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Bill Allowing Americans To Unlock Cellphones Passes House, Heads To Obama

Jul 25, 2014

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Approving a bill that has already passed the Senate, the House of Representatives has given its consent to legislation that lets U.S. consumers "unlock" their cellphones, rather than having them remain linked to specific service providers.

President Obama says he will sign the bill into law, applauding Congress today for taking "another step toward giving ordinary Americans more flexibility and choice, so that they can find a cell phone carrier that meets their needs and their budget."

The Unlocking Consumer Choice and Wireless Competition Act, sponsored by Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., was passed by a vote of 295 - 114 Friday; the Senate version, championed by Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., was approved 10 days ago.

The legislation repeals a recent ruling by the Library of Congress that found copyright laws could be strictly enforced over "locked" phones because of evolution in the cellphone marketplace.

But critics had said the rule hurt several groups of consumers: those who wanted to link their phones to overseas carriers when they traveled; those who wanted to switch carriers; and those who wanted to sell phones they've bought through a wireless company.

After today's House vote, Laura Moy, staff attorney at advocacy group Public Knowledge, said the new law would boost competition in the wireless market and "improve the availability of free and low-cost secondhand phones for consumers who cannot afford to purchase new devices."

She also said "it will keep millions of devices out of landfills."

The new law would reestablish an exemption to a section of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act that prohibited unlocking a phone. The bill also directs the Librarian of Congress to review whether the exemption should apply to tablets and other devices as well as phones.

A public petition to legalize "unlocking" phones blew past the White House's 100,000-signature threshold that requires a response in February of 2013; later that year, President Obama asked the Federal Communications Commission to legalize the practice.

As NPR's Laura Sydell has reported, the FCC agreed on terms with wireless carriers in December, in a deal that would require companies such as AT&T and Verizon to unlock a phone from their networks, but only if a customer asks them to — and only if their contract has ended.

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The BACTrack Vio keychain breathalyzer and app on the iPhone at NPR headquarters in Washington, D.C. A public health researcher says tools like this could help people make better decisions about alcohol use. (NPR)

Keychain Breathalyzers May Make Quantified Drinking Easy

by Eliza Barclay
Jul 25, 2014

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While testing whether a dash of yeast could keep you from getting drunk, we discovered that it's pretty entertaining — and revealing — to track your blood alcohol while drinking.

Using a Breathalyzer, we watched the alcohol in our bodies soar as we drank two beers on empty stomachs. And we noticed there's a place on the curve — about 0.04 or 0.05 BAC — when the buzz is the sweetest.

The quantified self movement has turned monitoring steps, sleep and other activities with technology into a self-improvement pastime. Could the next frontier be alcohol consumption?

It turns out that the breathalyzer industry has been trying to turn us into quantified drinkers for years. And new products on the market are making blood alcohol monitoring even easier by linking it to your smartphone.

One company, BACTrack, has just released a keychain breathalyzer about the size of a lighter for $50.

BACTrack claims its newest product, the Vio, will be a "game changer" for people who want to drink more responsibly. Technology like this, which can help people find out if they're around or over 0.08 BAC, the limit for driving, might even help make a dent in drunk driving rates and the 10,000 related deaths every year, the company's president and CEO Keith Nothacker tells us.

"Previously there was a stigma with alcohol testing, and we've been fighting that stigma," says Nothacker, who started the company in 2001 as a college senior, and is now based in San Francisco. "We want people to talk about their BAC and not be embarrassed."

What Nothacker envisions is that people will use the Vio to beat back peers pressuring them to have another drink or drive under the influence. The BACTrack app that goes with the Vio takes a reading of you BAC after you blow into the device. But it also allows you to text your friends your BAC. "So someone can say, 'I am two drinks in, I'm not meeting you there, here's my BAC,' " Nothacker says.

Other companies have also begun marketing smartphone breathalyzers to quantified self enthusiasts. For example, there's the Breathometer, a device that plugs into the audio jack of the smartphone and connects with an app. It's also about $50.

Nothacker might be right that more breathalyzers in the hands of consumers — rather than just law enforcement — could help bring down consumption of alcohol. But the reading you get will be, at best, a ballpark figure of your actual BAC.

None of the smartphone breathalyzers are as precise or accurate as what the police will use to test your BAC if they pull you over under suspicion of intoxication. According to Nothacker, those devices can compensate for more variables, such as altitude.

But one interesting feature of both the Vio and the Breathometer tells you how long it will take to reach 0.0 BAC from wherever you are over 0. "So if you're drinking late, you'll see that you won't sober up until the next day in a lot of cases," Nothacker says.

But these companies are clear in their marketing materials about one thing: Don't use this tool to decide whether you should "operate a motor vehicle or equipment." And it's never safe to drink any amount of alcohol and drive, partly because there's a huge variation in how alcohol impairs individuals, even at very low BAC.

So if these breathalyzers can't help you decide definitively if you're too drunk to drive, why would you use it?

One public health researcher, who's familiar with the technology, says he thinks these new tools could help people make better decisions.

"The keychain breathalyzer allows people to find out how much they've had to drink objectively. And they can get a pretty good sense of whether it's a good idea to drive," Michael McDonell, an associate professor in the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the University of Washington, tells The Salt. "In study after study, we see that just objectively tracking your use of [a substance] will reduce your use."

And while a super accurate breathalyzer is essential if you're using it to decide whether to send someone to jail, knowing your BAC is 0.041 versus 0.047 is less important for a personal tool, says McDonell.

"If the outcome is to help a person stop using or reduce their use of alcohol, accuracy is less important," he says. "And those expensive devices are never going to get out there to everybody."

McDonell is planning to use the Vio in a study of incentive-based alcohol addiction treatment. He'll give patients the device. They'll measure their BAC and then send it to him through the app. If they blow a zero, they get a reward of some kind.

"It should allow us to deliver alcohol treatment in people's home, without having them come into the clinic. And that's big because we know most people don't come in," he says. It's too far or too time-consuming or they fear the stigma of being there, he says.

Our anecdotal playtime with the the Vio certainly made us more aware of the degree of our intoxication. Soon, we were able to more accurately guess our BAC, which the Vio asks you do to before every measurement.

We also became more aware of just how much the amount of food in your stomach influences the rate at which you absorb alcohol — the more food you eat, and the slower you drink while eating, the slower your BAC will rise. Check out the graphs from our yeast experiment: The variation between three people of about the same age and weight is pretty significant.

But these tools are far from perfect. It turns out that it's a bit awkward to operate both a breathalyzer and a smartphone app in a noisy bar with drunk people around you. And if you're lending the tool to a friend who's never used it before, it can be hard to tell if they're blowing hard enough into the device - the likely cause of several faulty readings of 0.0 one of our friends got with the Vio.

The Vio is also a bit fussy. We got a lot of error messages. And the company recommends you use it at least once a month to keep it moist and in working order. The texting feature is also a bit clunky, and there's some mixed messages with the marketing of the device. If BACTrack is trying to discourage people from going overboard with alcohol, why encourage them to post pictures of their drunk selves on the internet through the app?

And while BACTrack says to wait at least 20 minutes after eating, drinking or smoking before blowing into the device, that can be inconvenient if you're already intoxicated and need a quick reading. And Nothacker notes it can take up to an hour for alcohol to be absorbed, so your BAC could continue to rise for 40 minutes after a reading.

All in all, though, a keychain breathalyzer a handy tool to have around. And we can easily imagine a future where people sign their texts and emails with their BAC: "This email was composed at BAC .06."

Maybe we should even try that here at The Salt: Over and out, with a BAC of 0.0.

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At Yume Wo Karate, eating ramen is treated as a path to personal fulfillment. (For WBUR)

Can Finishing A Big Bowl Of Ramen Make Dreams Come True?

by Andrea Shea
Jul 25, 2014 (All Things Considered / WBUR)

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There are two choices at Yume Wo Karate: ramen topped with pork ($12), or ramen topped with more pork ($14). Extra garlic and emulsified fat can be added, too. At this shop, finishing the huge, rich bowls of ramen requires fortitude and deep concentration. Chef Tsuyishi Nishioka says waiting in line for ramen builds anticipation in his customers.

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You can find ramen, the Japanese noodle soup that's meant to be slurped, almost anywhere in the U.S. these days. Ramen shops continue to pop up, and you can find renditions on the menus of restaurants and gastropubs.

But there's a truly funky noodle spot in Cambridge called Yume Wo Karate that serves more than just ramen.

There aren't many restaurants where you get praised by everyone around you for clearing your plate or bowl. But that's exactly what happens at Yume Wo Katare.

"Everyone, he did a good job!"

You'll hear that again and again over the course of a meal in the cozy but loud space.

Owner and ramen master Tsuyoshi Nishioka yells the traditional welcome "Irasshaimase!" at customers from behind the long counter that separates his open kitchen and the shop's 18-seat dining room. Sometimes people wait more than an hour outside on the sidewalk in all temperatures to participate in this novel but highly regimented ramen experience.

Here's the protocol: First you order. There are only two choices — ramen that's swimming in broth topped with pork ($12), or ramen topped with more pork ($14). Extra garlic and emulsified fat can be added too.

Then diners are shown the self-service chopstick and water station before being told which seat to take along the three rows of tables that face the kitchen. The space feels a little like a classroom, with brightly painted walls covered in cartoons illustrating the appropriate way to consume your bowl of noodles once it arrives.

Once diners settle into their spots, server Makoto Yamamoto explains the ramen shop's philosophy.

"Thank you for coming to Yume Wo Katare, which means 'talk about your dreams' in Japanese," Yamamoto says. " ... whatever dreams you may have, how we can help you with that is the ramen he's preparing right now. So if you can finish this high bowl of ramen, you can do anything in life. That's the concept. Okay, good luck with your ramen and thank you very much!"

Eating ramen here is seen as a path to personal fulfillment. Some customers write their dreams down and hang them on the restaurant's walls. One reads, "skydiving." Another, "one month without sugar." Most are written in Japanese.

"Each person understands another meaning [of the philosophy]," 34-year-old ramen chef Nishioka says. "So it's good for our restaurant."

Nishioka opened Yume Wo Katare in November 2012. Since then, he's been encouraging people to reclaim abandoned dreams and nurture new ones.

Like a ramen guru, Nishioka believes dreams require fortitude and deep concentration — just like eating a heaping pile of his homemade noodles does.

"When ramen is coming, grab chopsticks and don't stop until you finish eating the bowl," he says.

If you finish everything Nishioka loaded into your steaming bowl, the room erupts in cheers of, "Everybody, we have a perfect!" along with claps and giggles. (I managed this feat on my third time eating at Yume Wo Katare, and I have doubts I'll ever be able to do it again.)

If you eat your noodles but can't drink every drop of the rich broth you earn a different cheer: "Everyone, he did a good job!"

Those with smaller appetites are met with an "almost" or "next time." The goal, chef Nishioka says, is to push people beyond what they think they're capable of.

"It's an interactive kind of experience, even when you're going alone," explains customer Chris Shipley. "So yeah, I've waited in lines over an hour."

Shipley has eaten here once a month since moving to the area in September. The ramen is different and delicious, he says, adding that he doesn't shoot for a "perfect" anymore.

"I've decided to get down to a 'good job' because sometimes 'perfect' is a little too much. It's really greasy," he says. "That broth has a lot of fat in it."

The fatty broth and chewy noodles come with thick, tender slices of rolled pork belly that lay on a bed of bean sprouts, bok choy and minced garlic.

This style is called jiro ramen and it's rare in the U.S. Nishioka learned to make it at a famous Japanese restaurant chain called Ramen Jiro. He opened five of his own shops — in Kobe, Kyoto and Osaka — then sold them to his managers before searching for a space in the U.S.

Over the past few months owner Nishioka and his friend Ryo Takahashi have started hosting workshops at the restaurant on Monday night to help their peers develop strategies.

"There's a lot of Japanese population here — especially students who haven't really figured out their life yet," Takahashi explains. "So we're trying to help to talk about what's your plan, and you know what's your dream, and what do you want to do in the future?"

Twenty-year-old Satomi Yoshida tries to attend every Monday. She's a student at Bunker Hill Community College and says she first came to Yume to talk about her dreams. The ramen came second, but she added, "Eating ramen here, always I feel some positive power."

And she compares finishing a bowl of ramen to running a marathon.

"It's just me and the ramen," Yoshida says with a smile.

Nishioka hopes more people will drop by the weekly Monday night meetings. The restaurant is closed that night, but business is brisk most others. It's so good that Nishioka can shut down the shop every few months to go back to Japan.

When asked about his own future, Nishioka muses that maybe, just maybe, he won't even serve ramen — as long as he can keep encouraging other people to dream on.

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Fiction Explores The Push And Pull Of Arab-Israeli Identity

by Molly Antopol
Jul 25, 2014 (All Things Considered / WBUR)

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There are two choices at Yume Wo Karate: ramen topped with pork ($12), or ramen topped with more pork ($14). Extra garlic and emulsified fat can be added, too. At this shop, finishing the huge, rich bowls of ramen requires fortitude and deep concentration. Chef Tsuyishi Nishioka says waiting in line for ramen builds anticipation in his customers.

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To be an Arab living in Israel proper has long been a challenging proposition —even sussing out what to call them has political implications: Arab-Israelis? Israeli-Arabs? Palestinian-Israelis? Or maybe just Palestinians? Arabs in Israel live lives that constantly — often stressfully — straddle two cultures: they are all at once ethnically Arab and citizens of the Jewish State.

I'm not talking here about Palestinians who live in Gaza and the West Bank. I'm talking about Arabs who live inside the Green Line and vote in Israeli elections. Some even serve in Israel's military. But during a week like this, with Israel and Hamas pummeling each other and the death toll rising on both sides, their lives must become ever more complicated. To some Israelis, after all, Arabs are just a fifth column waiting to turn on them. And for some Arabs, Israelis are simply traitors. The push and pull of this dual existence is trying, to say the least.

Sayed Kashua, an Arab-Israeli novelist, television writer and Haaretz columnist has spent his career exploring this chasm with tremendous insight and humor, no more so than in his most recent book of fiction, Second Person Singular. The novel centers around the lives of two very different Arab-Israeli men. One, a successful criminal attorney — known throughout the book as "The Lawyer" — has, from the outside, assimilated smoothly into upper-middle class Arab life in Jerusalem. But inside, he is plagued by a constant need to prove himself to the world. Every week, in an attempt to demonstrate his sophistication and intellectual prowess, he pops into his local used bookstore to buy the books mentioned in the newspaper's literary supplement. One day, while leafing through Tolstoy's The Kreutzer Sonata, he finds a note inside written in Arabic that is clearly in his wife's handwriting.

"I waited for you, but you didn't come," the note reads. "I hope everything's all right. I wanted to thank you for last night. It was wonderful. Call me tomorrow?"

This, of course, leads our lawyer on a jealous rampage through Jerusalem, which leads him to Amir, an Arab social worker who may or may not — no spoilers — have answers about whom that note was intended for.

Desperately broke, Amir has taken on a second job as a live-in caretaker for a dying Jewish man named Yonatan. When Yonatan finally passes away, Amir assumes the dead man's identity to help advance his own career by gaining entry into a prestigious art school in Jerusalem. In a sense, both Amir and "The Lawyer" are struggling to invent new versions of themselves that conceal their Arab-ness in order to advance in Israeli society.

Eventually, Yonatan's mother discovers Amir's deception. When he denies it, she laughs and says, "Why not? It's like an organ donation. Around here identity is like one of the organs of the body and yours is faulty." This belief strikes me as deeply depressing — that a person's background, as integral to his sense of self as the heart or liver with which he is born, can be defective from the very start.

The novel, told in alternating sections by "The Lawyer" and Amir, grows darker and more cynical as the two men are increasingly plagued with insecurities about their true selves. Kashua seems to be saying that the more they fit in, the less comfortable they become.

Of course during a week like this it's hard for anyone to find a comfortable identity — Arab or Jew. Welcome to Sayed Kashua's Israel.

Molly Antopol is the author of the book The UnAmericans.

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Traditional warning labels on medicine boxes tend to be long on confusing language, critics say, but short on helpful numbers. (iStockphoto)

How Well Does A Drug Work? Look Beyond The Fine Print

by NPR staff
Jul 25, 2014 (All Things Considered / WBUR)

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drug ad TK This 2007 ad for the sleeping pill Lunesta stresses insomnia relief -- not the relative usefulness of the drug. Drs. Lisa Schwartz and Steven Woloshin designed this "fact box" as a prototype to show how package inserts for medicines could be more helpful.

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Anybody who has ever seen a drug advertisement or talked over the pros and cons of a medicine with a doctor can be forgiven for being confused.

Sorting out the risks and benefits of taking a medicine can be complicated even for professionals.

This spring, the Institute of Medicine convened a workshop with the Food and Drug Administration. The topic: How best to communicate to doctors and patients the uncertainty in the assessment of benefits and risks of pharmaceuticals.

The FDA not only approves drugs, it also approves the prescribing instructions that come along with them. For some drugs, the wad of paper filled with fine print about the risks and benefits of using the drug is accompanied by a medication guide that is supposed to summarize the main points.

During one question-and-answer session, Dr. Robert Temple of the FDA's Center for Drug Evaluation and Research, acknowledged that those guides are full of information. "But it's remarkably nonquantitative for the most part," he said. "And I think we should try to think about whether there are quantitative ways of presenting that stuff."

He then referred to Drs. Steven Woloshin and Lisa Schwartz, two of his fellow panelists, who have said it's possible to pull that off.

The husband-and-wife team from Dartmouth are on a decade-long mission. They have been pushing the FDA to get useful and readable quantitative data about drugs to doctors and their patients.

Schwartz and Woloshin have designed a format they call a drug facts box. It shows the gist of what they say is buried in all the fine print: How does the drug compare to a placebo?

That's in contrast to what usually happens, Schwartz says. "The prescribing info is written by industry, and then negotiated with FDA, and then FDA ultimately approves it. And we have documented examples where important info — like how well the drug works — is not in the label."

This drives Schwartz and Woloshin crazy.

Better Than A Sugar Pill

So, here's their experiment: They showed people ads for two competing heartburn drugs, one plainly more effective than the other.

They also showed people two of their drug facts boxes, one for each of those two heartburn drugs, showing how each drug fared against a placebo (a sugar pill) in testing.

"When the people are presented with the standard information they see — like a drug ad — about 30 percent of people chose the better drug," Woloshin says. "But when we showed them information in the drug facts box form, 68 percent of people were able to choose the objectively better drug. So that's a really dramatic improvement. It just shows you that if you show people information in a way that's understandable, they can use it, and it can improve their decision."

Using FDA data, Woloshin and Schwartz developed a drug facts box for the sleep aid Lunesta.

Two columns compare people with insomnia who took Lunesta and people with insomnia who, unknowingly, took a sugar pill.

The results? Those who used Lunesta took 30 minutes to fall asleep. Those who got a sugar pill took 45 minutes — a difference of 15 minutes. Those who took Lunesta stayed asleep 37 minutes longer than those who took a sugar pill.

Woloshin and Schwartz say some people might consider those benefits worth taking the drug, and some might not.

"That's the whole point of the drugs facts box," Woloshin says, "to let people look at the evidence and come to their own judgments. But you can't make those judgments without the facts.

He and Schwartz believe passionately in the numeracy of patients. They say we can handle numbers, like percents. It's just that too often we're given incomplete or misleading information.

How Good A Deal Is That Sale?

For example, a claim that some drug reduces the likelihood of a particular disease by 50 percent can be misleading.

Woloshin explains why. "If you heard about a sale, and it said 50 percent off, would you travel a great distance to go to the sale? Well, you might if it was on things that are really expensive, like a flat-screen TV or something," he says. "But what if the thing that was on sale was gum, and you save only a couple of cents? So when you hear 50 percent reduction, you have to ask 50 percent of what?"

The doctors' dream is to get those drug facts boxes into health systems and electronic medical records, so that doctors and patients can study the information and decide what's best before the drug is prescribed.

"What we hope is that the box will encourage people to take drugs that are effective and that work, and discourage people from taking drugs that don't work or are just harmful," Woloshin says. "And also that just having this information in front of people will stimulate better drug research, because drug companies realize people are paying attention and looking at these numbers — and then we'd have a better quality of drug trials."

Woloshin and Schwartz say medical information should be as quantitative as other information. And we digest quantitative data all the time.

"If you were reporting on an election, you wouldn't say Obama won by a little," he says. "You'd give the numbers. If you were reporting sports scores, you wouldn't say the Celtics, won, hopefully won, by a bit. You'd give the score."

Why should health care be different?

He and Schwartz are convinced that we can understand risk described by numbers, provided the numbers are clearly and honestly presented.

They have been lobbying the FDA to develop drug facts boxes, but say that seems unlikely. So they started their own company to do it — Informulary. It's funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which also supports NPR.

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