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Updated: 14 min 37 sec ago

Tesla is disrupting more than just the car business

Sat, 2016-02-06 16:01

Tesla Motors is building the world's biggest battery factory just outside of Reno, Nevada. The company is calling it the “gigafactory,” and when it’s up and running in 2016 it’s expected to make Tesla’s electric cars much more affordable. 

“In a single factory we're doubling the worldwide capacity to manufacture lithium-ion batteries,” says J.B. Straubel, Tesla's chief technology officer. 

That's significant enough. But the company also plans to develop batteries for use with solar-power generation – giving Tesla a shot at challenging public utilities as an energy source, Straubel says.

“At the price points that we're expecting to achieve with the gigafactory ... we see a market that is well in excess of the production capability of the factory,” says Straubel.

The market for batteries is an offshoot of the booming business for solar panels, particularly in states such as California, where solar is becoming commonplace.

“We sign up approximately one new customer every minute of the workday," says Will Craven, director of public affairs at California-based SolarCity.

Much of the excess energy harnessed by solar panels is returned to the power grid, Cravens says. This means homeowners and businesses may earn a credit from their power companies, but have no say over when and how that energy is used.

The partnership with SolarCity will use rooftop solar panels fitted with Tesla’s battery packs to allow customers to keep that energy in-house. That means they can use it however, and whenever, they want. The concept puts Tesla in direct competition with utility companies.

“Stationary storage, or backup storage, is really being considered the ‘Holy Grail’ of renewable electricity generation,” says Ben Kallo, an analyst with the Robert W. Baird financial services firm.

Kallo points out that the intermittent nature of renewable energy sources makes them less reliable because the wind doesn’t always blow and the sun doesn’t always shine.  But with the ability to store that energy, renewable energy sources can compete head-to-head with utility companies for customers.

“There are still many utilities out there who kind of have their head stuck in the sand and just hope that this goes away. What we're seeing is really building momentum,” Kallo says.

Forward-minded utilities might look at Tesla’s business model as an opportunity, he says.  Energy-storage technology could be used to build capacity in their existing grids, and also build new infrastructure for battery-powered cars and homes.

 

PODCAST: Are you going to eat that?

6 hours 15 min ago

The loved ones of people lost on that Germanwings flight in France this week, along with every thing else, will be confronted with issues of financial liability. With authorities pointing to a deliberate act by a member of the crew, the company's liability could rise. More on that. Plus, the European Union is looking at whether e-commerce sites across its 28 countries are putting up illegal barriers to cross border purchases.  The investigation, which will last more than a year - will look at online retailers including the big ones... like Amazon, which accounts for a large chunk of Europe's online commerce. And there's a fancy New York restaurant where you can pay...to eat garbage. Really good tasting garbage. The menu consists of items made either entirely or in part from food waste, an effort to interrupt the supply chain, find value and make a point about what we throw away.

New York chef turns food scraps into fine cuisine

7 hours 15 min ago

Americans love a good food trend, whether it’s boneless wings, or eating like a locavore. In New York, one establishment is breaking new ground with a menu that consists only of dishes made from food waste.

Dumpster dive vegetable salad. Fried skate wing cartilage. Meatloaf made from beef usually fed to dogs. These are among the specialties at wastED, a popup in the space that’s usually occupied by Blue Hill, a farm-to-table restaurant where President Obama and the first lady once ate.

Like a lot of food-conscious people, Blue Hill’s chef, Dan Barber, is appalled by waste. Not just the meals people leave on the plate, but the food that never even makes it into the kitchen.

For example: the leftover pulp from cold-pressed juice. Barber figured out how to turn it into veggie burgers. And he says the guy who runs the juice factory is delighted.

“I mean, he said, ‘I’ve thought about this a lot and I hate that we’re trucking this to other states to dump or to compost, it makes no sense,’” Barber says. “But is it his fault? I don’t think so.”

Barber believes it’s the chef’s job to find a use for everything, so the supply chain sends less food into the trash.

In his kitchen, Dan Barber picks up what appears to be a thumb-sized piece of plywood.

“After you press the pistachio for the pistachio oil, this is what’s left. But here we made it into a cookie,” Barber says.

Dipped in chocolate, it is actually pretty good.

A peek inside the kitchen trash can reveals a tangle of latex gloves and plastic wrap. Nevertheless, Dan Barber reaches in, and pulls out some useable vegetable matter.

“See that’s a no-no,” Barber says. “I’m glad you caught me. These are beautiful ends of shallots. We should probably do a dish with this.”

WastED runs through the end of the month. All plates cost $15, and reservations are recommended.

 

 

 

 

The ins and outs of 'zero-based budgeting'

7 hours 15 min ago

It looks like Kraft will be put on a strict diet after its merger with Heinz.

That diet could come in the form of zero-based budgeting which the parent company behind the deal – 3G Capital Partners – uses as part of it's cost-cutting playbook.

It involves  managers justifying spending plans from scratch every year, and not just carrying over the last year’s budget.

“Every department within a large organization would have to justify their existence,” says Shane Dikolli, a professor of management accounting in the MBA program at Duke University.

He says when 3G Capital Partners took over Heinz, it saved money by getting rid of corporate jets, and even limited use of company printers.  

But there are drawbacks. Zero-based budgeting is time consuming, and can hurt morale. That's why many companies just do it every few years.

But it is catching on, and not just in corporate suites. The Iowa governor’s budget office uses snippets of zero-based budgeting to examine government programs. And Iowa lawmakers are considering legislation to bring the state even closer to a zero-based budgeting system. 

 

 

 

 

European Union investigates e-commerce

7 hours 15 min ago

The European Union plans to investigate whether there is anti-competitive behavior among e-commerce sites across the 28-nation bloc.

The investigation, which will last more than a year, will examine a number of online retailers and websites, including giants like Amazon, which accounts for a large chunk of Europe's e-commerce.

Margrethe Vestager, the European Commission antitrust chief, says she wants to investigate why cross-border purchases make up only 15 percent of the EU's online sales.

Ricardo Cardoso, a spokesperson with the European Commission, says the investigation is aimed at a broader goal. "There is an overarching ambition of the commission to make sure that we have a single market in online in general," says Cardoso.

Silicon Tally: Facebook Drones

7 hours 15 min ago

It's time for Silicon Tally! How well have you kept up with the week in tech news?

This week, we're joined by Ben Richmond, contributing editor to Vice’s Motherboard.

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Soylent aims for maximum nutrition with minimum effort

7 hours 15 min ago

It might seem surprising (or not, depending on your personal taste) that a life lived on instant ramen could lead to a breakthrough in nutrition. But that's exactly what led Robert Rhinehart to want a food product that provided all of the nutrients of a full meal while maintaining the simplicity of something like an instant noodle. So he created Soylent, which is touted as the biggest pivot in YC (Y-Combinator) history.

With roughly the consistency of a milkshake, Soylent is described on the company's website as providing "maximum nutrition with minimum effort."

Click the media player above to hear Marketplace Morning Report host David Brancaccio try Soylent for himself.

$85 will buy you a week's worth of the product (28+ meals, according to the site). For $300, you get 112+ meals, which the company says is enough for 4 weeks of sustenance. 

The Washington Post sat down with a nutritionist to breakdown of some of the benefits and drawbacks of the product. While both the absence of added sugar and preservatives, as well as the elimination of waste were acknowledged as benefits, the article also points to the cultural necessity of food preparation and community. The need for dietary fiber and variety in diet are also cited as concerns.

For his part, Rhinehart says that he was drawn to how a product like Soylent could eliminate some of the complexities of meal preparation from his daily life. And, he points out, traditional meals will be there when you want them. 

 

Cord cutter, or committed to cable? How you watch what you watch

Thu, 2015-03-26 15:43

When Marketplace conducted a poll about your entertainment consumption habits, we learned that while some of you are still paying for deluxe cable packages, many others have found creative solutions to cut down costs — some to as low as $7 a month (by getting internet services for free). 

Here are how Marketplace listeners are getting their entertainment, how much it’s costing them, and why some of them decided to cut the cord on cable:

Cord cutter, or committed to cable? How you watch what you watch

Thu, 2015-03-26 15:43

When Marketplace conducted a poll about your entertainment consumption habits, we learned that while some of you are still paying for deluxe cable packages, many others have found creative solutions to cut down costs — some to as low as $7 a month (by getting internet services for free). 

Here are how Marketplace listeners are getting their entertainment, how much it’s costing them, and why some of them decided to cut the cord on cable:

The plant business trying to sprout again

Thu, 2015-03-26 14:47

It’s estimated that since 2008, around a third of all plant nurseries in the U.S. went out of business.   The industry was hit hard by the housing bust, competition from big box stores, and some bad winters, to top it all off.  But the plant industry’s roots run too deep for it to disappear, and many nurseries are looking for niches to survive their economic winter: sell online, sell interesting, sell weird.

That's the strategy growing in the immense, hot, and humid greenhouses owned by Gardens Alive 20 minutes outside of Dayton, Ohio. 

Felix Cooper, vice president of Gardens Alive, stands in front of a black raspberry - "the first black raspberry to ever have two crops, a fall bearer and a spring bearer,” he says.  The company owns several plant nurseries, seed companies, and offers environmentally friendly garden products. “Right across there we have one of our new grapes. It has this continuously fruiting trait. It’s the coolest thing we’ve seen in a long time.”

The grape plant is so popular that last year, it sold out in January before the company even started shipping.  

Such novel varieties are critical to the business, says Gardens Alive founder Niles Kinerk . “There’s no question in my mind that the future in our industry has to rely on providing to particular niche markets - that the big boxes don’t view as big enough to justify their interests."

Big box stores are the biggest source of competition for plant nurseries, and between them and the recession, the plant nursery business has gotten nailed. Nationwide it’s lost a third of its growers. 

Tony Avent runs Plant Delights Nursery in North Carolina, where half of the nursery industry was wiped out during and after the recession.  He has taken the whole sell-interesting, sell-weird strategy to the next level.

“There’s an Amorphophallus titanum,” he says, pointing to a photo of the currently dormant giant bulb.  “It’s a plant with a flower that’s seven to nine feet tall.  It has a smell that resembles, say, running over a pack of animals in the road - and the smell that would occur several weeks later.”   

Yes, people want to buy it.

Greg Matusky is not one of them. But he is the kind of adamant gardener that Plant Delights and Gardens Alive caters to.   

“Every year I try something I consider exotic, something different. I have an olive plant, this year I’m going to grow capers,” he says, noting that he didn’t get them from a big box store. 

“If you can find four or five varieties of tomatoes at Home Depot, you’re doing pretty well,” he says.  Matusky grows hundreds of tomato plants a year in his garden outside of Philadelphia.  “The selection is much greater if you go online.”

Avent says the decline of the nursery industry and the rise of the garden department has had a fundamental impact on the plants themselves.

“Everything has shifted to plants that have a fast production time, plants which are what’s called a ‘seven-racker’ – breed them short enough so they can fit on a seven-racker truck,” he says.  “It doesn’t really matter anymore to a lot of plant breeders how it will perform in the garden.”

Avent says some growers will spray  hormones on plants to keep them compact and attractive on shelves, but not particularly verdant in the garden.

While there are, in fact, many new plant varieties available than ever before, obtaining them can be a challenge, which is where some nurseries see an advantage. 

There are a few other things in the nurseries’ favor.  One is the simple fact that so many of them have gone out of business, which means there’s less competition for the ones still around.  There are now shortages of some plants that take a while to grow, like landscape trees.  Most growers didn’t plant many of them five years ago when things were bad, so there aren’t enough ready now.  That’s great for businesses in that niche.

“There are actually people who go out and scout landscapes. They will  go out to properties and proposition the owners, saying we will pay you $50,000 for this tree if you allow us to dig it and move it to a property because of the shortage in the industry,” says Avent.  It’s a story confirmed by real estate agents in the Northeast. 

But the main thing the plant nurseries are banking on is gardeners like Matusky, gardeners with a discerning green thumb and a penchant for growing their own food. 

“Tomatoes are one thing that really blow your brains out when you taste them and realize what a real tomato tastes like,” Matusky says. “Cucumbers, the same thing. Eggplant less bitter than you’ll ever taste from the supermarket.”

From new varieties to online merchandising, nurseries are doing everything they can to stick around, supplying gardeners who want fresh pea plants, and those who want plants that smell like pee.  If the strategy is right, it may, after a seven year winter, finally be spring for the plant nursery industry.  

FanDuel: Where fantasy draft day is everyday

Thu, 2015-03-26 11:18

What if you could combine sports with instant gratification and make some money, while you're at it – all while never having to leave the comfort of your own home.

Generally speaking, you can't bet on sports online in this country. But what you can do is pick your favorite players and set up a fantasy team, where your win-loss record is based on how those players do in real life, not their teams, and make some money that way.

"It’s a game of skill, so you compete with other people in drafting teams," says Nigel Eccles, co-founder and CEO of FanDuel.

Well, 41 million people in the U.S and Canada are doing just that. Fantasy sports has become a different kind of national past time.

However, FanDuel is not your ordinary fantasy sports site. Most fantasy sports leagues can drag on for six-months and require a lot of commitment. And if a user drafts lousy players onto their team, the joy and interest in playing is usually gone by week four or five.

FanDuel is like the fantasy sports site for the non-committed. Users can play for one day or a weekend, whenever they’d like. In the fourth quarter of last year, FanDuel had over one million paying users. 

"The game is great like that because some people love sports, they love basketball, but they are never going to be committed enough to play a seasonal fantasy basketball league. And with this you’re just committing to one evening," Eccles says. 

 

Live-streaming comes to the smartphone era

Thu, 2015-03-26 11:14

Twitter wants us to spend more time live-streaming our lives. Their new broadcasting app Periscope went live today.

Acquired by Twitter for $100 million in January, the app allows users to live stream video from their smart phones (iOS only, for now). Interested viewers who don't catch the stream live can replay it later.

That follows what may prove to be the flash-in-the-pan success of Meerkat, which does the same thing but isn't owned by Twitter, a possibly insurmountable obstacle. Plus, Meerkat more closely resembles Snapchat: Once the stream is offline, it's gone, not to be viewed again. 

The concept of the live stream isn't new, says Marketplace Tech host Ben Johnson. Sites like Ustream have been a mainstay of conferences, lectures and festivals for years. But this crop of new apps make it incredibly easy to turn a smartphone into a live broadcast device. One consequence is the increased ability to share moments of idleness or boredom. 

Another app, YouNow, is a streaming and chat service that boasts, among other things, a hashtag called #SleepSquad. Yes, watching people as they sleep. And there's a tip system, too, so conceivably, paying to watch people sleep. 

"It's curious and creepy," Johnson says. "This is the weird, Wild West days of live streaming on your mobile phone and being able to interact with people. Which is cool — but where's the money?"

Beyond the tips passed around YouNow, Twitter's Periscope and Meerkat will eventually seek ways to monetize. The site to watch for clues is Twitch, the video game streaming platform that Amazon acquired for $1.1 billion in 2014. There, gamers can broadcast and watch others. Banter, consistency, level of play, and yes, even production values, boost viewership here. Twitch's top broadcasters gain significant followings, and in some cases advertising and fans' financial support. 

"Here's a number: 20 million. That's the number of viewers who watched the live stream of a video game in the first week it was released on Twitch, last year," Johnson says, adding that YouTube is reportedly developing its own video game streaming service. 

These companies are betting that the growth in interest and viewership around live streaming will draw more advertisers as well. But while live streams can be intimate and personal, they are also unpredictable.

One potential consequence: a resurgence in swatting, where viewers contact 911 with a false gun or bomb threat, to direct SWAT teams to that player's house. 

"For a hacker, they want to be able to play this prank on someone and have — in some cases — 55,000 people watching this guy get thrown on the ground by police," Johnson said. 

No advertiser wants their banner ad plastered over a gamer in handcuffs, and so may stay away from potentially lucrative but chaotic streaming channels. In an interview with Twitch CEO Emmett Shear, Johnson asked whether the company plans to add additional controls.

"The key thing for us is cooperating with law enforcement," Shear said, adding, "Secondly, you know, honestly, not talking about it too much, because I think that there's a negative impact from giving too much attention to people who are honestly seeking attention by doing this."

Not talking about how this content may be moderated or controlled isn't a solution. So while there's growth and interest in live streaming, as well as money to be made, there are potential downsides — and etiquette — to be worked out. 

Coach Dean Smith calls one last play before passing away

Thu, 2015-03-26 10:24

Dean Smith, the legendary basketball coach for the University of North Carolina Tar Heels, died in early February.

Turns out that in his will, Smith specified that every player who earned a varsity letter while he was there was to get a check for $200 along with a note encouraging them to a dinner out.

Compliments of Coach Dean Smith.

Challenges remain, even after the 'Doc Fix' gets fixed

Thu, 2015-03-26 09:05

Kicking the can down the road is old hat in Washington. But one of the cans that's been kicked for nearly 20 years now has been, well, not kicked.

The House of Representatives, by a wide and bipartisan margin, voted for a more permanent solution to the perennial threats to how much Medicare reimburses doctors, the so-called "Doc Fix" legislation. And while the deal still needs to win Senate approval, to some, like American Medical Association President-elect Dr. Steven Stack, it’s a historic moment.

“I don’t want to pass the opportunity to thank Speaker Boehner and Leader Pelosi," Stack says.

Now, Stack knows there’s almost no chance that kind of quote is ever published, but he wanted to say it anyway. Take it as a sign of the relief he’s cautiously feeling on behalf of the 94 percent of doctors who have worried about Congress cutting their pay.

“Having stability and predictability in physician payment is essential for quality of care and patient safety,” he says.

Under the bill, doctors would see a half percent bump in each of the next four years, well below the rate of inflation — the price they pay for predictability. There’s another price doctors may pay though, warns the Urban Institute’s Bob Berenson, namely more reporting requirements. Berenson says some lack the technology infrastructure to pull it off.

“Small practices will find this too much of a reporting burden and may just throw in the towel,” he says.

Another key provision would pay doctors more for high-quality care rather than the volume of care. Everybody loves that, says Harvard’s Dr. Ashish Jha. The trouble is it’s very hard to measure "quality."

“We are going to focus on paying doctors for a lot of things. Some of which probably represent real quality and some of which clearly represent checking the box,” he says.

Jha says if Washington is serious about paying based on quality, the government must invest several billion dollars. Absent that, doctors may have more financial stability thanks to this deal, but less certainty about how to best serve their patients.

Why borrowers turn to pricey payday loans

Thu, 2015-03-26 09:05

The Consumer Finance Protection Bureau is looking to make payday and other short-term loans more consumer-friendly. For example, it's considering creating rules that would require lenders to consider a borrower's ability to repay the loan and/or limit the number of loans borrowers can take out.

But even without such controls, borrowers keep turning to these services — 12 million borrowers each year, according to the Pew Charitable Trusts. A typical payday borrower might make $30,000 a year and borrow a few hundred dollars to pay their rent or electricity bill.  Borrowers may find themselves with unexpected expenses and no other options, says BankRate.com's Greg McBride, as traditional banks don’t generally make small loans and borrowers may not qualify if they did.

Alternatively, borrowers might decide these loans are the best of limited options, says Dennis Shaul, CEO of the short-term lender trade group Community Financial Services Association of America. Shaul agrees with the CFPB that lenders should evaluate people’s ability to repay loans. Wade Henderson, the president of the Leadership Conference for Civil and Human Rights, says consumers also need other options to meet their borrowing needs. 

When disasters happen, all airlines are affected

Thu, 2015-03-26 09:04

When a plane crashes — it doesn’t matter whose plane it is — the entire airline industry is affected and the entire industry responds. One of the first things airlines do is set to work calming people’s fears.

"So, for example, if a passenger has a question about the type of aircraft being used on his or her flight, call-center employees usually are briefed on how to answer those questions," says Madhu Unnikrishnan, an airline-industry correspondent for Aviation Week. 

Unnikrishnan says other aspects of business as usual are also put on hold.

“They will suspend events, promotional and marketing events for example," she says. "And airlines typically withdraw ads from newspapers and television."

Tragedies bring about cooperation in other areas, says Richard Aboulafia, an airline analysis with the Teal Group.

“I think the most important thing they think about is how to engage with regulatory officials in a positive way,” he says.

In the wake of the Germanwings crash, several carriers, including Norwegian Air and Air Canada have already announced rules changes requiring two pilots to remain in the cockpit at all times. And it’s likely the changes won’t end there. 

"I'd be surprised if their weren't some kind of changes that resulted from this,” says Aboulafia, "because you've got a series a of incidents, that really point to the impact of human malice in the cockpit.”

Eventually, airlines will return to what they do best: compete for business. One thing you will never see them compete on, says Aboulafia, is safety.

That's because most carriers fly the same planes, and they have no interest in raising concerns about a competitors’ pilots or equipment.

Quiz: The gift that keeps on giving

Thu, 2015-03-26 08:51

The percentage of 12-17 year olds in gifted classes rose 6 points between 2000 and 2010, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

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PODCAST: The relationship of regulating

Thu, 2015-03-26 03:00

Markets react to airstrikes in Yemen, questions over the nature of "regulatory capture," and Kim Gordon talks about her greatest money lesson.

Women get “swatted” too

Thu, 2015-03-26 02:01

Swatting — making prank calls to 911 to send a SWAT team to someone’s home while they are online playing a video game live — has been in the news lately. (Here and here, just to name a few.)

Swatting is enabled by something else called “doxxing” or “dropping dox” - “The act of posting someone's personal and/ or identifying  information without their consent,” says Sarah Jeong, a tech reporter in Silicon Valley. That information could be anything from an address to a Social Security Number.

Swatting or doxxing, Jeong says, is the only way to hurt someone in the virtual world of gamers, where the practice is most common. “It’s assault by proxy,” she says.

The reason swatting has been getting so much attention, she believes, is the “high-profile” cases that happen on camera. That is, when someone is interrupted while playing a video game online and also live streaming themselves playing the video game.

“That’s actually a form of media that young people consume and being able to manipulate that media...imagine if, with a phone call, you could change what’s happening on your television,” says Jeong.

While getting more media attention was a major step in fixing the problem, she adds, she was also concerned that a lot of the coverage focused on men.

“Three people were swatted in January and two of them were women,” she says. “The three that I am thinking of were swatted because they were critics of Gamergate.”

“There is a wave of this kind of behaviour that is specifically focused around trying to drive out feminist voices from the internet,” says Jeong.

The only way, she says, is for the media to cover swatting more without focusing on men’s experiences alone.

“I understand that it’s hard because women don’t really want to talk about how they were doxxed and swatted,” says Jeong. “And now media thinks of swatting and doxxing as something that happens to young men by young men as opposed to it being a larger phenomenon that includes this wave of violence against women.”

 

The health insurance industry looks...well, healthy

Thu, 2015-03-26 02:00

On Thursday, a new report out from the Commonwealth Fund finds the health insurance industry is doing just fine, thank you very much.

That’s contrary to the deep-seated fears of some as the Affordable Care Act launched back in 2010. But with three years’ worth of data on the books now, and insurers’ stock prices soaring, those fears have faded.

From a business standpoint, it’s a particularly impressive feat considering that on the eve of the ACA, some insurers wondered how they’d keep the lights on after the federal government killed its golden goose. Under the law, the ACA bars companies from denying sick people coverage, a source of significant profits. It was a daunting moment says Wake Forest Professor Mark Hall.

“Insurance companies had to figure out how to sail through those shifting currents, and what we’ve seen after these several years is that they’ve sailed through those choppy seas quite well,” he says.

Despite no longer cherry-picking patients, the Commonwealth report shows that industry profits remain nearly identical to before implementation of the ACA. Bloomberg Industries Analyst Brian Rye says Obamacare has been very good for insurers.

“When it becomes a law that you have to do something it’s amazing how much demand improves,” he says.

Of course Rye is talking about the fact that now most adults are required to carry insurance, and the federal government helps people pay for that coverage. That has led to millions of new customers for the insurers who today have a new golden goose.

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