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Daimler and the disappearing emails

Thu, 2014-08-14 13:00

A lot of us go on vacation and set our email to auto-reply, but that still means we spend hours wading through hundreds of emails when we return. Well, car and truckmaker Daimler is giving its employees in Germany a new vacation option: auto delete.

About 100,000 Daimler employees can choose to have their incoming email permanently obliterated while on vacation.

Inbox Zero.

“To bring good input into the company you need also to rest and you need breaks," says Daimler spokesman Oliver Wihofszki. He says employees should return to work motivated and with a fresh spirit, so they "don’t have to think,‘Oh my God, I have to read 576 emails.'"

Instead, those 576 emails disappear. Their senders get a cheery notice with an emergency contact and the sign-off: "I appreciate your understanding!"

Here's the suggested auto-reply that Daimler employees in Germany can use:

Important Information: I’m using “Mail on Holiday”. Until DD.MM.YY your e-mails will be deleted.

In urgent cases please contact surname name, Tel. +49 XXXX-XX-XXXXX, surname.name@daimler.com

Thank you!

 “Mail on Holiday” is a Life-Balance offer at Daimler.

If you want me to read this e-mail personally, please be kind enough to send me the information after DD.MM.YY.
I appreciate your understanding!

Now, Daimler also has a plant in Tuscaloosa. But Wharton School management professor Peter Cappelli says auto-delete would be hard to pull off in America, with its always-on mentality.

“I would do it,” he says, “but that’s partly because not very many people actually need to talk to me.”

He says in the academic world, a footnote crisis does not mean imminent doom.

If you’re a company deleting email, however, you have to be sure your customers and vendors actually write to your emergency contact, so you don’t lose business.

Peter Cappelli says that means vendors might have to change the way they work.

“But it’s tricky to change the way you work for one out of your 100 clients,” he adds.

David Baggett created an app called Inky that helps manage email, not delete it. He says if you delegate email from one human to another, “then you still have a scaling issue. You still have another person that has to scale to a thousand messages a day potentially.”

Still, Daimler is forging ahead. The company piloted its “Mail on Holiday” program last year and says it doesn’t monitor which employees use it.

Ski bums priced out of resort towns

Thu, 2014-08-14 10:21

Christen Johnson moved to Jackson,Wyoming, so she could spend as much time as possible on her snowboard. She's lived in Jackson off and on for the last two years, but she had to leave town recently. When I met her, she was living in Curtis Canyon, a free campsite a few miles outside of Jackson.

Johnson works in town as a cocktail waitress, but her home is an old Econoline van. She's always looking for a place, but her housing budget is $650 a month. Around here, that doesn't buy much.

"There are options that come up, but most of the time they are too expensive," she says.

Even if she found a place she could afford, she might not be able to keep it.

"I've had a lot friends move out of their places because the landlord wants to up rent now, because there is such a high need," Johnson says.

Struggling to find a room is pretty common in Western resort towns like Jackson, Sun Valley and Aspen. But lately, a stronger economy and the popularity of house sharing sites like Airbnb make finding a place almost impossible.

For seasonal workers like Johnson, that means a summer in Jackson is a summer outdoors. For local business owners, it means a whole lot of "help wanted" ads.

"Friday is usually our busiest day of the week," says Chris Hansen, owner of Caldera's Pizza in downtown Jackson. "And right now, every day is Friday."

Hansen is sort of the old model around here — he came west as a ski bum after college in the '90s and stuck around. He says when he needed to grow his staff over the summer, he used to rely on college kids. Lately, that's been difficult.

"Anytime somebody gets in touch with me who isn't here already I always ask them, 'Do you have housing right now?' If their answer is 'No,' I always say 'Come see me when you have housing,'" Hansen says.

This search for staff at Caldera's Pizza has taken Hansen all the way across the Atlantic to the countries of the former Soviet Union.

"A little tiny small country between Romania and Ukraine," is how Nina Maico describes Moldova, her home country, over the din of Caldera's.

Maico is one of Chris Hansen's top servers this summer. To be fair, she's a college student, too — that's why she was able to qualify for the J1 Visa program, which brings international college students to the U.S. to work for a season. Crucial in a place like this, J1 students' contracts almost always include housing as part of the deal.

Maico says she loves getting to work in the States, even if waiting tables here is a little different than in her home country.

"You don't even introduce yourself. 'Hi, what do you like? OK, bye.' Done. Here, you kind of have a dialogue, because its in your interest, you know? Otherwise you are not going to make money."

Robin Lerner helps oversee the J1 Visa Exchange Program at the State Department. She says the reason you usually see Eastern Europeans when you're checking out at the grocery store or grabbing a drink is because their summer break generally aligns with ours. Lerner says big resorts in towns like Jackson love the program.

"Any place where you have one season you are going to see such a need that it goes beyond what can be fulfilled by the local population," Lerner says.

Back at her campsite, Christen Johnson is packed up and ready for work. She says that car camping is good for now, but it isn't really a choice.

"If I just decide I don't want to do it anymore: tough luck, you know?," says Johnson with a shrug. "I don't really have another option other than leaving."

Johnson says she might not come back next year. That would leave one really great summer job open — if you can find a place to stay.

California could stay dry enough to make food pricier

Thu, 2014-08-14 07:00

In an ongoing drought that’s often described as epic, California’s legislature has approved a proposal to ask voters for more than $7 billion in water-infrastructure projects.

Among those who were pleased:  The California Farm Bureau. Much of California’s water goes to growing crops, and the state produces a big chunk of the nation’s fruit, veggies, and nuts.

The drought has been extremely tough on farmers, and the bad news is:  It’s probably reasonable to expect more of the same, over the very long term. Recent research shows that the last hundred years were probably the long-term equivalent of the rainy season.

“All of our water-management decisions in the West were made based on a really, really wet period, comparatively speaking, looking at the last thousand years of record,” says Richard Heim a meteorologist for the Climatic Data Center at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Climate change will amplify any natural drying-out. “It’s going to be hotter and drier in the western United States,” says Heim. “Bad.”

Given that, California agriculture might need a major re-think. “It’s not clear that  we should be growing these kind of crops— vegetables, nut trees, grapes— these kinds of very thirsty crops— in a region like California,” says Yusuke Kuwayama, an economist at Resources for the Future.

He thinks the long-term alternative is probably more-expensive broccoli.

California Farm Bureau President Paul Wenger says: OK, but where else are you going to grow tomatoes in December? Nebraska? 

“Our Mediterranean climates are the richest growing regions in the world,” Wenger says. “And by definition, they have good soils, they have temperate climates, and they don’t have water. We have to bring water to them.”  

California currently imports a significant amount of water from the Colorado River.

An animation depicting the past six weeks of drought conditions in the United States. (Graphic courtesy of United States Drought Monitor.)

 

Building a school with a future

Thu, 2014-08-14 05:48

If you've gone back to visit your old elementary or high school recently, you may have been surprised to find it’s still there.  And, it’s pretty much the way you left it — dark classrooms, narrow hallways.

A typical "cells and bells" school building. Hillel Academy in Tampa, FL, before renovation. (Prakash Nair)

But after a big slowdown during the recession, spending on new school construction — renovating old schools and building new ones — is slowly picking up again. It was more than $13 billion last year.

School Construction 101 | Create Infographics

Many newer schools are being designed with the latest technologies and teaching models in mind,  schools like the new Rocketship Fuerza Community Prep charter school in San Jose, California.

Bright blue, purple and orange paint cover the classroom walls. The design is clean. The spaces are open. Natural light streams into the building from skylights above. There’s open duct work. Throughout the school, there are small, private “breakout spaces” where kids can work with teachers or each other.

At the center of it all is a wide-open computer lab, about the size of four classrooms, with polished concrete floors. It’ll soon be full of 160 kids, each on their own laptop, working on their own lessons.

The computer lab at Rocketship Fuerza Community Prep in San Jose. (Adriene Hill/Marketplace)

“Individualized instruction for students is the right way to go,” said Laura Kozel, vice president of facilities at Rocketship, a network of elementary charter schools where computers are a part of every kids’ day. Kozel is in charge of making sure everything is ready in time for the hundreds of students from kindergarten through fourth grade, who’ll pour into the school next week. "You have to meet every child where they are at, and that’s really what this model is designed to do,” she said.

Kids learning on cutting edge technology raises two important questions. The first: How will a fragile computer ever survive a year with a kindergartner and a concrete floor?

And, second: How do you design a school that won’t be obsolete in 20 years, when no one has any idea what tech or teaching might look like in five?

“If we do a good job, it’s to give the teacher something that is going to be adaptable to however they want to teach,” said architect Michael Pinto, from NAC|Architecture, a firm that specializes in school design.

“The challenge is to both be specific to the things they want to do, but also preserve some generality, flexibility, that agility that adapts to new technologies, new philosophies of learning.”

In other words, the school of the future is a school that knows how to get out of the way.

Pinto shows me just such a place: Playa Vista Elementary School in Los Angeles.

Playground area at Playa Vista Elementary School. (Edmund Barr)

There are no docks to park your jetpack. Or cubbies for Google glasses.

Instead the three-year-old school is characterized by moveable partitions, open spaces and furniture that doesn’t screech across the floor when you rearrange it.

A multipurpose space, at Playa Vista Elementary, used as an event space and cafeteria, with automated roll-up doors to open up to the outside. (Edmund Barr)

Teacher Rachel Henry calls her classroom "amoebic."

“I’m a firm believer that children need change, and they can get bored easily just with their physical environment,” she said.  She changes the classroom setup about once a month.

Spaces at the school are built to transform into other spaces, in the simplest of ways. The architects made the outside walkways wider than usual so they can also be learning spaces.

There’s a bridge over the courtyard intended for dropping things over the side. In the school of the future, kids still wrap eggs in paper and cardboard and hope for the best.

All the flexibility is meant to encourage a new type of learning: Learning by doing. Learning with new technology. Learning that is collaborative, personalized. Learning that architect Prakash Nair said more traditional schools are no good at. 

Nair is the founding president of Fielding Nair International and the author of the forthcoming book “Blueprint for Tomorrow: Redesigning Schools for Student-Centered Learning.”

He calls traditional U.S. schools “cells and bells.”

“Kids are in a cell called a classroom for a certain period of time,” he said.  A bell goes off. “And then they go to another fairly identical cell.”

Nair says we currently have $2 trillion worth of “cells and bells” type school facilities around the country.

“If you look at the research about how we learn, it has nothing to do with being trapped in a room with people of the same age,” he said.

Nair imagines schools without big auditoriums, with cafes instead of large cafeterias.

He says schools with open, flexible space can cost less to build than traditional schools.

Remember those lockers at the beginning of the story? This is the same space, post-renovation. (Prakash Nair)

Old-school schools use about two-thirds of the space for learning. New-school schools, said Nair, use as much as 85 percent of the space.

The Rocketship school in San Jose cost about $10 million to build, compared to about $16 million for a traditional elementary school.

Around the country, teachers and architects are working toward the same goal: to be prepared for the stream of kids headed their way in a few days and a few decades from now.

PODCAST: Now playing in digital

Thu, 2014-08-14 03:00

Some not so great economic news out of Europe: gross domestic product is out for the second quarter, and across the board, economic growth was flat in the Eurozone. Germany, Europe's largest economy, contracted in the second quarter. But some say the future is already looking better. Plus, many companies have wellness programs that encourage workers to exercise or manage conditions such as diabetes. But the workplace has lagged in dealing with mental health issues. More on addressing employee well-being beyond physical conditions. And when you catch a new movie at the multiplex, chances are it's digital projection technology-- that means no scratched frames or dropped dialog. But digital is proving a tough sell to smaller theaters who can't afford the high cost of converting screens

 

End of the reel for old-school movie film?

Thu, 2014-08-14 02:00

Film snakes around the projection booth of the Parkway Discount Cinema in Warner Robins, Georgia. Theater manager Alicia Bowers is in the booth. She has a love/hate relationship with film these days.

“Run too fast and it will throw the film to the ground,” Bowers says, “or if they’re moving it from one platter to another – if they drop it, it’s a big pile of mess.”

By contrast, a digital blockbuster is delivered on a six-inch by four-inch hard drive. When you drop it, there’s a thud, but no mess.

The Parkway’s run is coming to an end this summer. It’s closing, rather than converting to digital.

Bill Stembler, CEO of the Georgia Theater Company, says the reason is pretty simple: “It’s questionable whether you could recover your investment. It’s something like $50,000 to $70,000 a screen to convert to digital.”

Stembler says when you do the math for a 16-screen multiplex, you get the picture.

Luckily, the movie studios have a solution. They offer theaters a subsidy called Virtual Print Fees. Every time you buy a ticket at the multiplex at what the studios call full price, the studios pay to help retire a piece of the theater’s digital debt.

“The film companies are basically paying for about 80 to 85 percent of our cost to be digital,” Stembler says.

But this equation doesn’t work for discount screens. The studios take about a 60 percent cut out of every ticket sold. At full ticket price, that adds up. It doesn’t work at the dollar theater.

“They don’t care about the discount theaters,” Stembler says.

So how do Virtual Print Fees work at your local arthouse theater? Sara Beresford is a board member at Ciné, an independent theater in Athens, GA. She says the arthouse is a different beast.

“I think for a lot of the arthouse cinema operators there were too many strings attached to that agreement,” Stembler says.

Remember, Virtual Print Fees come with studio demands about which movies will be shown. Arthouse operators like their independence.

Back at the Parkway Discount Cinema, Alicia Bowers has reset the film for the next show.

“You know, it’s rewarding to get it up on the screen and seeing it play... it’s definitely a nostalgic feeling. It moves, it bounces,” Bowers says.

But film lovers only have a little time left to indulge that nostalgia. One studio, Paramount, no longer distributes film prints at all.

Is Wal-Mart rethinking its business approach?

Thu, 2014-08-14 02:00

Thursday is a busy day for Wal-Mart. The retail giant is playing host to this year's U.S. Manufacturing Summit in Denver, and the company reports its second quarter earnings. Between slower store traffic and dwindling sales, analysts aren't optimistic. But the company has a plan.  

When you think of social responsibility in the corporate world, Wal-Mart is not the first company that comes to mind. The company is working on initiatives from cutting the amount of water in detergent to partnering with women-owned businesses.

"I think certainly PR's gotta be part of it, right? I mean, I don't think it's all altruism," says Peter Mueller, an analyst at Forrester Research. "So if they pull it off, it will look good for them, right?" 

And after years of bad press over employee relations, that could be a smart move, says Steven Brown, who teaches marketing at the University of Houston.

"It's kind of in tune with the zeitgeist in corporate America where corporations increasingly realize that their employees need to identify with a good employer who does good for them as employees and also for their community at large," Brown says.

The challenge, he says, is doing good while continuing to make a profit. And, Brown says, getting the skeptics to buy it.   

Web cookies to track apps

Thu, 2014-08-14 02:00

Google is busy rolling out a new kind of web tracking cookie to give the company an even deeper insight into individual online browsing habits. So what's so special about how this cookie crumbles?

“Google is introducing a way to track you on your mobile apps,” says Will Oremus of Slate.

The company is already adept at tracking users on the open web, but more and more web browsing is done through apps on their phone, which are not subject to Google’s web tracking cookies. This makes it harder for it to deploy targeted advertisements.

With this new technology, Google is trying to is link the cookies on the web with the anonymous trackers that already log activity through apps.

Why that backache could really be all in your head

Thu, 2014-08-14 02:00

Ever take a day off from work and tell your boss you needed a sick day, when what you really needed was a mental health day?

Deborah Jacobs, an HR professional who sits on the advisory council of the Disability Management Employer Coalition, says you're not alone.

"We had a lot of employees that have physical disabilities, but we find out as we're looking into their cases that they also have a mental behavioral health issue going on at the same time," she says.

"Behavioral health” – essentially a mash-up of mental and physical health – is getting more attention in the workplace, Jacobs says.

A report from Employers Health says that workers miss more days of work and are less productive due to mental illness than chronic conditions such as high blood pressure and even back pain.

Pamela Warren is doctor of psychology and a University of Illinois faculty member. She says depression, for instance, may cause physical ailments that can result in disability or employee absence.

"Over time and actually pretty early in my practice, what I started seeing were individuals who they focused on the reported work issues, but found they couldn't or wouldn't go to work," she says.

According to some estimates, this is costing employers upwards of $100 billion dollars.

 

 

Min Headroom: Pop artificial intelligence t 30

Thu, 2014-08-14 01:00

For some reason, the 1984-born TV icon Max Headroom came up in conversation this week, and I immediately went down a very deep YouTube rabbit hole. Headroom was the star of a British sci-fi movie and TV show, talk show host and music video jockey, a David Letterman interviewee, and one of many Coke-hawking celebrities.

He was also one 0f the earliest forms of fictionalized artificial intelligence (along with the "Flight of the Navigator" spaceship and C-3PO) that I came in contact with as a kid. I am four years older than Max, but I wasn't even really conscious of him as a kind of AI. What I could discern: his glitchy and pitch-shifted vocal delivery, as well as his backdrop, was computer generated. Or at least it was meant to look that way. I was kind of scared of him. He yelled a lot and twitched and the lined walls of his rotating digital box of a room seemed weirdly prison-like. Here's an example. 

 

Kind of scary, right? The character's origin story is scary, too. In the 1985 television show, a TV reporter named Edison Carter has a bad accident after discovering a dubious television company's experiments and then gets his brain dumped into a computer program. The whiz-kid who does the dump tells a bad-guy network executive, "I could make a memory dump of his synaptic circuits...the brain is only a binary computer. A series of on-off switches. That's the basis of my computer generated people program." An interesting line to hear the same month IBM unveiled computer chips that mimic brain functions.

As a way to understand what was happening with lots of technologies in the 1980s, Headroom is a fascinating example in pop culture. While tape decks were first giving way to CD players, while popular music was featuring more synthesizers and digital drum sounds over their acoustic forbears, Headroom was also straddling the analogue-digital world. The rotating block that served to house Max's disembodied head was apparently first created with analogue animation technique, and later replaced with computer graphics. Max himself couldn't be made by a computer yet, so instead he was portrayed by the actor Matt Frewer and a ton of makeup. Max's visage also appeared in one of the strangest and most significant US cases of broadcast signal hijacking to date. Doubly strange because the intro to the show's first episode has network engineers talking about "intermittent loss" in a network link of some kind. 

I think what's most interesting to me about Max is how people in the 1980s were imagining AI, and how the character and the production compares to our current AI projects. These days a lot of our artificial intelligence work is embedded in faceless, voiceless algorithms and machine learning, while other forms, like Google Now and Siri -- whose inventors are right now working on a more powerful kind of AI -- are not disembodied heads but disembodied voices. Like a lot of the future we imagined in the past, Max delivers an entertaining picture. Definitely a 1980s picture. But is he as weird as his AI successors? 

What's a viral cause worth?

Wed, 2014-08-13 16:14

The Ice Bucket Challenge is enjoying significant social media success and raking in donations for ALS research, but it's hardly the first viral challenge for a cause.

Do these stunts actually raise any money, or are they hollow slacktivism? Here's a look at a few social media campaigns for good and how they worked out financially:

#nomakeupselfie: $8 million

If this raises cash or awareness, cool. #nomakeupselfie @CR_UK I donated here http://t.co/5hHvAQ3vKZ boys? Your turn! pic.twitter.com/YdUQ94G1yW

— suzi perry (@suziperry) March 21, 2014

Not unlike the Ice Bucket challenge, this fundraiser leveraged an unrelated, but highly clickable hook into some real money. Cancer Research UK didn't start the #nomakeupselfie trend — that was author Laura Lippman, for reasons unrelated to cancer — but the craze evolved into an awareness campaign and the organization rode the wave to about $8 million in donations.

Sarah Palin and Planned Parenthood: $800,000

(Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

In an age of hashtags and viral videos, a political email chain still has some power. During the 2008 presidential election, an email circulated encouraging donations to Planned Parenthood in the name of anti-abortion vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin. The Internet loves irony, so contributions poured in.

Kony 2012: $32 million

Kony 2012 made more money than the others on this list, but it's tough to call it a success. Invisible Children's viral video and awareness campaign spread blindingly fast, gathering up tens of millions of views almost overnight.

The backlash was immediate and came from all sides. Critics went after the video's accuracy, the group's finances and the campaign's motivations. Kony 2012's director had an ugly public meltdown and the effort's big "Cover the Light" event flopped. A recent profile found Invisible Children still struggling and looking for a new direction.

#OnlyGoodThings: $?

This effort is impossible to quantify, but it's notable because it was created in reaction to another viral stunt. "NekNominate" challenges involve filming oneself chugging a drink and then challenging others to do the same.

One YouTuber flipped the script on his own nomination, encouraging others to perform good deeds instead, like giving away sandwich while inspirational music plays. The trend got some traction, but failed to catch on the way #NekNominate did.

Shaking up earthquake warning systems

Wed, 2014-08-13 13:10

A few seconds of warning before a major earthquake could save lives.

That’s why California legislators passed a bill last year asking officials to set up a seismic early warning system.

The law also requires this system to be a public and private venture, but working out the details of that arrangement hasn't been easy.

One of the businesses looking to help build an early warning network is Seismic Warning Systems, based in Scotts Valley. The company has already set up sensors in certain locations, including more than a dozen fire stations and a transit company in the Coachella Valley, as marked below.

Blake Goetz at Seismic Warning Systems said the company's quake alert tool relies on sensors about the size of paperback novels.

"They’re bolted about a foot off the floor in a bearing wall," he said, showing off the system at a Palm Springs fire station.

Those sensors can detect an earthquake seconds before the serious shaking begins. Goetz says within that brief window of time, the system does three things automatically: "It opens the doors, it turns on the lights and it activates the radio system."

When that happens, a robotic voice calls out over the loudspeakers, repeating the phrase "seismic event detected."

This kind of automated response is crucial for fire departments near the San Andreas Fault.

For instance, if the garage doors are closed when the shaking starts, they may get jammed. That happened four years ago to a station in Calexico, Goetz said.

"They had to extricate themselves," he said. "Meanwhile, there were fires and floods and damage all around their city, and they couldn't get out of the station."

In hopes of preventing that from happening again, Imperial County secured a $250,000 grant and hired Seismic Warning Systems to set up a network there as well. Below is an image of where the company plans to install those systems, marked in yellow.

Rocky Saunders, a sales representative for SWS, said the company has cracked the code on quakes.

"We can detect, analyze and warn of a dangerous earthquake in less than one second," he said.

The sensors work by detecting subtle vibrations called P-waves, which occur just as a quake starts and travel at the speed of sound. They reach the surface before the more damaging S-waves that follow.

It’s that gap of time between the P-waves and S-waves that allow a warning system to do its thing. Saunders said the sensor can even determine the size of the impeding quake.

"We essentially are listening and detecting and analyzing the DNA, if you will, of the earthquake," he said.

Saunders claimed that the SWS instruments are faster than anything else on the market, including a system designed by the U.S. Geological Survey that works in a similar manner.

While the SWS system currently uses sensors and automated systems in buildings, the USGS network relies on hundreds of sensors around the state installed near major faults. Below is an image of the sensors for that network in Southern California.

 

 

But it's still a prototype. It would require $38 million to build out and $16 million a year to maintain.

Saunders said his company plans to install its own sensors near faults using investor capital. The company will then simply sell early warning subscriptions for about $100 a month.

"So that’s the difference," Saudners said. "We do not require an investment from the state of California, and then there is a public benefit at a very, very inexpensive cost."

While the USGS system may cost more, the agency said the system also does more in terms of gathering seismic data and analyzing quake risks. And Seismic Warning Systems still needs to secure more private funding to build its statewide network.

Regardless of the approach, the state wants both systems linked together. But the USGS’ Elizabeth Cochran said that’s easier said than done. "Our concern is that it’s not clear exactly how their system is functioning and whether it’s functioning in the way that they claim it is," she said.

She pointed out that Seismic Warning Systems won’t divulge the details behind its technology. The company said that information is a trade secret. And while the two sides have met numerous times, they haven’t found a way to get past that.

"It’s kind of a turf war, and that’s kind of bothersome," said Gary McGavin, a professor of architecture at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, and a former member of the California Seismic Safety Commission.

McGavin thinks the USGS isn’t used to having competition when it comes to statewide early warning, and he thinks the agency isn't keen on sharing that spotlight.

But, he added, a system relying solely on a private company is risky, too, since private businesses are more susceptible to lawsuits than public agencies.

Either way, he thinks California desperately needs an early warning system and that the two sides should come together to help make that happen.

"And I’m just flabbergasted that there’s so much balking at getting this going," McGavin said.

According to state law, California has until January 2016 to get a warning system in place.

People still use AOL. It's true.

Wed, 2014-08-13 13:02

Data culled from AOL's earnings report last week revealed that the company still has 2.3 million subscribers, which is interesting in and of itself.

But even more interesting is that subscription. For $59.88 a year you can get their baseline plan which includes, among other things, unlimited dial-up service — the only way to get online in a lot of rural areas.

It also includes two free wills from Hyatt Legal planning and — just to drive their target demographic point home — an AARP membership.

Amazon's mobile card reader could be gold mine of data

Wed, 2014-08-13 13:02

Several companies, including Square and PayPal, have made it easier for small retailers to accept credit cards; they make card readers that plug into smart phones and tablets. Well, those companies have new competition from Amazon.

Sure, there is money to be made from processing mobile payments – a cut of every dollar.  But something else is driving Amazon’s decision to get into this sector - data.  The e-retailer already knows a lot about how we shop  – what we search for, what ads we click and what devices we use.

“Within Amazon’s world, they have a tremendous insight into our online behaviors,” says Colin Gillis, a tech analyst with BGC Partners. “But they don’t have access into our offline purchasing.”

Gillis says that, with this new product, known as Amazon Local Register, the company will collect new data on what we buy at stores and restaurants.  “That insight into our offline behavior will be useful to them,” he says.

Amazon wants to know what we buy regularly and how we pay for those items. In the future, the company could sell us those items.

According to James Cordwell, an Internet analyst with Atlantic Equities, Amazon - which makes less than a penny on every dollar of revenue - is under more pressure than ever to make money, and Amazon Local Register could help the company do that. “But over and above that,” he says, “it’s about further locking in third parties into its platform.”

R.J. Hottovy, an analyst with Morningstar, wonders if local retailers will be interested in that, even though the company charges less per transaction than Square or PayPal.

“There is going to be some reluctance on the part of small merchants to share any kind of data with Amazon,” he says. That’s because data that could benefit Amazon could hurt those small merchants in the long run. If Amazon sees that your business is doing well, Hottovy says, there is nothing to stop it from competing against you.

Yes, the #icebucketchallenge is raising money

Wed, 2014-08-13 13:02

Non-profits might want to add a bucket of ice water to their fundraising tool kits after the success of the viral “ice bucket challenge.”

The campaign, which is plastering social media, is drawing in big donations for charities that deal with the neurodegenerative disease ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease. ALS causes its victims’ muscles to stop functioning such that they eventually lose their ability to eat, speak walk and breathe.

Here’s how the" ice bucket challenge" works: dump a bucket of ice water over your head in support of ALS sufferers. Or donate money to an ALS organization. Or both. Then challenge someone else to do the same within 24 hours.

"Marketplace" host Kai Ryssdal takes part in the Ice Bucket Challenge.

The national ALS association and its chapters have pulled in nearly $6 million in donations since late July, compared to just $1 million during the same period last year, as celebrities like Jimmy Fallon and Justin Timberlake join the throng of Americans accepting the "ice bucket challenge".

“I wish I could take credit for this incredible viral phenomenon. I'd be a PR genius if that was the case,” says ALS Association spokeswoman Carrie Munk.

Instead, Munk credits a few individuals who themselves suffer from ALS with making the ice bucket challenge go viral. Pete Frates, a former Boston College baseball player, is one of them. His father, John Frates, says his 29 year-old son got keyed into the challenge from a fellow ALS sufferer.

“It looked like it was just going to be for entertainment purposes around our family and friends. Then it morphed into hey, if you don't do this challenge, you better donate,” says Frates.

Sarah Durham, the president of Big Duck, a communications firm for non-profits, says other fundraising campaigns have had similar roots. Durham says Planned Parenthood appeared to benefit from an individual sending out an email that went viral a few years ago.

Durham says the charities that benefit from grassroots campaigns might scramble to catch up. “It can make it hard for non-profits because oftentimes they're reacting to something that's out there that they didn't get any lead time to plan for or prepare for,” she says.

But in fundraising, that's not a terrible problem to have.

[<a href="//storify.com/Marketplace/icebucketchallenge-highlight-reel" target="_blank">View the story "#IceBucketChallenge Highlight reel" on Storify</a>]

Why isn’t the American consumer spending?

Wed, 2014-08-13 13:02

Trying to get inside the head – or wallet – of the American consumer can be dizzying.

Data released by the Commerce Department Wednesday shows retail sales in July were virtually unchanged from the previous month and are at their weakest level since January.

One reason these numbers may be disappointing is actually because of strong car sales earlier in the year, says Chris Christopher, the director of consumer economics at IHS Global Insight.  

“You have a couple months of good auto sales, and then even after those months, the discretionary spending is a little bit lackluster,” he explains. “[Consumers] take it a little bit easier on other items that are not necessities.”

In a word, consumers are cautious. Coming out of the recession, they’ve learned to budget.

“For example, three-quarters of consumers make a shopping list before heading to the grocery store,” ­­says Susan Viamari, who covers consumer insights for IRI, a market-research company. “By and large, consumers are sticking to the lists that they’ve made.”

It’s not just that shoppers are being responsible. Buyers have become passionate about finding deals, says Candace Corlett, the president of WSL Strategic Retail. Moreover, wage growth has been fairly anemic and consumers have made paying down their debts a priority.

“It’s a very good thing for shoppers,” she says. “It’s less good for our economy, which thrives on consumers overspending.”

Shoppers aren't all about making savings and having no fun: Corlett says the American consumer can still be tempted by products that are particularly new and exciting—and that the number of people walking around with new Apple products or fitness trackers is proof of that.  

How the Ebola outbreak affects Nigerian small business

Wed, 2014-08-13 12:29

The most serious Ebola warning to date has been issued in East Africa. Nigeria confirmed at least 13 cases of the disease last week, and Kenya is now a “high-risk” country for the spread of the virus.

"Ebola can spread through physical contact," says Tomi Oladipo, Nigeria Correspondent at the BBC. "There’s a lot of caution now."

Oladipo says people are a lot more reluctant to shake hands. Many public places, like gyms, are providing hand sanitizer to try and help prevent the spread.

Many small food businesses have been affected as well.

"In Nigeria, we’ve got this kind of roast beef, which is sold in skewers and made out in the open. It’s popular and a delicacy around the country," says Olidapo. "A lot of the sellers we’ve spoken to say their sales have gone down. Some of them would have maybe 200 customers a day and now they’re getting about 50."

Listen to the full conversation in the audio player above.

Sales tax holidays: A lot of hype for a little saving

Wed, 2014-08-13 11:33

Even though they are bad for state budgets and aren't necessarily good bargains, Americans love sales-tax holidays. Retailers like them too, because the tax holidays motivate consumers.

“It can be a pretty significant increase in traffic in the store and sales,” says Jim Sluzewski, a spokesman for Macy’s.

So why are tax holidays so popular?

“There’s absolutely a psychological impact here that is bigger than the money,” says Craig Shearman, spokesman for the National Retail Federation.

He says consumers generally hold out for sales offering at least 25 percent off.

“If retailers were to offer 5 or 10 percent off, consumers would laugh at them,” says Shearman. “But when shoppers can save that same 5 or 10 percent by virtue of not paying tax, it goes way beyond the amount of money involved.”

While consumers save money at the cash register, it’s really the states that pay.

“The first time I heard about a state tax holiday, I laughed until I cried,” says Verenda Smith, deputy director at the Federation for Tax Administrators, an association of state tax agencies.

There are 27 tax holidays this year.

“They’re expensive. They tend to distort the economy a little bit. But people love ‘em,” says Smith.

If tax holidays disappeared, would retailers lose much business?

Joy Hyrons, who handles accounting for Miller’s School Supplies in central Florida, says not necessarily.

“Well, to be honest with you, it probably wouldn’t make a whole lot of difference because the people have to purchase these items anyway,” says Hyrons.

What's behind no-interest medical credit

Wed, 2014-08-13 10:38

A bigger and bigger chunk of the money hospitals get comes from you and me, thanks to a rise in what are known as high deductible health plans, in which consumers are spending more out-of-pocket for their own care.

With millions more people newly insured under the Affordable Care Act holding those plans, hospitals are thinking hard about the best way to collect from us when we can't pay our bills. In some cases, that means no-interest payment plans.

Craig Froude, CEO of CarePayment, says business is booming for his company, which works for hospitals offering patients no-interest payment plans.

We will actually double in revenue in this year,” he says, “and we will probably double again in 2015.”

The Kaiser Family Foundation reports the number of workers with deductibles has jumped from 55 percent to 78 percent since 2006.  

Froude says that's why hospitals are lining up outside his door.

“And so what we are really seeing patients are having to figure out how they are going to afford healthcare,” he says.

Hospitals do a good job getting money from insurers, but when it comes to what individuals owe, Fraude says it's just about 17 cents on the dollar. And that won't cut it as collections become a bigger part of the business.

“We're trying to get ahead of this curve because we want to be able to continue being financially viable,” says Melanie Wilson of North Carolina-based Novant Health.

Two years ago, Novant stopped offering a payment plan with a 12 percent interest rate and introduced a no-interest option. Wilson says collections bumped up 6 percent.

They see that we are not here to just make money,” she says. “We're here to do the right thing.”

Not all hospitals can go that route. Sandra Wolfskill with the non-profit Healthcare Financial Management Association expects some hospitals to keep using loans or credit cards with interest because those lenders give hospitals money up front.

"I think the hospitals that are financially stressed may be more inclined to go with the credit card option because it moves their cash flow much quicker,” Wolfskill says.

Patients often don't know what they owe until the bill shows up, she says, adding that hospitals need to find a way to make that stop.

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