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The problem with fracking

Mon, 2014-11-24 05:31

Slumping oil prices are wrecking life for drillers around the world, particularly high-cost producers now struggling to make a profit ... like the U.S.

American oil from shale, which comes out of the ground through fracking, is pricey to extract. On top of that, sources of oil become mere trickles within a year or two.

The notion of oil wells tailing off and aging isn’t new. In the late 50s, a Hollywood celebrity famously joked that actors are, “about as short-lived as an oil well and twice as pretty.”

The issue is, for the new so-called shale wells, production falls like a stone in the first year.

“Let’s say you produce 500 barrels in the first month of production,” says James Burkhard, head of oil market research for IHS Energy. “Twelve months later you could be producing around 250 barrels. So a decline rate of about 50 percent. In a conventional well, the decline rate is much less steep.”

Oil from shale is not a pool of liquid, but rather small amounts trapped in tight rock. That requires drillers to fracture, or frac, the shale rock to release the oil. Quickly, though, output slows and pressure falls. And the driller has to drill and frac again, in a new spot. That’s expensive — in many places, each well costs $8 million.

“I’ve seen it personally firsthand,” says Ed Hirs, managing director of the Houston-based oil and gas firm Hillhouse Resources. He also teaches economics at the University of Houston. “We’ve had wells on production since 2009, 2010 that have been plugged and abandoned here in 2014, because they are not producing enough to cover their cost.”

Hirs says his firm barely profited in shale. So it returned to drilling old-school conventional oil, where a good well returns five, even 10 dollars for each one invested.

Fracking for shale oil, he says, is a fad, like that scene where the cruise ship tilts to one side.

“They all ran to the shale side of the boat,” Hirs says. “That was the fashion of the day. We see this in other industries as well.”  

Fast-declining wells also require continuous drilling and investing to increase production. Before one tails off, you have to drill the second. And then before that tails off, you drill the third. It’s a treadmill, which may be speeding up as the most productive drilling spots are taken.

Some call this the 'Red Queen' race. Remember Alice, from the Wonderland books? In one scene, she runs and runs and gets nowhere, at which point the Red Queen chimes in.

“Now here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!”  

Constant drilling means constant spending, and according to the U.S. Department of Energy, production revenues are not keeping up with expenditures. Some shale investors are edgy, analysts say.

“If you’re giving money to somebody, you eventually want to get something back,” says Virendra Chauhan of Energy Aspects in London. “If that’s not happening, then there seems to be something wrong with the business model.”

To which shale optimists shake their collective heads. Looking back more than a century, drilling technology has repeatedly proven skeptics wrong. “Until we hit peak knowledge, until the human race hits peak knowledge, we won’t hit peak oil supply,” Burkhard of IHS Energy says.

Companies now drill and frack wells deeper, closer together and more efficiently. So, can technology improve faster than shale wells fall off? “If today the wells you’re drilling are twice as good as the wells you drilled two years ago, then that goes a long way toward addressing that decline,” says geologist Allen Gilmer, CEO of oil and gas database firm Drillinginfo.

Today, the U.S. produces more than 3 million barrels a day, from shale alone. That’s more than the total output of Iran, or Iraq, or Venezuela. “I think it’s very unlikely to ramp down,” Gilmer says, “unless operators really start pulling back on drilling. And as long as a well is economic, I don’t see that happening.”       

Ed Hirs at Hillhouse Resources does see that happening. With oil prices low, and investors antsy, exuberance could go bust. “The challenge with these fast-declining wells is this pace of drilling needs to continue,” Hirs says. “Without the pace of drilling continuing, that three and a half million barrels a day will peter out to zero in the next three to five years.”

That’s the debate: whether shale oil production declines the way its wells do, the way movie stars come and go. Bullish types will note the actor who compared short careers to oil wells decades ago. That actor's name? Ronald Reagan

Quiz: The best-connected state in the nation

Mon, 2014-11-24 04:43

More than 70 percent of American households have a high-speed internet connection, according to a Census Bureau report.

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PODCAST: Saying "I do" to a bigger income

Mon, 2014-11-24 03:00

First up, there's news the World Bank is moving away from funding coal projects, according to the bank's president. There will be exceptions made in the poorest places, but observers say the banks' rhetoric is becoming increasingly clear about climate change. More on that. Plus, the rise of single-parent households is a social, cultural, and economic phenomenon. This is at the center of a new study put out by the conservative-leaning American Enterprise Institute, which argues that stronger marriages could help bridge the widening wealth and poverty divide. We look into the challenge of pinning down causes of America's wealth gap. And imagine a country being able to double the size of its economy, using swipes of a tablet or clicks of a mouse. The small Baltic state of Estonia aims to do just that.  

Where in the world are the important financial centers?

Mon, 2014-11-24 03:00
$64

That’s how much the tiny Baltic state of Estonia will charge foreigners to become an “e-resident” of the country. E-residents will be able to open up an Estonian bank account, and even start and run a company in the country. They just won’t be able to live there.

32 percent

A new study by the conservative-leaning American Enterprise Institute says that the rise of single-parent households accounts for a 32 percent growth in family-income inequality between 1979 and 2012. Others point towards the growth in incomes of the “one percent” as a more likely cause for the widening gap.

400 feet

Commercial drone regulations are taking off. As reported by the Wall Street Journal, new federal regulations will require operators to have a license, and will limit commercial drone flights to daylight hours, and below 400 feet.

53 percent

That’s the percentage of respondents who named Shanghai as the leading global financial center by 2019 in a survey conducted by Kinetic Partners. Bloomberg News also reports that among the some 300 finance professionals surveyed, New York was named the world’s most important financial center, overtaking London for the second year in a row.

300 sellers

That’s how many legal marijuana sellers currently exist in Colorado. And just like every other retailer, they’re gearing up for Black Friday, with deals on joints, vape-pen cartridges, and plain old ounces of marijuana. Some have even nicknamed the event “Green Friday.”

Doubling a country's economy with the click of a mouse

Mon, 2014-11-24 02:00

Imagine a country being able to double the size of its economy, almost at the touch of a button, or the click of a mouse. The tiny Baltic state of Estonia aims to do just that. Next month, Estonia will become the first country in the world to offer foreigners so-called “ e-residency,” which could hugely expand its customer base without increasing the size of its physical population of 1.3 million people.  

Estonia is trying to cash in on what it calls its digital infrastructure. It’s one of the most e-connected places on the planet with almost every home, office, factory and classroom hooked up to the internet, and most government business conducted online; Estonia even uses e-voting in its general elections. 

Now, foreigners will be invited to sign up, pay $64, and become an e-resident of Estonia.

“E-residency is basically a government-guaranteed digital identity,” explains Siret Schutting, Estonia’s e-ambassador. “We are allowing foreigners to acquire what every Estonian already has: a digital signature. This means they can securely sign documents online. It’s legally the same as a handwritten signature.”

You “sign” by using a unique code along with your own smartcard and reader. E-residency won’t give you right to live in Estonia or even to visit the country, but Taavi Kotka of the Ministry for Economic Affairs in the capital Tallinn says it will let you do business there. 

“You can open up a bank account, start a company, run a company, all that stuff," he says. "We’re aiming to sign up 10 million e-residents. That would give a big boost to the Estonian economy. More customers for our banks, for telecom companies ... for everybody.”

Kotka claims e-residency will be totally secure. To qualify, you must supply biometric data — like finger prints — and be vetted. However, Ian Bond, a former British ambassador to neighboring Latvia, is not entirely reassured.

“I would have some concerns about who exactly would be getting e-residency. With Russia on its doorstep, there is a risk of money laundering. There is a risk of exploitation by organized crime. $64 won’t pay for much in-depth vetting,” he says.

Estonia knows all about cyber problems from its mighty neighbor; the country suffered a massive attack from Russian hackers in 2007, apparently because it planned to relocate a Soviet-era war memorial. Estonian government, bank, police and other emergency websites crashed under a bombardment of service denial messages. But the Baltic state weathered the storm and it is now host to NATO’s cyber security headquarters. Estonia reckons that although it is small, it can defend itself — and its residents — in cyberspace.   

What might happen after Iran sanctions are lifted

Mon, 2014-11-24 02:00

Monday is the deadline for Iran nuclear talks. Negotiators are considering a deal that would limit Tehran’s nuclear enrichment ability, in return for lifting international oil and banking sanctions.

These sanctions helped bring Iran to the talks in the first place—Its markets were cut off, oil exports fell, recession came.

Karim Sadjadpour at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace has tallied the cost of Iran’s nuclear program, in terms of sanctions, lost revenue and lost investment. His number: $100 billion dollars.

Separately, a former Iranian foreign minister put the cost at $450 billion.

“When you look at these enormous costs and you weigh it against what Iran’s nuclear program can really provide in terms of energy, it’s an economic catastrophe,” Sadjadpour says. “This is a nuclear program which can at best provide only two percent of Iran’s energy needs, and in the process of building this nuclear program, they’ve cannibalized their main source of revenue, which is oil and gas.”

And yet, Sadjadpour notes, Iran’s supreme leader does not make decisions based on economics. It’s politics.

Click below to hear more of Sadjadpour's interview:

 

If there is a deal, Iran will want to sell more oil and return to previous levels. This despite today’s global glut, and despite the fact that Iran and other OPEC members are considering overall production cuts. That would put upward pressure on oil prices, currently down some 30 percent from June.

So, which OPEC member would bear the pain of lost business? Likely not Iran, says analyst Amrita Sen of Energy Aspects in London.

“They have already lost out on so many billions of dollars of revenues,” she says. “That’s really where it becomes a challenge for OPEC.”

The group meets on Thanksgiving day.

 

 

 

 

Marriage and the class divide

Mon, 2014-11-24 02:00

The rise of single-parent households isn’t just a social and cultural phenomena—it has import economic implications. That’s the gist of a new study put out by the conservative-leaning American Enterprise Institute, who argues that stronger marriages could help bridge the ever-growing class divide. But trying to pin down the root causes of the gulf between the haves and have-nots is a bit like hitting a moving target.

In 1980, approximately 78 percent of families with children were headed by married parents. In 2012, married parents account for only 66 percent of families with children.

Bradford Wilcox is the Director of the National Marriage Project and a co-author of the AEI study, which is titled "For Richer, For Poorer." He says this retreat from marriage accounts for 32 percent of the growth in family-income inequality between 1979 and 2012, and falls particularly hard on the poor and working class.

“So, not only are they earning less, comparatively speaking," says Wilcox, "but they’re also less likely to pool their incomes and to build common assets as married families."

On average, Wilcox says the data show married men earn about $16,000 more than their single peers. Likewise, children from married families are much more likely to get a college degree. But others say this marriage effect is a bit overblown.

“The big changes in distribution of income since 2000 have been near the top,” says Christopher Jencks, a professor of Social Policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. He says the massive growth in incomes by the "one percent" is a more plausible explanation for inequality.

“It’s a little hard to think that, 'well, that’s all driven by single parent families.' That’s a big factor at the bottom [of the income scale], but the bottom hasn’t changed much," explains Jencks.

He points to wage stagnation and fewer manufacturing jobs as other explanations for growing economic inequality.

Weekly Wrap: Immigration and the New York Fed

Fri, 2014-11-21 16:21

Joining Kai to talk about the week's business and economic news is Business Insider's Linette Lopez and Sudeep Reddy of the Wall Street Journal. The big topics this week: Obama's immigration plan, the Fed's relationship with Wall Street and more stimulus in the eurozone and China.

Macy's new target: Millennials

Fri, 2014-11-21 14:42

As Black Friday nears, we're looking at the strategies big brands are making.

“It’s always a fight to the finish as we get through this season. My sensibility is that shoppers are going to go out there and spend like they always do: Load up their credit cards with things that they don’t need," says Teri Agins, author of "Hijacking the Runway"  (2014).

"Of course, retailers will come up with all kinds of gimmicks to get people shopping," Agins says.

In the Black Friday sale game, Macy's stands as a juggernaut, according to Agins. “They are the big Goliath and they really have a big footprint.”

The reason for this success? Millennials, a demographic not typically associated with department stores.

Macy's is targeting 13- to 30-year-olds by teaming up with celebrities to draw shoppers into stores. Celebrity fragrances by Katy Perry, One Direction, Taylor Swift, and even Justin Bieber are offered in Macy's stores around the country.

These celebrity collaborations are meant to create a buzz similar to that which surrounds fast-fashion, and that’s just to get people into the store. Even if the targeted millennials don’t buy the fragrance they walked in for, it’s likely they’ll buy something else.

This upcoming Black Friday will probably be like the ones in the past – long lines, doorbusters and big savings – but the crowd might turn out to be a little younger.

Good at video games? That could land you a job.

Fri, 2014-11-21 11:10

Workplace personality tests are a multi-million-dollar business for the companies that make them. Basically these are screening tools: online tests a candidate takes before they get to the interview stage.  They’re designed to find out what makes you tick. But as they’ve gotten more popular they’ve also come in for criticism – some candidates have even sued, saying the tests discriminate.  

Recently New Yorker Jorli Peña interviewed for a job at a startup out of state. Before the company flew her out to meet with them, she was asked to take a couple of short online tests.  The second test asked her to assess the way others saw her, and how she saw herself. She had to pick from a bunch of adjectives, and spent a few minutes on the task.

Soon the results came back. Peña was shocked.

“I started scanning it and I just thought…this isn’t me,” she says.

Peña, normally an outgoing marketing specialist, was described as ill-at-ease in social situations, formal and reserved. She was afraid she wouldn’t land an interview.  But maybe because she knew the company’s founder, she did. Others have fallen at that first hurdle.

These tests have been around a long time, says Barbara Marder with HR consulting firm Mercer. She says they may be adequate indicators for some jobs, but for others, it may be much more important to look at a candidate’s cognitive makeup.

One way to do that is through gaming. Marder says when someone plays a game, you can see his or her potential through studying what they do during play.

“You’re really figuring out how someone thinks,” she says, “how they make decisions, how they problem solve.”

Her company recently created a prototype 3-D video game for the oil and gas industry. In this game, the candidate has to simulate their role on an offshore oil rig. At one point, an alarm on the rig goes off and the candidate has to work out what caused the alarm and how to respond to the emergency. All the while, their potential employer is judging their performance.

Simulation is one route to an employee’s potential. But there are plenty of other ways games can reveal your strengths and weaknesses, as I found when I began to play a bunch of games designed by a startup called Pymetrics.

One game measures how well I read other people’s emotions just from looking at the expression in their eyes. I have to pick the word that best describes what they’re feeling. It was quite tricky but also fun.

MIT graduate Frida Polli is Pymetrics’ CEO. She says these games are aimed at millennials.  

“We’d like to be the Netflix of careers,” she says. "Where you play the 12 games, maybe at some point we add some additional data about you, and then we really give you a very tailored, very precise and very good set of recommendations for what you could be good at.”

Pymetrics works with candidates to compile profiles based on their play, and lets them know which companies are looking for people like them.  It then tells the companies, "Hey, check this person out – they have the kinds of qualities you’re looking for."

And Polli says these games can help companies diversify their workforce.

“There are a lot of companies in that realm," she says, "but they don’t know exactly how to solve that problem."

She says the algorithms behind the games can help, because they make the platform blind to race and gender.

But perhaps they’re not blind to an aging brain. Some of the games I play have me sweating as the clock ticks down. In one game I barely have time to register the direction of an on-screen arrow before it disappears.

If I’m being judged on this game, I fear for my employment prospects.

Polli says I shouldn’t worry.

“The main point of this is there is no right or wrong,” she insists.

She says I look skeptical, which I do, and assures me she’s totally serious.

Well, my test results did did tell me I was 70 percent skeptical, which I think is quite appropriate for a journalist.

Playing this hiring game may just take a bit of practice for some of us.

The economic impact of Obama's immigration reform

Fri, 2014-11-21 11:00

Stymied by a Congress that has been unable to pass comprehensive immigration reform, President Obama issued a set of executive actions on Thursday.

Its centerpiece is a new program providing protection from deportation and a possible work permit for unauthorized immigrants who have lived in the United States for at least five years who have children who are citizens or have green cards. 

Patrick Oakford at the Center for American Progress says this will impact all the sectors of the economy where unauthorized immigrants work, from construction to restaurants.

Economist Giovanni Peri says work permits will allow workers to apply for higher-wage jobs, and give employers a larger pool of workers.

The White House's Council of Economic Advisors says this could generate an increase in productivity that will boost GDP by 0.2% over the next decade. But that depends on employers and employees alike having confidence that the temporary status will be extended. Kristi Boswell at the American Farm Bureau Federation says it doesn't go far enough. 

Avoiding the 'regulatory capture' trap

Fri, 2014-11-21 11:00

Another day, another Senate hearing on the financial industry.

The man in the hot seat today: New York Fed President William Dudley. He was grilled about something called "regulatory capture," the idea that regulators can be "captured" or overly influenced by the people and companies they're supposed to oversee. Dudley said the banking system is safer now than six years ago, but separately, the Fed has announced a review of its bank supervision programs.

Sid Shapiro, a professor at Wake Forest University, cautions if regulators are too cozy with their charges, banks might get away with things they shouldn’t. Regulatory capture isn’t a problem unique to the Fed, says Dan Carpenter, who studies the regulatory agencies at Harvard. But its impact there can be especially dangerous. Lawrence Baxter,  a professor at Duke University School of Law, says the Fed should be more transparent and draw fewer of its employees from Wall Street. 

The logistics (and costs) of moving an NFL game

Fri, 2014-11-21 11:00

The Buffalo Bills were supposed to play a home game this weekend against the New York Jets, until a snowstorm blew through this week dumping more than six feet of snow.

The NFL has moved the game to Monday night in Detroit. And the Buffalo Bills were scrambling Friday with last-minute travel arrangements, before their departure from their snow-burried hometown earlier this afternoon. 

Next stop, Detroit! ✈️ pic.twitter.com/VAxmmSbZ4D

— Buffalo Bills (@buffalobills) November 21, 2014 The costs of the last-minute change are likely adding up for the Bills: from refunding tickets to short-notice hotel bookings.

In fact, the team is likely paying as much as a 30 percent premium on travel costs, says Kevin Green, director of football operations for the University of Kansas, where sports programs boast big budgets.  

Green says, when traveling, he typically has to account for anywhere from 100 to 170 people between players, coaches, staff and others. Typical travel arrangements are made well in advance, Green says: a year in advance for hotel reservations, several months in advance for flight charters, and a week advance for food preparation. 

And teams have very specific needs. Not just any hotel will do. And not just any food will do. 

“The hotel has to have conference space available for meetings, that typically limits those hotels to Hiltons, Marriotts, traditional business hotels,” Green says. "The food is very specific to individual players, positions. You’re looking for specific cuts of meat, proteins, carbs. That usually has to be ordered a week in advance.”

So, vendors are likely benefiting from the Bills’ sudden venue change. And if fans make sudden travel plans, too, the city of Detroit could see a windfall. 

“We foresee the direct spending to be around $3 million,” says Deanna Majchrzak of the Detroit Convention and Visitors Bureau. “That will benefit our local hotels, restaurants, bars and other retailers.”

The Bureau is basing that figure on an estimate that some 30,000 fans will visit Detroit for the game. In 2010, when Detroit was last host to an unscheduled game, some 46,000 fans showed up to see the Minnesota Vikings and New York Giants play, Majchrzak says.

Professional cuddlers for hire in Portland

Fri, 2014-11-21 11:00

A woman in Portland, Oregon, named Samantha Hess has opened a new business called Cuddle Up to Me. It is, just like it sounds, a professional cuddling establishment.

For $60, Hess says you get "the level of human contact that we want or need in order to be our optimal selves," according to People magazine. The session includes an hour of spooning, hair strokes, hand-holding and an assortment of positions. Hess maintains that her shop is not "adult oriented."

Call it commentary on the lack of human contact in today's society. Call it a ludicrous endeavor.

I call it entrepreneurship. Hess told her local Fox affiliate she's gotten as many as 10,000 emails in the first week. 

Your Wallet: Giving versus getting

Fri, 2014-11-21 09:54

The holidays are a season for giving. Many of you are buying gifts, donating to charity, helping someone, or someone is helping you.

How do you balance helping others with your personal financial needs?

We want to hear your stories.

Send us an email, or reach us on Twitter, @MarketplaceWKND

Coming out at work, in context

Fri, 2014-11-21 09:11

This past week, the Human Rights Campaign, the nation's largest LGBT rights organization, released its Corporate Equality Index which measures how Fortune 500 companies treat lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender employees in the workplace.

Things have changed a lot over the 10-plus years the group has released its annual report. Same sex marriage is now legal in more than thirty states, there are more rights for LGBT people in the workplace, and many big businesses have increased their protections for employees, introducing non-discrimination clauses, and partner benefits. This year, 366 Fortune 500 companies got a perfect score on the index, up from only 13 in 2002. 

Deena Fidas, director of Workplace Equality for the HRC, says the change is based in societal shifts and finances. "So many businesses have come to the realization that being an LGBT inclusive employer isn't just the right thing to do, it's actually smart business," she says.

But despite new workplace protections and benefits, "still, a little over half of all lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender workers in this country remain closeted on the job," Fidas says, "and so quite literally people are getting married on the weekends and not talking about it come Monday morning." 

In 29 states, there are still no legal protections against discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. Legal issues definitely come into play in the decision to be out at work, Fidas says "but it's also the everyday environment." HRC survey responses indicated that LGBT people who aren't out at work feared that they'd make people uncomfortable. 

But staying closeted on the job may have some drawbacks, for LGBT and the companies they work for. Fidas says that people who aren't out at work may be less engaged with their jobs and their colleagues, and less likely to stay with one employer. Not being out at work could also mean fewer opportunities to make friends, or find valuable mentorship. 

Even millennials, typically known for their openness about sexuality, are aren't always out at work. "We find that actually, many of the youngest workers are out to their friends and family, they're out in their school environments, and yet they're going back in the closet when they get their first jobs," Fidas says.

For younger workers, the question to come out is a conundrum: they may feel they lack an established professional background, or be searching for a mentor, and want to keep their orientation private.

"Your mentor is somebody who you can confide in, you can talk about personal struggles," Fidas says, "and this is where we get into a bit of a Catch-22." The people who might most need guidance are often afraid to seek it out. One solution to this issue is something that many businesses are introducing: LGBT and allied affinity groups. "[They] provide a tremendously effective platform for young people to find a mentor," Fidas says. 

Some LGBT people are not just out at work, but out on their resumes. Fidas says that some people choose to come out in a resume because they want to highlight leadership experience that involves an LGBT affiliated group. Others choose to come out on a resume, subtly or explicitly, as a way to communicate their expectations to a potential employer that they are completely accepted at work. 

A recent study from Princeton University shows that things are changing for people who do choose to come out in their resume. While past research indicated that mentioning an LGBT group resulted in hiring and salary discrimination, the latest from Princeton shows that for white men, there's little to no impact, and for black men, coming out on a resume may actually result in more interviews and a higher starting salary. 

Still, there's no single, simple solution. "Bias happens," Fidas says, "whether it's conscious or unconscious."

A lot goes into the decision to come out and be out at work. Fidas says it isn't the right choice for everyone, particularly if their workplace doesn't have a nondiscrimination clause. "It's a conversation," she says.

 

What's with the addiction to subscription boxes?

Fri, 2014-11-21 06:49

The DIY movement notwithstanding, many people are so desperate to shed chores they’ve started outsourcing even frivolous shopping. It’s a situation caused by and, in turn, fueling a big retail trend: subscription boxes.

Even if you think you’ve never heard of subscription boxes, you probably have. Years ago, we knew them as the fruit- or cheese-of-the month club. Now they’ve gone upscale, niche – and run amok. 

There are subscription boxes for vegans and carnivores, for the gluten-free and gluten loaders, for people who can’t get enough ostrich jerky or infinity scarves, for preschoolers who insist on sustainably sourced toys – maybe as many as 500.

At this point in the game – about four years since the launch of Birchbox, the beauty-sample site credited with starting the recent surge – almost any American, and her finicky pet, could survive on boxes alone.

Somehow, a nation that endlessly whines about household clutter, and is so prickly about presents that there’s a registry for every gift-giving event, has started paying strangers to pick out — excuse me, curate — random items and ship said items to their homes.

And on those glum days when the mailbox is empty, junkies can fill the void with box-centric YouTube videos, blogs, reviews and discussion boards.

One theory to explain the phenomenon is that we have too much choice – it’s a relief to let someone else paw through all of the junk for you.  Another is that exhausted working women want a gift every month – even if it’s one they’ve sent, and paid for, themselves. Even if they don’t actually like it.

 Oh, really, I shouldn’t have . . .

Subscribers take their deliveries so seriously that blogs warn of “spoilers” before discussing the contents of a particular box. It’s like learning the gender of your unborn baby, only the reveal involves small-batch pistachios.

Recently, I flirted with a fashion box but luckily the realization that I’d end up schlepping to return clothes I didn’t choose in the first place kicked in before I'd entered my credit card.

But there is one box I’d love: a subscription that takes a box of stuff from your house every month. Call it the disappearing box.

The subscription box that should be

Fri, 2014-11-21 06:49

The DIY movement notwithstanding, many people are so desperate to shed chores they’ve started outsourcing even frivolous shopping. It’s a situation caused by and, in turn, fueling a big retail trend: subscription boxes.

Even if you think you’ve never heard of subscription boxes, you probably have. Years ago we knew them as the fruit- or cheese-of-the month club. Now they’ve gone upscale, niche — and run amok. 

There are subscription boxes for vegans and carnivores, for the gluten-free and gluten loaders, for people who can’t get enough ostrich jerky or infinity scarves, for preschoolers who insist on sustainably-sourced toys—maybe as many as 500.

At this point in the game — about four years since the launch of Birchbox, the beauty-sample site credited with starting the recent surge — almost any American, and her finicky pet, could survive on boxes alone.

Somehow, a nation that endlessly whines about household clutter, and is so prickly about presents that there’s a registry for every gift-giving event, has started paying strangers to pick out — excuse me, curate — random items and ship said items to their homes.

And on those glum days when the mailbox is empty, junkies can fill the void with box-centric YouTube videos, blogs, reviews, and discussion boards.

One theory to explain the phenomenon is that we have too much choice--it’s a relief to let someone else paw through all of the junk for you.  Another is that exhausted working women want a gift every month — even if it’s one they’ve sent, and paid for, themselves. Even if they don’t actually like it.

Oh, really, I shouldn’t have . . .

Subscribers take their deliveries so seriously that blogs warn of “spoilers” before discussing the contents of a particular box. It’s like learning the gender of your unborn baby, only the reveal involves small-batch pistachios.

Recently I flirted with a fashion box, but luckily the realization that I’d end up schlepping to return clothes I didn’t choose in the first place kicked in before I’d entered my credit card.

But there is one box I’d love: a subscription that takes a box of stuff from your house every month. Call it the disappearing box.

Student data and school attendance

Fri, 2014-11-21 06:35

Schools are gathering data on kids, and as student databases grow, so does the ability of technology to predict how or what a kid might do next.

Marketplace's Adriene Hill has been looking at the ways student data is being used to see into the future, and spoke with David Brancaccio to talk about efforts to predict, and change, attendance patterns.

Quiz: Have you seen your kid’s data?

Fri, 2014-11-21 04:36

A majority of states gather data on students over time in longitudinal databases, according to the Data Quality Campaign, but not all of them guarantee parents access to that information.

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