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15 posts from July 2016

Smart Wine Bottles

Does wine go stale in your home? If so, then Kuvée Wine has a solution for you. The solution uses Internet-connected or "smart" wine bottles that reportedly keep your wine fresh for up to 30 days. Each bottle holds 5 glasses or 750 ml of wine. Included wines are 2013 Schug Carneros Pinot Noir, 2013 BR Cohn Cabernet Sauvignon, 2014 Bonny Doon Vin Gris de Cigare, and 2014 Coppola Director's Chardonnay.

Residents in some states can pre-order wine now. Orders from California and Massachusetts residents start shipping in October. Orders from residents in New York, Washington, and Oregon start shipping in December. See the website for terms for other states. The price is $199.00, which includes the Kuvée smart wine bottle plus four bottles of wine.

Since everything is "smart" in today's world, I guess this was bound to happen. Is it a good deal? You can decide for yourself. I'm not a big wine drinker. Heck, I'm not a big drinker -- period. This entertaining video from The Verge provides a perspective about how the Kuvée smart wine bottle works:

Valuable Items You Can't Change

For more convenient access to devices and websites, many device manufacturers and online publishers encourage consumers to use items other than passwords for logins. Is this a good deal? To answer that question, one must consider what happens after a data breach when login credentials are stolen by hackers. Typically after a data breach where login credentials are stolen, websites and businesses have advised consumers to change their passwords. However, many of the newer items cannot be changed:

Observation number 49. Click to view larger version

Retailer's Data Breach Exposes Military And Government Workers To Terrorism Risk

McClatchyDc news service reported a chilling story about the intersection of cyber-crime and terrorism. After inserting malware into an Illinois-based retailer's computer systems, the hacker demanded payment in Bitcoins to remove the malware. This type of hacking is commonly called "ransomware" and isn't especially noteworthy. What is notable: the hacker's motivation was driven by money, but devolved into terrorism. Reportedly, the hacker:

"... had ties to the Islamic State Hacking Division, a terrorist cyber unit, and before it was over he’d put together a “kill list” for the Islamic State with the identities of 1,351 U.S. government and military personnel from the 100,000 names, credit card records and Social Security numbers he’d extracted from the host server."

The hacker, currently in prison in the USA, was identified as Ardit Ferizi, also known as the "Albanian hacker." McClatchyDC also reported:

"Ferizi’s case is also notable because his handiwork generated one of the first “kill lists” issued by the Islamic State designed to generate fear and publicity. FBI agents used the early list of U.S. military and government employees to notify the targeted individuals. More recent lists have included thousands of ordinary civilians and even U.S. Muslims the terrorist group considers apostates."

McClatchyDC did not disclose the name of the retailer, who reportedly learned of the breach only when the hacker demanded payment. That suggested poor data security and intrusion detection.

There are plenty of implications. First, no longer can company (and government) executives claim that it was just a breach, or it happens to every business. It is no longer acceptable for corporate executives to downplay the breach and hope it quietly goes away. There are real-world risks and threats to customers and prospective customers from corporate data breaches. Second, this breach reinforces the fact that we live in an inter-connected world. Criminals are smart, persistent, and have learned how take advantage of those online connections.

Third, these online connections and cyber-crime make politicians' goals to limit immigration futile and pointless. Similarly, physical border walls may deter poor and unskilled migrants, but do nothing to stop cyber-crime and terrorism. Government and business need to work together to build better, stronger online and digital defenses.

What do you think?

Consumer Reports: Don't Use Consumers as 'Guinea Pigs For Vehicle Safety Beta Programs'

Consumer Reports logo The recent fatal crash involving a Tesla auto operating with the Autopilot feature has highlighted the issues with beta software in commercially-available vehicles. Consumer reports discussed the matter in a recent blog post:

"The company’s aggressive roll-out of self-driving technology—in what it calls a “beta-test”—is forcing safety agencies and automakers to reassess the basic relationship between human drivers and their increasingly sophisticated cars... Consumer Reports experts believe that these two messages — your vehicle can drive itself, but you may need to take over the controls at a moment’s notice—create potential for driver confusion. It also increases the possibility that drivers using Autopilot may not be engaged enough to to react quickly to emergency situations. Many automakers are introducing this type of semi-autonomous technology into their vehicles at a rapid pace, but Tesla has been uniquely aggressive in its deployment. It is the only manufacturer that allows drivers to take their hands off the wheel for significant periods of time..."

For decades, Consumer Reports has reviewed, tested and rated both new and used vehicles to help drivers make informed decisions about purchases and repairs. It also tests and rates a wide variety of household appliances, electronics, telecommunications services (e.g., phone, cable TV, broadband), music streaming services, social networking sites, prepaid cards, credit monitoring services, and more. Consumer Reports owned and tested three Tesla vehicles: 2013 Model S 85, 2014 Model S P85D, and 2016 Model X 90D.

Laura MacCleery, the vice president of consumer policy and mobilization for Consumer Reports, said:

"By marketing their feature as ‘Autopilot,’ Tesla gives consumers a false sense of security... In the long run, advanced active safety technologies in vehicles could make our roads safer. But today, we're deeply concerned that consumers are being sold a pile of promises about unproven technology. 'Autopilot' can't actually drive the car, yet it allows consumers to have their hands off the steering wheel for minutes at a time. Tesla should disable automatic steering in its cars until it updates the program to verify that the driver's hands are on the wheel... Consumers should never be guinea pigs for vehicle safety 'beta' programs...”

Consumer Reports provided four recommendation for Tesla and its Autopilot feature, which include renaming it, halting beta test programs, and reprogramming the feature to require drivers to keep their hands on the steering wheel.

I agree. Beta testing features with business software (e.g., spreadsheets, word processing, VPN connections, etc.) and general software are entirely different from vehicles where lives are directly at risk. What are your opinions?

Study Confirms Consumers Ignore Online Policies And Agree To Anything

Researchers have confirmed what privacy advocates and government regulators have suspected for a long time: Internet users often ignore online policies: privacy and terms of service. And those consumers who read policies, pay insufficient attention.

In a working paper titled, "The Biggest Lie On The Internet," researchers tested 543 college students (from a communications class) by having them sign up for NameDrop, a fictitious social networking site (SNS). 47 Percent of test participants were female, and the average age of all participants was 19. 62 percent identified as Caucasian, 15 percent as Asian, 6 percent as Black, 2 percent as Hispanic/Latin, and 3 percent as mixed race/ethnicity.

Authors of the working paper were Jonathann A. Obar, a Research Associate at the the Quello Center for Telecommunications Management and Law at Michigan State University, and Anne Oeldorf-Hirsch, at the University of Connecticut. The paper was submitted for peer review and to the U.S. Feral Communications Commission (FCC).

The study found that almost three of four test participants -- 74 percent -- skipped reading the privacy policy by clicking on a "Quick Join" button. Those that did read the privacy policy spent a little over a minute -- 73 seconds -- reading the 7,977-word policy. Test participants spent less time -- 51 seconds -- reading the 4,316-word TOS policy.

The researchers expected test participants to spend longer times reading the policies because persons with a 12-grade or college education read about 250 to 280 words per minute. So, the it should have taken 29 to 32 minutes to read the 7,977-word privacy policy. The range of actual reading times was 2.96 seconds to 37 minutes; with 80 percent of test participants spending less than one minute of reading time.

The paper did not mention if reading times varied by device (e.g., phone, tablet, laptop, desktop). The researchers identified three factors that predict policy reading times:

  1. Information Overload: if the persons perceived the policies to be too long andtoo much work,
  2. Nothing to Hide: persons view the policies as irrelevant because they do nothing wrong, and
  3. Difficult to Understand: persons believe that they can't understand the language in the policies.

The researchers inserted problematic clauses into the policies which test participants should have spotted and inquired about:

"Implications were revealed as 98 percent missed NameDrop TOS 'gotcha clauses' about data sharing with the National Security Agency (NSA) and employers, and about providing a first-born child as payment for SNS access."

Only 15 percent (83 persons) expressed concerns about NameDrop's policies. Of the 83 persons who expressed concerns, 11 mentioned the NSA clause, and nine mentioned the child-assignment clause. The rest mentioned concerns about the length of the policies and the trustworthiness of the SNS.

The study also asked test participants how long they spent reading policies. The findings supported the "privacy paradox" found by other researchers:

"The paradox suggests that when asked, individuals appear to value privacy, but when behaviors are examined, individual actions suggest that privacy is not a high priority... When participants were asked to self-report their engagement with privacy and TOS policies, results suggested average reading times of approximately five minutes..."

So, test participants said they spent about 5 minutes reading policies while their actual times were about a minute or less, if they read the policies at all.

With most consumers skipping online policies, they have given companies the power to insert any clauses desired into these policies. This has implications for consumers' ability to control their online reputation, privacy, and resolve conflicts (e.g., binding arbitration instead of courts).

This also has implications for how governments enforce data protection for their citizens. Historically:

"... approaches to privacy and increasingly reputation protections by governments throughout the world often draw from a contentious model referred to as the 'notice and choice' privacy framework. Notice and choice evolved from the U.S. Federal Trade Commission's (FTC) Fair Information Practice Principles, developed in the 1970s to address growing information privacy concerns raised by digitization. In the early 1980s, the FIPPs were promoted by the OECD as part of an international set of privacy guidelines, contributing to the implementation of data protection laws and guidelines in the U.S., Canada, the EU, Australia, and elsewhere... The notice and choice privacy framework was designed to "put individuals in charge of the collection and use of their personal information" (Reidenberg et al, 2014: 3)..."

The researchers' focused upon the:

"... notice component, noted by the FTC as "the most fundamental principle" (FTC, 1998: 7) of personal information protection... As the FTC (1998) notes, choice and related principles attempting to offer data control "are only meaningful when a consumer has notice of an entity's policies, and his or her rights with respect thereto." Notice policies typically... appear on websites, applications, are sent in the mail, provided in-person, generally when an individual connects with the entity in question for the first time, and increasingly when policies change. Despite suggestions that notice policy in particular is deeply flawed, strategies for strengthening notice policy continue to be seen as central to address, for example, privacy concerns associated with corporate and government surveillance, and consumer protection concerns about Big Data..."

So, the biggest lie on the Internet is that consumers agree to policies, which they really can't because they haven't read them. Governments, privacy advocates, companies, and usability professionals need to find a better way, because the current approach clearly isn't working:

"The policy implications of these findings contribute to the community of critique suggesting that notice and choice policy is deeply flawed, if not an absolute failure. Transparency is a great place to start, as is notice and choice policy; however, all are terrible places to finish. They leave digital citizens with nothing more than an empty promise of protection, an impractical opportunity for data privacy self-management, and as Daniel Solove (2012) analogizes, too much homework. This doesn't even begin to address the challenges unique to children in the realm of digital reputation..."

Absolutely, since many sites allow children as young as 14 to sign up. Policy reading rates are probably worse among children ages 14 - 17.

Download the working paper: "The Biggest Lie on The Internet" (Adobe PDF). the paper is also available here. The study used students majoring in communications. I wonder if the results would have been different with business majors or law students. What do you think?

Several Countries Issued Travel Advisories For Visiting The United States

Last Friday, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs within the Government of the Bahamas issued this travel advisory for its citizens:

"We wish to advise all Bahamians traveling to the US but especially to the affected cities to exercise appropriate caution generally. In particular young males are asked to exercise extreme caution in affected cities in their interactions with the police. Do not be confrontational and cooperate. If there is any issue please allow consular offices for The Bahamas to deal with the issues. Do not get involved in political or other demonstrations under any circumstances and avoid crowds... Pay attention to the public notices and news announcements in the city that you are visiting."

On Saturday, the Bahrain Embassy in Washington, DC sent the following message on Twitter:

Bahrain Embassy tweet about travel to USA. Click to view larger version

The United Arab Emirates Embassy in Washington, DC issued a "Special Alert" for its citizens visiting the United States:

"For your own safety, the Embassy of the United Arab Emirates urges you to please stay away from any ongoing or planned demonstrations and protests in cities around the United States. Please be aware of immediate surroundings and avoid crowded places when possible. Exercise particular caution during large festivals or events, be alert and stay safe. You are encouraged to contact the embassy if you are in need of assistance..."

According to the Safe Travel site for New Zealand citizens:

"There is some risk to your security in the United States due to the threat from terrorism and we advise caution... The United States remains a likely target for terrorist activity by domestic-based extremists and internationally-trained individuals and groups, and we continue to receive reports that terrorist groups are planning attacks against the United States... Wherever you are, you should keep yourself informed about the latest alerts and stay aware of your surroundings in areas where large numbers of people congregate, such as shopping malls, markets, monuments, tourist destinations, demonstrations, public events and on any public transport... There is a higher incidence of violent crime and firearm possession than in New Zealand, however crime rates vary considerably across cities and suburbs and incidents rarely involve tourists... Research your destination before traveling and seek local advice if you are concerned... We recommend you avoid all protests and demonstrations as on occasion civil disorder can result."

The U.S. Department of State regularly issues travel advisories for U.S. citizens traveling abroad. It would seem that, to use an old saying: the shoe is on the other foot.

If you are traveling to or within the United States, the Department of Homeland Security provides a resource page for security line wait times.

Have you seen alerts from any more countries? If so, share them below.

JPMorgan Chase To Raise Pay of 18,000 Tellers And Branch Workers

JPMorgan Chase logo Jaime Dimon, the Chairman and CEO of JPMorgan Chase, announced that the bank will raise the pay of about 18,000 tellers and branch workers in 75 cities. The announcement appeared in an opinion article in The New York Times:

"Our minimum salary for American employees today is $10.15 an hour (plus meaningful benefits, which I’ll explain later), almost $3 above the current national minimum wage. Over the next three years, we will raise the minimum pay for 18,000 employees to between $12 and $16.50 an hour for full-time, part-time and new employees, depending on geographic and market factors."

The article discussed the bank's non-wage benefits for employees, why the pay increase was the right thing to do, and related investments:

"It is true that some businesses cannot afford to raise wages right now. But every business can do its part through whatever ways work best for it and its community. It can identify local partners to address economic inequality. It can encourage and provide continuous training, teach leadership capabilities and identify mentors to help sharpen employee skills. In our case, we will invest over $200 million in 2016 on training for thousands of entry-level employees in our consumer banking business... We are also investing $325 million in career-oriented education aligned to growing sectors. This fall, through partnerships with education organizations, we will provide 10 states with up to $2 million each to strengthen and expand career-focused education in their school systems..."

An economist in the company's commercial banking unit wrote in October 2015:

"Raising the minimum wage has the potential to vastly improve the lives of low-income workers who are currently employed—but it could also limit opportunities for future job seekers... Proposals for raising the minimum wage have strong political appeal. It would be wonderful, of course, if it were that easy to help low-income earners who are struggling. Unfortunately, despite the well-meaning intentions behind this effort, non-business actions that force businesses to absorb higher costs would likely carry hidden costs. Though higher wages would undoubtedly benefit low-earning workers who retain their jobs, those who become unemployed, or future potential workers who are trying to get a start in the job market, could find fewer opportunities to rejoin the labor force."

Will the bank's hiring slow as a result? Time will tell.

An August, 2015 report by the National Employment Law Project found that while bBank tellers comprise the largest banking-related occupation in the United States, with almost half a million workers nationwide, three in four (74.1 percent) earn less than $15 an hour, compared with 42.4 percent of the total U.S. workforce. Tellers’ median hourly wage is just $12.44.

JPMorgan isn't the only bank to raise the pay of its employees. In January 2016, Bangor Savings Bank raised its minimum wage to $13.00 an hour. In August 2015, Amalgamated Bank raised its minimum wage to $15.00 per hour. In July 2015, C1 Bank raised its minimum wage to $15.00 per hour.

In 2012, JPMorgan Chase was part of a group of banks that paid $25 billion to resolve allegations of foreclosure abuses of homeowners' mortgages. The bank paid $13 billion in 2014 to settle charges by the U.S. Justice Department about alleged wrongdoing with mortgage-backed asset securities. Later that year, we taxpayers learned that large portions of the fines were tax deductible.

Dimon's April 6, 2016 letter to shareholders about the company's performance in 2015 said:

"Our company earned a record $24.4 billion in net income on revenue of $96.6 billion in 2015. In fact, we have delivered record results in the last five out of six years, and we hope to continue to deliver in the future. Our financial results reflected strong underlying performance across our businesses..."

The bank has done well financially. It's good that the bank shared some of its success with employees, but why not raise the minimum wage with a $15.00 per hour floor? Dimon's pay (including incentives rose 35 percent last year, from $20 million to $27 million. One person summarized accurately the bank's pay increase in a comment on Robert Reich's Facebook page:

"I think that pushing larger crumbs off the table isn't quite the same as setting a place."

Dimon's statement in the New York Times did not mention the total cost of the pay increase and related programs. Even if the total is $1 billion (spread over 3 years), it seems that JPMorgan Chase can easily afford that without a slow-down in hiring. If the bank can afford multiple, massive settlement agreement payments, it can easily afford the pay increase for its employees.

What do you think?

Survey: Daily Newspaper Readership

Who reads newspapers in the United States? Do people read print versions, or has readership migrated to online versions? How has this changed over time? In its "State of the News Media 2016" report, Pew Research released results about the demographics of daily newspaper readership:

Percent of Adults Reading Daily Newspapers
Age Group 1999 2007 2015
18 - 24 42 33 16
25 - 34 44 34 17
35 - 44 54 43 21
45 - 54 63 53 28
55 - 64 69 59 38
65+ 72 66 50

Source: Pew Research Center - Daily Readership By Age - June, 2016

Percent of Adults Reading Daily Newspapers
Education Level 1999 2007 2015
High School Graduate 54 46 27
Some College 59 50 31
College Graduate 63 53 31
Some Post Graduate 68 59 38
Post Graduate Degree 60 62 39

Source: Pew Research Center - Daily Readership By Education Level - June, 2016

Percent of Adults Reading Daily Newspapers
Ethnic Group 1999 2007 2015
White 58 49 31
Black/African-American 51 42 27
Asian 51 41 22
Spanish/Hispanic Origin 39 31 18
Other 52 43 22

Source: Pew Research Center - Daily Readership By Ethnic Group - June, 2016

About overall newspaper readership, 51 percent read the print version exclusively, 5 percent read the desktop version only, another 5 percent 5% read only the mobile version, and about 7 percent read both the mobile and desktop versions.

However, some readers are subscribers and some aren't. The latter group reads newspaper articles at other sites:

"... looking at newspaper subscribers as the only readers of newspaper content misses an important part of the story. The share of newspaper readers who report reading a newspaper in digital form, or who have digital subscriptions, is not the same as the share of Americans more broadly who come across individual stories hosted on a newspaper’s website as they surf the web. The findings reported above are based on survey questions asked of individuals who self-reported reading a newspaper online or in print in the past 30 days. However, it does not include everyone who lands upon a newspaper website while searching for news information or following a link from an email or social networking post. These consumers of individual bits of information may not remember having read a newspaper, or have even realized that they did. (We have found that most people who read an article on a website do not read any other articles on that site in a given month, suggesting that this kind of incidental readership is common.) Indeed, as revealed in the digital audience section below, when it comes to all newspaper website visitors – not just subscribers – the newspapers analyzed all had more digital traffic than print subscribers."

The "State of the News Media 2016" report also includes information about cable news, local TV news, network news, online news, alternative weeklies, podcasts, and more.

Coming Soon: Autonomous Freighters On The Oceans

Technology races forward in several industries. The military uses remote-controlled drones, vendors use drones to inspect buildings, companies test driver-less cars, automakers introduce cars with more automation, and retailers pursue delivery drones. Add shipping to the list of industries.

Experts predict that robotic ships will sail the oceans by 2020. The Infinity Leap site reported:

"The concept of robotic ships was revealed by Rolls Royce back in 2014. According to reports, the Advanced Autonomous Waterborne Applications (AAWA) project guided by Rolls-Royce recently came up with a white paper which provides comprehensive details about the robotic ships or the autonomous vessels and the problems associated with them as far as their operation is concerned... the AAWA whitepaper is developed by Rolls-Royce with the support of partners like ESL Shipping, Finferries, Brighthouse Intelligence and the Tampere University of Technology. The AAWA whitepaper talks extensively about autonomous applications, and the issues related to the safety and certainty of designing and running the distantly controlled ships."

So, there's some new terminology to learn. Obviously, manned ships include on-board human crews that operate all ship's functions. There are subtle but important differences between automated, remote-controlled, and autonomous ships. The Maritime Unmanned Navigation through Intelligent Networks (MUNIN) website provides some helpful definitions and diagrams:

"The remote ship is where the tasks of operating the ship are performed via a remote control mechanism (e.g. by a shore based human operator), and

The automated ship is where advanced decision support systems on board undertake all the operational decisions independently without intervention of a human operator."

I found this diagram helpful with understanding the different types of robotic ships:

MUNIN. Types of robotic ships. Click to view larger version

So, the remote human operator could be on land, on board another ship, or on board an airplane. And, remote-controlled ships will use augmented reality displays. Again, from Infinity Leap:

"According to reports, Rolls-Royce has developed a unique new bridge called ‘oX’ or the Future Operator Experience Concept in collaboration with Finland’s VTT Technical Research Centre and Aalto University. It is learned that the bridge’s windows serve as augmented reality displays, which help in displaying necessary information and improve the visibility around the ship with the support of high-end cameras and sensors. That means the augmented reality windows help in displaying navigation tracks and give necessary warnings and information about the ships sailing nearby, ice and a whole lot of other invisible things."

The MUNIN site also provides a view of how decisions might be made by autonomous ships:

MUNIN. Decision making by autonomous ships. Click to view larger version

All of this makes one wonder how much of this automation the passenger cruise ship industry will adopt. It is a reminder of the importance of applying similar distinctions in types of automation to land-based commercial vehicles: delivery vans, school buses, inter-city buses, tractor-trailers, buses and trains in mass-transit systems, and construction equipment.

Would you want your children riding in autonomous school buses? How do you feel about riding in autonomous mass-transit buses or subways? Commuter trains?

National Parks Celebrate Their 100th Anniversary

For your next vacation, consider visiting a national park. This summer, the United States National Park Service (NPS) celebrates 100 years of operations on August 25, 2016 with special discounts, programs, and events. The NPS was created to preserve:

“…unimpaired the natural and cultural resources and values of the National Park System for the enjoyment, education, and inspiration of this and future generations.”

When you visit a national park, you see what your ancestors saw. That includes trees, plants, wildlife, lakes, rivers, mountains, and glaciers. The NPS includes 411 areas covering all 50 States, plus the District of Columbia, American Samoa, Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands. These areas include national parks, monuments, battlefields, military parks, historical parks, historic sites, lake shores, seashores, recreation areas, scenic rivers, and trails.

The largest NPS site is Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve (Alaska) at 13.2 million acres. The smallest site is the Thaddeus Kosciuszko National Memorial (Pennsylvania) at 0.02 acres. 307 million people visited NPS sites during 2015. The NPS is a bureau of the U.S. Department of the Interior. It was created by an act signed by President Woodrow Wilson on August 25, 1916. The Director of the NPS is nominated by the President and confirmed by the U.S. Senate.

Some of the favorite national parks:

  • Yosemite National Park (California): this park is famous for outdoor activities including hiking, fishing, biking, camping, rock climbing, photography, and more
  • Mount Rushmore National Memorial (South Dakota): enjoy marvelous views of the 60-foot-tall heads of Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, Theodore Roosevelt, and Thomas Jefferson
  • Grand Canyon National Park (Arizona): view dazzling colors and the Colorado River, as it makes its way through the mile-deep canyon, which is 277 miles long and 18 miles wide
  • Glacier National Park (Montana): with more than 700 miles of trails, this park features pristine forests, alpine meadows, and majestic mountains
  • Volcanoes National Park (Hawaii): volcanoes created the Hawaiian islands, and the park features two massive volcanoes, Kīlauea and Mauna Loa, that erupt periodically with slow lava flows down the mountainside. Mauna Loa is 56,000 feet (17,000 meters) high, as measured from the sea floor.

The parks operate programs for adults, families, and children. Some of the programs for children include the Junior Rangers, Web Rangers, Every Kid in a Park, and mobile apps for citizen science. Check the NPS site for event times and locations.

View from atop Haleakala. Click to view larger version It is easy to combine a visit to a national park with a cruise vacation. My wife and I visited the Volcanoes National Park in 2004 during a cruise around the Hawaiian Islands. We sailed on Norwegian Cruise Line round-trip from Honolulu. At night, we saw red lava flows into the ocean. That cruise also included a port stop at the island of Maui, where we visited Haleakala National Park. Our bicycle ride down the mountainside started above the clouds.

In 2005, we visited Denali National Park and Preserve (Alaska) during a cruise-tour on Princess Cruises. A cruise-tour combines sea and land travel, so you see the best of everything – the inland wilderness, wildlife, glaciers, parks, and mountains. The land portion of our cruise-tour included 5 days and 4 nights traveling from Fairbanks to Anchorage, with hotel stays at several Princess Lodges across Alaska. The cruise-tour price included everything, and it was easy! The cruise line handled our luggage and checked us into each lodge. Then, our 7-night cruise sailed southbound from Whittier (near Anchorage) to Vancouver (British Columbia, Canada).

Southbound via train in Alaska. June, 2005 The land portion of our cruise-tour included travel by bus and train. If you love trains, this is a must-experience vacation. Each cruise line has their own rail cars with glass-domes, so you sit comfortably and easily watch the spectacular countryside pass by. The trains don't travel fast, which makes photography and filming easy. Some rail cars have open-air platforms for photographers wanting to avoid reflections created by glass windows.

Clear view of Mount Denali in 2005. Click to view larger image Before visiting Denali National Park, we stayed at the Denali Princess Wilderness Lodge. When you visit the park, allow enough time for the full-day tour. The park is massive, about the size of the State of New Hampshire. You won't see much if you book the half-day tour. We stayed the next night at the Mount McKinley Princess Wilderness Lodge, which featured a spectacular view of the mountain. We were lucky because clouds didn't obstruct views of Denali (a/k/a Mount McKinley).

View of the Grand Canyon from the South Rim. Click to view larger version During a trip to Las Vegas in 2012, we visited Grand Canyon National Park. The hotel offered an excursion package that included both air and bus travel. You could rent a car and drive, but short one-hour flight was faster and offered spectacular aerial views of Hoover Dam!

Words cannot describe the splendor and beauty of these national parks. If you haven’t visited a national park, I strongly encourage you to visit one this year. Don’t wait. You’ll be glad you did. Filmmaker and historian Ken Burns said it best in the title of his documentary series, "The National Parks: America's Best Idea."

If you don’t want to drive or fly, you can easily visit a park via train. Amtrak serves many NPS sites including Glacier, Grand Canyon, Yosemite, Everglades, Sequoia, Kings Canyon, Rocky Mountain, and more.

For the 100-year celebration, the national parks will waive entry fees for 16 days including August 25 through 28, September 24, and November 11. To find a national park near you, use the Find A Park search tool. To prevent damage to the environment, off-road vehicles are illegal with the national parks. And, leave your drone at home. The use of drones are banned in all national parks.

Which national parks have you visited?

Princess Lodge in Denali, Alaska

6 Tips To Protect Yourself From Callers Offering Energy Discount Scams

Recently, I received a phone call offering "discounts on my Eversource bill." The caller identified himself as "Kevin." I have no idea if that is his real name. Kevin explained that I could get discounts by giving him some simple personal information. His then asked for my ZIP Code.

Right. I was born at night, but not last night.

I told Kevin that I don't share my personal information over the phone without knowing who the caller is. I asked him to provide four items: a) his full name, b) his company name, c) his company's phone number, and d) his company's website address.

Kevin replied, "okay." The next thing I heard was a loud click as he hung up.

Now, there are real companies offering discounts on electric utilities. Clearly, Kevin was not one of them. After receiving robocalls before from energy scammers, I have learned to demand these four data elements before sharing any personal information on the phone.

Eversource logo To protect yourself and your money from scam artists, Eversource advises residential customers:

"1. Always verify whether these callers are legitimate by asking for some basic information about your account. Our representatives will always be able to provide the name on the account, the account address, and the exact past due balance.

2. Never immediately pay, regardless of what the caller knows about your account. If they request an immediate payment using a third-party service, at another location or via a prepaid debit card, hang up immediately and contact us directly to verify your account status.

3. If you are suspicious, hang up and call us ​at 800-592-2000. Also, please report this to your local law enforcement.

4. Never wire money to someone you don’t know – regardless of the situation. Once you wire money, you cannot get it back.

5. Do not accept offers from anyone, including those claiming to be Eversource employees, to pay your bill or provide any other service for a fee.

6. Do not click on links or call numbers that appear in unexpected emails or text messages – especially those asking for your account information. If you click on a link, your computer could become infected with malware, including viruses that can steal your information and compromise your computer."

And, learn how to spot these five energy scams. Demanding that the caller clearly and completely identify their self also seems to work.

NHTSA Investigates Fatal Crash Of Tesla Auto. Numerous Implications For Drivers

Several news sites reported that the fatal crash of a Tesla Motors model S car while operated in Autopilot mode. Tesla Motors released a statement about the incident:

"... NHTSA is opening a preliminary evaluation into the performance of Autopilot during a recent fatal crash that occurred in a Model S. This is the first known fatality in just over 130 million miles where Autopilot was activated. Among all vehicles in the US, there is a fatality every 94 million miles. Worldwide, there is a fatality approximately every 60 million miles... What we know is that the vehicle was on a divided highway with Autopilot engaged when a tractor trailer drove across the highway perpendicular to the Model S. Neither Autopilot nor the driver noticed the white side of the tractor trailer against a brightly lit sky, so the brake was not applied..."

Established in 1970, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is responsible for ensuring safety standards and safety on the nation's highways. Tesla's statement also described its Autopilot feature:

"... Tesla disables Autopilot by default and requires explicit acknowledgement that the system is new technology and still in a public beta phase before it can be enabled. When drivers activate Autopilot, the acknowledgment box explains, among other things, that Autopilot “is an assist feature that requires you to keep your hands on the steering wheel at all times," and that "you need to maintain control and responsibility for your vehicle” while using it. Additionally, every time that Autopilot is engaged, the car reminds the driver to “Always keep your hands on the wheel. Be prepared to take over at any time.” The system also makes frequent checks to ensure that the driver's hands remain on the wheel and provides visual and audible alerts if hands-on is not detected. It then gradually slows down the car until hands-on is detected again."

The Tesla site provides a general description of the Autopilot feature:

"Autopilot allows Model S to steer within a lane, change lanes with the simple tap of a turn signal, and manage speed by using active, traffic-aware cruise control. Digital control of motors, brakes, and steering helps avoid collisions from the front and sides, and prevents the car from wandering off the road. Autopilot also enables your car to scan for a parking space and parallel park on command. And our new Summon feature lets you "call" your car from your phone so it can come greet you at the front door in the morning. Autopilot features are progressively enabled over time with software updates."

This fatal crash has broad implications. The New York Times reported:

"The crash also casts doubt on whether autonomous vehicles in general can consistently make split-second, life-or-death driving decisions on the highway. And other companies are increasing investments in self-driving technology. Google, for example, recently announced plans to adapt 100 Chrysler minivans for autonomous driving. Earlier this year, G.M. acquired the software firm Cruise Automation to accelerate its own self-driving applications. Even as the companies conduct many tests on autonomous vehicles at both private facilities and on public highways, there is skepticism that the technology has progressed far enough for the government to approve cars that totally drive themselves."

In 2013, NHTSA defined five levels of automation in vehicles:

"No-Automation (Level 0): The driver is in complete and sole control of the primary vehicle controls – brake, steering, throttle, and motive power – at all times.

Function-specific Automation (Level 1): Automation at this level involves one or more specific control functions. Examples include electronic stability control or pre-charged brakes, where the vehicle automatically assists with braking to enable the driver to regain control of the vehicle or stop faster than possible by acting alone.

Combined Function Automation (Level 2): This level involves automation of at least two primary control functions designed to work in unison to relieve the driver of control of those functions. An example of combined functions enabling a Level 2 system is adaptive cruise control in combination with lane centering.

Limited Self-Driving Automation (Level 3): Vehicles at this level of automation enable the driver to cede full control of all safety-critical functions under certain traffic or environmental conditions and in those conditions to rely heavily on the vehicle to monitor for changes in those conditions requiring transition back to driver control. The driver is expected to be available for occasional control, but with sufficiently comfortable transition time. The Google car is an example of limited self-driving automation.

Full Self-Driving Automation (Level 4): The vehicle is designed to perform all safety-critical driving functions and monitor roadway conditions for an entire trip. Such a design anticipates that the driver will provide destination or navigation input, but is not expected to be available for control at any time during the trip. This includes both occupied and unoccupied vehicles."

Today's vehicles offer several safety automation features to assist drivers: Automatic Crash Notification (ACN), Automatic Emergency Braking (AEB), Electronic Stability Control (ESC), Forward Collision Warning (FCW), Lane Departure Warning (LDW), Lane Keeping Support, and Pedestrian Crash Avoidance/Mitigation. There are huge differences between autonomous automation and assisted-driving features.

There are big differences between Tesla cars and Google's self-driving car. Earlier this year, NHTSA granted the software in Google's driver-less cars as "driver" status. According to the Washington Post:

"... the law will treat the car's software as the driver. "We agree with Google its [self-driving vehicle] will not have a 'driver' in the traditional sense that vehicles have had drivers during the last more than one hundred years," the letter reads: "If no human occupant of the vehicle can actually drive the vehicle, it is more reasonable to identify the "driver" as whatever (as opposed to whoever) is doing the driving." The decision by NHTSA marks a huge moment for Google and the rest of the auto industry as it races to build the first fully autonomous motor vehicle. While most other carmakers are building their vehicles with steering wheels, brake pedals and other machinery in mind, Google imagines that its robot car will have none of these things."

The fatal Tesla accident is truly tragic. It is also a reminder for consumers to:

  • Know the differences between full autonomous automation and features that assist drivers,
  • Know the limitations of automation features including road conditions that require driver intervention,
  • Know which features are beta version (which means they are unfinished and still being tested), and
  • Read all applicable polices (e.g., terms of service, privacy) before and after purchasing a vehicle to understand your responsibilities and liability. Certain features and road conditions require driver intervention.

The features in automated vehicles depend upon software, and beta version software indicates software still being tested. Wise Geek provides a definition:

"The beta version of a software release is considered to be a preview; though it may include many standard features, it is not yet ready for wide release or sale. During this phase, the developers collect feedback from users about the product's functionality, including what they like and what should be changed before its wide release. A beta version of a program can be either "closed," which is limited to a specific group of users, or "open," which is available to the general public. During this testing, developers might release numerous versions of a program, including improvements and bug fixes with each iteration."

So, the software may have bugs or errors in it that affect the feature's performance and/or interaction with other features. And, government regulators seem satisfied with this. Reuters reported:

"Hours before the crash became public knowledge on Thursday, U.S. National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Christopher Hart said driverless cars will not be perfect. "There will be fatal crashes, that's for sure," Hart told the audience at the National Press Club in Washington, but added that will not derail the move toward driverless cars, even if the vehicles are not ready.. Former NHTSA chief Joan Claybrook said in an interview the agency needs to set performance standards for electronic systems like Autopilot. "It's the like Wild West. The regulatory system is not being used," Claybrook said."

It seems wise for consumers to know before purchase: a) the specific limitations of features (and associated sensors) using beta version software; b) when software testing will be completed and a final version available; c) if price discounts are available for features being tested; and d) if the limitations require more driver attention or driver intervention during specific road and/or weather conditions.

Also, a 2014 survey found that half of Americans don't know what a privacy policy is. It is difficult to find statistics about the percentage of users that read terms of service policies (a//k/a terms and conditions). The best estimate I've found is from 2008: 10 percent of consumers read terms of service policies. Even if that percentage is now double, it's still abysmal.

Should drivers place a lot of trust in features using beta version software? Do you view current regulatory activity as acceptable? Comments?

New Panama Canal Locks Opened on June 26

Lycaste Peace tanker in new locks. Click to view larger version On Sunday June 26, the new locks opened on the Panama Canal. The first freighter to sail through the new locks was the Chinese-owned Cosco Shipping Panama, carrying about 9,000 metal shipping containers. It left the Greek port of Piraeus on June 11 headed for a port in Asia. The second commercial ship was the liquid petroleum gas (LPG) tanker Lycaste Peace (pictured on right), owned by Japanese shipping company Nippon Yusen Kaisha (NYK Line). Originating from Houston, Texas, the Lycaste Peace is en route to the Port of Hitachi, Japan. The Panama Canal provides a far shorter sailing route for ships sailing between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.

Built in 1914, the original canal accommodates freighters carrying about 5,500 containers. The new locks, built along side the existing locks, can accommodate ships carrying 13,000 containers. The $5.25 billion canal expansion project included the new, larger Agua Clara locks on the Atlantic side, and a similar set on the Pacific side. The older locks, still in use, accommodate ships -- referred to as "Panamax" -- measuring up to 106 feet (32.3 meters) wide by 965 feet (294.1 meters) long with drafts up to 39.5 feet. The newer locks accommodate ships -- referred to as "neo-Panamax" -- measuring up to 160 feet (49 meters) wide by 1,200 feet (366 meters) long with drafts up to 50 feet (18.3 meters).

The Cosco Shipping Panama freighter is one of the newer neo-Panamax sized ships.

Diagram of locks. Click to view larger version The locks raise and lower ships by 85 feet, using gravity-fed water stored in Gatun Lake, a man-made reservoir. The older locks include Gatun (on the Atlantic side), and Pedro Miguel and Miraflores (on the Pacific side). While far bigger than the older locks, the newer locks use less water due to water-savings basins (details in diagram on right) that recycle 60 percent of the water used.

The Panama Canal Authority (ACP), an autonomous legal entity of the Republic of Panama, operates and manages the canal and the Canal Zone: the land area adjacent to the waterway. 75 percent of Panamanians approved the expansion project in a nation-wide referendum in 2006. Construction began in 2007. The ACP employs about 10,000 persons.

During the inauguration ceremony on Sunday, Panamanian President Juan Carlos Varela and Panama Canal Administrator and CEO Jorge L. Quijano spoke before a crowd of 25,000 jubilant Panamanians, ACP employees, foreign heads of state and dignitaries, canal customers, and shipping executives. Mr. Quijano said:

"More than 100 years ago, the Panama Canal connected two oceans. Today, we connect the present and the future... It is an honor to announce that what we did it together: providing this great connection to the world. This is the beginning of a new era."

About 40 cargo ships sail daily through the canal. Experts say that will increase to about 55. Most major cruise lines offer passenger ships sailing through the canal in either direction. The Panama Canal Railway operates passenger service along the canal.

Aerial view of a ship in the Panama Canal. Click to view larger version

Celebrating 9 Years Online!

Nine years ago today, I started the I've Been Mugged blog. Since then, plenty has occurred about identity theft, privacy, data breaches, and surveillance. This blog has been a good tool to organize news, resources, and observations.

First, I'd like to thank all I've Been Mugged readers. I am grateful for your readership and for the comments you have submitted. We have explored together many interesting topics.

Second, I'd like to thank the bloggers and the consumer advocates I've met online. Without their suggestions and encouragement, The quality of I've Been Mugged posts wouldn't be as high. Some bloggers I'd like to thank by name: Pogo Was Right, Garrett Cobarr, the Privacy Crusader, Michael Krigsman, Drew McLelland, and Ronni Bennett (who leads by example far more than she realizes).

Third, it is a time for me to thank  my guest authors, and to remember Bill Seebeck, who passed away this past December. That was a shock and a great loss. I valued greatly Bill's deep experience in banking and public relations.

And, I especially want to thank my wife, Alison. Without her support and flexibility, I couldn't write I've Been Mugged.

What's next? The rapid,constant pace of technological change means there will be plenty of news about privacy, the Internet of Things (ioT), threats from hackers and government surveillance. Broadband Internet services continue to evolve, so news about the FCC, Net Neutrality, and community broadband will continue to be hot topics, too. If it's a controversial issue that has privacy concerns, we'll cover it.

If you are a new visitor, there are several easy ways to explore the blog:

  • The right column includes a tag cloud with subjects
  • The right column also includes featured blog posts
  • If you don't see a topic you want, try the search box on the right
  • To find older blog posts, select Archives in either the top horizontal navigation bar or in the footer navigation bar
  • The right column includes a list of recent blog posts with comments by readers. Join a discussion today!
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