Cause Still Not Known

Fri, 2015-11-20 23:23

(Mike Mozart)On Halloween, Chipotle temporarily closed their restaurants in the Seattle and Portland, Oregon metropolitan areas, saying that they were protecting the public from an E. coli outbreak that had been linked to eating at Chipotle, but not to any particular food. This week, the story of this outbreak became stranger as the same strain of bacteria was found in people who had eaten at Chipotle restaurants in four other states. Wait… wasn’t this a regional outbreak?

That’s the mystery. There have been no new cases in the original outbreak states, Washington and Oregon: the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention put the total at 36 cases in Washington, and 13 in Oregon. Sixteen people were hospitalized, but none developed the serious kidney condition that can be a complication of E. coli, especially in young children, and none of the patients died.

There were two patients each in California and in Minnesota, and one each in New York and Ohio. That’s only the people who visited a medical professional and had samples taken: there are usually many more people who were sick but never made it to see a medical professional, instead choosing the “Netflix and ginger ale” treatment method.

Chipotle and public health authorities are still working to figure out which food item all of the people who got sick might have in common. Before cases in other states developed, the possibility that the culprit was some kind of produce shipped to Pacific Northwest restaurants made the most sense. The six patients outside of Oregon and Washington hadn’t traveled there recently, but most of them had eaten at Chipotle restaurants near their respective hometowns.

Notably, California and Minnesota were the sites of Chipotle’s other recent outbreaks of foodborne illness: contaminated tomatoes made diners sick in Minnesota back in September, and an unidentified foodborne illness, probably norovirus/Norwalk virus, made dozens of diners sick at a California restaurant. The cases aren’t connected, but could indicate some kind of food-handling issue.

The company’s top burrito, chairman and co-CEO Steve Ells, wrote an open letter published in major newspapers as an ad, explaining everything that Chipotle plans to do to prevent such an outbreak from happening again. Consumerist doesn’t accept ads, but we’ll show you the letter for free for the sake of completeness:

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Multistate Outbreak of Shiga toxin-producing Escherichia coli O26 Infections Linked to Chipotle Mexican Grill Restaurants [CDC]