Suing negative reviewers

You know those user reviews on online sites like Yelp, Angie’s List, Yahoo, and all those restaurant and travel sites?  Some businesses are striking back at negative reviews by suing the reviewers.

A Fairfax County woman being sued for defamation over negative reviews she wrote on Yelp and Angie’s List must delete certain accusations and is barred from repeating them in new posts, a judge ruled Wednesday.

The preliminary injunction was hailed as a victory by a D.C. contractor, who took the woman to court claiming that her online reviews of the work he did on her home were false and cost him $300,000 in business. He is suing her for $750,000.

“It’s a win on morality, integrity and truthfulness,” contractor Christopher Dietz said after the hearing in Fairfax County Circuit Court. “This is permanent damage. I can’t undo what she did.”

Jane Perez hired Dietz to perform cosmetic improvements in June 2011 on her newly purchased townhouse, but she quickly soured on Dietz and gave him a scathing one-star review on Yelp and a similar treatment on Angie’s List.

The list of accusations over the job were long, but included damage to her home, an invoice for work Dietz did not perform and jewelry that went missing when Dietz was the only other person with a key to her home. Dietz denies those claims. . . .

In Virginia, someone can be found liable for defamation if he states or implies a false factual statement about a person or business that causes harm to the subject’s reputation. Opinions are generally protected by the First Amendment. . . .

Lawyers say legal actions over reviews on Web sites such as Yelp are on the rise, as the sites have grown in popularity and online reputations have become more important for doctors, dentists and a host of other professionals.

Some reviewers and free speech advocates view such suits as attempts to stifle freedom of speech, while business owners say they are being forced to fight back because a false post online can cause serious damage to their businesses.

via Judge says homeowner must delete some accusations on Yelp, Angie’s List – The Washington Post.

Should consumer reviewers have the freedom to say whatever they want?  Or do businesses need some recourse against exaggerating individuals who can ruin their reputation?

The Iron Dome

Hamas has been firing rockets and missiles into Israel, sparking Israeli retaliation.  The two sides have agreed to a cease fire.   Israel managed to shoot down virtually all of rockets thanks to a new anti-missile system called “Iron Dome.”  Based on American technology, this is the most successful technology to defend against missiles ever devised.  From Slate’s Sarah Tory:

The debut of Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense shield has added a new element to the conflict, one that military officials are calling a “game-changer.” Why is Iron Dome such a significant addition to Israel’s military arsenal?

Iron Dome actually works. Israeli officials are claiming that the shield is destroying 90 percent of missiles and rockets it aims at that have been fired into southern Israel by Hamas. This level of success is unprecedented compared with older missile defense systems such as the American-made Patriot model used during the 1991 Gulf War. Israelis have almost always suffered far fewer casualties than Palestinians have, but Iron Dome has made that disparity even larger. As of Monday, Israel has reported three casualties, all of which occurred during a temporary malfunction in the missile-defense system.

The missile-defense system can detect rocket launches and then determine the projectiles’ flight paths. Iron Dome intercepts rocket or artillery shells only if they are headed for populated areas or sensitive targets; the others it allows to land. After pinpointing a rocket for destruction, Iron Dome fires a warhead that destroys the rocket within seconds. Currently, five Iron Dome systems are deployed in Israel. Most are located in the south, near Gaza, and each operates with a 45-mile radius.

Israeli officials point out that Iron Dome saves money despite the fact that the interceptors cost up to $100,000 each. The cost of rebuilding a neighborhood destroyed by a rocket attack—not to mention people wounded and lives lost—would be far greater than the cost of the interceptor. In addition, the system buys Israel time, allowing it to plan out an appropriate response without the political pressure that would be generated by hundreds of potential deaths. Experts have called Iron Dome’s success a crucial factor in deterring Israel from launching a ground assault on Gaza.

via Israel Iron Dome defense: How has missile defense changed battle in Gaza – Slate Magazine.

Democrats have a file on you

One of the reasons President Obama was re-elected, according to observers, is the way his campaign made use of data-mining and other on-line resources.  This article by Craig Timberg and Amy Gardner in the Washington Post details what the campaign did and says how other Democrats are trying to get their hands on the database that was compiled.

But when you read the article, do red flags about privacy keep coming up?  I wonder if people who are worried about the information Google collects on each one of us has a similar concern about the information the Democratic party collects on each one of us.  And if the commercial use of this kind of information is problematic, isn’t the political use even worse?

If you voted this election season, President Obama almost certainly has a file on you. His vast campaign database includes information on voters’ magazine subscriptions, car registrations, housing values and hunting licenses, along with scores estimating how likely they were to cast ballots for his reelection.

And although the election is over, Obama’s database is just getting started. . . .

The database consists of voting records and political donation histories bolstered by vast amounts of personal but publicly available consumer data, say campaign officials and others familiar with the operation. It could record hundreds of pieces of information for each voter.

Campaign workers added far more detail through a broad range of voter contacts — in person, on the phone, via e-mail or through visits to the campaign’s Web site. Those who used its Facebook app, for example, had their files updated with lists of their Facebook friends, along with scores measuring the intensity of those relationships and whether they lived in swing states. If their last names sounded Hispanic, a key target group for the campaign, the database recorded that, too. . . .

All Democratic candidates have access to the party’s lists, which include voting and donation histories along with some consumer data. What Obama’s database adds are the more fine-grained analyses of what issues matter most to voters and how best to motivate them to donate, volunteer and vote. . . .

The database powered nearly everything about Obama’s campaign, including fundraising, identifying likely supporters and urging them to vote. This resulted in an operational edge that helped a candidate with a slim margin in the overall national vote to trounce Romney in the state-by-state electoral college contests.

Obama was able to collect and use personal data largely free of the restrictions that govern similar efforts by private companies. Neither the Federal Trade Commission, which has investigated the handling of personal data by Google, Facebook and other companies, nor the Federal Election Commission has jurisdiction over how campaigns use such information, officials at those agencies say.

Privacy advocates say the opportunity for abuse — by Obama, Romney or any other politician’s campaign — is serious, as is the danger of hackers stealing the data. Voters who willingly gave campaigns such information may not have understood that it would be passed on to the party or other candidates, even though disclosures on Web sites and Facebook apps warn of that possibility.

Chris Soghoian, an analyst at the American Civil Liberties Union and a former FTC technologist, said voters should worry that the interests of politicians and commercial data brokers have aligned, making legal restrictions of data collection less likely.

“They’re going to be loath to regulate those companies if they are relying on them to target voters,” he said.

via Democrats push to redeploy Obama’s voter database – The Washington Post.

Steam without boiling water

Engineers at Rice have devised an ingenious process that allows the generation of steam without boiling water using nanotechnology (particles that are extraordinarily small) plus ordinary sunlight.  Among other applications, this could revolutionize the possibilities of solar energy.

In the Rice experiment, the researchers stirred a small amount of nanoparticles into water and put the mixture into a glass vessel. They then focused sunlight on the mixture with a lens.

The nanoparticles — either carbon or gold-coated silicon dioxide beads — have a diameter shorter than the wavelength of visible light. That allows them to absorb most of a wave of light’s energy. If they had been larger, the particles would have scattered much of the light.

In the focused light, a nanoparticle rapidly becomes hot enough to vaporize the layer of water around it. It then becomes enveloped in a bubble of steam. That, in turn, insulates it from the mass of water that, an instant before the steam formed, was bathing and cooling it.

Insulated in that fashion, the particle heats up further and forms more steam. It eventually becomes buoyant enough to rise. As it floats toward the surface, it hits and merges with other bubbles.

At the surface, the nanoparticles-in-bubbles release their steam into the air. They then sink back toward the bottom of the vessel. When they encounter the focused light, the process begins again. All of this occurs within seconds.

In all, about 80 percent of the light energy a nanoparticle absorbs goes into making steam, and only 20 percent is “lost” in heating the water. This is far different from creating steam in a tea kettle. There, all the water must reach boiling temperature before an appreciable number of water molecules fly into the air as steam.

The phenomenon is such that it is possible to put the vessel containing the water-and-nanoparticle soup into an ice bath, focus light on it and make steam. . . .

Halas said the nanoparticles are not expensive to make and, because they act essentially as catalysts, are not used up. A nanoparticle steam generator could be used over and over. And, as James Watt and other 18th-century inventors showed, if you can generate steam easily, you can create an industrial revolution.

via Making steam without boiling water, thanks to nanoparticles – The Washington Post.

The boundary between work and home

A growing number of companies are telling employees to stop using electronics to work even when you are home.  From Cecilia Kang:

Tonight, employees at the Advisory Board have an unusual task: Stay off ­e-mail.

Stash away those smartphones and laptops, the District firm has instructed. For those who just can’t stay away, read but don’t reply. And while we’re at it, ignore your inbox throughout the weekend, too, the firm added.

The consulting firm’s push for no after-hours e-mail is part of a growing effort by some employers to rebuild the boundaries between work and home that have crumbled amid the do-more-with-less ethos of the economic downturn.

In recent years, one in four companies have created similar rules on e-mail, both formal and informal, according to a recent survey by the Society for Human Resource Management. Firms trying out these policies include Volkswagen, some divisions of PricewaterhouseCoopers and shipping company PBD Worldwide.

For the vast majority of companies and federal offices, the muddying of work and personal time has had financial advantages. Corporations and agencies, unable to hire, are more productive than ever thanks in part to work-issued smartphones, tablets and other mobile technology, economists say.

And that presents one of the great conundrums of our recessionary era: E-mail has helped companies eke out more from each worker. But the perpetually plugged work culture is also making us feel fried.

“There is no question e-mail is an important tool, but it’s just gone overboard and encroached in our lives in a way where employees were feeling like it was harder and harder to achieve a good balance,” said Robert Musslewhite, chief executive of the Advisory Board, a health and education research and software-services firm.

Official numbers show just one in 10 people brings work home, according to a Labor Department report in 2010. But economists say that figure is wildly conservative because it counts only those who are clocking in those hours for extra pay.

More often, employees work evenings and weekends beyond their normal hours and do not record that time with their employers, labor advocacy groups say. And that’s made work bleed into just about every vacant space of time — from checking BlackBerrys and iPhones at school drop-offs, on the way home from happy hour and just after the alarm clock rings, they say.

via After-hours e-mail, companies are telling employees to avoid it – The Washington Post.

Some professions just don’t fit the 9 to 5 hourly breakdown.  If you own or are responsible for a business, you are thinking about it round-the-clock.  Even with me, a professor and college administrator, I find myself thinking about what to present in my classes or what to do about some problem at any time in the day or night, including when I toss and turn in the middle of the night (where I seem to get my best ideas).

It’s worth noting too that when Luther was articulating the doctrine of vocation, there was no boundary between work and home, since most work–farming, crafts, most trades–was done at home (as opposed to what happened after the industrial revolution when most economic labor took place away from the family).  Thus Luther wrote about the vocations of the “household,” which included both the family callings such as marriage and parenthood and what the family did to earn a living.

And yet, arguably, the invasion of the home by the workplace, abetted by technology, may well be eroding the other vocations we have.  Notice how when we hear the word “vocation” we immediately think of our “job.”  In Luther’s day and in the Biblical writings about “calling” (e.g., 1 Corinthians 7:17), people would first think about things like marriage.  (See our book on the subject, Family Vocations.)

There is little doubt that today people are neglecting their callings as spouse, parent, church member,  citizen, et al., because of their pre-occupation with their work and the enabling device of their smart phones.  Would you agree?  Do we need to “rebuild the boundaries between work and home”?  Or do we need to break down those boundaries, but in a different way than we have been doing?

Pinch to zoom

If you have a smart phone, can you pinch your fingers together while touching the screen to make the images smaller?  And move your fingers apart to make the images bigger?

Well, that so-called “pinch to zoom” technology was invented by Apple for its iPhones, even though other cell phone makers are now also including the feature.  But this was one of the patents upheld by that recent court ruling in Apple’s suit against Samsung.

Some people are indignant that Apple is able to patent a gesture, saying that pinching the screen to change the image is so “natural” that everyone should be able to do that, complaining further that Apple is harming consumers by limiting their choices, and that sort of thing.

I say that Apple is entitled to their patents and to the fruits of their creativity.  Some years ago, Apple lost a patent lawsuit against Microsoft, which copied Apple’s point-and-click device known as a “mouse.”  Microsoft also lifted Apple’s graphic interface, that is, the use of icons, which simply have to be clicked by said mouse, as a way of accessing software and all that a computer can do.  Apple deserves to win this patent dispute, at least.

All Samsung or other cell phone manufacturers have to do if they want to include this feature is to pay Apple a licensing fee, as they do for other patent holders.

Is there any argument–based on justice and equity–why Apple should give away their intellectual property?  Other than someone wanting them to or the desire to have iPhone features without having to pay for an iPhone?  But those arguments lack justice and equity.

Post-‘pinch’? Apple patent-case win could point to new digital age for smartphones – The Washington Post.


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