vendredi 21 juillet 2017

Senate Parliamentarian Says GOP Obamacare Replacement Goes Too Far, Rules Against Planned Parenthood Defunding

As you may be aware, the Republican effort to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act is being pushed through Congress as a budget resolution, meaning it only needs a simple majority in the Senate (as opposed to 60 votes) to pass. However, budget resolutions are also very limited in what they can do, and today the Senate Parliamentarian issued her opinion that several key measures of the Senate replacement bill go beyond the scope of what’s allowed.

Budget resolutions must abide by the so-called Byrd Rule, which restricts the scope of such legislation to matters directly related to the budget. Efforts to enact policy or make statutory changes that don’t involve spending or revenue are more likely to trigger the 60-vote standard.

Today, the nonpartisan Senate Parliamentarian sent her findings to lawmakers. According to the brief on those findings, released by Democrats on the Senate Budget Committee, several aspects of the Better Care Reconciliation Act run afoul of the Byrd Rule, including the controversial clause that bars Planned Parenthood from receiving Medicaid funds. Similarly, the proposal to block tax credits for insurance policies that cover abortion (whether or not the recipient ever seeks such a procedure) would need to meet the 60-vote threshold to be enacted as law.

Also included in the list of troublesome parts of the bill is the GOP plan to let states opt out of requiring that their Medicaid alternative plans cover the “Essential Health Benefits” established by Obamacare. Parliamentarian Elizabeth MacDonough is still reviewing the proposal to allow states to seek waivers to eliminate the Essential Health Benefit requirement for all insurance plans within a state.

The GOP had also planned to hand over control of the Medical Loss Ratio (MLR) to the states. The MLR is the percentage of an insurance company’s premium revenue that must be used to cover medical claims by policy holders. The Affordable Care Act established a nationwide MLR of 80% for insurers in the individual market and 85% for providers selling large-group plans.

So, say you run an insurance company and that brings in $1 million a year in premiums from customers in the individual market. You can spend no more than 20% of that money on administrative costs and other non-medical expenses. Beyond that, if you don’t spend that full $800,000 on qualifying payments, then you have to issue refunds to your customers.

The BCRA seeks to let states determine how each would set the MLR for insurers in their state. That means states could — as several did in the pre-Obamacare era — set 0% MLRs, allowing insurance companies to spend as much of their customers’ premiums on whatever they want.

However, since this proposal has nothing to do with the budget, the Parliamentarian has flagged it as violating the Byrd Rule.

The question is whether or not the GOP leadership, which is still planning to move forward with some sort of vote next week, will heed the Parliamentarian’s guidance and strike the problematic sections of the BCRA. Doing so, particularly the Planned Parenthood and abortion tax credit clauses, could cause some hardline conservative Republicans to back away from supporting the bill.

For now, the GOP is playing it coy.

“The Parliamentarian has provided guidance on an earlier draft of the bill, which will help inform action on the legislation going forward,” a rep for the Budget Committee’s Republican members said in a statement on Friday.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, the Ranking Member of the Budget Committee, applauded the Parliamentarian’s ruling, saying that it proves “once again that the process Republicans have undertaken to repeal the ACA is a disaster.”

Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is still planning for a procedural vote next week to open up debate on the Republican repeal plan, though it’s still unclear what exactly will be debated if the GOP gets the 50 votes necessary to move forward. Neither the BCRA nor the alternative, straightforward repeal-only plan have sufficient support at the moment.



Go Update Your iPhone Or iPad Right Now

If you use WiFi on your iPhone or iPad, and you probably do, you’ll want to head to the Updates section as soon as you can to update its software before you start your weekend. There are a number of security patches, the most important of which fixes a flaw in the WiFi chip that can let someone standing near you execute code on your phone.

Since most of us prefer not to have our phones taken over by hackers, it’s a good idea to install Apple’s latest security update as soon as you’re on a fast, reliable, and private WiFi connection. If you won’t be home for a while, a stopgap fix would be to turn off your device’s WiFi when you’re out in public.

Updating the software, if you’ve never done it, isn’t scary. (Make sure to back your phone or tablet up to a computer or to iCloud before doing this.)

• Go to the “Settings” app on your phone’s home screen, and tap on that.

• Scroll down to “General,” and tap on that.

• Finally, tap on the “Software Update” option.

Google patched the same flaw, which the discoverer calls Broadpwn, for affected Android devices at the beginning of July, so Android users can feel suitably smug.



Winkel Colorburst Toys Recalled Because They May Crumble, Seem Edible To Babies

The Winkel Colorburst is an adorable and colorful teething toy. “Colorful loops made from soft, pliable plastic are easy to grasp and hold,” its manufacturer, Manhattan Toy, says on its website. Yet on some of the colorbursts, the plastic loops may become brittle and break, and the infant may try to eat these pieces, because that’s how infants roll.

There were around 14,400 of the toys sold in the United States and 1,000 in Canada, and they’ve all been recalled. The company asks that customers stop using the toys immediately and either return them to the store where they were purchased, or call Manhattan Toy at 800-541-1345. They retail for around $15, and owners will receive a refund.

Lot codes that have been recalled are:

206880 DH
206880 EH
206880 HH
206871 EH

You can find the lot code on the stripey cube in the middle of the toy, and also on the hang tag and the box if it hasn’t been opened yet.



You Still Can’t Fire Up An E-Cigarette On Your Flight

If you were hoping to fire up that electronic cigarette on your next flight, you better think again: The use of e-cigarettes is still prohibited on commercial flights, an appeals court ruled Friday. 

A Washington, D.C. appeals court ruled [PDF] 2-1 to uphold the Department of Transportation’s 2016 rule banning the use of electronic cigarettes on all commercial and charter flights to, from, or within the United States.

The Ban

The DOT finalized rules that prohibit e-cigarette use on flights in March 2016. While the agency believed that its previous regulations banning smoking on flights were sufficiently broad to include e-cigarettes, it revised the rules to explicitly define “smoking.”

“The Department took this action to eliminate any confusion over whether its ban includes electronic cigarettes,” the agency said in a statement at the time.

The finalized rule treats electronic cigarettes, pipes, cigars, and other devices the same as tobacco cigarettes, which are also banned from use on U.S. flights.

“This final rule is important because it protects airline passengers from unwanted exposure to aerosol fumes that occur when electronic cigarettes are used onboard airplanes,” then Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said in a statement. “The Department took a practical approach to eliminate any confusion between tobacco cigarettes and e-cigarettes by applying the same restrictions to both.”

Fighting The Ban

The DOT’s rule quickly came under fire, as the Competitive Enterprise Institute and the Consumer Advocates for Smoke-Free Alternatives filed a lawsuit challenging it, alleging that the agency had no authority to issue such a ban.

The organizations, along with an e-cigarette user, argued that the DOT improperly banned the use of e-cigarettes under a decades-old the anti-smoking statute because “e-cigarettes do not burn (or even contain) tobacco, much less produce smoke.”

In 1987, Congress declared it unlawful “to smoke” on scheduled passenger flights under two hours, and since 2000, the statutory smoking prohibition has extended to all scheduled passenger flights for travel within, to, and from the United States.

According to the suit, the DOT’s ban on e-cigarettes was a violation of the plain language in the statute, with the groups contending that e-cigarettes create a vapor, not smoke.

The Ruling

Today, United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled against a lawsuit, upholding the DOT’s bank.

In a 2-1 ruling, the appeals court ruled that the term smoking, as defined by decades-old statutes, does indeed cover more modern electronic devices.

While the organizations argued that “smoking” requires lighting or burning and does not encompass the heating that occurs with e-cigarettes, the court found that statutory text does not support that position.

The judges found that nowhere in the state is “smoke” or “smoking” defined.

Judge Douglas Ginsberg disagreed with the majority ruling, noting that the other judges were taking a broad interpretation of the term “smoking,” noting that when the statue was created the term was unambiguous.

“I cannot accept the Court’s ahistorical reinterpretation of a purportedly ambiguous statutory term that was well-understood when enacted in 1987,” Ginsberg wrote in his dissent.

Not Over Yet

Sam Kazman, CEI general counsel, said in a statement Friday that the organization is considering whether to appeal the ruling.

“Today’s court ruling creates a dangerous new rule for interpreting the law. It allows the commonly-understood language of Congress’s 30-year old no-smoking statute to be stretched into a ban on e-cigarettes—even though e-cigarettes involve no combustion and produce no smoke,” Kazman said.

Consumerist has reached out to the Consumer Advocates for Smoke-Free Alternatives and the DOT for comment on the ruling. We’ll update this post if we hear back.



U.S. Banning All Travel To North Korea Because Getting Arrested There Can Be Very Dangerous

If you were planning to visit North Korea sometime in the near future, you’ll probably need to cancel that hotel reservation in Pyongyang: The U.S. State Department has issued a ban on travel to the country, citing concerns that American could be in danger while there.

Safety Concerns

On Friday, the Department announced that Secretary Rex Tillerson has authorized a “Geographical Travel Restriction” regarding North Korea.

“Due to mounting concerns over the serious risk of arrest and long-term detention under North Korea’s system of law enforcement, the Secretary has authorized a Geographical Travel Restriction on all U.S. citizen nationals’ use of a passport to travel in, through, or to North Korea,” the department said in its full statement.

Previously, the state department had warned U.S. citizens against visiting North Korea, noting a “serious risk of arrest and long-term detention under North Korea’s system of law enforcement.”

And because the U.S. doesn’t maintain any diplomatic or consular relations with North Korea, if you were to get into trouble, the government doesn’t have any way to provide help like it would through the normal consular channels available to U.S. citizens.

The department intends to publish an official notice in the Federal Register next week, with the restriction going into effect 30 days afterward.

The news follows the death of an American college student who was medically evacuated in a coma from North Korea last month. He was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor in March 2016, after being accused of stealing a propaganda poster while he was touring the country. It’s unclear how he was injured.

Some Travel Exceptions

Once the ban is in place, most passports will be invalid for travling to North Korea. However, there are some people who will still be able to get a special validation in order to travel in the country, including for “humanitarian or other purposes.”

It’s unclear what those other purposes may be; we’ve reached out to the Department for details and will update this post if we hear back.



Lyft Wants To End Car Ownership — This Is How They Want To Do It

It’s no secret that Lyft has its sights set on a country without individual car ownership — with the company’s co-founder calling it a “$9,000 ball and chain” that people have to drag along in their daily lives — but now the ride-hailing service is elaborating further on how exactly it can accomplish that goal.

Luc Vincent, Lyft’s VP of engineering, writes in a Medium post that in order for Lyft to usher in a “transportation revolution” — one that he says will improve our communities and quality of life — the company has to build an “ecosystem of trust” that offers rides both with drivers as well as rides from self-driving vehicles.

Humans will surely stick around, but it’s worth noting that Lyft co-founder and president John Zimmer has said in the past that the company expects that the majority of its rides will be in self-driving cars within five years.

The next step

To that end, Lyft is opening its own self-driving division called the Level 5 Engineering Center in a new facility in Palo Alto.

The new group will work on developing a new, open self-driving system in order to build on its already-existin open self-driving platform.

“Lyft’s self-driving vehicles will operate on that network, alongside vehicles introduced by Lyft partners,” Vincent writes. “In the years ahead, we will continue to bring the world’s leading automotive and technology companies onto this single platform to serve a nationwide passenger network.”

The company already has 10 percent of its engineers working on developing self-driving technology, and will be adding more to the new team.

Wh Lyft thinks it can make all its dreams come true

So what sets Lyft apart from all the other self-driving efforts out there? Vincent says the company believes Lyft is in the best position to build technology in collaboration with partners “in a way that makes it possible to roll out self-driving cars at scale in the fastest, safest, most efficient way.”

Here are some of his reasons:

Lyft has “significant scale,” allowing to rapidly train its self-driving system. With more than a million rides completed on the network every day, adding up to tens of millions of miles daily, Lyft can use the data it collects to understand the world better, thus helping it deliver “a better experience for our passengers and drivers alike.”

Everything is on an open platform, which won’t just work in Lyft’s favor, but will accelerate its partners’ efforts as well.

“They’ll be able to tap into our wealth of data and experience to create the best self-driving experience, Vincent writes. “All of this can happen much more quickly because we’re working together to create the transportation ecosystem that will define our future.”

Why get rid of individual car ownership in the first place?

You might be thinking, “But I like having my own car. What’s your beef, Lyft?”

Safety: Echoing past statements on a future without individual car ownership, Vincent cites a study that says widespread adoption of self-driving cars will lead to a 90 percent reduction in accidents.

Pollution: Fewer cars on the road comes down to less pollution and a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, Vincent notes.

Quality of life: Lyft also wants future where we have less traffic clogging our streets, allowing us to “devote less of our space to roads, concrete, and parking lots — and more to parks, playgrounds, homes and local businesses.”

“It’s a future, in short, where we build our communities and our world around people, not cars,” Vincent says.

Okay, but will people really stop buying cars?

Lyft isn’t alone in trying to replace your car with a service: Waymo started offering self-driving car rides to the public in April, with CEO John Krafcik saying the company expects a lot of demand.

“We want as many people as possible to experience our technology, and we want to bring self-driving cars to more communities sooner,” he said at the time.

In June, he told The Wall Street Journal that the company would love to replace the family car with such a service.

“We’re really experimenting here with how far our users can go in terms of using a service like this one to replace their own personal transportation,” he said.

Others also believe that individual ownership will fall by the wayside eventually.

“By 2022, 2023, the majority of transportation in urban cities with temperate weather will be on demand, shared and likely autonomous,” Aarjav Trivedi, chief executive of Ridecell, a San Francisco company that provides the back-end software for car sharing, told the WSJ.

But while various reports in the press claim that car ownership will soon be a thing of the past, partly because millennials just aren’t interested in buying new vehicles anymore, The Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System looked into the demographics of new vehicle purchases and found that that might not be the whole story.

The fed’s analysis concluded that despite a downturn in interest during the Great Recession, younger people do not have less of an appetite for car ownership.

“While part of the rise in average age does reflect a decline since 2007 in the rate at which young buyers purchase new vehicles, the aging of the Baby Boomers and a drop in the purchasing rate among 35 to 50 year olds appear to be the most important factors,” the fed noted.

However, that analysis didn’t take into account what effect autonomous fleets of vehicles might have.



AB InBev Jumps Into Energy Drink, Juice Market With Purchase Of Hiball

In recent years, Anheuser-Busch InBev has been padding its portfolio by purchasing craft brewer after craft brewer, but the beverage giant’s latest merger is a bit different — it doesn’t include alcohol. 

AB InBev announced this week that it would purchase California-based energy drink company Hiball, carving out yet another notch in its non-alcoholic belt.

The deal, for which financial terms were not released, will bring Hiball’s line of organic energy drinks, and sparkling energy waters, as well as Alta Palla drinks under the AB InBev umbrella.

Hiball’s beverages, which use organic ingredients, could help AB InBev appeal to the health-conscious consumers.

Likewise, with AB InBev’s wholesale network, HiBalll and Alta Palla will be able to expand the drinks’ availability.

This isn’t the first time AB InBev has branched out from its alcohol background. The company previously partnered with Starbucks on bottled Teavana tea drinks.



Ford To Try To Avoid Recall Of 2.5M Vehicles With Takata Airbags

Last week, federal regulators revealed that millions of additional Ford, Nissan, and Mazda vehicles would be recalled for containing Takata airbag inflators that could explode violently despite containing a chemical meant to lessen the risk of the shrapnel-shooting ruptures. But Ford is looking to avoid another costly recall. 

Reuters reports that Ford will petition the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to avoid the recall of nearly 2.5 million vehicles tied to the recent recall.

Ford’s petition seeks to continue testing and analyzing the inflators included in model year 2007 to 2011 Ranger, 2006 to 2012 Fusion and Lincoln MKZ, 2006 to 2011 Mercury Milan, and 2007 to 2010 Ford Edge and Lincoln MKX.

A rep for NHTSA tells Reuters that the petition will seek an exemption on the grounds that Ford believes the issue is inconsequential.

Under NHTSA’s rules, carmakers have 30 days to submit petitions to recalls. Once a petition is filed, the agency will accept public comment prior to making a decision.

The Recall

Last week’s recall, which came in addition to the 42 million inflators Takata previously recalled, was necessitated after Takata determined that certain driver frontal airbag inflators that use calcium sulfate as a desiccant may rupture due to propellant degradation as a result to exposure to humidity.

The inflators, which were either originally used in the vehicles or used as replacements after a crash, differ from Takata’s previous recalls because they contain calcium sulfate, a chemical meant to be a drying agent.

Takata noted [PDF] that while it was unaware of any ruptured inflators that use a desiccant in vehicles on the road or in lab testing, analysis of the inflators showed a pattern of propellant density reduction over time.

In other words, the chemical can break down over time, becoming less effective in preventing violent airbag inflator ruptures that have been linked to at least 12 deaths in the U.S.

Affected Vehicles

In addition to the Ford vehicles potentially covered by the recent recall, Nissan and Mazda have revealed which of their vehicle models are affected by the recall.

In Nissan’s case, the carmaker says the recall covers about 627,000 model year 2007 to 2012 Versa vehicles with Takata driver side airbag inflators.

In a filing with NHTSA [PDF], Nissan said testing of nearly 900 inflators found no ruptures. However, one exhibited “elevated internal pressure.”

“Upon consultation with NHTSA and out of abundance of caution, Nissan decided to conduct a safety recall on the subject vehicles to address the potential defect identified by Takata,” the recall notice states.

Mazda says that 6,000 of its B-Series pickup trucks are affected by the new recall.

However, a rep for NHTSA tells Reuters that the carmaker will also petition to avoid the recall.



The Supreme Court’s Newest Justice Must Help Run The Cafeteria

The junior person in a workplace often gets stuck with tasks that no one else wants to do, in a form of occupational hazing. In the U.S. Supreme Court, one hallowed tradition is that the newest addition to the bench must take on a task that nothing in law school or in a Senate confirmation hearing has prepared them for: He or she must serve on the committee in charge of the building’s cafeteria.

The weird tradition began in 1981, when the first female justice, Sandra Day O’Connor, arrived on the Supreme Court. We don’t know what message then-Chief Justice Warren Burger was trying to send by putting her on the building’s cafeteria committee, though we have some guesses.

Every new justice since then, male or female, has served on the committee alongside regular federal employees, helping to set the menu and the prices. They also deal with complaints from the cafeteria’s customers, who are mostly Supreme Court employees.

Most justices arrive in Washington with little to no food service experience, The Wall Street Journal explains. Do you remember any questions about salad bars or vegan entrées during the recent confirmation hearings of Associate Justice Neil Gorsuch?

There were no new justices appointed from 1994 to 2006, which meant that Justice Stephen Breyer has had the longest tenure on the committee. The cafeteria did expand its salad bar during that time, but his tenure was otherwise undistinguished.

“It’s not a very good cafeteria, so this is really just the opportunity they have to kind of haze you all the time,” Associate Justice Elena Kagan said in a speech at Princeton. Justice Kagan, for what it’s worth, distinguished herself in this task more than any other judge in recent memory: During her time on the committee, the cafeteria acquired a frozen yogurt machine.

Justice Samuel Alito helped with the landmark decision of changing coffee vendors during his tour of duty in the cafeteria, but also had to deal with complaints about the disappearance of pudding parfaits. The next justice appointed, Sonia Sotomayor, tried to change the coffee provider back, but the rest of the building overruled her.



Report: VW, Mercedes & Others May Have Colluded On Diesel Emissions Systems

Could there be another “Dieselgate” on the horizon? It could be, as new reports suggest that several carmakers, including Volkswagen, Daimler, and BMW colluded to fix the price of other diesel emission treatment systems.

Reuters, citing German publication Der Spiegel, reports that VW, BMW, Audi, Porsche, and Mercedes-Benz may have violated competition rules by discussing vehicle technology in industry groups for nearly 20 years.

According to documents viewed by Der Spiegel, about 200 employees of the carmakers began meeting in the 1990s to discuss topics such s technology, costs, suppliers, and emission strategies for diesel vehicles.

Beginning in 2006, the carmakers allegedly discussed the cost of AdBlue — a diesel engine exhaust emission treatment system — deciding to use smaller tanks in their vehicles.

It’s unclear if the alleged collusion could have influenced some of the carmakers’ choice to use so-called defeat devices to skirt emissions standards.

Volkswagen, which owns Audi and Porsche, previously admitted to using the devices in more than 11 million vehicles world-wide. Daimler and BMW have both denied allegations that they manipulated emissions tests for certain vehicles.

Germany’s Federal Cartel Office tells Bloomberg that it doesn’t comment on ongoing investigations, but confirmed that it had searched six car-industry companies in the past related to collusion concerns.

Each of the carmakers declined to provide comment to Reuters and Bloomberg on the matter. Consumerist has reached out to the companies. We’ll update this post if we hear back.



FTC Reportedly Looking Into Potentially Deceptive Amazon Discount Pricing

When you say you’re selling an item for 30% off of some higher original price, there are rules about how real that “original” price has to be. If that reference is made up, or the item never actually sells for that price, you can land yourself in some legal trouble. And now sources say that the Federal Trade Commission is having a look to see if that’s what Amazon is up to.

“A source close to the probe” tells Reuters that the investigation stems from a complaint from a letter advocacy group Consumer Watchdog sent to the FTC.

The letter, dated July 6, asks the agency to look into Amazon’s advertised pricing strategies as part of a review of the company’s recently-announced plan to buy Whole Foods for $13.7 billion.

The organization looked at 1,000 products on Amazon’s website in June and reportedly found that among the ones that included a reference price, more than 60% of those reference prices were higher than the price the product had sold at for at least 90 days.

Put another way, that means that Consumer Watchdog says that more than half the time, items selling with a description like “$80, 20% off of original $100 price” were never actually sold for $100 at all.

The FTC “made informal inquiries” about the claims after receiving the letter, Reuters reports, but it is not yet known if the commission will open a formal investigation on the matter.

Consumer Watchdog released a report in May with very similar findings. That report looked at listings for 4,000 products and found that in nearly 40% of cases, the prices displayed were using reference prices out of whack with everyone else.

So for example, one item in Consumer Watchdog’s report was a drill that Amazon was selling for $183, claiming it was a 40% discount from the original price of $305. But other retailers, including Walmart and Jet.com (which is now also owned by Walmart) were also selling the same item for $183 – $190, without mentioning a $300 selling point anywhere.

Amazon has for roughly a year now been removing some reference prices from display on the site.

When Consumer Watchdog released its report in May, Amazon called it “misleading,” adding: “We validate list prices against actual prices recently found across Amazon and other retailers, and we eliminate List Price when we believe it isn’t relevant to our customers.”

About the group’s July letter, Amazon tells Reuters, “The conclusions the Consumer Watchdog group reached are flat out wrong.”

A Closer Look

That the FTC appears to be actually looking into the pricing complaint against Amazon indicates that the commission is likely taking a serious look at the merger plan, Reuters notes.

Meanwhile, Rep. David Cicilline (RI) is asking the Hose antitrust subcommittee (under the Judiciary Committee) to take a deeper look at the merger plan. And on the Senate side, Sen. Cory Booker told Recode recently that he and other members of the Senate are planning to send a letter to the Justice Department raising concerns with the Whole Foods deal and asking for greater scrutiny of the merger.

Reuters also notes that Amazon settled similar misleading pricing allegations with Canada’s authorities in January, paying a fine of CAD $1 million (about $796,000, at today’s exchange rate).



Here’s How To Grill With Charcoal

If you’re the kind of person who loves the taste of a char-grilled steak but are intimidated by anything that involves more than flicking a switch, don’t despair: There are experts who can tell you exactly how to grill with charcoal at home.

Our colleagues at Consumer Reports put together a handy video packed with tips and tricks that will guide even the greenest griller across the hot coals of cooking without gas.

Before You Start

You’re going to need supplies — and we’re not just talking your Uncle George’s barbecue sauce recipe.

• Grill: This probably goes without saying, but we’ll say it anyway — you will need a charcoal grill. Consumer Reports used an 18-inch Weber kettle grill.

• Briquettes: If you’re new to grilling, stick with briquettes — which heated more evenly than irregularly shaped lump charcoal in past CR tests. You’ll need enough to fill one charcoal chimney. On that note…

• Chimney: This is where you’ll get your coals ready before dumping them into your grill.

• Natural fire starter or newspaper: You only need one of these. Some crumpled newspaper will do the trick.

• A long lighter: Safety first – getting burned is not part of the ideal grilling experience, after all.

Light your fire

1. Place the fire starter or newspaper on the ground underneath the chimney.

2. Fill the chimney with briquettes. Stick your lighter through one of the chimney’s holes, light it, and let the flame ignite the coals.

3. Allow the coals to heat up and ash over — this should take about 20 minutes.

4. Dump your coals into the grill.

At this point, you have a choice between two cooking methods.

Direct Heating vs. 2-Zone Method

Direct heating: Best for burgers, hot dogs, and most vegetables. Spread the coals evenly, and keep the lid off while you cook.

RELATED: 5 Tips From A Pro For Cooking Up An Awesome Hamburger

2-Zone method: Ideal for chicken breasts and thick pork chops. Move coals to one side to create two zones. Zone 1 with coals is for cooking at high heat and searing; Zone 2 without coals is for indirect cooking.

The idea here is to get a nice sear on your meat and then move it to the indirect zone to let it cook through without burning. You can use the lid for indirect cooking, and turn up the heat by opening the dampers or adding more coals.

Tip: If you want to use wood chips to get a smoky flavor on your food, make sure to soak them for 20 minutes in water before adding them to your coals before cooking. Dry wood chips can burn and cause flare-ups, which no one wants while cooking with fire.

Cool It Down

Let the coals cool down with the lid on, and both dampers closed. When they’re no longer hot, dump the ashes in a metal can and pour water over them. Let them to sit overnight before throwing them away.

For more tips on grilling with charcoal, check out Consumer Reports.



Delta Enters Next Phase Of Testing Fingerprints As Boarding Passes

Back in May, Delta announced that it would test allowing a subgroup of passengers to access its Sky Club lounge at Reagan National Airport using only a fingerprint. That test was apparently successful, and now the airline will begin allowing that same group of passengers to actually board the aircraft using their fingerprint instead of a boarding pass.

If you want to try the service, now it’s only available to passengers boarding flights at Reagan National Airport (DCA) who are members of Delta’s SkyMiles frequent flyer program and CLEAR, a third-party service that lets travelers zoom past security lines for $179 per year.

Being part of CLEAR puts your fingerprint on file, since that’s how the service authenticates you. Delta combines this information with your boarding pass data, and now a fingerprint sensor has been added at boarding,

The final phase will allow travelers to check their bags using a fingerprint in place of a boarding pass, possibly eliminating the need to bother with boarding passes at all for the subgroup of passengers eligible to use the program.

Coming soon to a finger near you?

After Delta sees that everything is working, you might see this service available at an airport near you sooner than you think.

“Once we complete testing, customers throughout our domestic network could start seeing this capability in a matter of months – not years. Delta really is delivering the future now,” Delta’s senior executive vice president and chief operating officer Gil West said in a statement, using what would perhaps be a more appropriate tagline for UPS or FedEx.

Other airlines are also experimenting with biometric boarding and checkin, though JetBlue and British Airways have their hopes pinned on facial recognition technology, not fingerprints.



Was The ‘Game Of Thrones’ Season 7 Premiere Really Pirated A Whopping 90M Times?

It is not news that people have been illegally watching the season 7 premiere of Game of Thrones — by this point, we pretty much expect that one of the most-pirated shows on TV will be, well, pirated. But one report claims that the first episode of this final season has been pirated a whopping 90 million times since it aired last Sunday.

All eyes on Westeros

Sure, we all wanted to find out what Daenerys’ dragons have been up to, who would have their [insert body part] chopped off, and whether or not Jon Snow has gotten a new hairstyle.

But while the first episode has been watched through official channels about 16 million times so far — the most views HBO has racked up for a premiere ever — piracy analysis company MUSO says the premiere was viewed illegally 90 million times, reports Business Insider.

That includes illegal streaming, downloads, and torrenting.

According to the report, the episode was streamed illegally 77.9 million times, torrented from public trackers 8.3 million times, torrented from private trackers 500,000 times, and directly downloaded 4.9 million times.

The bulk of the illegal views were right here in the U.S. with 15.1 million, with the UK adding in another 6.2 million. Other countries in the top 5 include Germany with 4.9 million illegal views, India at 4.3 million, and Indonesia pulling in 4.3 million.

So, uh, that’s a lot of views

If this sounds like a lot, you're not alone. In comparison, TorrentFreak noted last year that the highest number of people actively sharing an episode across several torrents was 350,000 at its peak, when the season finale came online. Of course, that’s just torrenting, and not direct downloads or streaming.

To that end, MUSO says the staggering 90 million figure isn’t just the result of P2P torrent downloads, but unauthorized streams and “every type of piracy.”

“This is the total audience picture, which is usually unreported,” MUSO cofounder Andy Chatterley said in a statement, while acknowledging that these are some hefty numbers.

“There is no denying that these figures are huge, so they’re likely to raise more than a few eyebrows in the mainstream industry, but it’s in line with the sort of scale we see across piracy sites and should be looked at objectively,” he said.

HBO isn’t just sitting back

While this is sort of good news for HBO, in a way — it's a lot of eyeballs, after all — the company is prepared to fight the rising tide of piracy.

Last year, HBO launched a new anti-piracy effort, issuing thousands of copyright infringement warnings to ISPs, urging them to take action against alleged pirates.

Under the existing “six strikes” system, those ISPs are then supposed to forward those warnings to the infringing customers on their service. Under the existing “six strikes” system, those ISPs are then supposed to forward those warnings to the infringing customers on their service. Not all do, however.

RELATED: Private Internet Copyright Cop Company Makes Profit From Every “Settlement”

It’s doing the same this time around, TorrentFreak reports: Soon after the episode premiered, HBO’s partner IP Echelon began firing off warnings targeted at pirates, including IP addresses of alleged BitTorrent users. HBO’s goal is to get ISPs to alert their subscriber.

“We have information leading us to believe that the IP address xx.xxx.xxx.xx was used to download or share Game of Thrones without authorization,” the notification reads. “HBO owns the copyright or exclusive rights to Game of Thrones, and the unauthorized download or distribution constitutes copyright infringement. Downloading unauthorized or unknown content is also a security risk for computers, devices, and networks.”

We’ve reached out to HBO for comment on the report of 90 million pirated views as well as actions it’s taking this year against piracy, and will update this post if we hear back.



Redbox Adding 1,500 Kiosks Because People Still Want To Rent DVDs

Between disappearing rental kiosks and attempts to break into the streaming market, one might get the impression that Redbox was ready to leave physical video rentals behind — but that’s not the case: The video rental company is preparing to add 1,500 kiosks to its roster.

The Chicago Tribune reports that Redbox, under new management since Apollo Global purchased the struggling company for $1.6 billion in July 2016, is refocusing its efforts on its long-standing and traditional customer base, those who actually rent physical DVDs and video games.

CEO Galen Smith, who took over the top stop at the company in September, tells the Tribune in an interview that the company sees a “real opportunity” to reach more customers by expanding its kiosks, a plan that comes less than a year after the company eliminated about 1,000 kiosks from rotation.

“Our focus is really on driving profitability and cash flow, and to do so, we want to install more locations,” Smith said.

In order to realize that profitability, the company says it is focusing on placing the kiosks in places where customers already are, such as at Walmart locations, drug stores, and dollar stores. One market the company could consider expanding is Alaska, where Blockbuster seems to be doing well.  

As for the customers Redbox is courting, Smith notes that traditional renters are those likely to be families who want new content at a low price, video game lovers, and even millennials.

“Millennials see us as a great access point to watching new release movies,” Smith said, adding that at $1.50 per night Redbox rentals might be more affordable for younger customers who don’t want to spend $5 or $6 for an on-demand rental. “Contrary to what people think, we actually skew a lot younger in terms of our age makeup.”

As for Redbox’s attempts to break into the streaming market, Smith says the company continues to look for ways to serve customers in this matter.

“So we continue to look at opportunities to be able to serve it both physically and digitally,” he said. “It could be something down the road that we offer if it helps to satisfy consumer demand.”

Back in 2014, the company declared its Redbox Instant Streaming service dead. Last year, he company began testing a new streaming service, Redbox Digital, with a select group of current users.



Consumerist Friday Flickr Finds

Here are seven of the best photos that readers added to the Consumerist Flickr Pool in the last week, picked for usability in a Consumerist post or for just plain neatness.

Want to see your pictures on our site? Our Flickr pool is the place where Consumerist readers upload photos for possible use in future Consumerist posts. Just be a registered Flickr user, go here, and click “Join Group?” up on the top right. Choose your best photos, then click “send to group” on the individual images you want to add to the pool.



jeudi 20 juillet 2017

Ride-Hailing Apps In NYC Now Required To Have In-App Tipping

A month ago, Uber rolled out optional in-app tipping nationwide, which made it look a little more driver-friendly while stuck in a traffic jam of terrible publicity. We’re sure that change had nothing to do with what happened in New York’s City Council today: A bill that would require ride-hailing apps to let customers tip within the app passed the transportation committee and is on its way to the mayor’s desk.

Uber’s competitor Lyft, which markets itself as a fuzzier alternative that’s kinder to its drivers, offers in-app tipping, as do New York-centric competitors Gett and Juno, which merged this year. Drivers lobbied to have tips added to Uber, and the city made them part of the regulations governing ride-hailing apps that do business in New York.

The logic goes that passengers who want to leave tips should be able to, using the same method of payment that they used for the ride itself, since not everyone necessarily carries cash anymore.

Apps will also be required to suggest tips that start at 20% of the fare, as the credit card terminals in yellow taxis do.

“Tipping is a vitally important source of income for thousands of families who are struggling to make ends meet right now,” Jim Conigliaro, Jr, founder of the Independent Drivers Guild, which isn’t a union but represents ride-hailing app drivers in New York City and negotiates with Uber. “We were proud to lead the way on tipping on behalf of drivers in New York City and across the nation.”

The mayor now has 30 days to sign, veto, or ignore the legislation. If he doesn’t sign it within 30 days, it will become law.



Everest College Changes Name To Altierus Two Years After Turning Nonprofit

More than two years after Education Credit Management Corporation swooped in to purchase 56 Everest and WyoTech campuses previously owned by defunct for-profit college chain Corinthian Colleges, the company has finally changed the remaining schools’ names in a belated attempt to shed the stigma associated with the for-profit chains. 

Zenith Education Group – the division operating the schools — announced this week that from here on out, the former Everest career college brand will be known as Altierus.

The schools, which were transitioned from for-profit to nonprofit status as part of ECMC’s purchase agreement, will undergo a brand change over the next several weeks.

Why The Delay?

ECMC first revealed its intention to purchase the Everest and WyoTech campuses for $24 million in Nov. 2014. The deal, which was met with criticism from consumer groups, was officially finalized in Feb. 2015.

However, the lack of a name change has proven confusing to consumers who continued to see Everest commercials despite knowing that Corinthian was no longer in operation. That’s about to change.

Zenith notes in its announcement that in the two years since it acquired the Everest campuses it has focused on “righting their course to provide a quality experience that helps students get good, family-supporting jobs in high-growth industries where skilled workers are lacking.”

“As a result of these widespread changes, our nonprofit offering is altogether different than it was at the time we acquired these campuses,” Peter Taylor, president and chief executive officer of Zenith Education, said in a statement. “We have therefore made the decision to change the name of our Everest campuses to Altierus Career Colleges.

What’s It Mean?

According to Zenith, the name Altierus was inspired by the company’s mission to provide a new, alternative pathway for students.

The name, meant to reflect the chain’s vision and transformation, was created by combining the school’s goal and purpose. For instance, Alt represents the fact that the chain offered an alternative to traditional colleges; tier refers to its goal of providing the “best-in-class experience that is a tier above existing models,” while us refers to the “faculty, career specialists and financial aid experts–serve as a team to care for the whole student.”

“Simply put, we help students build strong professional and personal skills… and we surround them with a community of accountable students and faculty to ensure they stay on track,” Taylor said.



Lawmakers Who Want To Hand ‘Get Out Of Jail Free’ Card To Banks Made Millions From Financial Sector Last Year

As expected, Republican lawmakers in both the House and Senate have introduced legislation that would overturn new rules intended to make sure that bank and credit card customers aren’t stripped of their right to file lawsuits in a court of law. Not surprisingly, many of the politicians pushing this pro-bank bill recently received significant financial support from the financial sector.

We mentioned in our original story, before the legislation was introduced, that the two main sponsors — Rep. Jeb Hensarling (TX) and Sen. Mike Crapo (ID) — received a total of $6 million in campaign contributions from the financial sector in 2016, with $1.9 million going to Hensarling’s campaign and $4.1 million going to Crapo.

But among those supporting the legislation to roll back the new protections on bank and credit card customers, these two lawmakers aren’t even the largest beneficiaries of the financial industry.

Sen. Pat Toomey (PA) received a total of $7 million from this sector in 2016. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, Toomey was the largest recipient of funding from commercial banks last year, with $935,000 in contributions coming from that industry alone, plus another $2.55 million coming from securities and investment firms.

Other Republicans on the Senate Banking Committee, eight of whom have already co-signed this bill, have also received millions from the financial sector.

This includes Sen. Bob Corker (TN), whose campaign took in $3.7 million from this sector, including $1.09 million from securities and investment firms and $517,000 from commercial banks. Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton raised $2.7 million from financial firms in 2016, including $1.23 million from investment firms and $344,000 from commercial banks.

The eight Senate sponsors of this bill received a total of $24 million — an average of $3 million each — in 2016 from the industry that would be most affected by the new rules.

Over in the House, the individual numbers aren’t as large, but they do add up, with the supporting legislators’ campaigns earning more than $22 million from financial companies in the last election cycle.

In addition to the $1.9 million received by Hensarling, other recipients of significant financial sector contributions include Rep. Patrick McHenry (NC), whose campaign took in $2.1 million from this industry in 2016, making him the #3 favorite recipient of commercial bank money.

Rep. Ed Royce (CA) is the third-highest recipient of contributions from credit unions, helping him to bring in $1.7 million in campaign money last year. Ohio Rep. Steve Stivers’ campaign took in $1.5 million; he’s a #3 favorite for the finance/credit industry in all of Congress. His fellow committee member, Rep. Blaine Luetkemeyer (MT) is the favorite of finance/credit; his campaign received a total of $1.3 million last year from the financial sector.

What Are They Fighting Against?

The new rule from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau severely limits the ability of many banks and credit card companies from using “forced arbitration” clauses in their customer contracts. These clauses not only prevent customers from suing the bank in a court of law; they also allow the company to prevent customers from joining their complaints together in a class action.

For an example of how anti-consumer these arbitration clauses can be, one need look no further than the recent Wells Fargo fake account fiasco, where potentially millions of customers were affected by employees who opened up bogus, unauthorized accounts in the customers’ names.

The Wells Fargo customer contract includes a forced arbitration clause, and the bank repeatedly attempted to enforce that clause to shut down class actions brought by customers over this widespread fraudulent activity. Ultimately — under pressure from the media, lawmakers, and regulators — the bank decided to settle these class actions, but it could have forced each of the millions of allegedly wronged customers into individual arbitration.

The lawmakers behind this legislation to overturn the new arbitration rule argue that arbitration is actually pro-consumer. Sen. Mike Rounds (SD), whose campaign recently made $1.3 million from the financial sector, contends that arbitration is superior to class action lawsuits because the payouts are typically higher.

The problem with Rounds’ way of thinking is that is like comparing apples to apple orchards. Yes, a successful arbitration case can result in the wronged customer receiving a few thousand dollars, while the average payout of a massive class action may only be a few dollars each. However, the CFPB’s survey of arbitration cases in the financial industry found that very few bank and credit card customers even know what arbitration is, let alone ever go through the process of filing a dispute in arbitration.

So say a bank wrongs 100,000 customers by illegally charging them for a service they didn’t ask for. Now say, generously, that 50 of those wronged customers take the initiative to enter into arbitration and get $5,000 each (which is also generous). That’s a total of $250,000 penalty to the bank, with more than 99% of customers getting nothing and the bank effectively being allowed to break the law. Additionally, many arbitration results are confidential, so the remaining 99,950 customers may never even know they were screwed out of money.

But a class action suit could represent all 100,000 wronged customers. Let’s use the $32 per person figure that arbitration supporters love to throw around: $32 times 100,000 = $3.2 million, that’s a penalty that is more than 10 times the size of what the bank would pay in the arbitration example. Even if a company settles and doesn’t have to admit wrongdoing, the increased public awareness of the dispute helps to prevent the company, and hopefully others, from future bad behavior.

Heavily Unbalanced

“Forced arbitration is heavily weighted against the consumer,” explains our colleague George Slover at Consumers Union,” adding that “it shields financial companies from accountability for widespread wrongdoing.”

Christine Hines, Legislative Director at the National Association of Consumer Advocates, said it was disappointing but not surprising that “some members of Congress would sacrifice their constituents’ legal rights to make big banks and predatory lenders happy. Wall Street lobbyists have been urging their congressional allies to seek repeal of the CFPB arbitration rule, which restores American consumers’ right to band together in court when financial institutions cheat, deceive, or defraud them.”

Even some lawmakers who received not-insignificant funding from the financial sector say the GOP move to roll back these protections goes too far.

Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota, an outspoken critic of forced arbitration (whose campaign did receive $1.3 million from the financial sector in 2016), alleged today that “powerful special interests are encouraging my colleagues across the aisle to undo this critical consumer protection… as lawmakers, we should be working on behalf of all Americans, not big banks.”

The pieces of legislation introduced today seek to use the Congressional Review Act, a law that allows members of Congress to voice their disapproval of recently finalized federal regulations. CRA resolutions only require a simple majority in each chamber of Congress. Given the large GOP majority in the House, the resolution seems likely to pass that chamber, even if a few Republicans oppose it.

The GOP only has a two-vote majority in the Senate, and possibly only a single vote, depending on how long Sen. John McCain (AZ) remains out of office to deal with his recently discovered brain tumor. Republicans would effectively need a full party-line vote (or support from one or two more conservative Democrats) for the CRA to pass the Senate.



Twitter Claims Anti-Abuse Tools Are Working — But Where’s The Data?

After launching various new efforts to combat harassment and abuse, Twitter says it’s doing a bangup job of making users feel safer on the platform. But that’s according to internal data, hard numbers the company isn’t sharing — at least, not yet.

While there’s still “much work to be done,” Twitter announced today that users are experiencing “significantly less abuse on Twitter today than they were six months ago.”

Since then, Twitter launched safety updates like proactively identifying abusive accounts and a feature that allows users to hide as well as filter out abusive Tweets.

Progress

Here’s what Twitter has accomplished thus far, according to Twitter:

• Taking action against 10 times more accounts this year than it did last year — which could mean simply warning users or temporarily limiting accounts sending abusive Tweets.

• To that end, Twitter says it’s limit account functionality or suspending “thousands more abusive accounts each day.”

• Its new systems have removed twice the number of accounts from repeat offenders — who create new accounts after being suspended — in the last four months alone.

• Accounts that are put on temporary hold generate 25 percent fewer abuse reports, and approximately 65 percent of these accounts are in this state just once.

• A 40 percent drop in blocks received from accounts that had received mentions from an account that doesn’t follow them, which may imply that Twitter’s plan to keep mute replies from non-followers is working.

The Hard Numbers

Thus far, Twitter hasn’t revealed the raw data it based this news on.

However, it could do that at some point down the road. A spokesperson told The Verge that one concern Twitter has about releasing the information is that it could subject the company to new requests from governments and law enforcement agencies.

Going forward, “We are committed to making Twitter a safe place for free expression,” said Ed Ho, Twitter’s general manager of consumer product and engineering.



As Sears And Kmart Shrink, Amazon Grows

Earlier today, we shared the announcement that Amazon and Sears would be teaming up to sell Kenmore brand appliances, beginning with air conditioners. The retailers have more in common than you might think, though.

Eight years ago, Sears and Kmart had thousands of stores, while Amazon had only a handful of warehouses. Now those proportions are reversing, with Sears Holdings spinning off or closing most of its stores, while Amazon builds more distribution centers, in-person bookstores, and local delivery hubs.

The Wall Street Journal lays this out in graphic form today, showing how Amazon today has as many employees as Sears Holdings did in 2009, and how Kmart has closed as many stores as Amazon has opened new distribution facilities, stores, and other outlets.

Sears Roebuck was the original Everything Store, especially in the first half of the 20th century when its catalog sold houses and everything to put in them, as well as cars and farm equipment.

The retailer gradually shifted its focus to stores in cities, then in malls, and closed its massive catalog distribution centers scattered across the country in the late ’80s and early ’90s, just a few years before Amazon was born.

If Amazon’s acquisition of Whole Foods goes through, Amazon will take over from Sears in a very literal way. The real state investment trust that Sears Holdings has sold many of its stores to, Seritage, has carved out parts of some Sears stores and leased them to Whole Foods.

That would make Seritage, of which the Chairman and CEO of Sears Holdings is a major stockholder, Amazon’s landlord.



Farmers To Pay $390K For Charging Renters More Than Homeowners On Car Insurance

Last year, a Consumer Federation of America report found that home renters pay up to 47% more for car insurance than their peers who own their homes. Now, one state is doing something about this: Minnesota has fined insurance giant Farmers $390,000 for charging higher rates to renters. 

The Minnesota Department of Commerce announced this week that an investigation into Farmers Insurance Exchange’s pricing practices found the company illegally used customers’ residential status to influence their monthly rates.

Under Minnesota law, companies are prohibited from setting auto insurance rates or benefits, or denying coverage, based on a driver’s status as a residential tenant.

According to the Minnesota Department of Commerce, Farmers Insurance Exchange, which is a part of Farmers Insurance Group, charged some customers higher auto insurance rates solely because they were renters rather than homeowners.

The investigation also found that Farmers provided discounts to customers who have both homeowners and auto coverage policies with the company.

In all, the Department identified 1,620 Minnesota policyholders who were affected by the discriminatory pricing practices.

Paying Up

Under the consent order [PDF], Farmers agreed to refund the 1,620 customers  a total of $315,000 and pay a $75,000 penalty.

Additionally, the company must stop charging higher rates to renters, end discriminatory discounts that favored policyholders who have both homeowners and auto coverage over policyholders who have both renters and auto coverage.

“You should not be forced to buy a house in order to get a fair price on your auto insurance,” Minnesota Commerce Commissioner Mike Rothman said in a statement. “It is not only unfair, but in Minnesota it is also illegal for an insurance company to charge more or discriminate against drivers simply because they happen to rent their homes.”

CFA, which released the report on insurance surcharges last year, applauded the Minnesota action, but notes that other Commissioners should follow suit, noting that most states have similar laws against insurance discrimination.

“It is very encouraging to see Insurance Commissioners standing up for consumers by standing against unfair pricing in the insurance industry,” J. Robert Hunter, CFA’s Director of Insurance and former Texas Insurance Commissioner, said in a statement. “For the sake of hard-working Americans who are required to purchase auto insurance by laws in almost every state, we want to see more of this around the country.”



Target Ending Pilot Program That Rewarded Customers For Using Cartwheel App

Last year, Target began testing a pilot rewards program that allowed some users of its Cartwheel app to earn points redeemable for merchandise based on how much they spend at the register when using the app. Now, that test is coming to an end. 

Target recently began notifying customers participating in the pilot program that the retailer will begin phasing out Cartwheel Perks next month.

Under the loyalty program, which was being tested in Denver, Houston, San Diego, St. Louis, and Raleigh, customers could earn reward points for every dollar spent at the store, excluding pharmacy and gift card purchases. Once a shopper accumulates a certain number of points, they can select from pre-determined rewards, including free sunglasses, laundry detergent, and athletic apparel.

Target announced the program’s discontinuation in an email to users, noting that customers can continue to earn points with the program through Aug. 27, but must redeem those points by Sept. 27.

In responses to customers on Twitter, Target notes that it decided to wind down the program after analyzing its impact.

Consumerist has reached out to Target for more information about the program’s demise. We’ll update this post when we hear back.

Don’t End It!

News of the discontinuation wasn’t exactly received well by customers using the program.

 

 



Half Of The 18.3 Trillion Pounds Of Plastic Produced Was Created In Last 13 Years

The next time you go to throw out a piece of plastic packaging, imagine it resting atop a pile containing the 10.8 trillion pounds of plastic trash we’ve produced in the last six decades.

According to a study in the journal Science Advances titled “Production, use, and fate of all plastics ever made,” widespread use of plastic products only dates back to about 1950 — but in that time, we’ve produced about 8300 million metric tons (Mt) (around 9.1 billion tons or 18.3 trillion pounds) of plastic.

Half of that was produced in just the last 13 years, researchers say.

Where Is It All Going?

As of 2015, approximately 6300 Mt of plastic waste — about 13.9 trillion pounds — had been generated: About 9 percent of that was recycled and 12 percent incinerated.

That leaves about 79 percent of that waste — 10.8 trillion pounds or so — left to accumulate in landfills or the natural environment, the study says, noting that “none of the commonly used plastics are biodegradable.”

All told, 60 percent of all plastics ever produced have been dumped somewhere on this planet:

Plastic debris has been found in all major ocean basins, researchers note, with an estimated four to 12 million metric tons of plastic waste generated on land entering the marine environment in 2010 alone.

“Most plastics don’t biodegrade in any meaningful sense, so the plastic waste humans have generated could be with us for hundreds or even thousands of years,” said study co-author Jenna Jambeck, an associate professor of engineering at the University of Georgia.

What Are We Making With All That Plastic?

The largest market for plastics is packaging, an application whose growth is only accelerating due to a global shift from reusable to single-use containers, the study points out.

As a result, the share of plastics in municipal solid waste went up from less than 1 percent in 1960 to more than 10 percent in 2005 in middle- and high-income countries.

Looking To The Future

If current production and waste management trends continue, roughly 12 billion metric tons (about 21.7 trillion pounds) of plastic waste will be in landfills or in the natural environment by 2050, researchers concluded. That’s about 35,000 times as heavy as the Empire State Building.

“We cannot continue with business as usual unless we want a planet that is literally covered in plastic,” said lead author Geyer, an associate professor at UC Santa Barbara’s Bren School of Environmental Science & Management. “This paper delivers hard data not only for how much plastic we’ve made over the years but also its composition and the amount and kind of additives that plastic contains. I hope this information will be used by policymakers to improve end-of-life management strategies for plastics.”



Reminder: Studies Posted On ClinicalTrials.gov Are Not Government-Approved Or Screened

When facing an illness, you might turn to a clinical trial for treatment that isn’t available eleswhere. The best place for patients to find trials is the site ClinicalTrials.gov, which is a site administered by the National Institutes of Health and is exactly what it sounds like. The site has trials where researchers are testing experimental drugs or procedures that may help them. The problem is that not all “clinical trials” are exactly what they seem.

Specifically looking at trials for treatments involving stem cells, a new article by Leigh Turner of the University of Minnesota Center for Bioethics in the journal Regenerative Medicine explores how for-profit clinics looking for paying customers can exploit the site and its listings, leading patients to think that a listing for a “patient-funded” clinical trial is a government-endorsed clinical trial.

Why would I look for clinical trials?

A clinical trial is when researchers try new medical treatments on real humans in a clinical setting: A doctor’s office or a hospital. Depending on the clinical trial’s structure, you also might receive the new treatment, the current standard treatment, a placebo, or no intervention at all. (Yes, even placebos for surgeries exist. They’re controversial.)

For most clinical trials, patients do not have to pay for treatments or medical visits. That’s part of the appeal of taking part in a trial: You may receive a cutting-edge medication at the expense of the drug company. Or you might not be in the group that receives the cutting-edge treatment.

The database

ClinicalTrials.gov now carries a disclaimer, warning that “Information on ClinicalTrials.gov is provided by study sponsors and investigators, and they are responsible for ensuring that the studies follow all applicable laws and regulations.”

Some of those laws and regulations include charging patients for drugs and devices that are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, and which have not yet been approved. Hospitals and clinics are not supposed to profit off their patients in a clinical trial, but they can charge something for “cost recovery” with the permission of the FDA.

The ClinicalTrials database asks the trial sponsors whether a clinical trial has been approved by the institution’s institutional review board, if necessary, for experiments performed on humans.

Where do the stem cells come in?

Stem cell clinics say that they are simply filtering out patients’ own cells and putting them back in the body, and this is considered a medical procedure and not a drug. The FDA has not been aggressive on pushing this point, but should the ClinicalTrials.gov database? 1

The most notorious example, which made news around the world and led to the site adding its disclaimer, was the case of three women two paid thousands of dollars to take part in a stem cell clinic’s “clinical trial” to treat age-related macular degeneration, an eye disease.

At least one of the women found the “study” through ClinicalTrials.gov, and thought that it was a legitimate government-approved trial. Instead, all three patients received injections of stem cells processed from their own fat. Both eyes were injected on the same day, and all three patients lost their sight from the treatment.

“The development of robust screening tools that review whether submitted studies are compliant with regulatory standards concerning oversight of human subjects research and the administration of stem cells is necessary to prevent ClinicalTrials.gov from being used as a marketing platform by companies using clinical studies to sell access to their putative ‘stem cell treatments’,” Dr. Turner writes.

When just anyone can list a “clinical trial” on the site, even researchers who aren’t qualified to test their products yet or who deliberately blur the definition of “drug,” that makes the site a less useful tool for patients, keeping patients who might benefit from clinical trials out of them.



If You Use Services Like Venmo For The Wrong Purpose, You Could Lose Money

There are a plethora of peer-to-peer payment options on the market, think Venmo, Facebook Payments, or Square Cash. Each offer users an easy, convenient way to transfer money between people, but many have very specific intended uses; some are for paying your friends, others are for buying goods or paying for services. Some can be used for both, but may require different accounts. It’s important to know the difference, lest you become the latest victim of a scam or simply become shut out from your account. 

The specific way in which customers use a peer-to-peer service — whether to pay friend or pay for goods and services — can influence a user’s rights. For this reason, it’s imperative that you read the terms and conditions for services like Venmo or Facebook Payments to ensure you’re using the system for it was designed to do.

The Name Says It All

A peer-to-peer payment is an electronic payment between two people using a smartphone application or website.

As the name suggests, a peer-to-peer payment system is meant for just that: the transfer of money from one peer to another. It’s not referred to as a customer-to-merchant service for a reason; they aren’t intended for that use.

For instance, if you’re using an app for commercial purposes, like cutting grass, you want to make sure you’re using a system designed for businesses.

“Even if you don’t think of yourself as a business, you could be,” Christina Tetreault, our colleague and staff attorney for Consumers Union, tells Consumerist, noting that even doing something as minor as yard work or snow shoveling could constitute a business in the system’s terms.

For example, Venmo offers separate business and personal accounts for users. Personal accounts are to be used only for person-to-person transfers with friends and family, and others you may know. These accounts may not be used to receive business, commercial, or merchant transactions.

Improper Use Could Make You Vulnerable To Scams

If you’re using a personal peer-to-peer app for business purposes, you might not be covered legally if something were to happen, like a payment bounced or you become the unwitting victim of a scam.

Such was the case recently for a California man selling an expensive camera. The Verge reports that the man, who had listed his $4,300 camera for sale on Facebook’s marketplace, was contacted by a potential buyer who wished to complete the transaction through Venmo.

The man agreed, and the purchaser began sending him a series of payment all under $100. Believing the money was in his account, the man handed off the camera to its new owner. The next day, however, he found his Venmo account had been frozen and the transaction blocked.

When the man contacted Venmo, he was told that the transaction was in violation of the company’s user policy.

What’s In The Terms?

Venmo specifically notes that using a personal account for business purposes, or a business account for personal, family, or household purposes would constitute as a breach of contract, which could result in holds or transaction reversals.

“Personal accounts are for use in person-to-person transfers with friends and family, and other people whom you know,” the company’s terms state.

However, personal accounts may be used to make “Authorized Merchant Payments,” but only via certain mobile websites or applications offered by merchants that have been approved to offer Venmo as a payment option.

Still, this wouldn’t have applied to the Venmo customer, as he was the one selling a product.

According to Venmo’s terms, “personal accounts may not be used to receive business, commercial, or merchant transactions.”

While the man contends that he wasn’t a merchant, because he’s not in the camera selling business, the transaction was still classified as a merchant transaction because goods were changing hands.

What About Everyone Else?

Each P2P payment system has their own terms of service agreements that describe the ways in which the service can be used.

As for Facebook, the company notes in its payment terms that the P2P service “is not intended to be used for business, commercial, or merchant transactions and such use may be discontinued without notice by us at any time.”

Additionally, the company may place a hold on transactions or place a reserve on funds if evidence of business, commercial, or merchant use is discovered.

Further, Facebook makes it clear that the using the P2P service is done at a user’s discretion.

“P2P use is at your sole risk and we assume no responsibility for the underlying transaction of funds, or the actions or identity of any transfer recipient or sender,” the terms states.

Square Cash, on the other hand, does not prohibit the services use for commercial or business purposes, so for someone looking to make both business and private transactions, this service may be a better fit.

The service’s terms note that users agree not to send or accept payments in connection with a litany of specific businesses or business activities, inkling illegal activity or goods; direct marketing or subscription offers or services; infomercial sales; rebate based businesses; manual or automated cash disbursements; prepaid cards; and other products.

Still, the company says that it “may block or reverse payments” at its sole discretion, so keep in mind that using P2P services are different than simply using a bank or a credit card.

You will be dependent on the service to help when something goes wrong, and depending on their terms and conditions, the outcome may or may not be in your favor.