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You can rent your car out at the airport for cash

Tue, 2014-08-19 02:00

If you hate to pay for long-term parking at the airport, would you consider letting someone else drive it while you’re away?

A peer-to-peer company called FlightCar will take your car while you’re out of town and rent it out. Currently, it has offices in Boston, San Francisco, and Los Angeles.

“Say for instance you’re going on a 5-day trip. We would wash it. Prep it. Make it look nice and clean. And then we would rent it the whole time you’re gone. And when you do arrive back, you would receive a check for your car being rented,” says assistant manager Kenneth Boyd.

I left my own car with them – a 2003 Honda Civic. For a car like mine, lenders can expect to earn around 10 cents per mile.

But some customers aren’t financially motivated.

“The money is less important than the idea of participating in a sharing economy, and sharing my car with somebody who might need it while I’m not using it,” says Leslie Tamaribuchi, who has left her Fiat with the company six times.

To get the full experience, I also rented someone else’s car: a 2011 Mercedes C 300, which cost me $60 a day – less than half of what competing rental companies charge.

The car’s owner, Brett Hobbs, needed a place to store his Mercedes while he was away for almost four months.

“You get an email every time your car is rented out. And as soon as we left, the emails started pouring in, saying that, ‘Good news. Your car was rented.’ And, I sort of realized: 'Wow. My car really is a rental car now,'” says Hobbs.

If someone crashes the car while it’s being rented, FlightCar will provide up to $1 million in liability coverage.

Someone who rented Hobb’s Mercedes was involved in a fender-bender.

“FlightCar took care of the damage before we got home,” says Hobbs.

In the end, renters put 6000 miles on his car. In return, Hobbs got paid about $1,500.

How does the income compare to the depreciation of the car? Hobbs says, “I think it’s probably pretty close to a wash.”

Hobbs says he’d use FlightCar again, but next time, he’d leave his older car – a 2006 BMW.

In my case, my Honda was rented twice. Within a week, I got a check in the mail from FlightCar for a little more than $5 - enough to cover the cost of driving to and from the airport.

Professors struggle to adapt as students forego books

Tue, 2014-08-19 02:00

On the last day of a pediatric dentistry course offered this summer at the University of Minnesota, adjunct assistant professor Jen Post asked her class a pointed question.

"For the purposes of planning for next year, I'm just wondering how many of you bought the book for this course," she asked. "Anyone?"

Not one aspiring dental hygienist raised a hand.

The $85 textbook was, technically speaking, optional. But Post says even when it was required in years past, few students bought it. They also didn't even try to rent or borrow it.

"Then they didn't know answers on exams. They didn't know where it was coming from," says Post.

Faculty at several other schools report similar problems. In a survey conducted last fall by the National Association of College Stores, nearly a third of students polled said they didn't buy or rent at least one item required for a class, often a textbook. And an equal share of students waited until after the start of school to buy anything.

"They want to make sure that whatever's required of them to purchase or rent or borrow from someone else, that they're going to be used," says Richard Hershman, vice president of government relations for the trade group.

Niki Marinelli, a senior in the dental hygiene program at the University of Minnesota, says she often just relies on study guides or will borrow a textbook from a friend to avoid buying books.

"Sometimes I see how I did on the first test and go from there. I see if I feel a book would've been helpful if I didn't do so well," she says. "Most of the time I'm okay. I'll go in if I have any questions."

Marinelli says loans cover the $10,000 she pays each semester in out-of-state tuition. But book costs come out of her own pocket. And she already works two jobs.

Rick Hess, director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, says professors need to be sensitive to textbook affordability. But he says it's shortsighted of students to spend thousands of dollars on tuition and then skimp on books.

"It's a case of students essentially seeming to think they're paying for the credential for the degree but they're not all that concerned about the learning that goes along with it," he says.

Jen Post is concerned about it. Post now filters the textbook content down to 50-minute powerpoint presentations, which are the basis of lectures and exams. It's the best way to ensure students get exposed to the information in the book. Post says if she didn't do this, her students would turn instead to Google and YouTube for answers to their homework assignments. And those answers are often wrong.

"They're just thinking everything's at their fingerstips," she says, "when it might be in the book."

 

"Buy the rumor, sell the news"

Tue, 2014-08-19 02:00

There’s a saying on Wall Street: "Buy the rumor, sell the news."

It can be a nifty way for traders to make money. Here's how it works: Be the first to find out about a big company announcement. Then, buy the stock low, and sell high. 

Bill King is a market strategist at M. Ramsey Securities, Inc. Before that, he was a trader for about 20 years.  

“The smart guys are getting out and they’re looking for the suckers to take their positions off their hands," says King.

By positions, he means stocks, or whatever investment they made to exploit the rumor.

And "buy the rumor, sell the news" can work with some big global events. Traders watch international news closely, looking for trends.

“Is it the beginning of something new? Or is it the beginning of, you know, just a temporary event that's kind of a blip on the screen?” says Doug Roberts, Chief investment strategist at Channel Capital Research.com.

Take the 1973 oil embargo, when members of OPEC wouldn’t sell to the US. People in the know bought before oil prices shot up. But, Roberts says buy the rumor, sell the news doesn’t work all the time. It sounds neat and easy, but it’s just one tool for traders. 

 

 

Where all those charges on your phone bill come from

Mon, 2014-08-18 14:53

Starting on Sept. 1, Chicago residents will see their phone bills go up, thanks to higher fees collected by their city government. The nominal purpose is to fund 911 operations.

However, the acknowledged goal is to raise money that the city desperately needs to pay for pensions. And the widely-understood rationale among politicians is: If we raised the same amount by hiking property tax bills, people would notice, and complain. But people are used to seeing taxes and fees tacked onto phone bills. Who’s going to notice another few bucks? 

Which raises the question:  What are all those damn fees on your phone bill? 

1.  No matter where you live, some are sneaky taxes from all levels of government.

Experts confirm: Government officials love to sneak taxes and fees into phone bills— and anywhere they can that isn’t an actual tax bill.

"The bias is toward hiding taxes," says David Brunori, a professor at George Washington University and deputy publisher of Tax Analysts. "That is true at every level of government. Politicians would rather have you pay the tax and not know about it."

And yes, wireless phone bills in particular have become a favorite hiding place, says Scott Mackey, a consultant to the wireless industry with KSE Partners. "Really from 2003 to about 2012 we saw sort of a steady upward increase in wireless taxes and fees," he says.

2.  Though in some places, you'll pay more taxes than others.

Mackey publishes a report every couple of years on wireless tax rates from state to state.   The Tax Foundation made a sortable list from his last report.

"Chicago is going to be prominently featured in the 2014 report," says Mackey.  The new 911 fee will make the effective tax on cellphones the country's highest.  

3. A lot of items that look like taxes are just extra charges from your phone company

Chicago politicians are not the only ones who figure they can sneak an extra charge into your bill without you noticing. Your phone company probably does the same thing. Marc-David Seidel is a business professor at the University of British Columbia and the co-founder of a site dedicated to making sense of phone bills.

He says the heading "taxes and fees" on your bill should be a giveaway. 

"The fact that it’s grouped together called taxes and fees, instead of just taxes, is a really high signal that there’s other stuff in there that’s actually not mandated," he says. "It’s just a company-specific fee."

Every company charges a different mix, he says, and they change all the time. If you really want to know what you’re paying— and why— he recommends looking for a consumer-advocate office in your state.

4. And then there's the cramming scam.

The FTC recently accused T-Mobile of bilking customers out of millions of dollars by allowing third parties to place bogus charges on their bills, and taking a cut.  T-Mobile's public defense was essentially:  Hey, we stopped doing this a few months ago—and it's not like the other carriers are better. 

Marketplace recently looked at how those charges end up on phone bills in the first place, and our friends at Ars Technica have been covering the story for years.

Here's an example the FTC says comes from an actual T-Mobile bill:

How police presence in Ferguson shut down one business

Mon, 2014-08-18 13:51

Not far from the Swiish Bar and Grill, business owners are boarding up their windows and preparing for another night of clashes between protesters and police in Ferguson, Missouri. Swiish’s owner, Corey Nickson-Clark, is absolutely certain his business will be safe. The parking lot out front is filled with police vehicles and police officers.

Lindsay Foster Thomas/Marketplace

Nickson-Clark’s popular hangout spot is tucked into one corner of a large, suburban mall in the town of Jennings, just down the road from where the Ferguson protests turned violent. About a week ago, he and his wife got a call from the property owner, who told them the parking lot was going to be used as a command center for the police. In the past week, Nickson-Clark has seen a lot of the police.

“I’ve seen St. Louis County, I’ve seen St. Louis City,” he said. “I’ve seen state troopers. I’ve seen some FBI. I think pretty much every department of the police department has been here.”

Nickson-Clark’s sister, Andra Crawford, who was keeping him company in the silent, empty bar, can barely believe what she’s seen: helicopters landing in the parking lot, tanks being loaded.

Lindsay Foster Thomas/Marketplace

Nobody has been able to tell Nickson-Clark why the parking lot of his small business, with it’s two-for-one happy hours and famous strawberry chicken wings, was chosen as a command center, rather than the Target, Schnucks grocery or Foot Locker that occupy the same mall. Their parking lots are at least partially accessible.

“Those guys are able to open at some point during the day,” he said. “I’m not able to open at all. At least they’re able to get some type of revenue coming in.”

Nickson-Clark guesses he’s lost around $30,000 in the past week. He admits that if he’d purchased riot insurance, he’d be covered, but he asks, with disbelief in his voice, "when was the last time there was a riot here? The 1950s?

Lindsay Foster Thomas and Noel King/Marketplace

The officers outside Swiish don’t know why this part of the parking lot was chosen, either. “That’s above my pay grade,” said Sergeant Al Nothum of the Missouri State Highway Patrol.

Nothum says he hates to see a small business owner losing money, but the police plan to stay until the situation improves.

“There’s not one of us here that want to be here any longer than we need to,” Nothum said.”We want things to settle down. We want the citizens of Ferguson to know we’re doing the best we can. And that we’re looking for a good resolution to this whole thing here.”

Thus far, though, there has been no resolution. Sunday night was one of the worst nights in Ferguson to date. The National Guard is being sent in... and Nickson-Clark has just found out they’re going to be using his parking lot, too.

Lindsay Foster Thomas/Marketplace

 

Behind the indicators: Job quality vs. job quantity

Mon, 2014-08-18 13:34

Keil Hubert is a part-time writer and cyber-security consultant.

He is also an indicator. 

He’d rather not be. But he is. 

“Since April of 2013 I’ve applied for 476 positions, not one of which has led to an actual offer for full-time work.” 

Hubert reached the maximum number of years allowable at his government job, and had to retire from public service. But at age 45 he isn’t ready to retire, and finds himself routinely overqualified for many private sector jobs. So, he is left working part time.

“Even with part time and unemployment benefits it’s not enough to get by,” he says. “It’s a little frustrating.”

Hubert is what the Bureau of Labor Statistics calls a part-time worker “for economic reasons.” It means that he is looking for full-time work but can’t find it. His situation is invisible if one looks only at the unemployment rate (6.2 percent), but it’s still important because it’s a glimpse into job quality, as opposed to quantity.

“It’s an indicator of job market slack,” says Gary Burtless, economist at the Brookings Institution. “A lot of Americans have been forced to accept jobs in part-time positions when they would prefer to work full time.”

Ten years ago, about 4.5 million Americans fit that bill. Today, around 7.5 million do. That’s up slightly from 7.3 million in January, though the number fluctuates regularly. 

This is tied to the long term unemployed – those out of work for six months or longer – whose levels have also been slower to come down, says Burtless. “That is pushing a lot of Americans to take second or third or fourth or fifth choice jobs rather than the jobs and occupations and levels of hours they would prefer,” says Burtless.

Perhaps one of the most important “quality of jobs” indicators is wages and compensation, says Joe Kalish, Chief Global Macro strategist with Ned Davis Research. “One of the indicators that’s really been getting a lot of attention on the part of Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen and other members as of late, is what’s going on with wages and compensation.” This, says Kalish, “is where we really haven’t seen much of a pick up at this point,” despite four years of recovery.

Given the state of indicators regarding the quality of jobs and the tightness of the labor market, the Fed is unlikely to put the brakes on and raise interests before June of 2015 by Kalish’s estimate. 

The cost of travel, according to the federal government

Mon, 2014-08-18 13:34

The federal government has released its per diem lodging rates for federal road warriors for the coming fiscal year.

Those rates matter to the hotel industry. After all, the American Hotel & Lodging Association says the government generates billions of dollars in travel spending.

The spending, however large, isn't changing — the standard federal travel per diem is staying flat compared to last year at $83. The federal government is also trying to keep its travel budget down, cutting spending by 30 percent through 2016. 

“We do not include the luxury brands like the Ritz-Carltons or the Four Seasons types,” says Christine Harada, associate administrator of the Office of Government-wide Policy at the General Services Administration. “But we also want to be cognizant of our travelers' safety so we try not to go too, too budget.”

The rate is more flexible in many big cities. For example, it might run up to $300 a night in New York, depending on the time of booking.  Regardless of location, fancy hotels are generally off limits. 

Harada says lodging per diems are determined by market data. They're going up in about 270 areas and falling in 50.

Ryan Meliker, managing director of equity research at MLV & Co, an investment bank, says hotels that get a lot of business from feds will likely set their overall room rates based on the per diem. 

“If you think about a hotel right next to a major Air Force base that's generating a lot of their business from government as a result of the Air Force base, it's going to have a bigger impact on them than it is somebody else,” he says.

Jan Freitag with STR, a hotel research company that provides market data to the federal government, says the federal per diems also have spillover effects at private companies.

“They say, 'Okay, if the U.S. government reimburses this much we just follow suit,’” Freitag says, “especially if they are a consulting company to the U.S. government.”

How much does a per diem get you?

How well can you travel on that federal government per diem? Or the similar one from your employer?

We compared Lawrence, Kansas — one of many small-to-mid-size cities covered by the standard per diem — to our home base, Los Angeles — which, like most larger cities has an adjusted per diem. We checked hotel rates for a single traveler in the first week of September and user-submitted cost-of-living estimates from Numbeo.com.

Lawrence, Kansas
Per Diem: $83 for lodging, $46 for food and incidentals (the standard rate)

Lodging: That allowance gives you (or your boss) a few hotel options in Lawrence, but your best bet is the local Holiday Inn or Baymont Inn and Suites. They both run around $80 a night, and the Baymont touts a free breakfast. Hampton Inn and Comfort Inn are just out of reach at around $100 per night.

Food: A morning cappuccino (or other coffee beverage) will run you about $3 in Lawrence. A lunch averages about $6.25 for fast food and $10 for an inexpensive sit-down restaurant, like local favorite the Burger Stand. Dinner at a mid-range restaurant like the Free State brewery will run you about $20 per person. That leaves something like $15 for incidentals or midnight snacks. Not bad.

Los Angeles, California
Per Diem: $133 for lodging, $71 for food and incidentals

Lodging: If you're a federal employee travelling to LA, you'll get more money for a hotel, but expect to stay pretty far from downtown, the city's hot spot. A room runs around $130 per night at the Holiday or La Quinta Inns by LAX or the Marriott Courtyard in Pasadena. On Airbnb, there are some modest rooms available in Hollywood and Santa Monica for under $100, if your government employer is more the gitz or beach type.

Food: $71 is the most generous per diem the government offers for food and incidentals, and you can eat pretty well with it. A cappuccino in Los Angeles averages just under $4, and a lunch at Mendocino Farms or other restaurant will set you back about $12. A decent dinner out at Baco Mercat, Bottega Louie or other mid-range restaurant will run you about $26 per person. But don't blow that extra money on desserts, because the rest of your per diem could go toward transportation. You could get a cab or rent a car, but you'll be shelling out at least $20 a day.

Who will win the dollar store bidding war?

Mon, 2014-08-18 13:34

Two dollar store chains are competing to buy a third, Family Dollar.

The retailer entertained an $8.5 billion merger deal with Dollar Tree last month, and Dollar General announced Monday it would pay a competitive $9.7 billion for the chain. While all of these discount stores are similar, they have several important differences.  

Here's a look:

Dollar General

  • Size: Biggest of the three.
  • Products: A lot of brand names, a mix of food and discretionary items like clothing and beauty products.
  • Placement in the Fortune 500: 164.
  • Locations: More than 11,500 locations in more than 40 states. Primarily in smaller towns, located in the southern and eastern U.S., as well as the Midwest and the Southwest.
  • Prices: About a fourth of their items are $1 or less.
  • How are they doing? Chain is thriving with $17.5 billion in revenue and $5.4 billion in profits.

Dollar Tree

  • Size: Smallest of the three.
  • Products: Mostly imported from China, focused on discretionary items like party supplies, beauty products, etc.
  • Placement in the Fortune 500: 342.
  • Locations: More than 5,000 locations in 48 states, mostly located in strip malls in small towns.
  • Prices: Most items cost $1 or less.
  • How are they doing? The chain is thriving and growing with $7.8 billion in revenue and $2.7 billion in profits.

The target of the bids: Family Dollar

  • Size: The takeover target, and second-largest of the three.
  • Products: A lot of brand names; focuses on food, also carries some linens and other products.
  • Placement in the Fortune 500: 271.
  • Locations: More than 8,200 stores in 45 states, mainly in urban and rural areas.
  • Prices: Most items are under $10.
  • How are they doing? Family Dollar has been struggling and closing stores. It tried raising prices and the plan back-fired. It has recently been closing stores. They have about $10.3 billion in revenue and $3.5 billion in profits.

What makes a good writer at Sports Illustrated?

Mon, 2014-08-18 13:32

This is an observation, I guess, about the state of journalism today.

Gawker has published a spreadsheet prepared by Time Inc., which publishes Sports Illustrated, ranking a number of writers and editors on a scale from one to 10 on quality of writing, productivity, social media prowess, enthusiasm and whether the content they create is beneficial to the company's relationship with advertisers.

Think about that for a second.

A Time spokesperson said SI's editorial content is uncompromised.

Won't you please take a vacation?

Mon, 2014-08-18 11:52

Chances are you know someone in your workplace who refuses to take a vacation. Or maybe it’s you. Research shows that one out of seven workers entitled to paid vacation time didn’t use it this past year.

Some managers prefer when their employees don’t take a vacation.

"Somewhere around 13 percent of U.S. managers are more likely to promote people who don’t take all of their vacation days," says Nancy Koehn, historian at the Harvard Business School.

Other companies want to fix this problem - so, they’re paying for their employees’ vacation expenses. In 2012, the company FullContact began offering their employees about $7,000 a year for a vacation.

"The perception of managers and workers is that somehow people who never take any vacation, or are always doing their job, are somehow better team members and are more productive," says Koehn. "But the evidence on all of that is unambiguous. People who take time off are actually less stressed, more focused and more productive."

'No medical student goes to...become a businessperson'

Mon, 2014-08-18 11:05

When Dr. Sandeep Jauhar was growing up, his mother held doctors in high esteem. 

"She always told us she wanted us to become doctors because she wanted people to stand when we walked into a room," says Jauhar, who went on to become a cardiologist.

Upon donning that hallowed white coat, however, Jauhar says he started to get uncomfortable. He felt like he was compromising some of the ideals of his youth to fit the business model of the American healthcare system. His new book, "Doctored: The Disillusionment of an American Physician", voices his frustrations with today's changing medical landscape.

"What the system has done is forced physicians to behave in ways that they don't want to behave," he says. "No medical student goes to become a doctor to become a businessperson, but the system is so dysfunctional today that it has created this business mentality among doctors."

Jauhar says the system needs to be fixed to accommodate the needs of more ordinary patients.

"The system is wonderful if you have a rare disease or if you require very high-tech care, but if you're a run-of-the-mill patient who has a chronic disease that needs to be managed by multiple doctors, the level of coordination and communication in the American system is so weak, so lacking," he says. "Today, if a politician says, 'we have the best medical system in the world,' he doesn't sound patriotic, he just sounds clueless."

Why we should bring back the Postal Banking system

Mon, 2014-08-18 10:19

When I was 12 years old, my Mum presented me with a little blue plastic-covered book with the design of a key on it.

It was my first savings account, provided by the British Post Office. There's no way that I would have been able to open an account with a bank, given the paltry amount of money I wanted to save, or the zero amount of money that I earned. But the Post Office didn't care that how skint or young or unemployed I was: it was determined to provide me with banking services, regardless. That savings account really did operate like a key. It helped me understand all sorts of thing about personal finance, including the magic of compounding.

I mention this because I just read a fascinating article about the history of the postal banking system in the US. First off, I had no idea that there used to be a postal bank system in America, but there was. And just like the Post Office in the UK, it was aimed at  providing banking services to people of modest means. The kind of people who today are widely denied access to banking services, and who are forced instead to reply on payday lenders.   The post office offered information to customers in 24 languages and would pass out leaflets right outside the ports of entry into the U.S.

The author points out that the rise of payday lending coincided exactly with the decline in postal banking. That began around 1965, when the postmasters general began to endorse ending it. The system died a quick, quiet death, which coincided with banks' withdrawal from low-income (and thus low-yield) neighborhoods in the early 1970s. That created a financial services vacuum, which was quickly filled by, you guessed it, payday loan operations.

Postal banking was America’s most successful experiment in financial inclusion—a problem we face again today.

The problem is that postal banking is expensive. It's a low-margin business, after all, as most customers probably won't have much money to save, and the post office would find it tough to upsell its banking customers into higher-yielding products, in the way banks do. It's also administratively expensive: a recent British government report on the unbanked in the UK found the cost of a simple banking transaction at the Post Office was about 100 times more expensive than a similar transaction done at a bank. 

Of course, that's not really the point. The point is that in the U.S. there are large sections of the population that are denied banking services, not because they don't understand how to use them, but because the banks have rejected them and the government has deserted them. As such, they are preyed upon by unscrupulous payday lenders, and often left even more disadvantaged than before.

The government has tried a private sector solution, demanding the banks set up shop and provide banking services in these neighborhoods, but the private sector has failed. Which leaves it up to the public sector.

Postal banking is a possible solution. It will be expensive, as most public services are. But the alternative, in the long run, will surely cost us more.

PODCAST: Freeing franchises from their companies

Mon, 2014-08-18 03:00

The Grand Tetons are self-evidently majestic. But there are other reasons that anyone connected to economic policy around the world will keep an eye on Jackson Hole, Wyoming later this week. The top brass at the Federal Reserve will be there, along with their central banking counterparts from across the globe. Plus, Franchises -- everything from fast-food restaurants to plumbing companies -- are getting a lot of attention from lawmakers in California right now. A bill that would make it harder for parent companies to sever agreements with their franchisees, just passed in the state assembly and could soon pass the state senate. More on what the bill could mean for franchise owners, and the workers they employ. Also happening today, Steve Ballmer of Microsoft fame and the new owner of the LA Clippers, is hosting a rally. The first 2,500 fans to arrive at the arena will receive a free Clipper Nation t-shirt. Beyond little free shirts, what does the 2 billion dollar purchase price, a record for a basketball team, mean?

Owners of franchises may get more control

Mon, 2014-08-18 02:00

Franchises, from fast-food restaurants to plumbing chains, are getting a lot of attention from lawmakers in California right now. A bill that would make it harder for parent companies to sever agreements with their franchisees passed in the state Assembly last week. It is headed to the state Senate next, where it is also expected to pass.

Keith Miller, who owns three Subway sandwich shops in northern California, supports the bill. He bristles at the power his parent company has over his business under current California law, which allows a franchisor to terminate a contract if franchisees stray from even the tiniest details.

“Fingerprints on the window — that’s in the operations manual that you must have windows and a front door that are clean and fingerprint free,” Miller says.

The bill moving through the California legislature right now, SB 610, would allow contracts to be severed only for “substantial and material breaches."

Miller, who is chairman of the Coalition of Franchisee Associations, says he hopes the bill will give franchisees like him a little more power in the franchisee-franchisor relationship.

That hope is shared by one of the nation's big labor unions, the Service Employees International Union, which has been paying for radio ads and digital media campaigns supporting the bill. As Christopher Calhoun, spokesman for SEIU California, told the Huffington Post: "Increasingly we are seeing franchisees and workers facing a similar challenge. Fundamental power imbalance enables multinational corporations to haul down billions at the expense of both workers and franchise owners."

But the bill could do damage to corporate brands and the franchisees who profit from those brands, argues Matt Haller with the International Franchise Association, an industry group that represents both corporate franchisors and franchisees.

“If franchisors can't maintain that brand integrity across their system,” Haller says, “then that's really going to be detrimental to the overall growth of franchising.”

The first smartphone turns 20

Mon, 2014-08-18 02:00

20 years ago this past Saturday, IBM's Simon Personal Communicator went on sale. It had a screen, calendar, and could send email, making it by some measures the world's first smartphone. The phone was not exceptionally well received when it was released. BBC Tech Reporter Claire Brennan joined us to explain exactly what it was.

“It looked and felt very different from the modern iPhones and Androids we are used to,” Brennan said.

It got its name from the game Simon says, a marketing attempt to emphasize the apparent usefulness of the device.

The phone was rather large and heavy, weighing half a kilogram, and was priced at the extreme high end of the market, costing $899 at launch.

The model, which was only sold in the US, was not commercially successful, a victim of its size, expense, and a lack of the digital infrastructure taken for granted today, such as wi-fi hotspots and cellular data.

A big day for the Clippers and the NBA

Mon, 2014-08-18 02:00

The $2 billion deal to sell the Los Angeles Clippers is a record price for a basketball team. It also makes for a happy story because the sale of the Clippers means there are a lot of winners:

“Well, certainly, Donald and Rochelle Sterling,” the team’s original owners who bought the Clippers decades ago for $12 million dollars, says Andy Zimbalist, a sports economist at Smith College. He says the team and the NBA are also winners.

“Because having a retrograde embarrassing owner who won’t spend money on the team is not good for the whole league either,” he says.

Kevin Zanni, a manager with Willamette Management Associates, a valuation firm, notes that even the NBA commissioner comes out looking good. 

“Because he gets rid of Sterling without having to force him out through the legal means to do it,” he says.

Finally, there’s the team’s new owner, Microsoft billionaire Steve Ballmer, another winner, says Smith's Andy Zimbalist: “If Mr. Ballmer didn’t have $20 billion of net worth, I would say that this is an awful purchase for him.“

But he does. He doesn’t have to worry about getting a return on this investment.  #Win.

 

 

The emotional and economic toll on Ferguson, Missouri

Mon, 2014-08-18 02:00

When the man with the trumpet finished his rendition of “My Country ‘Tis of Thee,” he lowered his head and raised his arms in a gesture that everyone here -- and across the country -- now realizes means: “don’t shoot.” The posture matched that of others in the crowd of demonstrators that gather daily in a parking lot across from the Ferguson, Missouri Police Station. 

Noel King/Lindsay Thomas

Despite the rain, about a hundred of them turned out for a prayer vigil on Saturday, eyes closed, heads lowered, arms raised.

The demonstrations in this part of historic downtown Ferguson have been peaceful. Traffic flows normally, punctuated by occasional bursts of sound from the car horns of passing drivers honking to show support. The weekend farmers’ market is open, and bustling.

The city has made efforts to attract new businesses to this part of town, and the efforts seem to be paying off. South Florissant Street boasts a new wine bar, a bike shop, and a handful of new restaurants. On the outdoor patio of the Ferguson Brewing Company, diners chatter over their meals.

This economic revival, however, doesn't define Ferguson. Like a lot of cities across the U.S., it also has neighborhoods presently experiencing little or no financial investment. Here, those areas have been characterized by different types of protests.

Noel King/Lindsay Thomas

Less than two miles away, not far from where Michael Brown was killed, there are more demonstrations taking place outside of a QuikTrip convenience store that was gutted by fire when looting erupted.

Traffic is thick, business owners are boarding up their windows, and those in attendance seem to want something other than prayer: they want to be heard. 

23-year-old Jamieko Rich, a friend of Michael Brown’s, is clutching a pack of skinny cigars, the item the Ferguson Police Department said Brown stole from a convenience store, making him a robbery suspect. The timing of that announcement and the deep well of mistrust between people here and the authorities, has made many suspicious.

Noel King/Lindsay Thomas

“His life was worth more than this,” Rich said. “He still didn’t deserve to get shot. It don’t matter if he stole a million of these [cigarillos]. His life wasn’t worth it.”

The unrest has disrupted life in this part of Ferguson. Protesters and police have clashed in the evenings, sometimes violently. Residents charge the authorities with disproportionate use of force. This weekend, Missouri Governor Jay Nixon ordered a night-time curfew to be put in place, and many businesses closed early. 

Noel King/Lindsay Thomas

Rich, who works three jobs, says he’s lost shifts at the nearby McDonald’s since the unrest started.

“The day before yesterday, the police stormed in there while I was on the clock and told everybody we had a minute to get the [expletive] out of there,” Rich said. “The manager told everybody, ‘clock out.'”

He's lost money, but what's more, the situation has reinforced his belief that the police here don’t value the lives of young, Black men like him.

“They value dogs way more than they value us,” Rich said. “We’re a level beneath the dogs to them. I really believe that.”

He wants better from the police, not just because he’s a part of this community, but because their salaries are funded by taxpayer dollars.

And, he says, “I’m a taxpayer, right?”

My money story: Synthpop band Future Islands

Fri, 2014-08-15 13:52

Everybody has one, a moment or a story where money changes your life. This week, the band Future Islands and the unexpected financial side of making it. 

“I think a big turning point was when we got picked up by a booking agent," says band member William Cashion. "That was the first allegiance in the music industry. We always felt like we were kind of on the outside. I booked our shows for about seven years, and we all just did everything, especially the first five or six years. We were going to Kinko's, making black and white Xerox copies and cutting them out in the van and burning CDRs."

"As soon as we brought on a booking agent it was like somebody waved a magic wand and we were just getting guarantees everywhere we went," Cashion says. "Which wasn’t a lot of money but it was like a door deal, it was like a pre-arranged amount of what we would get paid which totally changed the game for us as far as the kind of money we were making.”

But even when the band started making more money on the road, there were other unexpected financial problems.

“We were pretty far in the red at the end of last year," says Samuel Herring. We pretty much sunk everything into the music as well as getting hit with 2012 taxes in the middle of producing the album and we were just like, 'Oh, we forgot about that.' We got hit really hard with taxes last year. Our accountant called us in one day and [said], ‘Umm … well first off you guys have very high taxes, because you made a lot of money last year, a lot more than I expected. And because you’re an LLC you’re in the highest tax bracket.’ I was kind of looking at the guys, ' Should we high five? We made it! Highest tax bracket!' And we got destroyed. We got destroyed by the US Government. Maybe they’ll come after us.”

But with the band's recent success, Future Islands is learning to balance their DIY upbringing. 

“We’ve always worked solely out of necessity with what we could do, and I think that’s one of the reasons we’ve survived," says Herring. "It’s funny because now it’s at the point where we’re realizing we do need these certain crew members. And I’m fiercely shacking my head like, no, like I don’t want to do that! Even though it is time to give the reigns over because it’s too much for us now.”

Future Islands' latest album is "Singles." They're touring the U.S. this summer and fall.

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