Dialing for distress
Airline passengers may soon have a 911 number in the sky. If disaster strikes on a plane, a passenger could dial a toll-free number from an on-board phone and call for help. Some federal officials think this could make crises more manageable. Under the new system, passengers in an emergency would not need credit cards to call from an airplane. Regional centers would handle the calls and contact emergency services. Air Travelers Association President David Stempler says such a system is necessary. "With the pilots being locked up in the cockpit, now it's really the flight attendants and the passengers by themselves to manage those situations," Mr. Stempler said. "Any assistance would be helpful." But critics say the idea is no substitute for arming pilots with guns. "We don't arm our Air Marshals and police with stun guns and toll-free emergency numbers-only a pilot armed with a firearm can act as the last line of defense," said American Airlines pilot Al Aitken.
L.A., sans San Fernando?
The city of angels may be home to a lot fewer souls pretty soon. Residents of the San Fernando Valley will vote this fall on whether to break away from Los Angeles, and recent polls show that a majority plans to vote for secession. The valley, with 1.3 million people and 270 square miles, is home to about one-third of Los Angeles' population and half of its land. If it becomes a new city, it will be larger than Boston, Detroit, and St. Louis. Many residents claim Los Angeles takes too much of their money and gives too little back. Proponents of breaking away claim secession would mean lower taxes, more representation, and better police protection. Mayor James Hahn and other civic leaders disagree and plan to raise $5 million to fight the proposal. Los Angeles annexed the San Fernando Valley in 1915, and the marriage has been rocky ever since. State laws quashed two serious secession movements in the 1960s and '70s. Los Angeles' worsening reputation is helping the latest campaign: Many want to escape the image of urban decay, race riots, and the O.J. Simpson trial. Recent polls show 59 percent of Valley voters in favor of secession. Like other California trends, urban breakup could spread across the country. Staten Islanders, for example, have long talked about breaking off from New York City.
Go-go optimism is gone
Is the recession over? The Commerce Department reports that last quarter saw the economy's strongest performance in nearly two years-but that doesn't mean all pessimism is gone. Gross domestic product-the total output of U.S. goods and services-grew at an annual rate of 5.6 percent in the January-March quarter. "The recession is clearly over, but there are major questions about how this recovery will be through the rest of the year," said David Seiders, chief economist at the National Association of Home Builders. The scariest concern is the threat of another terrorist attack, which a top Treasury official calls the big "economic wild card" facing the country. "Unfortunately, we are almost certain to be attacked again," Deputy Treasury Secretary Ken Dam told the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Economists' predictions for the near term range from sluggish to solid, but the go-go optimism of just two years ago is all but gone.
Welcome to Abortion 101
New York City's plan to expand abortion training takes effect next month, and it comes at a crucial time for the abortion industry, which is running out of doctors to kill unborn children. The abortion-training regime may have a nationwide impact. One in every seven of the nation's physicians trains in NYC. The state Right to Life Committee warned of "devastating" consequences once these obstetrics and gynecology residents start practicing. The NYC plan requires all OB-GYN residents to take abortion training-unless they opt out on moral or religious grounds. Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the city's liberal Republican mayor, is an enthusiastic backer. So are abortion-industry officials, who fear an abortionist shortage. Of the roughly 2,000 who perform abortions, more than half are over age 50. This means the abortion industry needs new blood, so to speak. If the program thrives "we'll have changed the face of abortion provision in this country," said Cristina Page of the New York NARAL branch. But even if the supply of abortionists grows, new technology may shrink the demand for abortions. General Electric has just rolled out its new "4D" ultrasound device that the company says provides "live-action images of your unborn child."
Microsoft's federal antitrust settlement filters down to its software this summer. An update to Windows XP lets users replace Microsoft e-mail, Web browser, and instant-messaging software with rival programs. This summer, a downloadable update will offer this option. The government demanded it, saying it opens the doors to competitors. Hardcore Microsoft haters say the move is not enough-and nine state attorneys general still demand additional penalties. Once users install the upgrade, they will find a new utility called "Set Program Access and Defaults." It lets them make their computers behave as if some of Microsoft's own software tools had been removed from Windows. The decision can be easily reversed, making the programs reappear. Much recent Microsoft activity has little to do with desktop PCs. At the company's annual CEO summit, co-founder Bill Gates showed off the soon-to-be-launched Tablet PC. It's supposed to combine the ease of a pen and notebook with the power of a laptop. Hardware manufacturers are expected to roll out the devices in October and sell them in the $1,600 to $2,200 range. (Microsoft is also heavily pushing the Xbox video game system, dropping its retail price from $299 to $199. It followed a similar move from competitor Sony, as sales of the new system have been slower than expected.) The megapower software company may be closing one case, but another is starting-in Europe. The European Union has threatened to fine Microsoft over alleged violations of data protection laws. The charges concern the .NET Passport service, which manages e-commerce services. The company also faces an unrelated EU antitrust investigation into its products. - Chris Stamper
The blind shall see
Robert Rosene is a bionic man. Not the Six Million Dollar Man, but he does have a bionic eye and a bionic ear. The 68-year-old Illinois man is one of six patients to receive experimental eye implants. "Bionics" simply refers to replacing body parts with mechanical devices. The bionic ear, also known as the cochlear implant, may one day replace hearing aids. Now scientists have high hopes for a bionic eye. Scientists say the human brain gives bionic sensory organs an advantage: It can adjust to the crudeness and imperfections of the mechanical eyes and ears. The brain "needs really a small amount of information to reconstruct speech," said Dr. William Heetderks of the National Institute of Health. "It's reasonable to believe that the same thing is possible in the visual realm." Bionic eyes are installed by surgeons who carve a tiny pocket in the retina. The deposited chip is thinner than a hair but contains 5,000 microscopic solar cells. It converts light into electrical impulses that arouse the retina and simulate sight. - Chris Stamper
John Zuccarini is an elusive Internet scam artist. He used thousands of misspelled Web addresses to lure Net users to porn sites and casinos. Now he has been ordered to stop his scheme-and pay almost $1.9 million. To set his traps, Mr. Zuccarini created websites that contained misspellings of popular names, including the Backstreet Boys, Bank of America, and The Wall Street Journal. Many of the websites targeted kids-including 15 variations on the Cartoon Network's website and 41 wrong spellings of "Britney Spears." Once users reached the site, they were blitzed with ads for smut and online casinos. Regulators call the practice "mousetrapping," because those who hit such sites find it difficult to escape. The new windows returned to the screen even after they were closed, according to the Federal Trade Commission. Investigators said Mr. Zuccarini collected $800,000 to $1 million per year by charging advertisers whose ads appear on the browser windows. In the government's suit, Mr. Zuccarini never appeared on his own or through a lawyer. It is unclear whether regulators will be able to collect the money. Florida lawyer Howard Neu, who once represented Mr. Zuccarini, said he had "not the foggiest" idea where his ex-client is. - Chris Stamper