As the Ruble Plummets, Apple Suspends Online Sales in Russia

Apple iPad Release

Apple has suspended online sales in Russia, blaming extreme fluctuations in the value of the ruble.

As reported by Bloomberg, Russian sales represent a small percentage of Apple’s overall sales. Only 1.57 million out of 153.4 million of the iPhone 6 units it sold in 2013 were in Russia, according to an IDC report cited by Bloomberg. But the move indicates that Russia’s ruble crisis is affected companies across the globe.

The value of the ruble dropped by about 19 percent in about 24 hours on Monday, due largely to falling global oil and natural gas prices, as well as international sanctions against Russia.

The Ruble has been in decline for months, but previously, Apple dealt with currency fluctuations in Russia in different ways. Last month, Bloomberg reports, the company hiked iPhone prices by 25 percent.

“Our online store in Russia is currently unavailable while we review pricing,” Apple spokesperson Alan Helywrote wrote in an email statement sent to Bloomberg. “We apologize to customers for any inconvenience.”

Probing bacterial resistance to a class of natural antibiotics

Antimicrobial peptides are a distinctive class of potent, broad-spectrum antibiotics produced by the body's innate immune system -- the first line of defense against disease-causing microbes.

In a new study, Yixin Shi, Ph.D., and Wei Kong, Ph.D., researchers in the Center for Infectious Diseases and Vaccinology at Arizona State University's Biodesign Institute, explore the clever techniques used by bacteria to survive destruction from antimicrobial peptides -- potent defense factors produced by all living forms, including humans.

Professor Shi underscores the importance of antimicrobial peptides in the pitched battle against multi-drug resistant bacteria:

"All bacteria treated with conventional antibiotics will develop antibiotic resistance," he says. "But antimicrobial peptides have a unique function. Many of them target the bacterial membrane, making it very difficult for bacteria to develop resistance." After fusing with the invasive bacteria's membrane, antimicrobial peptides cause membrane leakage, leading to cell destruction or lysis.

The researchers describe one strategy bacteria have evolved to try to shield themselves from the effects of antimicrobial peptides, allowing the pathogens to survive efforts to eradicate them. A two-component system, used by pathogenic invaders like E coli and Salmonella, facilitates expression of multi-drug pumps that can remove antimicrobial peptides from the bacterium's cytoplasm.

The study's findings suggest that if this two-component system could be disabled, disease-causing bacteria would fall victim to the lethal effects of antimicrobial peptides. The research helps open the door to the clinical application of these powerful antibiotics at a time when such novel therapeutics are desperately needed to stem the tide of bacterial resistance.

Scientific collaborators from ASU's School of Life Sciences as well as researchers from the College of Life Sciences, Inner Mongolia University, China and the State Key Laboratory of Pharmaceutical Biotechnology, Nanjing University, China join Drs. Shi and Kong.

The group's research results recently appeared in the Journal of Biological Chemistry.

A tool in Nature's arsenal

The bactericidal properties of antimicrobial peptides were first discovered when researchers sought to determine how frogs could live healthy lives in bacteria-rich ponds, seemingly immune to infection. As it happens, a frog's skin is covered with antimicrobial peptides, which lyse the bacteria they come in contact with, thereby protecting these animals.

Antimicrobial peptides have lately become the focus of intense investigations aimed at unlocking their intriguing properties. It is hoped that in the future, naturally occurring antimicrobial peptides may be used as templates for a whole new range of custom-designed therapeutics against pathogens currently resistant to mainline antibiotics.

Perhaps the most significant barriers to such an approach are the clever strategies used by bacterial pathogens to outmaneuver antimicrobial peptides and fight another day. While professor Shi studies the ways bacteria fortify themselves against antimicrobial peptides, professor Kong explores how the bacterial resistance system may be weakened, allowing the antimicrobial peptide to function better.

Antimicrobial peptides target bacterial cells by exploiting a characteristic of their membrane physiology. Bacterial cells are prokaryotic -- lacking a cell nucleus. They differ from nucleated or eukaryotic cells, (like those found in humans), in another critical respect: the membranes of bacterial cells carry a negative electrical charge compared with eukaryotic cells, which are positively charged.

This fact allows the positively charged antimicrobial peptides produced by host cells to bind with negatively charged bacterial membranes. (These positively charged natural antibiotics are often known as CAMPs, for cationic antimicrobial peptides.) As professor Kong explains, "the antimicrobial peptide then acts like a needle to pierce the bacterial cell." Various CAMPs are capable of targeting not only bacteria, but parasites, viruses, fungi and other invasive life forms.

The bugs strike back

Bacterial cells, however, have a few tricks of their own. Using the two-component system described in the new study, they are able to remove antimicrobial peptides, blocking their bactericidal effect. This two-component system -- labeled CpxR/CpxA -- is thought to be a very ancient adaptation, possibly used to thwart early antimicrobial peptides, which are believed to have arisen since these pathogens first developed an ability to invade their hosts.

Intriguingly, the authors suggest that the same mechanism may be used by pathogenic bacteria to pump out a broad range of human-designed antibiotics as well. The two-component system also performs a variety of important housekeeping functions, for example, helping bacterial cells maintain the structure of their envelope and insulating them from heat shock.

In the current study, a genome-wide susceptibility assay was used to pinpoint specific genes that facilitate E. coli resistance to a specific CAMP known as protamine. To do this, the researchers made use of the Keio Collection, a vast bacterial library containing over 4000 individual mutants of E. coli. The team isolated 115 bacterial strains bearing a single deletion at a site known or predicted to affect susceptibility to protamine.

One bacterial candidate bearing deletion of a gene encoding an outer membrane component showed high susceptibility to protamine, compared with the wild-type E. coli. This gene, known as tolC, appears to be a vital constituent, helping E. coli remove protamine. The authors believe this novel mechanism initiated by a multidrug resistance cascade likely plays a role in bacterial resistance to other CAMPs.

When bacterial cells in the study were challenged with 1.0 mg/ml of protamine, roughly 40 percent of the wild-type strain survived. By contrast, the mutants bearing specific gene deletions showed heightened susceptibility to protamine, with the tolC mutant being killed completely (0 percent survival) by the same dose of protamine. Further, only 4.4 percent of the tolC mutants survived low dose (.5 mg/ml) protamine challenge.

New drugs for resisting resistance

Despite promising research, there is much more work to be done before the power of these unique antibiotics can be harnessed for clinical use. While CAMPs tend to target the negative surface charge of bacterial cell membranes, they sometimes prove cytotoxic to various host cells as well.

Antimicrobial peptides are sensitive to host proteases and also remain relatively expensive. If the bacterial resistance system can be overridden however, the bactericidal properties of CAMPs will improve and lower doses would be required for effectiveness, limiting the threat to healthy cells while reducing cost. Improving CAMP specificity for bacterial membranes will also enhance their effectiveness.

The results of the current study offer important insights into mechanisms of bacterial resistance to antimicrobial peptides like protamine while supplying tantalizing clues as to how the system might be disrupted. In the future, antimicrobial peptides may be developed into single-dose therapeutic agents capable of targeting multiple pathogenic forms including bacteria, fungi, viruses, etc. Further, combining CAMPs with existing antibiotics offers the possibility of designing a weapon with synergistic effects against infectious invaders.

Bacterial resistance continues its perilous ascent and is now considered a major threat to public health at a time when development of new drugs to address aggressive pathogens has slowed to a crawl. Antimicrobial peptides open a new vista in the continuing war against disease-causing bacteria and other threats to human health.

Commensal bacteria were critical shapers of early human populations

Using mathematical modeling, researchers at New York and Vanderbilt universities have shown that commensal bacteria that cause problems later in life most likely played a key role in stabilizing early human populations. The finding, published in mBio®, the online open-access journal of the American Society for Microbiology, offers an explanation as to why humans co-evolved with microbes that can cause or contribute to cancer, inflammation, and degenerative diseases of aging.

The work sprung from a fundamental question in biology about senescence, or aging past the point of reproduction. "Nature has a central problem--it must have a way to remove old individuals, whether fish or trees or people," says Martin Blaser, microbiologist at New York University Langone Medical Center in New York City. "Resources are always limited. And young guys are ultimately competing with older ones."

In most species, individuals die shortly after the reproductive phase. But humans are weird--we have an extra long senescence phase. Blaser began to think about the problem from the symbiotic microbe's point of view and he came up with a hypothesis: "The great symbionts keep us alive when we are young, then after reproductive age, they start to kill us." They are part of the biological clock of aging.

In other words, he hypothesized that evolution selected for microbes that keep the whole community of hosts healthy, even if that comes with a cost to an individual host's health.

Modeling of early human population dynamics could tell him if he was on the right track. Blaser worked together with his collaborator Glenn Webb, professor of mathematics at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, to define a mathematical model of an early human population, giving it characteristics similar to a time 500-100,000 years ago, when the human population consisted of sparse, isolated communities.

Webb came up with a non-linear differential equation to describe the variables involved, their rates of change over time, and the relationship between those rates. "It can reveal something that's not quite appreciated or intuitive, because it sorts out relationships changing in time," even with many variables, such as age-dependent fertility rates and mortality rates, changing simultaneously, explains Webb.

Using this baseline model, the team could tweak the conditions to see what happened to the population dynamics. For example, they increased the fertility rate from roughly six children per female to a dozen, proposing that this might be one way for populations to overcome the burden of senescence, by boosting juvenile numbers. Instead, they were surprised to see that this created wild oscillations in total population size over time--an unstable scenario.

"You could imagine if something bad happens during a low point, like a drought, then the population crashes or might be extinguished," says Blaser. Over time, the increased fertility rate adds to the pressure that a larger population of older people puts on the juveniles due to limited resources. Likewise, when Blaser and Webb plugged parameters into the model that greatly increased mortality from a microbial infection akin to Shigella, which primarily kills children, the population crashed to zero.

Next they set juvenile mortality to a constant, low level and senescent mortality risk was set to increase each year with age--a condition that mimics certain symbiotic bacteria such as Helicobacter pylori that can become harmful in old age. This model exhibited a stable population equilibrium.

"By preferentially knocking off older individuals, you get a robust population, and this is what Nature is doing," says Blaser. Now, though, the legacy of co-evolving with such microbes has become a burden as longevity stretches out, because some of these microbes contribute to inflammatory and degenerative diseases. Recognizing that our own once-beneficial microbes might be the agents of mortality in later life, could lead to better preventives or treatments for diseases of aging.

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The above story is based on materials provided by American Society for Microbiology . Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.

People's genes may influence 'gut' bacteria that cause Crohn's disease, ulcerative colitis

A new study by an international team of researchers shows for the first time that people's genes may have an influence over some of the intestinal bacteria that cause Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis, collectively know as inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). The study, recently published in Genome Medicine, also confirmed that antibiotics could worsen the imbalance in the gut microbes.

About 1.6 million Americans suffer from Crohn's disease or ulcerative colitis, according to the Crohn's and Colitis Foundation of America. Understanding the causes of these diseases is another step toward prevention and treatment.

"The intestinal bacteria, or 'gut microbiome,' you develop at a very young age, can have a big impact on your health for the rest of your life," said the study's lead author Dan Knights, a University of Minnesota assistant professor in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering and the Biotechnology Institute. "We have found groups of genes that may play a role in shaping the development of imbalanced gut microbes."

Knights and his colleagues at the University of Minnesota worked with collaborators at Harvard, MIT, University of Toronto and University Medical Center Groningen in one of the largest international studies of its kind. The researchers examined three independent cohorts of a total of 474 adults with IBD who live in Boston, Mass. (USA); Toronto, Ontario (Canada); and Groningen (Netherlands). Doctors and nurses in those locations collected samples of DNA from each human subject and the DNA of their intestinal bacteria over about a two-year period. The researchers looked at thousands of microbial species and human genes.

The results, which were replicated across two or more cohorts, showed that the human subjects' DNA was linked to the bacteria in their intestines. Patients with IBD had lower biodiversity of bacteria and more opportunistic bacteria. This is an important step in developing drug treatments that target certain genes or certain products derived from the intestinal bacteria.

The intestinal community of bacteria is a complex system that is not only affected by genetics, but also by age, gender, medication and other factors. For example, this study confirmed that use of antibiotics is associated with a greater imbalance in the bacterial community in the intestines. Previous studies have shown links between human gut bacteria and increased risk of a wide variety of diseases including diabetes, autism, heart disease, and even some forms of cancer.

"In many cases we're still learning how these bacteria influence our risk of disease, but understanding the human genetics component is a necessary step in unraveling the mystery," Knights said.

The research was funded in part by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the National Science Foundation, the Crohn's and Colitis Foundation of America, and the Crohn's and Colitis Foundation of Canada.

In addition to the University of Minnesota, authors of the study were from the Broad Institute of Harvard and MIT, Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto, University Medical Center Groningen in the Netherlands, University of Toronto, and the Harvard School of Public Health.

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The above story is based on materials provided by University of Minnesota . Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.

Discovery aims to fight destructive bee disease

University of Guelph researchers hope their new discovery will help combat a disease killing honeybee populations around the world.

The researchers have found a toxin released by the pathogen that causes American foulbrood disease -- Paenibacillus larvae (P. larvae) -- and developed a lead-based inhibitor against it.

The study was published in the December issue of the Journal of Biological Chemistry.

The finding provides much-needed insight into how the infection occurs, said Rod Merrill, a professor in Guelph's Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology and a study co-author.

It also could lead to natural and more effective approaches for fighting the most widespread and destructive of bee brood diseases.

"We are the first to do this," said Merrill, who conducted the study with graduate student Daniel Krska. Also involved were post-doctoral researchers Ravi Ravulapalli and Miguel Lugo, technician Tom Keeling, and Harvard Medical School's Rob Fieldhouse.

American foulbrood is found throughout Ontario and Canada, and affects both the honeybee industry and pollinator populations. Honeybees are among the world's most important pollinators, and their numbers are already falling globally because of disease, pesticide use, climate change and other factors.

The disease spreads readily through spores transmitted within and between colonies by adult bee carriers, Merrill said.

Developing larvae are infected by eating the spores. The larvae die but not before releasing millions of additional spores into the colony. As well, the hive's weakened state attracts "robber bees" looking for honey, which then spread the disease to other colonies.

Treating American foulbrood is complicated because the disease has evolved over decades. "Antibiotics are not working well to contain it," Merrill said. "There are antibiotic-resistant strains flying around, so to speak."

The only effective control method is to burn the hive and associated equipment, as the spores may remain viable for 40 years.

"Antibiotics are failing not only humans but bees as well," Merrill said.

"Our approach is designing tools that disarm bacteria without killing them. It does not put pressure on them to mutate because it's not threatening their survival, it's just saying, 'You cannot hurt us, go away.'"

The Guelph researchers identified a toxin, C3larvin, believed to be necessary for the bacteria to colonize a hive.

"Basically, if we can disarm it, it cannot colonize and cannot cause infection in honeybee larvae. It becomes innocuous," Merrill said.

This initial study only identified and characterized the toxin. "We don't yet know how important C3larvin is as a virulence factor in P. larvae in infecting honeybee larvae," he said.

"Once we know what it does, we can inhibit it and that will help protect the bees from this bacterium that is killing their larvae."

The Guelph team plans to begin field studies on honeybees next spring with the Institute of Bee Research in Hohen Neuendorf, Germany.

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The above story is based on materials provided by University of Guelph . Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.

The Second Coming of D’Angelo Makes for an Extra-Nasty Playlist



Stop us if you’ve heard this one before: A prodigiously talented artist disappears for 14 years, teases us with rumors and a GQ profile, then announces and drops an album in a dizzying 48-hour span. We’re guessing you didn’t stop us, because this has literally never happened. But unprecedented or not, D’Angelo’s Black Messiah is finally here. And it’s glorious. If we could, we’d make it the entire playlist this week, but we can’t. (But here’s the Spotify link if you want to just listen to that. It’s okay, we don’t blame you.)

It’s fine, though, because it’s actually a pretty great week for new music. Jonny Greenwood’s soundtrack for Inherent Vice is here, and there are new tracks from How to Dress Well, Spooky Black, and bubbling Chicago rapper Lucki Eck$ (accompanied by Chance, which is always a good thing). Check it out between Black Messiah listens; you won’t be sorry.

As usual, we’ve added the tracks to our ongoing Spotify playlist of great new music, and created a standalone playlist (below). Keep the recommendations coming.

The tracks:

How to Dress Well, “Tomb For Anatole”

Shigeto, “Tide Pools”

Corbin, “Worn”

Jonny Greenwood, “Spooks”

Anna of the North, “Oslo”

Petite Noir, “Chess”

D’Angelo, “Sugah Daddy”

Lucki Eck$ feat. Chance the Rapper, “Stevie Wonder”

I Love Makonnen, “Swerve”

Lupe Fiasco feat. Nikki Jean, “Madonna [And Other Mothers in the Hood]”

Can Wearables Bring Efficiency to the Enterprise?


dakine kane/Flickr

It might be tempting to ignore wearables as some kind of geek fad, but businesses can’t risk ignoring how wearable technology is disrupting industries. On its own, Google Glass may not have generated the same mass consumer adoption that triggered corporate IT to accommodate BYOD or social media use, but Apple’s recent partnership with IBM lays the foundation for a massive influx of new end user devices that offer exciting new ways of performing workday tasks. How so?

Both companies respective market share provides the other with new in-roads – IBM capitalizing on BYOD and Apple getting a bigger enterprise play. The deal may have come at exactly the right time to cause a wearables explosion among businesses.

Apparently, Google thinks this is a viable growth strategy and announced a similar initiative to partner with startups to integrate Google Glass into operating models. Both manufacturers are looking to accelerate wearable adoption in corporate America, pushing communication and collaboration to new boundaries. And they’ve got the right idea. We are in the throws of a digital transformation that is changing customer demands; wearables offer a better way to meet those demands.

There are many compelling applications for wearable devices that have the potential to touch every industry but I see particularly compelling cases for wearables in the contact center and in collaboration environments. As technology advances, wearables will predictably become an interesting communication tool.

The basic function of any multichannel contact center is the ability to quickly and intelligently route data to the best person or people available to take action. Without the ability to route wearables-produced data somewhere for processing or to an expert to take action, wearables would be nothing more than disconnected toys. With intelligent routing, the practical business applications of wearables are seemingly endless.

Customer facing, wearables provide a new way for consumers to interface with service representatives meeting customers on their terms. This can lead to increased customer loyalty and the potential for new customer adoption. From a business stand point it leads to greater efficiency. Take financial services, by integrating a video strategy possibly enabled by Google Glass, banks can cut costs though centralizing and reducing customer service staff (especially in low-traffic regions) to call center locations where they can take inquiries from customers across the nation through either an app or a video-enabled ATM. This can lead to another benefit: extended service hours.

Employee facing, wearables can help with everyday tasks. For example, a headset that takes biometric readings could alert a contact center supervisor to listen in on a call when a customer service representative’s blood pressure and pulse suddenly increase. A wristband with an RFID chip might automatically log an agent out of a workstation when he or she leaves their desk for lunch, avoiding incoming calls to an agent’s empty desk. Problematic situations can be more easily identified and quickly resolved. These applications can lead to real savings, greater efficiency and a better experience for the customer. And they are just the beginning.

Like any technology, it has to work nearly effortlessly in order to be truly useful. Lack of a solid, supporting infrastructure will severely limit the benefits of wearables, something the Apple-IBM partnership seems to solve. In that regard, wearables are no different than other collaboration technologies that have come before, such as email, voice conferencing or video conferencing. These technologies required solid investment in order to make them viable business tools. A flexible, secure infrastructure provides the freedom to create new business and applications that manifest through the user’s wearable device.

So the question is: Are you going to help build the future or just watch it happen from your mobile device? The window of opportunity for companies to help usher in new models and devices for competitive advantage has cracked open. Miss it at your own risk.

Valentine Matula, Ph.D. is senior director and head of Emerging Products and Technology at Avaya.

Former Employees Are Suing Sony Over ‘Epic Nightmare’ Hack

The Sony Pictures Entertainment headquarters in Culver City, Calif. on Tuesday, Dec. 2, 2014.

The Sony Pictures Entertainment headquarters in Culver City, Calif. on Tuesday, Dec. 2, 2014. Nick Ut/AP

The plot of the Sony hack drama has taken a new turn.

Two former employees of Sony Pictures Entertainment filed a class-action lawsuit against the studio giant on Monday for failing to properly secure sensitive employee data.

The recent widespread breach of Sony has resulted in the theft and release of documents exposing Social Security numbers and birth dates of employees as well as information about medical conditions. The workers say the company had not only a duty to protect their data but a strict legal responsibility to secure medical information under California law.

Calling the breach an “epic nightmare, much better suited to a cinematic thriller than real life,” the plaintiffs also say that Sony failed to adequately notify former workers who may have been affected by the breach.

“Put simply, Sony knew about the risks it took with its past and current employees’ data,” the plaintiffs wrote in their suit. “Sony gambled, and its employees—past and current—lost.”

Sony has been hacked before, which could help bolster the plaintiff’s claims about lax security. In 2011, members of Anonymous and LulzSec tore through the company’s networks—first going after its PlayStation Network, where they stole data pertaining to more than 75 million customers. A second breach at Sony Online Entertainment compromised an additional 25 million customers. Sony Pictures and Sony BMG were also struck. Those breaches affected customers, not employees, but they work in the plaintiff’s favor to show that Sony might have had ongoing security problems that it failed to fix. Internal Sony documents leaked by the hackers in the current breach indicate that Sony’s security was still lax despite previous hacks. The leaks include data sheets listing servers holding unencrypted Social Security numbers and passwords for employees and others, as well as emails discussing a breach the company had in February that may or may not have been part of the wider breach exposed last month.

It’s not unusual for companies that suffer breaches, such as Target, to find themselves besieged by lawsuits. Generally, however, these lawsuits have involved stolen credit cards or other personal information that could result in fraudulent charges or identity theft. Courts have thrown out many of these suits for lack of standing; with banks assuming liability for fraudulent charges made to stolen bank card accounts, victims cannot prove damage, and unless there is actual proof of identity theft, the mere potential for harm has been insufficient in most cases to successfully sue. There’s an exception to this: a class-action suit around a breach at Adobe could prove useful for the Sony plaintiffs. In the Adobe case, a California court declined to throw out the suit, saying the plaintiffs had standing because they suffered an impending threat of harm after their data was posted online.

Sony employees and former employees could argue they also suffer an impending threat, since sensitive data about employees has already been publicly released by the hackers.

“The [Adobe] case signals that the courts are ready to start … recognizing new types of harm that security breaches and inadequate security measures cause or trigger,” says Princeton law professor Andrea Matwyshyn. “We’re seeing courts more willing to entertain these kinds of lawsuits because the problems are real—particularly if you have evidence of a history of known security flaws that went unfixed a court would be more likely to consider a suit by employees or other harmed parties.”

“Sony gambled, and its employees—past and current—lost.”

But the Sony case may also have staying power that other cases haven’t had because employers have a duty of care for their employees that go beyond the duty to customers, she says.

“This is untested territory,” says Matwyshyn, a professor with Princeton’s Center for Information Technology Policy, “but employers are held to a higher standard of care with respect to the safety of their employees. Employers, for example, are responsible for providing a safe work environment of their employees and there are OSHA rules around the physical safety of employees. So it is arguably a natural extension that heightened levels of care would also extend to data management questions because of that trusted relationship.”

She’s not aware of other cases involving public companies that are similar to the Sony case, saying this is a new area of litigation that is bound to grow. Although the financial records of employees are sensitive, the medical information involved in the breach raises new questions that could affect other companies involved in breaches, she says. Although Sony is not a health-care entity as it’s defined under the federal statute HIPPA, which governs the security of medical records, California may have stricter laws about medical records that would apply to Sony. As an international company, Sony could also face problems in Europe where data-protection laws can be fierce.

Matwyshyn notes, also, that employees might not be Sony’s only worry. Other suits could follow from Sony business partners, shareholders, celebrities and others if they claim the release of emails exposing sensitive information about business deals and private matters caused them harm.

“We’re seeing the first traction of these types of embedded business relationships giving rise to data-breach litigation,” she says. “This will continue and that is the sort of situation that might have life [in a court].”

An App That Can Instantly Identify Any Car (At Least Half the Time)


Screenshot: State Farm

So you’re shopping for a car. You’ve been browsing online, talking to friends, and actually paying attention to TV commercials, yet you still haven’t seen anything you really like. And then it happens: Something zips past you on the street and you’re awestruck. “That,” you think. “That I’m into.”

But you have no idea what it is. No worries. Chase it down, snap a photo from the back, and upload it to Car Capture. The free app, created by State Farm, needs just seconds to identify the make, model and year of the car and a pile of other helpful info.

The only problem is the app is wrong about half the time.

Car Capture, for Android and iOS, has a pretty simple premise: State Farm created a database of photos of more than 1,000 cars (counting each model year as a different vehicle) made since 2000. Sadly for those who love the classics, there’s no plan to catalog older cars, says State Farm’s Jack Weekes, because “there’s just a practical point of effort versus reward.” There simply aren’t many people in the market for a 15-year-old daily driver.

The app is easy to use: Take a photo of the back of a car and upload it. The app uses computer vision algorithms to match the features of the car you photographed against cars in its database. Rear ends are better than profiles because the back of a car tends to have more distinctive styling and it’s the view you’re most likely to have in a parking lot. After a few seconds, the app spits out the model and year of the car you’re looking at, along with information from Edmunds about the vehicle’s safety rating, available options, and consumer reviews. Of course, there’s a handy link to get a quote for insurance or financing from State Farm.

An app like this is a clever, fun way to get your name in front of customers and provide helpful information. Sadly, it’s not that accurate. Out of 15 cars I photographed, it got seven correct, including a Chevrolet Volt, Range Rover Sport HSE, Jeep Grand Cherokee, and Subaru Forester. On eight, it came close. It called a regular Fiat 500 the Fiat 500 Abarth and mixed up the BMW 320i and 328i. It elevated a standard Smart Fortwo to an electric Fortwo cabriolet and called an Audi A4 sedan a two-door A4 convertible. One, it totally bombed, declaring that the Subaru WRX hatchback in front of me was in fact an Impreza sedan. Bonus round: It turns out putting a large bike rack on a Volkswagen makes it look like an Audi. That’s not great, considering that on most of these, the specific model name is actually written on the back.

But that’s OK! First of all, the app is directed at the casual car customer who may need help figuring out if he’s looking at a Hyundai or a Mazda—that, it can handle. Secondly, the app, which is reminiscent of Songza, could follow the same trajectory as the music identification app: Underwhelming at first, but better with time. State Farm is planning on updating and growing the database, so there’s reason to believe Car Capture will get smarter and more accurate with time.

The Google News Shutdown in Spain Is An Empty Victory for Publishers

Image: Google

Image: Google

We call it the “Google News bump.” When a story on gets a link on the front page of Google News, traffic skyrockets. Readers click. Ads are served.

But in Spain, at least, the Google News bump is no more. On Tuesday, Google shut down Google News in Spain in response to a law that requires news aggregators to pay a fee for the right to post snippets of stories. Big Spanish publishers pushed for the law, but their math is hard to fathom. Without Google News, they get no bump, nor do they get any fee. Trying to stick it to Google is an understandable impulse, a resentment fed by the company’s monolithic influence over the web. But all the shutdown really shows is how powerless traditional publishers really are.

José Gabriel González, the director of the Spanish publishers’ association that pushed for the law, told The Wall Street Journal that his group didn’t expect to see much of an impact from Google News going dark in Spain. Overall, group members were getting about five percent of their traffic from Google News, according to the Journal.

Well, okay. But where I work, at least, a five percent traffic dip wouldn’t exactly something to celebrate, much less lobby lawmakers to effectively codify. And as GigaOm’s Matthew Ingram says, the damage could be worse. The chief data scientist at Chartbeat, a web service many publishers use to monitor real-time reader traffic, told Ingram that the average falloff in the hours since the Google News shutdown was more like 10 to 15 percent.

Nothing to Smile About

In the US, a combination of fair use and the First Amendment means a law like Spain’s would likely never fly. In any case, US publishers have long since turned their attention to trying to figure out how to get the best placement on massive traffic-driving services—Google News, Facebook, Twitter, Reddit—rather than regulate those links out of existence. Europe, on the other hand has shown a much greater appetite for using the law to try to break Google’s dominance.

But no law is likely to undo the technological changes that have made what traditional publishers do less valuable. Tech industry big thinker Ben Thompson, writing on his site Stratechery, describes the “smiling curve” of publishing, where value is created by the individuals who create content and the big aggregators that help readers discover it. Publishers, meanwhile, languish in the trough of “content delivery,” which the web makes trivially easy. “In short,” Thompson writes, publishers (all of them, not just newspapers) don’t really have an exclusive on anything anymore.”

Spain’s publishers may feel like they’ve struck a blow against Google, but the demand for the service it provides won’t go away. The currency of online publishing is attention, and attention on the internet inevitably flows toward aggregation. Publishers could try to capture some of that flow by creating alternatives to Google News, but any dam built against it just won’t hold. If there’s anything the internet as a medium is good at, it’s finding ways to go around.

T-Mobile Lets You Roll Over Your Data From Month to Month


Tim Moynihan/WIRED

AT&T offers rollover minutes and Verizon offers a prepaid plan with rollover 3G data. Now T-Mobile is trying to trump them both with its latest “Un-carrier” gambit. The carrier’s latest deal-sweetener involves 4G rollover data that can accumulate and be used for up to a year.

In a press release, T-Mobile CEO and president John Legere likened the use-it-or-lose-it data plans of competing carriers to “siphoning unused gas from your car each month.”

T-Mobile calls it “Data Stash,” and the carrier is tacking a free 10GB of 4G LTE data onto compatible plans. According to the T-Mobile site, the rollover plan and free data offer is eligible for Simple Choice plans of 3GB or greater. It’ll be available for new customers and existing customers with eligible plans starting in January.

The cheapest plan will likely be the Simple Choice 3GB package, which will cost $60 per month. In addition to the 3GB base data, T-Mobile will add another 10GB for a total of 13GB that can roll over to subsequent months if it isn’t used up.

While Verizon has a rollover data plan as part of its “Allset” prepaid plan, users are limited to 3G networks for their data needs. An MVNO called Pure TalkUSA also had a data-rollover plan for a limited time over the past year, but there’s no more data-rollover option on its plans. That makes T-Mobile the only carrier to offer a monthly data-rollover plan at 4G LTE speeds.

Believe It: Co-Working Space Startup WeWork Is Now Worth $5B



WeWork, the New York City-based startup that rents office space to entrepreneurs across the country, has just raised a $355 million round of funding. The deal values the company at a whopping $5 billion, according to The Wall Street Journal.

It’s a steep price for what is essentially an office leasing company. But WeWork’s business model, which combines real estate with technology, plays into the “sharing economy” trend that has captivated investors in recent years, thanks to hit companies like Uber and Airbnb. Both companies infused established industries (car services and vacation rentals) with a high tech touch, and as a result, both companies have garnered valuations far beyond their established predecessors (taxi and limo services and hotels). And so it goes with WeWork.

In addition to its massive physical footprint, which includes spaces in eight cities, across three countries, with more on the way, WeWork also recently debuted its own social network, called WeWork Commons. It’s similar to LinkedIn, in that it’s a business networking site, but it focuses on people in the earliest stages of business, offering members additional perks like access to office space, discounted services, and local events.

As Kakul Srivastava, WeWork’s chief product officer, told WIRED when WeWork Commons launched, the goal is to accommodate all the people who fill up the waiting lists for WeWork’s co-working spaces. “We literally cannot build our physical space fast enough,” she said. “We got the feeling that there is much larger demand than we could possibly serve doing business as usual.”

Now, however, WeWork has a lot more money to build a lot more office space too. “We happen to need buildings just like Uber happens to need cars, just like Airbnb happens to need apartments,” WeWork co-founder Adam Neumann told the Journal.

But WeWork’s approach is substantially riskier than Uber’s or Airbnb’s. Unlike either of those companies, which essentially act as marketplaces for independent drivers and home owners, WeWork leases all the physical space, itself, and for now, that’s working out well for the company. Thanks to a cushy investing environment for startups, many of the entrepreneurs who occupy WeWork’s spaces are capable of raising the money to afford these high end office spaces.

So it’s no wonder WeWork’s getting while the getting’s good. The question is: what happens when the money dries up or—dare we say it—the bubble bursts?

Can We Trust Drug Companies? The Future of Healthcare May Depend On It

Electronic Medical Record Research

MC 4 Army/Flickr

Providers’ relationship with life science companies has been difficult, to say the least. But it has become clear that to move the needle on improving healthcare, these stakeholders will have to learn to work together. Providers guard a wealth of physiological data on patient populations within their Electronic Health Records (EHRs).

Life science companies have the quality-oriented information about clinical trials, drug effectiveness in specific populations, drugs distribution and how or when patients use their medication. However, due to a history of distrust built from various misperceptions, providers have been wary of working with life science companies and looking at EHRs as more than a reform requirement.

This is further complicated by the fact that providers see EHRs merely as data repositories, rather than tools for enabling improved care. History aside, life science companies and providers have the opportunity to reshape the future of care. And believe it or not, EHR companies are the best positioned to facilitate this union.

Seeing the 360 Degree View of the Patient

EHRs can combine life science data around prescriptions, pharmacies and drug distribution, clinical trial results and drug effectiveness in specific populations with a patient’s medical history to allow physicians to get a fuller view of the patient’s medical history and which drugs will work best, potentially improving diagnosis and treatment plans.

Using Objective Knowledge to Improve Course of Treatment

While physicians have good knowledge about disease therapy, their judgment about when a therapy needs to be changed is based on the patient’s subjective feedback. For example, a diabetes patient who is on insulin pills may require injection therapy, but a doctor can only determine that change once they see deterioration through blood reports, or if a patient says they not feeling well. Life science companies have aggregated data on therapies based on industry best practices.

So if providers knew that a predominance of diabetes patients respond better to injection therapy once their blood reports show that their A1C has fallen below a specific number, they can proactively recommend that the patient be moved to the next step in the therapy. EHRs can help combine the patient’s medical information, map it against industry standards derived from life science companies, and help doctors determine a more objective course of treatment for the patient. Complimented with the progress that the industry is making in personalized medicine, this will further help us move toward a standards-based approach to care that is derived from objective and evidence-based knowledge.

Bringing Patients Into the Loop

Today, physicians place patients on adherence programs to help them keep closer to their medication and treatment plans. EHRs can leverage data from life science companies around medicine use and trigger alerts if medication is not being utilized optimally, allowing providers to better monitor patient care. Life Science’s role in improving patient adherence programs may also help strengthen trust between providers and life science companies, and improve the overall quality of care. The quality of care becomes more critical as we drive towards demonstrating better outcomes with the data.

As we move towards this value-based healthcare world, more insights will be generated in which life sciences quality medications, quality guidelines of care, and quality programs to affect adherence will be the determining factor in lowering admissions and improving the quality of patient outcomes. This combination of access to the patient data from the EHR and improved quality of care from life sciences medications and programs, brings the best offering to a healthcare network to lead to the common end goal of improved patient outcomes.

It’s time to dispel old myths about EHRs, and revise existing perceptions about pharma. Leveraging the full potential of EHRs can help providers close the healthcare value chain, bringing together all stakeholders – providers, payers, patients and life science companies – to truly make a positive impact on patient care.

Faisal Mushtaq is SVP and General Manager for the Payer/Life Sciences Business at Allscripts.

The Next Big Thing You Missed: ‘Rise’ App Puts a Real-Life Personal Health Coach in Your Pocket



There’s no shortage of fitness tracking apps and devices these days. You might even call it a glut. There’s MyFitnessPal for tracking calories. RunKeeper for logging runs. FitBit for counting steps and monitoring your heart rate. And soon, Apple will add its all-encompassing Apple Watch to this already lengthy list.

But while these technologies are great at collecting data about your health and activity, they’re less effective when it comes to giving advice on what to actually do with all that data. That’s where Rise comes in. Since it was founded last year, the San Francisco-based company has connected thousands of users with hundreds of live, registered dietitians for $10 to $15 a week. The dietitians are assigned a set of clients, and they give these clients feedback on every meal they eat, providing encouragement along the way.

It’s not unlike working with an in-person health counselor, except that it’s a fraction of the price. The goal, according to Rise co-founder and CEO Suneel Gupta, is to make Rise the connective tissue between all of these health technologies, by giving users affordable access to a trained specialist who can make sense of it all.

On Tuesday, the company took one more step toward that goal, announcing a new integration with Apple HealthKit, which will allow users to send their nutritionists information on their fitness habits for the first time, as well as their dietary ones. “We feel like there’s a missing layer in this industry of personal health, which is: what do I do with all this advice and this data,” Gupta says. “That’s the role we want to play.”

Personal Nutritionist

Gupta, whose brother is CNN correspondent and neurosurgeon Dr. Sanjay Gupta, learned about the importance of personalized health at an early age as a kid who struggled with obesity. His parents were also overweight, and his father had diabetes and heart issues. “We were spending a good amount of time at the hospital in Detroit,” Gupta recalls, “but the overwhelming majority of getting us back on our feet relied on what we did at home.”

After trying and—like so many people—failing to stick to fad diets, Gupta’s family began working with a personal nutritionist to help get their health back on track. It wasn’t until years later, after Gupta stepped down as vice president of product development at Groupon, that he thought about translating that experience into a business.

To do that, he had to re-imagine the traditional model of health coaching, which typically depends on a client and a coach spending lots of time together. But time is money, and Gupta wanted to make the Rise experience affordable. So he and his team came up with a model he calls “microcoaching,” in which users upload photos of every meal and send their dietician a quick explanation of what they ate. That means the dietician can see all the messages she’s received from clients and respond to them at a time that’s convenient for her.

The HealthKit integration will now add fitness data to the mix, but Gupta says that’s just a start. The company is also in discussions with the makers of wearable fitness trackers and is contemplating ways to share this data with clients’ healthcare providers, while maintaining their privacy.

Communications is Constant

After just a year in business, Gupta says Rise is delivering similar, if not better, results to clients than in-person consultations. That stands to reason. With an in-person nutritionist, he explains, “you’re there for an hour and then you have 6 days and 23 hours to drop off, which a lot of people do.” But with Rise, the communication is constant.

According to Kevin Volpp, director of the Center for Health Incentives and Behavioral Economics at University of Pennsylvania, this is both the benefit and the challenge of such a model. “There are 5,000 plus waking hours that people aren’t having contact with a healthcare provider, and that’s one of the advantages to a mobile strategy,” he says, before adding that there’s a line between being engaged and being intrusive. “There’s an important balance to strike, and these technologies will have to figure out how to straddle the positives and the negatives of being a bigger part of people’s lives.”

In the end, Volpp believes Rise on the right track toward making health advice more accessible. “The people who are able and willing to come in in person for these interventions are a very self-selected group,” he says. “What these mobile interventions do is potentially extend the reach to a much broader group of people.”

Mint’s Latest App Helps You Pay Every Bill on Time

Mint Bills aggregates your monthly bill information in one place.

Mint Bills aggregates your monthly bill information in one place. Mint

Bills are the worst. They’re always there, waiting to drain your paycheck each month (and if you forget to pay on time) poison your credit score too. Now you can alleviate the stress while keeping a tighter rein on your budget with Mint’s latest iOS and Android app, Mint Bills.

The app aggregates all of your monthly bill information. It lets you track them and pay them in one place, and also offers an at-a-glance view of how much money you’ve actually got on hand, at all times. Mint Bills is actually a revamp of the app Check, which Mint acquired back in June.

The onboarding flow—that is, getting all your bill information into the app—is pretty painless, at least in theory. After logging in or creating an account, you enter your zip code and a list of possible billers pops up, everything from Verizon Wireless and T-Mobile to PG&E, Comcast, and AT&T U-Verse, for a sample California zip code. You then select the ones you have accounts with and enter your log-in credentials. The app pulls your billing information each month, including how much the bill is, and when it’s due.

The main screen shows this information very clearly, detailing the total number of upcoming bills you have, which ones are due in the next few days (colored red), which ones are coming in the next two weeks (yellow), and which are due further down the line (green). You can swipe to get more detailed information about these bills, and to pay them through the app. When you choose to pay one, you can select which of your cards or bank accounts (already linked to Mint) you want to pay with. The app shows how much money is available on each account or card, and won’t let you pay with an option that has less money available than the bill requires. Once on this screen, you can pay a bill in as few as two taps.

Paying a bill using a bank account is free; for a card, there’s a small service charge.

There are a couple of alternate ways to use Mint Bills too: You don’t have to fill in your account credentials with the app if you don’t feel comfortable doing so. You can manually enter how much you owe each month and the due date for regularly occurring charges, for example. Similarly, you can add in a custom bill if it doesn’t show up during the app’s setup, which is good for things like gym membership or club fees. And if you don’t want to pay using the app, that’s fine too. You can tell it you’ve already paid a bill, and simply use the app for tracking purposes.

The Mint Bills app is protected with bank level security, and will give you alerts if there are any unusual charges to your accounts. It’s available now for iOS, Android, and the web.

Apple Pay Ropes In ‘Dozens’ Of New Banks and Stores

Apple Pay

Apple Pay Alex Washburn / WIRED

Apple Pay continues to gain momentum.

Two months after its launch, dozens of additional banks and retailers—as well as an NBA arena—have agreed to use Apple’s new mobile payments system, which lets people pay for stuff with their iPhones, according to The New York Times .

With these new additions, The Times says, Apple Pay can now tie into bank cards that account for 90 percent of all transactions by purchase volume. SunTrust, Barclaycard, USAA, TD Bank North America, and Commerce Bank, among many others, have agreed to work with the digital wallet service.

Meanwhile, retailers such as Staples and the grocery chains Winn-Dixie and Albertsons are now backing Apple Pay. And on Friday, the Orlando Magic’s basketball arena Amway Center will begin taking Apple Pay payments at its various retail, food and beverage stands.

Apple hasn’t officially released the numbers showing how well its digital wallet is performing, but CEO Tim Cook said in October that users activated over 1 million credit cards on the service in its first 72 hours, and that Apple Pay is already more successful than all other smartphone payment services combined, citing his conversations with credit card giants MasterCard and Visa.

This kind of mobile payment service isn’t new by any means. For years, similar service have promised to reinvent in-store payments, including Google Wallet and mobile carrier consortium Softcard, which touts the service formerly known as Isis mobile wallet. Another consortium of top U.S. retailers, MCX, is expected to roll out its own mobile payments system, called CurrentC, by 2015, and some members of that coalition have actively blocked the use of Apple Pay in their stores in anticipation of CurrentC’s arrival. Additionally, according to a report from news site Re/code, Samsung is in talks with payments startup LoopPay to launch an Apple Pay competitor next year.

But of all these players, it is Apple that is uniquely poised to tip smartphone payments into the mainstream—something it is already starting to do. The company controls the handsets—the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus—that support the system, and it controls the software needed to operate the digital wallet. The technology at the heart of Apple Pay isn’t new, either: it uses NFC, or Near Field Communication, to replace credit card swipes. But with so many partnerships with credit card companies, banks and merchants, and a strong marketing push from both Apple and those partners, Apple Pay may be the one service that gains mass adoption among consumers.

Legendary Mad Magazine Illustrator Jack Davis Calls It Quits at 90

Jack Davis, the legendary Mad magazine illustrator and movie poster artist, is finally hanging up his pencils.

It’s not that the iconic 90-year-old cartoonist can’t draw anymore—he just can’t meet his own standards. “I’m not satisfied with the work,” Davis says by phone from his rural Georgia home. “I can still draw, but I just can’t draw like I used to.”

Davis has probably spent more time in America’s living rooms than anyone. Mad was a million-seller when Davis was on the mag, and when he was doing TV Guide covers in the 1970s, the publication boasted a circulation of over 20 million. Yet, Davis is largely unaware of his massive cultural significance. “I never really thought about that, but I guess I’m very blessed,” he says. “I’ve been very lucky.”

But his luck paled in comparison to his skill. Davis started his career in 1936, when he was only 12; he won $1 as part of a national art contest and saw his work published in Tip Top Comics #9. While still a teen, his cartoons were published in The Yellow Jacket, a humor magazine at Georgia Tech University, where his uncle was a professor. After a stint in the military, Davis caught on with EC Comics in 1950, where he was part of the artistic wave that revolutionized comics with titles like Tales from the Crypt, Two-Fisted Tales, and Mad.

Whereas Norman Rockwell’s images represented Americana of the 1940s and ’50s with his Boy Scouts and pigtailed girls, Davis’ work epitomized the ’60s and ’70s—the smirking, sardonic face of the emerging counterculture. By the time the Beats and the Hippies (who came of age reading Davis cartoons) took over, he was doing movie posters for Woody Allen’s Bananas, The Long Goodbye, American Graffiti, and others.

“Jack Davis is probably the most versatile artist ever to work the worlds of comic books, illustration, or movie poster art,” Scott Dunbier, a former art dealer and current director of special projects at comic book publisher IDW. “He can work in a humorous style or deadly serious style, historical or modern, anything. His work transcends that of almost any other cartoonist.”

IDW recently published Jack Davis’ EC Stories Artist’s Edition , reprinting some of Davis’ classic stories taken from the original art. Other pieces from the archives may emerge, but Davis is done producing new work. “I’m just gonna sit on the porch and watch the river go by,” Davis says. “And maybe go fishing once in a while.”

Check out some highlights of Davis’ work in the gallery above.