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Oyster, The ‘Netflix For Books’, Aims To Take On Amazon With Launch Of E-Book Store

Wed, 2015-04-08 16:02
Subscription e-book service Oyster launched a retail component Wednesday.

Subscription e-book service Oyster launched a retail component Wednesday.

When Oyster launched in 2013, it claimed to be the e-book version of Netflix, offering customers an all-you-can-read lending library of around 100,000 books for a monthly subscription of $9.95. A year and a half later, the company seems to have realized that a buffet of sometimes unheard of books isn’t exactly what consumers are looking for. So in an attempt to bring the latest and greatest titles to readers, the company now plans to secure its foothold in the e-book market with the launch of a retail component aimed to compete with Amazon, Apple and other online booksellers. 

New York-based Oyster announced the expansion Wednesday, saying it has inked deals to sell work from five of the largest book publishers including Hachette, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Penguin Random House, and Simon & Schuster.

The new retail store aims to allow consumers – including those without an Oyster subscription – to choose from what the company says is more than a million books, ranging in price from $9.99 to $14.99 per title.

“We know that readers want to see all of their options and access every book—subscription and retail—in one place,” Eric Stromberg, Oyster CEO, says in a statement. “With this launch, we’re pairing the best in subscription with the best in e-book retail to deliver a comprehensive offering for readers.”

Oyster’s move to include a retail option seemed inevitable from the start. In fact, fellow subscription-based operators like Scribd have offered books for retail for several years.

Shortly after the Oyster launched, questions began swirling as to whether or not consumers would find the need for a subscription book service that might not offer the newest and biggest literary titles.

The biggest roadblock for Oyster’s subscription service was – and continues to be – a lack of selection and variety.

According to Bloomberg, the service currently doesn’t offer any of the top 10 New York Times fiction best-sellers and has only two of the top 10 nonfiction best-sellers. Additionally, the company just recently gained access to the entire Harry Potter series.

Opening a retail function could prove to be a step in the right direction for Oyster and its subscription service. Already, the company has made strides outpacing those at the beginning of its subscription service by nabbing deals with Hachette and Random House – two publishers that still don’t currently offer titles through the Oyster’s subscription service.

Still, it remains to be seen whether or not Oyster’s rather low profile will be able to penetrate the stronghold Amazon currently has on the e-book market.

The Next Act for the ‘Netflix of Books’ Is Basically a Bookstore [Bloomberg]

SEC Alleges Ex-NFL Player Ran $31M Ponzi Scheme

Tue, 2015-04-07 23:07


In football, a cornerback is tasked with defending against pass offenses. It appears one former NFL player wasn’t doing much defending on behalf of investors off the field. Instead, the Securities and Exchange Commission alleges former New York Giants player Will Allen used his big league connections to assist in the operation of a $31 million Ponzi scheme based on making loans to cash-strapped pro athletes.

The SEC filed [PDF] civil fraud charges against Allen, business partner Susan Daub and their investment firms Capital Financial Partners for allegedly operating a Ponzi scheme from July 2012 to February 2015.

The complaint, which was first filed on April 1 in Boston, was sealed until early this week, The Associated Press reports. U.S. District Judge Indira Talwani previously approved the agency’s request to freeze the assets of Daub, Allen and Capital Financial.

Allen, who also appeared on the roster for the Miami Dolphins, ended his NFL career in 2013 after being signed by the New England Patriots and placed on injured reserve in the fall of 2012. His partner, Daub, is described by the SEC as a financial professional living in Florida.

According to the SEC, the scheme operated under the guise that Capital Financial made loans to professional athletes who needed money while they wait to get paid under their contracts.

Allen and Daub allegedly raised $31.7 million from at least 40 investors who were told they could participate in some or all of the funding for a specific loan to a specific athlete.

After providing funds, investors received copies of the purported loan documents and a schedule of monthly repayments reflecting interest rates of 9% to 18% on the loans which lasted between a few months and a few years.

The SEC claims that during the life of the scheme, Capital Financial advanced approximately $18 million to athletes.

That means Allen and Daub supposedly collected $13.7 million more from investors than they actually provided to athletes whose loans the investors were thought to be funding.

“Allen and Daub have used false documentation in order to mislead investors as to the terms, circumstances, and even existence of some of the loan transactions in which the investors are induced to participate,” the SEC complaint states. “Allen and Daub have withdrawn more than $7 million of the investors’ money to pay personal expenses or to fund other business ventures.”

Additionally, the SEC claims Capital Financial paid approximately $20 million to investors from July 2012 to February 2015, despite the fact that the company only received $13.2 million in loan repayments from athletes.

The SEC claims that Allen and Daub were able to fill the nearly $7 million funding gab by recycling money from some investors to other investors, constituting a Ponzi scheme.

While many of the loans provided by Capital Financial were legitimate, the SEC claims one of the largest was a “sham.”

In the spring of 2014, at least 24 investors provided more than $4 million to participate in a purported $5.65 million loan to an NHL player, the SEC complaint states.

Daub provided some of the prospective investors with a purported copy of a $5.65 million promissory note signed by the player and a loan agreement signed by the player and by Allen,” according to the complaint.

The SEC concluded that the loan was fake after the NHL player filed for bankruptcy in the fall of 2014 and listed a $3.4 million loan from Capital Financial.

A month after the bankruptcy filing, Daub sent an email to the investors involved in the transaction assuring them that the player’s loan was “performing as expected,” without mentioning that the actual loan was for $3.4 million, not $5.65 million.

The complaint, which was first filed in Boston on April 1, seeks a court order requiring Daub, Allen and Capital Financial to return the purported ill-gotten gains with interest and to pay civil monetary penalties.

SEC files fraud charges against ex-NFL player, partner [The Associated Press]

Following Complaint From Comcast, Ad Board Recommends DirecTV Discontinue Rob Lowe Ads

Tue, 2015-04-07 22:01
Comcast's complaint to NAD took exception to several DirecTV commercials featuring Rob Lowe and his alter-ego including "scrawny arms Rob Lowe."

Comcast’s complaint to NAD took exception to several DirecTV commercials featuring Rob Lowe and his alter-ego including “scrawny arms Rob Lowe.”

If you’ve been near a TV in the last six months (and don’t fast forward through every commercial break), then you’ve likely seen the quirky DirecTV ads featuring Rob Lowe and a parade of kooky alter-egos. How much longer you’ll see those spots is up for debate after an ad review board, acting on a complaint from Comcast, found many of DirecTV’s claims to be unsubstantiated and recommended the company pull the promotions. 

The National Advertising Division (NAD), which is part of the national Council of Better Business Bureaus and a self-regulation body for the advertising industry, recommended Tuesday that DirectTV discontinue certain claims in its Rob Lowe-starring commercials after receiving complaints from rival service provider Comcast.

Recommendations from NAD aren’t legally binding, but most companies generally follow them.

For its part, DirecTV plans to appeal decision, saying in a statement to NAD that the company “continues to believe that the various Rob Lowe advertisements are so outlandish and exaggerated that no reasonable consumer would believe that the statements being made by the alter-ego characters are comparative or need to be substantiated.”

NAD’s findings came after it investigated Comcast’s complaints regarding the truthfulness of DirecTV’s signal reliability, picture quality, Dolby sound quality, customer satisfaction ranking, ranking in sports broadcasting and even a line uttered by one of Rob Lowe’s alter-egos: “Don’t be like this me. Get rid of cable and upgrade to DirecTV.”

During the process of the investigation, NAD testing determined that DirecTV substantiated its 99% signal reliability claim and had supported its “up to 1080p” picture quality claims. However, the agency recommended that the company modify the picture quality claim to clearly disclose the limited programming on which resolutions of 1080p is currently available.

When it comes to the star of the DirecTV commercials – Rob Lowe’s alter-ego – NAD found there was no evidence to support many of the implied claims made by the “humorous, outlandish and buffoonish” depictions.

“NAD determined that a reasonable takeaway from the “Creepy Rob Lowe” commercial was that DirecTV has better signal reliability than cable, that the “Painfully Awkward Rob Lowe Commercial” conveyed the message that DirecTV has shorter customer service wait times than cable and that the “Far Less Attractive Rob Lowe” commercial made an implied claim that DirecTV has better picture and sound quality than cable,” the agency said in a statement. “Given the absence in the record of supporting evidence, NAD recommended the advertiser discontinue the claims.”

Additionally, NAD advised DirecTV to suspend claims featured in the “Scrawny Arms Rob Lowe” commercial that implies the company’s sports programming was superior to cable’s sports programing.

“Humor can be an effective and creative way for advertisers to highlight the differences between their products and their competitor’s, humor and hyperbole do not relieve an advertiser of the obligation to support messages that their advertisements might reasonably convey – especially if the advertising disparages a competitor’s product,” NAD states in its findings.

As for DirecTV’s ranking claims, NAD recommended that the company revise or modify its “rated #1″ and “DirecTV has been ranked higher than cable for over ten years” claims to better reflect that rankings are made based on customers’ ratings of their own service provider.

Finally, the agency suggests that DirecTV discontinue or change the price claim featured in the “Scrawny Arms Rob Lowe” commercial to reflect a package that actually include the sports programming featured in the ad.

NAD Recommends DirecTV Discontinue Certain Claims in ‘Rob Lowe’ Ads Following Comcast Challenge; DirecTV to Appeal [National Advertising Division]

Apple Retail Chief: The Days Of Waiting In Line At The Store Are Over

Tue, 2015-04-07 20:52

(Paul Fidalgo)

(Paul Fidalgo)

Camping out in line days in advance of the newest Apple product is so 2014, y’all, to the point where the company’s retail chief is reportedly pushing workers to nudge customers seeking out the Apple Watch or new MacBook to order online instead of waiting it out at physical stores.

In a memo Business Insider says it obtained from Apple’s retail chief, Angela Ahrendts says the days of waiting outside stores only to have customers disappointed when their product is sold out are behind the company, and it’s time to take the experience online.

According to BI, the memo reads in full:

Get in line online

The days of waiting in line and crossing fingers for a product are over for our customers. The Apple Store app and our online store make it much easier to purchase Apple Watch and the new MacBook. Customers will know exactly when and where their product arrives.

This is a significant change in mindset, and we need your help to make it happen. Tell your customers we have more availability online, and show them how easy it is to order. You’ll make their day.

Though in the past it seemed like Apple embraced the long lines as free publicity, not having enough products for customers isn’t fun for retailers, either.

Customers won’t be able to just walk in and touch the Apple Watch without an appointment anyway, according to BI’s source, so some planning will be necessary regardless how they buy.

Another image leaked to BI shows the Apple Watch display with devices kept beneath glass, without any dongles or security chains like in-store iPhone examples or iPads, which means no casual browsing.

Angela Ahrendts has told Apple employees ‘a significant change in mindset’ is coming to the way the company launches products [Business Insider]

Dept. Of Education Reveals Names Of 550 Colleges — Mostly For-Profits — Under Federal Scrutiny

Tue, 2015-04-07 20:22
(Adam Fagen)

(Adam Fagen)

For months now, Congress has debated the merits of creating an oversight committee tasked with improving coordination in federal and state oversight of the for-profit college industry. If that group ever comes to fruition, it appears they would likely have their work cut out for them, as the Department of Education recently released its previously secret list of colleges under scrutiny for financial reasons, half of which are for-profit schools.

The Dept. of Education released the list, which totals 560 schools, as a way to “increase transparency and accountability,” after receiving several Freedom of Information Act requests from the publication Inside Higher Ed.

Schools that appear on the list [PDF] are subject to one of two types of “Heightened Cash Monitoring” – a step the Dept. of Education’s Federal Student Aid office can take to provide additional oversight for a number of financial or federal compliance issues – that could can put restrictions on the college’s ability to access federal aid.

“Heightened Cash Monitoring is not necessarily a red flag to students and taxpayers, but it can serve as a caution light,” Ted Mitchell, Under Secretary of Education, said in the blog post. “It means we are watching these institutions more closely to ensure that institutions are using federal student aid in a way that is accountable to both students and taxpayers.”

All institutions of higher education fall under the purview of the Department and are considered for the list. In addition to for-profit schools, the list includes everything from small religious schools, to state-operated public colleges, and several private and public schools in other countries.

Schools are placed on the Department’s list for a variety of specific reasons such as late financial statements, outstanding liabilities, accreditation issues, concerns about a school’s financial responsibility or possibly severe findings uncovered during a program review.

The majority of schools on the list fall into the first type of review, referred to as Cash Monitoring 1 (HCM1), in which the college receives federal student aid funds from the government through an advance payment system.

Notable for-profit institutions on HCM1 include campuses for Career Education Management-owned Le Cordon Blue, ITT Technical Institute, Education Management-owned Art Institutes and many of the remaining Corinthian College Inc.-owned campuses of Heald College, Everest University and Wyotech.

Of the 560 colleges included on the Department’s list, 69 are subject to the second level of Heightened Cash Monitoring – referred to as level 2 (HCM2). This level of monitoring requires a school to finance student aid themselves and apply for reimbursement from the government.

Most of the schools subject to HCM2 were placed on the list for “severe findings” after government audits. The lesser-known schools include JRMC School of Nursing in Arkansas, InfoTech Career College in California, Glenwood Beauty Academy in Colorado and Manhattan Beauty School in Florida.

While Mitchell with the Dept. of Education noted that schools placed on the list may not pose a significant danger to prospective and current students, the list was associated with the collapse of for-profit Corinthian College Inc. last summer.

Several of the company’s WyoTech, Heald College and Everest University campuses appeared on the list, with the Dept. of Education eventually restricting the school’s access to federal funds. At that point, the company couldn’t sustain itself, leading to many campus closures, sales and students left in limbo.

Upon releasing the list of schools under scrutiny, the Dept. announced it would continue to make the list public and update on an ongoing basis.

Increasing Transparency and Accountability for Students [Department of Education]
U.S. Names Remaining Colleges Under Scrutiny [Insider Higher Ed]

McDonald’s Launching Line Of Bigger Burgers For A Limited Time

Tue, 2015-04-07 19:47

mcdonaldsirlIn the latest in a series of changes announced by McDonald’s as it tries to win its way back into the hearts and mouths of consumers, the chain is launching a line of larger burgers starting later this month, for a limited time.

A set of three “Sirloin Third Pound” burgers will hit menus for $4.99, reports the Chicago Tribune, though franchisees will have the power to set their own prices.

The burgers will come in three varieties: Lettuce & Tomato, Bacon & Cheese and Steakhouse, which comes with grilled mushrooms and onions, white cheddar and peppercorn sauce.

These beefed up sandwiches will be the biggest beef patties on the chain’s menu, echoing its previous attempt at beef abundance with its Angus Third Pounders. Those were dropped in 2013, with experts pointing to its higher price as the reason for its failure to catch on.

Fewer people have been eating at McDonald’s in recent years, bringing down sales for the last two years in a row. In an attempt to compete, McDonald’s has issued a slew of changes in how it operates, including cutting down the number of ingredients in its grilled chicken; dropping the use of controversial antibiotics in its chickens and giving workers employed directly by the company and not franchisees a pay bump (accounting for about 10% of U.S. restaurants).

HBO Now: Our Initial Hands-On Thoughts

Tue, 2015-04-07 19:00

IMG_0022Earlier today, HBO finally released its HBO Now standalone streaming service, and because we’d be remiss in not trying the service out for you, we gave it a shot.

Here are the most important things to keep in mind when deciding whether or not to consider HBO Now:

1. You Can Get It On Your TV Without Apple TV

While Apple TV is currently the only set-top streaming device authorized to bring HBO Now directly to your TV screen, we had no problem getting the stream running on the Consumerist Cave’s TV. Rather than use a mobile device, we accessed HBO Now through, connected our laptop to the TV with an HDMI cord, mirrored the screens and changed the audio output on the computer to HDMI.

It wasn’t as crystal-clear as watching HBO from a pay-TV provider, but if you want to watch Silicon Valley on the big screen this Sunday, you don’t need an Apple TV or a cable subscription.

2. No Live Streaming

HBO has said since the service was announced that HBO Now would not offer live access to the premium network, but a number of reports have perpetuated the myth — especially in the wake of Sling’s announcement that it will carry live HBO access — that HBO Now would be a 1:1 replacement for the channel.

This probably won’t matter to many people, so long as HBO adds new content to HBO Now in a timely manner. If users have to wait too long for new episodes of Game of Thrones to be added, there will be very angry cord-cutters in King’s Landing.

We expect that, like HBO Go, HBO Now users can expect same-day posting of new episodes.

3. It’s Basically HBO Go

Speaking of HBO Go, anyone familiar with that service will not be surprised by anything they see here. The interface is nearly identical and we couldn’t find any differences in terms of available content. The library of HBO shows is there, as is the selection on non-HBO movies. Heck, even the “Late Night” content is included.

The only notable difference we encountered during our brief hands-on is the size of the in-browser player. If you’re watching HBO Now content on the site, the player is much smaller than the one used in HBO Go. That said, both services allow you to go full-screen with a click.

4. Signing Up

We accessed HBO Now through iTunes. The app itself is free (so your kids can’t accidentally subscribe you to a $15/month plan just by knowing your password), but you’ll then have to provide some basic info for the purposes of registration.

It was painless, as such things go. We can’t comment on the Cablevision registration process as we didn’t go that route (because we don’t have Cablevision service).

In terms of accessing the service through the website, users who registered through iTunes will just enter whatever e-mail address and password they used when they set the account up. Users who registered through Cablevision go through an authentication login process similar to the way HBO Go users login.

5. Cancellation

We haven’t cancelled the subscription yet, if only because we want to see how it holds up this weekend. However, the HBO Now terms confirm that subscriptions are sold on a month-to-month basis, so you can cancel whenever you want, though you won’t get any refund because you’ll continue to have access until the end of the month you’ve paid for.

You also can’t cancel your subscription through the HBO Now site; it has to be done through whichever provider sold you the subscription to begin with.

The Bottom Line

HBO Now is really exactly what most cord-cutters have been asking for since HBO Go launched — a version of that service that doesn’t require a pay-TV subscription.

What remains to be seen is how well the service will hold up under high demand. That test will come Sunday night when millions of people crash the Internet trying to watch the season premiere of Veep.

But considering that HBO doesn’t need to deal with those high-traffic concerns 99% of the time, the future of HBO Now will ultimately come down to whether or not all those millions of people who said they would pay for standalone HBO Go will part with $15/month for HBO Now.

TSA Pocketed $675K Last Year Thanks To Your Loose Change

Tue, 2015-04-07 18:50
(Mike Matney)

(Mike Matney)

All those pennies, nickels, dimes and quarters we leave behind while dashing through airport security certainly add up. In fact, the Transportation Security Administration pocketed almost $675,000 last year because we were in too big a rush to pick up our loose change.

CBS MarketWatch reports that our discarded airport change has provided a small fortune for the TSA, bringing in more than $3.5 million in the past seven years.

The money, if it remains unclaimed, goes to the TSA for security operations use. That means last year’s record haul provides an additional $674,841.06 for the agency’s disposal.

“TSA makes every effort to reunite passengers with items left at the checkpoint, however there are instances where loose change or other items are left behind and unclaimed,” a TSA spokesman said in statement. “Unclaimed money, typically consisting of loose coins passengers remove from their pockets, is documented and turned into the TSA financial office.”

So why are American’s leaving so much change behind? MarketWatch reports that there are few theories surrounding our discarded funds.

One theory says that Americans are just too distracted to care about a few pennies here and there. The assumption is that consumers’ use of smartphones has made them increasingly neglectful when it comes to falling coins; either they don’t have a free hand or are too engrossed in their device to even notice the loose change.

Another theory – and maybe a more plausible one when it comes to airports – is the fact that consumers are just in a hurry. This premise seems to be supported by the TSA’s definition of unclaimed change – coins removed from pockets in order to pass through metal detectors – and the sheer amount brought in by the country’s busiest airports.

Additionally, the country’s largest airports produced the most loose change. Coming in at the top of the airport lost change list is New York’s JFK airport which collected $42,550, while the second largest was Los Angeles International Airport with $41.506.64 in spare change.

No chump change! TSA netted $675K in lost coins [CBS MarketWatch]

What It’s Like To Run Through A Toy Store And Grab Whatever You Want

Tue, 2015-04-07 18:36



Winning the chance to run through a toy store as a kid and grab anything and everything your heart could desire, Nickelodeon’s Super Toy Run was the epitome of luck, making the show’s winners the subject of intense envy back in the ‘80s and early ‘90s. So what was it like to live the dream?

The A.V. Club’s Marah Eakin spoke with two people who scored a five-minute run through Kay Bee Toy Stores (as KB Toys was known then) or Toys “R” Us, epic events that were beamed into the eyeballs of the very jealous Nickelodeon audience. No begging, pleading or wheedling with parents — this was unbridled freedom.

Watching it on TV was exciting enough, imagining what you’d do if you ever got that lucky — so what was it really like for those racing through the aisles? It was awesome, of course — but also? Sounds like a lot of work.

“There was tons of preparation involved in the sense that Toys “R” Us is a huge department store for a little 4-foot child to be pushing a big shopping cart through at high speed,” one participant recalls. “I was actually pretty shocked—and I still can’t believe to this day—but they allowed me to rearrange the store into a format that would be the most advantageous for me.”

The other said while he didn’t get to rearrange the store to his liking, Nickelodeon helped facilitate his run as well.

“If there was something heavy that I wanted, they would just put a tag to it that I could grab and throw in the cart,” he explains. “My dad insisted on me picking up this giant Barney plush doll that was about four feet tall. I asked him why he wanted that, and he said, ‘Because it’s $500, so get it.’

On that note, one guy says he should’ve gotten more big items that could be collected with just a paper ticket.

“I remember I got four bicycles,” he recalls. “Four easy pieces of paper that you just had to pick up and throw in the cart. That was really where I should have gone nuts.”

Equipment was in plentiful supply as well — with as many carts as the kids wanted all throughout the store. So that when one was filled, another empty one was available.

Grabbing stuff off the shelves isn’t an effortless process either, pointed out one participant, as the rows of toys are very dense. Even though everyone told him to trust run and rake the toys off the shelf into his cart, he tried that method out in testing beforehand and found it lacking.

“I was small for 11,” he says of the resulting difficult maneuver. “There was no way that I could move more than three or four boxes with my arm out. It would just pull my arm back. So all that stuff went out the window.”

Host Mike O’Malley was also an unexpected ally, one guy remembers.

“It was strange. It was an adult talking to a child like he was talking to another adult, giving me strategy,” he tells Eakin. “Like, ‘the actual rules are, if things fall on the floor, that’s just as good in the carts.’ I couldn’t believe that he was like, ‘Literally just knock things on the ground.’ “

When the day came, he says he forgot about that trick until he was in the third or fourth aisle.

“Then, I just started punching things off the shelf and knocked action figures on the ground and things like that. It was a mess, really.”

A beautiful mess that any kid I knew back then would’ve been happy to make, you can be sure of that. I’m still feeling pretty jealous right now actually, so good for you, guys.

For more on what it’s like to be the luckiest kid on the entire darn planet, check out the rest of Eakin’s Q&A on A.V. Club.

“I got 4 bikes”: 2 Nickelodeon Super Toy Run winners reminisce 20 years later [A.V. Club]

At Long Last, ‘HBO Now’ Launches On iTunes, Cablevision

Tue, 2015-04-07 18:06

gotgrabaAfter what seems like an eternity, and with only five days to go before the season premiere of Game of Thrones, HBO’s standalone streaming service HBO Now is finally available.

As initially announced, Apple’s iTunes is selling access to the service on a nationwide basis for $14.99/month. People served by Cablevision’s Optimum Online broadband service can add HBO Now to their monthly bill for the same amount.

The service is currently limited to viewing via computer or through Apple devices like the iPhone, iPad, or Apple TV.

HBO plans to expand the availability to Android phones/tablets and non-Apple set-top streaming devices, but has not provided any timelines or named any future partners. Additionally, it’s expected that other cable and Internet providers will make HBO Now available as an add-on for their broadband packages.

Both iTunes and Cablevision are offering 30-day free trials for HBO Now.

We’ll be giving it a shot this afternoon and hope to have some initial feedback on HBO Now for you soon.

Study: Which Commercial Diet Programs Are The Most Effective?

Tue, 2015-04-07 17:49
(Chris Rief aka Spodie Odie)

(Chris Rief aka Spodie Odie)

The world of commercial diet programs can be overwhelming, with this, that and the other company all flashing before-and-after photos and promising their regimens are the best. While we’ve all seen the “results not typical” disclaimer flash on the screen below weight-loss winners, how effective are these programs when it comes to really losing the weight and keeping it off?

Researchers publishing a study in the Annals of Internal Medicine looked into the efficacy of commercial diet programs, but found that beyond the popular Weight Watchers and Jenny Craig systems, there really wasn’t much evaluation of other programs’ long-term results available.

The study’s authors compared weight loss, how long people retained that weight loss and potential harms of weight-loss programs against a control of just being educated and receiving only printed materials or fewer than three sessions with a provider or behavioral counseling, among overweight and obese adults.

There were a total of 11 popular diet programs included in the results of 45 studies the researchers looked at, with Weight Watchers and Jenny Craig coming out on top of things like the Atkins Diet and Medifast. None of the diet companies were involved in carrying out the study.

After 12 months Weight Watchers participants had 2.6% greater weight loss than the control groups, while people on Jenny Craig’s system had at least 4.9% greater weight loss.

To put it another way, the researchers found that Weight Watchers dieters shed on average at least 8 pounds and kept it off for at least 12 months, while Jenny Craig participants lost at least 15 pounds and kept it off for a year as well.

“It’s a really important first step to reach,” even if it doesn’t meet patients’ expectations, study author Dr. Kimberly Gudzune, an internist and researcher at Johns Hopkins University’s medical school told the Associated Press.

Efficacy of Commercial Weight-Loss Programs: An Updated Systematic Review [Annals of Internal Medicine]
Weight Watchers, Jenny Craig get best marks in diet review [Associated Press]

NHTSA Advances Investigation Into Pedal Interference In Nissan Versa & Note, Adds Model Years

Tue, 2015-04-07 17:41
A photo provided by NHTSA shows the area in which drivers' feet have become stuck. The arrow shows the actuator flap that interferes with the movement between the accelerator and brake.

A photo provided by NHTSA shows the area in which drivers’ feet have become stuck. The arrow shows the actuator flap that interferes with the movement between the accelerator and brake.

A years-long investigation into whether or not some 360,000 Nissan Versa and Note vehicles contain a defect that results in delayed brake application and unwanted acceleration gained momentum recently as the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s initial evaluation revealed enough issues to upgrade the scope and significance of the probe.

The preliminary investigation, which began last summer [PDF] and included model year 2012 to 2014 Nissan Versa hatchbacks, sedans and Note vehicles, was updated by investigators to an engineering analysis now covering only model year 2013 to 2015 Versa sedans and Note vehicles.

An engineering analysis is one step below a recall, and involves NHTSA investigators recreating the issue in a lab setting.

According to a notice [PDF] from NTHSA, investigators have received 11 complaints about the issue, including one that resulted in a crash with minor injuries.

A photo provided by NHTSA shows how a foot can become stuck because of a possible design flaw in the Nissan Versa and Note vehicles.

A photo provided by NHTSA shows how a foot can become stuck because of a possible design flaw in the Nissan Versa and Note vehicles.

As with the original probe, the upgraded investigation centers on allegations that the tunnel carpet cover trim panel (located near the vehicle’s pedals) can interfere with the driver’s ability to promptly release the accelerator and transition to the brake.

Additionally, NHTSA is now investigating the possibility that the HVAC relay actuator can also interfere with the driver’s ability to react quickly to apply the brakes.

When the agency first opened the probe in June 2014, it had received one complaint that alleged the driver’s foot became caught by the trim panel to the extent that he had to physically pull his leg to get the foot free from interference, nearly causing a crash.

Since then, NHTSA say it has received additional complaints surrounding the possible design flaw.

“The contact owns a 2014 Nissan Versa,” one complaint states. “While driving approximately 30 miles-per-hour, the contact’s foot became stuck when the accelerator pedal was depressed. The accelerator pedal was encased in plastic at the time of the failure. The failure recurred several times. The dealer stated that the vehicle was designed in that manner.”

“While driving 45 miles-per-hour, [the vehicle owner’s] foot became stuck preventing her from stopping the vehicle,” the complaint regarding a 2014 Versa states. “As a result, the contact crashed into the rear end of another vehicle. The contact sustained injuries to the right toe and scratches to the left shoulder.”

NHTSA reports that the updated scope of the investigation – which no longer includes the 2012 model year Versa – was initiated after regulators determined the model year 2015 Versa and Note vehicles to have the same panel design and actuator placement as vehicles involved in the consumer complaints.

Nissan tells Reuters that it is also analyzing the issue and cooperating with NTHSA.

Netflix Announces First Slate Of “Recommended” TVs

Tue, 2015-04-07 17:23

netflixrecAt International CES in January, Netflix revealed that it was going to begin evaluating web-connected TV sets to determine which ones were the best for accessing Netflix’s videos. Today, the company unveiled its first slate TVs that will carry its “Recommended” badge of distinction.

Netflix says it used several criteria to determine whether a set merits the Recommended status.

In terms of performance, the company looked at how quickly the Netflix app launches, how long it takes for a video to begin playing, and how readily you can resume playback from a stopped video.

But what’s the point of having a high-performance app if it’s a pain to get to and to use? Thus, Netflix looked at two Ease of Access criteria — single-button access to Netflix from the remote, and prominent placement of the app on the TV screen.

Additionally, there is the issue of whether apps are made available to the user when they turn on the TV or if the user has to navigate to a separate screen to access apps.

While Netflix has initially given its thumbs-up to three groups of TV sets, odds are that you don’t have any of the Netflix Recommended sets in your living room, as 2/3 of them aren’t even available yet.

The only models that are currently on sale are the Roku TV sets (which were shown at CES in 2014) from Chinese manufacturers TCL and Hisense. These sets operate using a Roku interface, so unlike many connected TVs where you have to launch a separate interface to access apps, Netflix and other services are readily available from the main screen.

Netflix made its announcement about the Recommended program at the LG press conference at CES, so it’s not surprising that some LG sets made the cut. However, these are not your run-of-the-mill screens. The LG sets getting the Recommended badge are the upcoming 4K UHD models with webOS 2.0. Netflix praised the speedy start-up time for apps on the set, along with operating system’s ease of switching between apps and inputs.

The final group of TVs recommended by Netflix are Sony’s upcoming Bravia sets with the Android TV operating system. “TV turns on and launches Netflix with one press of the Netflix button on remote,” writes Netflix. “Apps can resume quickly and return where you left off.”

Netflix says that these are just the beginning and that more Recommended sets will be added to the list in the future.

Walmart Joins List Of Retailers Removing All Blue Bell Ice Cream Products From Shelves

Tue, 2015-04-07 16:37
(Ben Schumin)

(Ben Schumin)

Yesterday, we reported that three major retailers removed Blue Bell Creameries products from shelves out of an abundance of caution following a link between the products and an outbreak of listeriosis. Now, the largest retailer in the country – Walmart – is following suit.

The Killeen Daily Herald reports that Walmart has joined the growing list of retailers such as H-E-B, Kroger and Sam’s Club pulling the ice cream products from shelves following recalls of several Blue Bell items.

A spokesperson for Walmart confirmed that the products had been removed, but says the company is working with Blue Bell to restock supplies. However, there is no timeline for when that might occur.

Walmart owns Sam’s Club, so it would make sense the larger retailer would eventually remove the products.

Grocers, now also including Albertsons and Tom Thumb, began pulling the ice cream products over the weekend after Blue Bell announced it would close a Broken Arrow, OK, plant linked to the outbreak of listeriosis.

A spokesperson for Blue Bell says the company understands that retailers chose to remove products out of an abundance of caution to protect consumers, but that many of the products being withheld haven’t been linked to the Oklahoma plant.

In addition to stores voluntarily pulling all or some of their Blue Bell ice cream products, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a recommendation that consumers not eat any products produced at the temporarily closed plant.

Products made at the facility can be identified by a code at the bottom of the container. If the letters “O,” “P,” “Q,” “R,” “S,” or “T” appear as the final character in the date code, then it would have been produced in the Oklahoma plant.

Consumers should check the bottom of their ice cream containers for a code that would link their product to a specific Blue Bell Plant. [CDC]

Consumers should check the bottom of their ice cream containers for a code that would link their product to a specific Blue Bell Plant. [CDC]

For example, if a Blue Bell product is labeled “021217S,” it was produced at the Oklahoma facility because the letter “S” follows the “code date.”

“Consumers should check their freezers for any of these products and throw them away, even if some of the product has been eaten and no one has become ill,” the CDC says. “Institutions and retailers should also carefully check their freezers or inventory for any of these products. These products can have a shelf life of up to 2 years.”

Blue Bell previously recalled several ice cream items in mid-March after tests linked the products to an outbreak of listeriosis that sickened five people in Kansas, three of whom later died.

A joint investigation found that certain Blue Bell brand ice cream products are the likely source of some or all of the people’s illnesses.

The five people who became ill in Kansas were confirmed to be infected with one of four strains of Listeria monocytogenes. All five people – older in age – were hospitalized at the same hospital for unrelated problems before developing invasive listeriosis, suggesting they were infected at the hospital, the CDC reports.

Investigators say the illnesses began between January 2014 and January 2015. Although some of the illnesses began more than a year ago, the listeria cluster identified earlier this month shows that some of the infections are indistinguishable, meaning they are likely from the same source.

Of the patients infected, four consumed milkshakes made with a single serving Blue Bell brand ice cream called Scoops while they were in the hospital.

Recalled products included three-ounce chocolate, strawberry and vanilla ice cream cups with tab lids served in institutional and food service areas, such as hospitals. The original recall also included widely sold products such as Scoops, Chocolate Chip Country Cookies, Great Divide Bars, Sour Pop Green Apple Bars, Cotton Candy Bars, Vanilla Stick Slices, Almond Bars and No Sugar Added Moo Bars.

Wal-Mart stores, commissaries follow H-E-B, pull Blue Bell from shelves [Killeen Daily Herald]

Here’s How You Get A Fast Food Chain To Foot The Entire Bill For Your Wedding

Tue, 2015-04-07 16:31

(Jeepers Media)

(Jeepers Media)

Want a fast food chain to sponsor your wedding, provide gifts and generally shell out a bunch of cash so you don’t have to? It’s simple! Just be born with one half of a chain’s name, meet and fall in love with someone who has the other half and voila! You’re getting hitched for free, courtesy of Burger King.

A couple with the last names of “Burger” and “King” in Illinois have been the darlings of the Internet after their engagement announcement last week for the “Burger-King” wedding hit the news.

Yesterday the brand added another proposal into the mix — to pay the expenses and provide gifts for the Illinois couple’s wedding on July 17, reports The State Journal-Register.

The twosome flipped the order of their last names for the engagement announcement (apparently the woman’s last name usually leads, for whatever old-fashioned reason), as they’ve been known as Burger-King since they were in the fifth grade together. After many twists and turns, they ended up falling in love and deciding to make the Burger-King thing official.

Their engagement photo featured the couple in front of their local Burger King, taking full advantage of the theme, which then caught the eye of news outlets all over the world.

The couple had already tried to reach out to Burger King, but once The State Journal-Register had run a column on them and reached out to the company’s media relations, the ball started to really roll. On Monday, Burger King surprised the couple with the news via Skype.

They were surprised, to say the least: “We were just blown away,” he said. “We were shaking,” she added.

The company is providing party favors, gift bags, Mason Jars and Burger King crowns, all personalized for the couple’s wedding. And then there’s the paying for the whole wedding part.

“When we heard about the happy, Burger-King couple, we felt an overwhelming urge to celebrate their upcoming marriage,” a Burger King Brand spokesman told the State -Journal Register. “On so many levels it felt like fate; they found each other and their story found us.”

“And now we hope we’ve swept them off their feet. All we ask in return is that they live happily ever after,” he added.

Burger King picking up tab for Burger-King wedding [The State Journal-Register]

Star Wars Films To Finally Become Digital Downloads

Tue, 2015-04-07 16:15

starwarsWhile almost every important movie has long been made available as a digital download by now, the six films in the Star Wars saga have not (legally) been obtainable this way. But that will finally change starting Friday when all of the movies will be released online at the same time.

Disney (which acquired the Star Wars films from creator George Lucas and is producing the upcoming sequels) announced last night with Lucasfilm and 20th Century Fox that that the six movies will be released April 10 individually ($19.99) and as a bundle ($89.99).

And though the movies will be available on multiple platforms — Amazon, Google Play, Xbox, Vudu, iTunes, Playstation — the price appears to be the same regardless of who’s selling. It does not appear that there will be any digital rental option, at least initially.

Variety reports that there are a bunch of new featurettes, etc, for people wondering why they should invest money in movies they’ve already seen a bunch of times.

Of course, this release comes with the caveat that the versions being released of Episodes IV-VI are once again not the original theatrical cuts, but are the editions that Lucas tinkered with decades later. Thus, Han still does not shoot first, even in digital download form.

Dutch Businessman Linked To European Horsemeat Scare Sentenced To 2.5 Years In Jail

Tue, 2015-04-07 16:06



While we’ve had our own share of meat scandals in our nation’s history, Americans with a love of Mr. Ed and Black Beauty watched dismayed about two years ago, as Europe was in the throes of huge horsemeat scandal. And now, a Dutch businessman linked to the meat switcheroo, where horsemeat was sold as beef, is headed to prison.

Tons of horsemeat labeled falsely as beef was pulled off shelves across Europe in 2013, and now a Dutch court has found that two meat wholesalers owned by a Dutch businessman were behind the false labels, reports Reuters.

The court says the companies bought and processed a minimum of about 360 tones of horsemeat in 2011 and 2012, selling it to customers who thought they were buying beef. As in, beef from a cow and not fake beef.

“By selling largely to foreign buyers he contributed to a negative image of the Dutch beef industry, causing damage to the sector” for his own profit, the district court said.

They said his companies bought tons of horsemeat from suppliers elsewhere in Europe, selling it to more than 500 other companies from there.

Europeans started freaking out in January 2013 after genetic tests found traces of horsemeat in burgers sold in two supermarkets in England. From there, fake beef products tainted with horsemeat popped up across the continent.

The man told the court that the meat was mislabeled out of carelessness, and that he wasn’t trying to trick people. But the court didn’t agree, noting that his accounts and invoices showed his company didn’t deal with horsemeat, so there’s no way things would simply be mislabeled mistakenly.

Though he received 30 months in jail, that’s just half of what prosecutors had demanded as punishment.

Dutch businessman behind horsemeat scandal gets two and a half years’ jail [Reuters]

Starbucks Expands Tuition Reimbursement Program To Cover Four Years Of Online Schooling

Tue, 2015-04-07 15:54
(Michael Sauers)

(Michael Sauers)

After more than 2,000 Starbucks workers headed to college through the company’s tuition reimbursement program with Arizona State University, the mega-coffee company announced it wouldn’t leave those student high-and-dry after just two years. Now, the company plans to expand the offering to cover a full four years of tuition at the college for eligible employees.

Starbucks announced the expansion of its College Achievement Plan Monday, saying that more than 140,000 full- and part-time partners (the company’s word for employees) are now eligible for the program.

The tuition program, which was first announced in June 2014, is a collaboration between Starbucks and ASU in which partners of the coffee chain can get either full tuition reimbursement or partial scholarships to complete one of 49 online bachelor’s degree programs through the University.

Originally, students starting out as freshmen and sophomores in Starbucks’ program were given a partial scholarship and need-based financial aid, while juniors and seniors received full tuition reimbursement for any out-of-pocket tuition costs. Upon graduation, employees do not have an obligation to stay with the coffee chain.

Under the expanded plan, all eligible Starbucks employees can apply to have all four years of their tuition covered by the company and ASU.

The Associated Press reports that the breakdown for program shows that the University will pay about 42% of student’s tuition, while Starbucks will cover the remaining 58%.

However, Starbucks might pay even less than that, as many of the company’s partners will likely quality for federal Pell grands and other student financial aid. Still, the company estimates that over the next 10 years the investment in the College Achievement Plan could exceed $250 million.

Another change under the expanded plan is the way in which employees are reimbursed for their tuition costs. Previously, Starbucks only reimbursed students after they completed 21 credit hour toward their degree. Now, the company will repay students at the end of each semester.

In addition to expanding the College Achievement Plan, Starbucks made a commitment to hire 10,000 “Opportunity Youth,” described as disconnected youth between the ages of 16 to 24 years of age who are not working or in school. The company, which plans to hire the youth over the next three years, says it believes the population represents an “untapped talent pool for American businesses, and through employment and access to higher education, hopes to help create a sustainable future for these young Americans.”

Starbucks and ASU Offer Unprecedented Four Years of College Education with Full Tuition Coverage [Starbucks]
Starbucks to Expand Online College Tuition Program [The Associated Press]

YouTube Kids App Accused Of Deceptive, Excessive Advertising

Tue, 2015-04-07 15:51

legoyoutubeIt’s only been a few weeks since Google launched its YouTube Kids app targeted at the youngest Internet users, and it’s already taking heat from consumer advocates who are asking federal regulators to investigate whether the service’s advertising practices run afoul of the law.

In a letter [PDF] sent today to the Federal Trade Commission, several advocacy groups — including the Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood, the Center for Science in the Public Interest, the Consumer Federation of America, Consumer Watchdog, and Public Citizen — accuse Google of violating Section 5 of the FTC Act, which prohibits unfair and deceptive marketing practices.

According to the letter, there are at least three ways in which YouTube Kids is in violation of advertising guidelines.

“The videos provided to children on YouTube Kids intermix commercial and other content in ways that are deceptive and unfair to children and would not be permitted to be shown on broadcast or cable television,” reads the letter.

FCC guidelines for TV programs targeted at young children require that “program material be separated from commercials by intervening and unrelated program material,” and prohibits the use of “program talent or other identifiable program characteristics to deliver commercials” during or adjacent to a show featuring that character. There are also prohibitions against product placement and showing URLs for commercial websites during these shows.

But the letter accuses Google of intermixing “noncommercial and commercial offerings in such a way that children would not be able to identify which ones are ads.” The letter points out that the actual ads run during some shows are less commercial than the shows being watched, which can be show-length toy commercials.

Making matters more confusing, argue the advocates are “brand” channels for companies like McDonald’s, Barbie, Fisher Price, and LEGO.

“Videos on these channels are mostly advertising even though they are not labeled as such,” reads the letter, which calls out the LEGO Friends channel for having full-length shows featuring LEGO characters, shorter “webisodes” with these same characters, videos of real people playing with these LEGO mini-figs, and then actual commercials.

“There is no separation between the full episodes and the commercials,” write the advocates. “Moreover, because the traditional TV-style commercials feature the exact same LEGO Friends characters that appear in episodes of the adjacent program content, the entire channel is akin to what the FCC would consider a program-length commercial.”

Meanwhile, a McDonald’s YouTube Kids channel shows promotional videos like “What are McDonald’s Chicken McNuggests made of?” but does not identify these clips as advertising.

“Branded channels, such as the McDonald’s channel, take advantage of children because they do not understand that the entire channel is actually advertising,” argues the letter.

Google is also accused of allowing the posting of supposedly “user-generated” content in support of toys, candy and other items, when these posters allegedly have undisclosed relationships with the manufacturers they’re talking about. This would be a violation of the FTC rules requiring transparent disclosure of paid endorsements and testimonials in ads.

The letter contends that toy companies have affiliations with the hosts of supposedly independent channels, “in which the online talent endorses various products in exchange for some form of compensation, often toys or money,” but without disclosing this arrangement to viewers.

Finally, the letter takes issue with Google’s claim that all ads are pre-vetted by YouTube to make sure they comply with the app’s ad policies.

“[I]n fact, much of the content available on the app violates its own policies,” alleges the letter.

“There is nothing ‘child friendly’ about an app that obliterates long-standing principles designed to protect kids from commercialism,” says Josh Golin, Associate Director of Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood in a statement. “YouTube Kids exploits children’s developmental vulnerabilities by delivering a steady stream of advertising that masquerades as programming.”

Report: The Next Apple TV Won’t Allow For 4K Video Streaming

Mon, 2015-04-06 22:59



Just because something is new, doesn’t necessarily always mean it’ll have the newest technology — perhaps because it’s because that technology still needs to prove itself or there’s really not a need for it yet. That appears to be the reason behind Apple’s reported decision not to have its new Apple TV support 4K streaming video.

A report from BuzzFeed News cites “sources in position to know” who say the first overhaul of Apple’s TV in three years isn’t going to usher in the era of 4K with its set top box.

Also known as ultra HD, a 4K TV boasts 3,840 x 2,160 pixels or roughly 8 million pixels. That’s almost four times the number in a regular high-definition TV set, at 1,920 x 1,080.

“4K is great, but it’s still in its infancy,” one source told Buzzfeed.

That, and there isn’t a boatload of content around to watch, despite a smattering of offerings from Netflix and Amazon. Not enough people have 4K TVs to merit a boost in programming, either. That’s because it’s expensive to deliver all that video, and takes a lot of bandwidth, among other things. You’d have to have speeds of 15 mbps or above to handle it

“The additional cost to shoot, store, encode and deliver video in 4K, when compared to HD, is huge,” Frost & Sullivan principal analyst Dan Rayburn told BuzzFeed. “No one wants to talk about it, but going from Netflix’s average 3Mbps stream to their 4K stream at 16Mbps is very expensive. That’s why it’s said it will offer ‘limited’ content in 4K for a long time. 4K is many, many years away from being adopted at critical mass.”

It’s somewhat of a Catch 22 — many consumers won’t invest in 4K until there’s more content to watch, but content providers aren’t going to make more programming until there are more people with 4K TVs and the bandwidth to stream on them. At some point, someone’s going to have to spend money if 4K is ever going to become commonplace.

Apple declined to comment on “rumor and speculation” to Buzzfeed.

New Apple TV Will Not Support 4K Video Streaming [Buzzfeed News]