Archive: February, 2011
House Republicans are trying to block next month's launch of a new database aimed at protecting consumers by giving them access to product safety complaints within weeks of their submission to the Consumer Product Safety Commission.
The debate goes back to the enactment of the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act of 2008, when Congress finally addressed a problem that had long concerned consumer advocates and stirred particular outrage among grief-stricken parents whose young children were supposedly protected by poorly designed baby gear. The problem: People sometimes suffer injuries from products months or even years after reports start flowing to manufacturers and then to the Consumer Product Safety Commission.
The database was designed to help careful consumers avoid risks caused by an especially cumbersome process. As a Washington Post story this weekend describes it:
Toyota added more than 2 million vehicles today to the nearly eight million recalls in 2009 and 2010 for "sticky pedals" or floor-mat problems that could cause gas pedals to stick.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said the recalls marked a formal end to its inquiry that began after a horrific California crash in August 2009, according to the Associated Press. Although some auto-safety advocates and plaintiffs' lawyers have continued to question whether loose floor mats and sticking gas pedals were sufficient to explain all complaints about unintended acceleration in Toyotas, their concerns about an electronic-throttle malfunction were largely put to rest earlier this month when NASA and NHTSA released findings from separate probes by space-agency engineers and by NHTSA itself. The AP said:
The Transportation Department said it had reviewed more than 400,000 pages of Toyota documents to determine whether the scope of the company's recalls for pedal entrapment was sufficient.
Am I the only one who finds this puzzling? A year after key new credit-card rules went into effect, including the rule that bars raising interest rates on existing balances, it turns out that most of the nation's largest card issuers aren't even bothering to periodically review customer accounts to revise rates on new purchases. Whatever happened to the the claim that raising rates retroactively was all about "risk-based pricing"?
The new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau released survey results today - you can find its key elements here - that included this finding:
The CFPB industry survey found that only one of the nine issuers currently has a practice of periodically reviewing the APR on existing accounts and raising interest rates for new purchases. Five of the top nine card issuers have increased, or plan to increase, the interest rate on new purchases for customers who are delinquent on past balances. A sixth bank plans to test such “delinquent pricing.” The CARD Act does not prohibit issuers from doing so, and a number of card issuers have reserved the right to change rates if a cardholder is one day late. This is among the evolving market practices that CFPB will be called upon to monitor.
Probably all journalists face this sometimes: the ironic overlap of two totally unrelated stories.
I had that experience last week, when the impressive advances of Kinect, the new control technology for Microsoft's XBOX gaming system, came up in startlingly contrasting contexts.
In my Tech Life column last Thursday, I wrote about how Kinect's sensor system offers technology that, for about $150, can replace laser range-finders for robots that sell for $5,000 or more - a promising leap forward for robotic devices that within a decade or two may become much more commonplace.
Tech-savvy consumers have long suspected what many in the retail world already know: Google's "organic" search results are open to serious gaming.
The techniques go by odd names - the "back door," or "black-hat" search optimization. But the big idea is always the same: manipulating the system that Google uses to rank its search results, a crucial piece of almost any company's strategy for Internet sales.
A story in Sunday's New York Times offers a fascinating window into some black-hat techniques. Over the last year, someone working on JC Penney's behalf - the company itself denies knowledge - managed to make Penney the top-ranked site or near-top-ranked for an amazing list of basic search terms such as "dresses," "skinny jeans," “home decor,” “comforter sets,” "furniture," and "tablecloths." It even managed to rank number one for "Samsonite carry on luggage" - ahead of Samsonsite.com.
A 10-month study by the space agency's engineering experts appears to close the chapter on Toyota's unintended-acceleration complaints.
But some outside experts remain a little skeptical - and they came in for sharp criticism yesterday by Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, quoted here in a Detroit News item by David Shepardson after LaHood met with reporters during a White House round-table discussion:
[LaHood] singled out Clarence Ditlow, head of the Center for Auto Safety, who noted the government tested just nine vehicles. He noted that shortly after the reports from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and NASA was released yesterday, Ditlow has been quoted criticizing them.
I may be one of the few people who didn't say, "huh, what's that?" at the news that Keith Olbermann is going to Current TV. From what I recall writing five years ago about Current, a fledgling channel that couldn't get past the Comcast gatekeepers, it sounds like a perfect fit.
We interrupt this blog post for a brief comic interlude, which should bring a knowing chuckle to those who love Keith and a knowing snort to those who hate him:
The name of the single Current TV listing I mentioned back in November 2005 was "Supernews 9: The Story of Thanksgiving." The synopsis: "Michael Moore travels back in time to the first Thanksgiving to warn of the horrible evils of the white man. Dick Cheney follows Moore back to foil his plan."
The new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau won't be fully operational till this summer. But it has a website, as well as accounts on Twitter and Facebook, and wants to hear from consumers right now. You can visit its home page at www.consumerfinance.gov.
Elizabeth Warren, the Harvard law professor who first proposed the new agency, has a video here explaining its role as part of the Dodd-Frank financial reform.
"The idea was to put a cop on the beat to enforce the laws on credit cards, mortgages, student loans, prepaid cards, and other kinds of consumer financial products and and services," Warren says, in terms familiar from her uphill climb to get the agency included in the final deal. "We're also here to be a voice in Washington for you."