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Anxieties of flying have waned... for the most part

Thu, 2014-09-11 02:00

Thirteen years ago Thursday, the world was rocked by the terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C. While none of us will ever forget that day, for one industry the anniversary casts a shadow on the bottom line: the airlines.  

“In the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, air travel dropped dramatically, and that’s not surprising,” says David Clark, a professor of economics at Marquette University who studied the economic impact of the attacks on U.S. airlines. According to his model, domestic air travel in September 2001 was down by more than half.

As the months passed, fear of another attack faded and people began to return to the air. “But as you got closer to the one-year anniversary there was a rather substantial decline,” says Clark. According to his model, 24.4 percent fewer people were flying than expected.

This kind of anniversary effect appears to have dissipated. Airlines for America, the trade association of the largest U.S. airlines, says it doesn’t see any particular 9/11-related changes in flights this year.

“I figure it’s probably the safest day to fly now,” says Bianca Cribbs, who is flying from Toronto to New York on September 11. The main reason she thought about the date was a line on her receipt: “The September 11th U.S. Security Tax which is $5.44.”

That’s the tax that helps pay for the biggest post-9/11 change to air travel: the Transportation Security Administration, which screens and scans the millions of passengers and bags that fly each day.

Spokesman Ross Feinstein says that from the TSA’s perspective, “The 13th anniversary is no different than any other day.” 

You'll be amazed at how big Kroger is

Thu, 2014-09-11 02:00

Cincinnati-based Kroger, the world’s fourth-largest retailer, is firing on all cylinders these days.

The stock price is way up, and so are sales. Last year, Kroger pulled in $98 billion in sales. That’s almost double the business it was doing in the early 2000s.

Business is so good the supermarket chain is hiring 20,000 more workers.

Jim Hertel, managing partner at Willard Bishop, says that’s quite a feat, considering the fierce competition in the grocery business.

“They are surviving better than any of the traditional supermarket competitors relative to Wal-Mart,” says Hertel.

Kroger owns a number of grocery chains, like high-end Harris Teeter stores in the Southeast. It also has no-frills outfits like Food 4 Less.

The company has kept pace with the competition by cutting prices on grocery staples, building its own private brand “Simple Truth” into a near $1 billion business and boosting customer loyalty with personalized coupons, thanks to its sophisticated data analytics.

Kroger’s chairman, Dave Dillon, has even called data analytics the company’s “secret weapon.”

Overdraft charges and fees aren't as profitable as they used to be

Wed, 2014-09-10 13:54

The commercial banking industry made $32.5 billion in fees last year, according to data from the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. But the banking industry isn't making as much off overdraft charges and other fees as it used to. 

“The banks are making lots of money on their fees, but it’s significantly less than it was a handful of years ago,” says Jefferson Harralson, associate director of research at the investment banking firm Keefe, Bruyette & Wood.

In 2009, banks made almost $8 billion more in fees. 

Harralson says financial regulation played a big role. "There’s been new rules to limit when you bounce a check," he says. "If you go slightly below zero, you don’t bounce now.”

Banks also don’t charge as much for debit card transactions these days.

But not everyone agree that banks are making that much less.

“The perception is there’s been this massive decline in service charges. I don’t think that’s been the case. I think the growth has slowed down,” says Christoper Marinac, a research analysts at FIG Partners. “What’s happening is that banks are finding other ways to make fee income.”

Analysts say that’s why some banks have scaled back on things like free checking accounts.

Richard Hunt, CEO of the Consumer Banking Association, argues some financial regulation was needed. But he says Congress went too far when it decided how much banks can charge for services.

“Yes, we’re in the business of making money. Yes, we should charge for our services, as long as it is reasonable and transparent," Hunt says.

In other words, bank fees are here to stay.

How to grow lettuce and fish indoors, all year long

Wed, 2014-09-10 13:42

Tony Beran is standing in the kitchen at the Lake Avenue Restaurant in Duluth, Minnesota, with a head of romaine lettuce in one hand and a clump of curly lettuce in the other. 

"They're beautiful," he says.

Beran's the executive chef, and one thing he likes about these bunches of lettuce is how clean they are. "They're grown aquaponically instead of in dirt," he says. "Which is wonderful in the kitchen. It's less labor for us."

Another thing he likes about this lettuce is that it was grown just up the road. The restaurant features local ingredients, and Beran serves locally grown lettuce all year, which is a bit of a trick in a place like Duluth. Last winter, the temperature was below zero 23 days in a row.

But it's always warm in the greenhouse at Victus Farms, where Beran's lettuce came from. It's about an hour's drive from Duluth in a little mining town called Silver Bay.

"These are all our babies," says Mike Mageau, as he shows off his latest lettuce crop. He runs the place, and he's an unlikely looking farmer. He's wearing cargo shorts and a backwards ball cap and he's barefoot. He's an unlikely looking professor, too, but that's his job: professor of geography at the University of Minnesota Duluth. He runs a program in environment and sustainability, and this indoor farm is a research project.

Universities and private businesses across the country are experimenting with aquaponics.

"It's kind of fun," Mageau says. "It's like the electric car. It's almost a race to come up with the method or the model that really works well."

Most of Mageau's lettuce is floating. Each plant is stuck into a hole in an inch-and-a-half-thick sheet of polystyrene foam. The foam rafts float in pools in the greenhouse, and the lettuce roots dangle through the foam into the water.

The fish live in a neighboring room. They're tilapia, and they swim in nine round plastic tanks, each one about six feet tall. Waste from the fish gets pumped over to fertilize the plants in the greenhouse, and some of the pools in the greenhouse grow algae and duckweed that come back into this room to feed the fish. 

"Which means you grow fish and plants sort of in concert, one living off the other," Mageau says.

Two years into the project, Victus Farms sells all the fish and vegetables it can produce to local restaurants and stores. Now the goal is to get more efficient.

Mageau and his crew built floor-to-ceiling racks made of PVC pipe, an idea they got online and spent six months refining. Each rack looks sort of like a ladder. On the horizontal pipes, they drill holes in the top and stick a plant in each hole. Then they run nutrient-rich water from the fish tanks through the pipes, bathing the roots of the plants.

"It's all trial and error," Mageau says. "You know, 'I wonder if we can grow tomatoes in four-inch pipe?' Yes! You try it, and it works! I mean, look at these tomatoes, there's millions of them."

One wall of the greenhouse is covered with ripening tomatoes and strawberries growing out of white, plastic pipes. And the fruit looks good. 

Mageau's banking on this vertical gardening scheme for the future. It will let them make use of some of the empty vertical space, and it will allow them to move the fish into the ponds in the greenhouse, making the second room for fish unnecessary.

"Then we can grow probably 10 times the plants per unit surface area, which means our greenhouse needs to be one-tenth the size, " Mageau says.

He wants to pilot a small, hyperefficient version of Victus. 

"Every small town could have one or two or three of them," he says. "And the food could literally be produced in the backyard of the restaurants or whatever."

Mageau says aquaponic operations will never replace farming in dirt, but they could give a big boost to the amount of local food that's available, especially in places with short growing seasons.

The Victus building cost about $2 million, but Mageau thinks a self-sustaining version could be built for a small fraction of that. It really could be built in someone's yard.

So that's what he's doing next.

Mageau's right-hand man at Victus is Baylor Radtke, a former student. The two of them pooled their money and on their own they're building a much smaller and simpler fish and vegetable operation in Radtke's yard in Duluth.

"The whole point of it is to allow people to grow as much as we did in that $2 million facility in a facility that costs under $100,000," Radtke says.

The cost has come out way under. Radtke and Mageau say the new operation will take only $20,000 to build because they're doing all the labor. The annual energy costs will be comparable to a single-family house, and they're cutting those even further with solar panels on the roof of the greenhouse.

They figure they'll bring in $50,000 in the first year, from a building the size of a four-car garage, about 24-by-52 feet. They plan to be completely up and running by this fall. 

If it works in northern Minnesota, they say, imagine how well it could work someplace warm. Like Iowa.

Want the new iPhone 6? How about a new carrier too?

Wed, 2014-09-10 13:41

With the announcement of Apple’s new iPhone 6 Tuesday came a flurry of new cell phone plans from carriers hoping to capitalize on consumers’ excitement about a new device.

“The carriers are really looking to take advantage of marketing blitz that comes with a new Apple product,” said Weston Henderek, with NPD Group. “So, they’re all looking to come out with some of a catch to really grab a consumer’s attention.”

Sprint is being particularly aggressive, offering a plan for unlimited service at a discount when customers lease the phone. With this “iPhone for life” plan, Sprint will also give out upgrades every two years, similar to a car lease.

Smartphone plans are a highly competitive market for carriers, says Ramon Llamas, the research manager for IDC’s mobile phones team.

"Mobile phone subscriber growth is leveling off," he says. "Without much more green space to grow into, it’s a game of, ‘How do we steal customers from the other guy?’"

Following a move by T-Mobile a few years ago, many companies are dropping plans that force customers into a multi-year contract. They’re also increasingly abandoning the subsidies that heavily discount the phone but tend to come with higher monthly fees.

“The cost of service has been separated from the cost of a handset,” says Colin Gibbs, with GigaOm Research, though some companies, including Verizon, still sell subsidized handsets with a contract.

Bottom line, if you want the new iPhone, there’s lots of companies competing to sell it to you.

Leaked photos = a quarter-billion page views for Reddit

Wed, 2014-09-10 13:41

Remember those photos stolen from celebrities' iCloud accounts that wound up on the Web last week?

Well, links to those pictures showed up on Reddit. According to Wired, "In just six days Reddit earned enough money... to power its servers for roughly a month."

The money came about through the sale of memberships. However, it's likely the site made even more from ads.

Wired says those photos, in total, led to a quarter-billion page views on Reddit in the full week it took for the site to ban them.

How the ACA has affected employer-based coverage

Wed, 2014-09-10 13:41

We’ve heard for years about how the Affordable Care Act — Obamacare — could make it near impossible for businesses to keep offering health coverage to their workers.

Well, the Kaiser Family Foundation’s annual employer health benefits survey — which is widely considered a benchmark in the health care industry — came out Wednesday. Like everybody else, Kaiser Family Foundation Vice President Gary Claxton wanted to know: Did the new health care law upend employer-based health insurance, the market where 150 million Americans get their coverage?

“The first read for 2014 is that the ACA has had no real impact on premiums, nor did it lead to employers not to offer coverage,” he says.

You read right: No ACA-inspired premium spike.

Instead, there has been a modest 3 percent increase. Nearly the same number of employers are offering coverage; nearly the same number of workers are enrolling.

A critical question the survey doesn’t answer, however, is whether employers have begun cutting hours. Starting next year, people working 30 hours a week at firms with 100 employees or more must be offered insurance or face a penalty. 

While Kaiser’s Year 2 survey may come to a different conclusion, the bottom line to this year’s report is that the ACA has had a small impact on employers... with one possible exception: “There is no doubt that the Affordable Care Act’s exchanges have brought a lot of attention to the concept of retail health insurance,” says PricewaterhouseCooper’s Ceci Connolly.

Connolly says there’s something executives like about the exchange concept that the ACA has popularized. (If you aren’t familiar with exchanges, think Travelocity for health insurance.) The consulting firm Accenture predicts private exchange enrollment will top public enrollment by 2018.

Rosemarie Day with Day Health Strategies says more and more Americans are becoming smarter health care consumers.

“That’s kind of the notion of exchanges, is that you have to put something in to get something out. It’s not a benefit that’s just handed to you,” she says.

Day likens this potential shift to when companies moved away from pensions and towards 401k contributions. For workers, it meant more choice, and more responsibility.

What a $6 billion anti-terrorist campaign amounts to

Wed, 2014-09-10 13:41

Among the defense-contractor set, there’s an expectation that the war against extremist group the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria will cost an extra $6 billion next year. That would pay for things like warplanes, drones for surveillance, listening to enemy phone calls and training rebels.

The corporate winners among defense contractors include familiar names. “Boeing and Raytheon make smart munitions,” says Guggenheim Securities aerospace and defense policy analyst Roman Schweizer. “Lockheed Martin or ATK are certainly also in the mix. Northrup Grumman and General Atomics are the two primary drone manufacturers.”

For context, this is war on the cheap. Put the $6 billion estimate next to a defense and war budget of around $560 billion, and it’s a rounding error. Or, consider the price of one laser-guided JDAM smart bomb dropped on an ISIS target.

“The unit price of those is $25,000–$40,000,” says Byron Callan of Capital Alpha Partners. “Now, that’s the price of a car. But in the context of companies that may have revenues of anywhere from $25–80 billion, you have to drop an awful lot of those to really start impacting the bottom line.”

The bigger impact of all this may be political. The current budget environment of strict spending caps — remember the term “sequestration”? — squeezes all contractors. But now, with a new enemy, the appetite for spending on war could grow.

“I think the calculus may be starting to change,” says Yair Reiner of the investment firm Oppenheimer. “With the rise of ISIS, Americans — and I think not just the political class — may be willing to contemplate intervention.”

Further on, winning this fight could mean winning the peace: soldiers, body protection and armored vehicles. Down the road, if the mission creeps, that would be real money.


From a defense perspective, $6 billion could seem like chump change, but this graphic by Marketplace's Marlena Chertock puts the number in perspective:

Cell carriers are getting creative with phone plans

Wed, 2014-09-10 12:40

The iPhone release schedule has grown pretty predictable over the past seven years. Usually, the latest phone goes on sale for $199 with a two-year contract, the old model’s price gets cut in half to $99 and the (now ancient) model from two years ago is thrown in the trash offered for free.

But as Apple has started introducing multiple phones each year and the smartphone market becomes more competitive, that pricing structure has been upended. At its announcement yesterday, Apple provided an offer similar to those in previous years: With a two-year contract, you can get an iPhone 6 for $199 or the larger iPhone 6 Plus for $299.

On Wednesday morning, as the reality distortion field cleared, major carriers were all clamoring to buy old iPhones and get a leg up on each other with some interesting deals.

Let’s take a look at what carriers are offering as of Wednesday afternoon:

Sprint: An iPhone for "life"

The cost: $70/month for a new phone every two years


Sprint wants you to lease a phone like you would a car, with no money down and an extra $20 per month on top of their $50 unlimited plan. Every two years you can trade up for the new iPhone “for life.”

(Or as long as iPhones actually exist — keep in mind the original iPod was discontinued Tuesday after 13 years.)

All of this means you’ll pay $480 for a phone every two years, and if you break it, you buy it. If you don’t want to lease, you can still buy the iPhone 6 from Sprint for $199, with that same unlimited plan costing $85 per month.

Overall, the lease is cheapest in the short-term, but the long-haul winner is Sprint. Plus, if you own your phone, the company is already offering to buy it back for up to $300, claiming to match any other buyback offers. If they keep that up, leasing is really a bad deal.


Cost: Matching trade-ins plus an extra $50; $50–80/month for plans


The self-proclaimed “un-carrier” — which also insists on calling smartphones “superphones” — is also offering to match any of its competitor’s trade-in offers, but it’ll throw in another $50.

That said, T-Mobile’s plans are more expensive, with their $50 plan capping 4G LTE use at one gigabyte. Getting everything unlimited will cost about $80.


Cost: Trade in a phone and a get an iPhone 6 for free; $60/month for a plan


The most straightforward deal comes from Verizon, who will give you an iPhone 6 for free when you trade-in your old phone and sign a two-year contract. So there’s no opportunity to make a little extra money off your trade-in, but there’s also no haggling or pitting other carriers (or “un-carriers”) against eachother.

The other compromise is that while Verizon’s single-line plan is pretty cheap at $60, they’ll cap your data no matter what.

Overall, each plan will end up costing almost the same over two years, depending on your data needs, and with nearly everyone (including Wal-Mart and Target) offering comparable trade-ins, the whole thing ends up being a wash.

Welcome to the hypercompetitive world of superphone smartphone shopping.

Boosting student achievement with video games

Wed, 2014-09-10 12:40

Hey, teachers, do you have low-performing students who have trouble paying attention? The solution could be video games.

That’s according to a survey of nearly 700 teachers* who use games in the classroom, conducted by the Games and Learning Publishing Council. (Potential self-interest noted). Forty-seven percent of teachers said that low-performing students were the main beneficiaries of gaming in the classroom, and 28 percent said students with emotional or behavioral issues benefited most.

Also from the survey of teachers:

  • 55 percent use gaming in the classroom at least once a week; 9 percent use it daily.
  • 55 percent said the games were most valuable as motivators of low-performing students and special education students.
  • 30 percent have students use games individually; 20 percent have kids work in small groups; and 17 percent play as a class.
  • Teachers rely most on other teachers for game recommendations.
  • Why aren’t more teachers using games?  Most cited not enough time. But cost and lack of tech resources were also popular answers.
  • The Games and Learning Publishing Council  is a coalition of game developers, industry leaders, investors, scholars and education experts focused on expanding game-based learning.

The survey doesn't make game recommendations, but one blogger and teacher recently listed his favorite options here. There is an even longer list at the website.  

Among the options that appear on both lists is Minecraft, a game that has more than a few teacher devotees. A whole library of Minecraft-based learning games created by enthusiastic educators can be found here.

*CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misstated the number of teachers who took the survey. Nearly 700 teachers participated. The text has been corrected.

On that three-day congressional workweek

Wed, 2014-09-10 12:17

Earlier this week, U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan stood behind a podium outside the Capitol and unveiled legislation that would make Congress do something radical: Stay in Washington five days a week.

Nolan first served in Congress from 1975 to 1981. More than three decades later, the Minnesota Democrat ran again — and won.  

A lot has changed since then on Capitol Hill. For one, political pros now tell members of Congress they need to spend 30 hours a week raising money when they’re in Washington. Nolan says they never had to do that before — they were in Washington Monday through Friday.

Now, Nolan says, members breeze in for just three days, usually Tuesday through Thursday.                                   

“With everybody flying in and flying out for three nights and a day and a half of work, I mean, it’s an absurdity,” he says.

There is no shortage of important business in Washington right now: Lawmakers are weighing what to do about the militant group known as Islamic State, how to keep the government funded come October 1 and whether to keep the Export-Import Bank up and running. And that doesn't even count the other big stuff, like immigration or tax reform. It's a lot to tackle in a short workweek.

But some members of Congress say those long weekends at home in their districts are necessary for holding meetings with constituents. 

Deb Detmers, the district director for Congressman John Shimkus, a Republican from Illinois, says sometimes, when she’s driving the congressman around the district, they listen to talk radio and roll their eyes.

“You’ll hear something on the radio about, you know, 'these guys are the do-nothing Congress,' or 'they’re back home on vacation,' and you picked him up at 6:30 that morning and it’s 7 o’clock at night,” she says.

Nolan says district work is important, but why not come to Washington for three weeks straight, then take a week in your district?

If Congress were a company with these types of conflicts, it would turn to someone like corporate efficiency expert Daniel Markovitz, president of Markovitz Consulting. Markotvitz says if Congress were his client, “I would throw up my hands in despair.”

But after he gets over the shock of imagining the government as a corporation, Markovitz has a recommendation: more face-to-face time for warring Republicans and Democrats.

“If I were running a business that had two factions — whether it’s the East Coast and the West Coast office — if I were trying to bridge a divide like that, I would think that face-to-face time is absolutely essential.”

Markovitz says maybe members of Congress could even socialize with each other.  

Nolan says he did go camping and hunting with other representatives back in the day, but he doesn’t have anybody to hang out with now.

“You hear people say, 'The members of Congress need to go out and have a pop or a beer together,'" he says. "Hell, we just need to come and work together, to start with.” 

But you have to remember, the writers of Congress’ corporate charter  — the constitution — didn’t want Congress to be efficient. They wanted Democracy to be messy and slow, with lots of debate — not exactly what a lean corporation needs. 

A flood washes away one Colorado town’s infrastructure

Wed, 2014-09-10 10:47

One of the hardest-hit centers following the 2013 Colorado flood was the 2,000-person town of Lyons. Key pieces of the town's infrastructure, like sewer, water and gas lines, were severely damaged. Fast-forward a year, the town is still working on a list of 87 projects ranging from park and riverbank repair to bridge rebuilding.

You wouldn't be able to tell by taking a walk down Main Street. In the town's busiest corridor, you can barely see signs of the flood. But almost everyone in town has a story — including Connie Sullivan, owner of the St. Vrain Market.

"We essentially lost nearly 100 percent of our inventory," said Sullivan, who either lost or gave away food from the St. Vrain Market during the flood.

When the water receded, she found a foot of mud in her shop. With destroyed roads, water and sewer lines, many residents couldn’t even return home for two months. Sullivan said that put a wrinkle in her recovery plan.

"You didn't have electricity and then you had to figure out when your customer base is going to be returning, and what types of products you would be able to sell even once they did return," she said.

One big change? Lyons lost about 20 percent of its available housing — and Sullivan’s business now looks different. The town has made a big push to have more people visit and boost sales tax revenue. Her sandwich sales to the increasing number of tourists are up. Sales through Colorado’s Food Assistance — or food stamp — program are down.

"We served that niche of the community," said Sullivan. "It's sad to see that those customers are some of the ones that haven't returned."

Those residents have moved to nearby towns like Longmont or Berthoud. Some moved to outlying counties, while a few left the state.

The housing shortage in Lyons becomes apparent a few short blocks from Main Street in the Confluence neighborhood. Nearly every home on one block of Park Street is in the midst of repairs or demolition.

Lyons mayor John O'Brien points to a pile of rocks and debris. “You can see this cobble; you can see where the stream was. During the flood this became really another rivulet,” he explained.

Nearby are the remains of a home that's expected to be bought by the Federal Emergency Management Agency's Hazard Mitigation Grant program. O’Brien said it’s too dangerous for the homeowner to move back.

"… because we know when the next big flood comes, it's going to come right through here," O’Brien said.

In the weeks immediately after the flood, the first priority was to repair downed sewer and water lines. But O’Brien said the work is still far from complete, with work still needed to repair parks, streams and bridges.

One year after the flooding, Colorado's Chief Recovery Officer Molly Urbina said it will take homeowners and businesses many more to rebuild.

“It’s not really a sprint. This is a marathon for a recovery,” she said.

While both federal and state agencies have pumped millions into repairs, Urbina said there will still be a shortfall for some communities.

“There was way more damage than there is going to be for grant funding. So the local communities have to look at their own budgets and see how this all fits. You know: What’s the gap and how do we get there?” said Urbina.

The gap in Boulder County is expected to be $56 million. To soften the financial blow, the county is asking voters to approve a Flood Recovery Sales and Use tax this November.

While there is a long list of repairs ahead, Mayor John O’Brien said a key concern is the lack of affordable housing.

“We’ll be concerned with replacing the housing that we lost — that 20 percent which was substantially damaged,” he said.

The town lost both of its two trailer parks, which held about 50 homes.

 “It’s going to be difficult. I mean, because Lyons is the last best place in Boulder County it means that housing values continue to rise,” said O’Brien.

Town officials expect to hold public meetings on when, where and how to build affordable housing in the coming months. But completing the project will take years. O’Brien said flood recovery won’t be complete until everyone who wants to move back to Lyons can return home. 

Why Microsoft wants 'Minecraft'

Wed, 2014-09-10 08:52

There's more to buying "Minecraft" maker Mojang than just putting the game in the Microsoft store.

Though playable on multiple platforms — including Microsoft's Xbox 360 and Xbox One — "Minecraft" has yet to be made available on Windows 8. 

Which, says Marketplace Tech host Ben Johnson, gives Microsoft the excuse they need to diversify their company offerings, and could potentially take the company in a new direction.

"When [Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella] first took the helm, we heard a lot about cloud computing, business software, enterprise — areas where Microsoft is really still pretty important. But like any big tech company that publishes stuff, Microsoft needs to be diversified," Johnson says. "Buying a company that makes a game like 'Minecraft' might help Microsoft sell people on the Windows Phone, for instance."

Microsoft's track record with buying gaming companies has been mixed. After they acquired Lionhead Studios, the company went on to create games from the "Fable" series exclusively, which garnered positive reviews. But their acquisition of Rare in 2002 was a disappointment; once known for landmark Nintendo titles such as "Banjo-Kazooie" and "Donkey Kong Country", Rare failed to live up to expectations in the years following the acquisition, and was restructured in 2009.

If the acquisition goes through, its success depends on how Microsoft reconciles company culture with Mojang, Johnson says.

"The big question is, how much is Microsoft going to interfere with what [Mojang] does, how much it can continue doing its indie-gaming stuff without Microsoft interfering? Maybe if Microsoft lets this company continue to exist and lets it do what it does best... it might be a pretty sensible partnership."

Why Microsoft wants 'Minecraft'

Wed, 2014-09-10 08:52

There's more to buying "Minecraft" maker Mojang than just putting the game in the Microsoft store.

Though playable on multiple platforms — including Microsoft's Xbox 360 and Xbox One — "Minecraft" has yet to be made available on Windows 8. 

Which, says Marketplace Tech host Ben Johnson, gives Microsoft the excuse they need to diversify their company offerings, and could potentially take the company in a new direction.

"When [Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella] first took the helm, we heard a lot about cloud computing, business software, enterprise — areas where Microsoft is really still pretty important. But like any big tech company that publishes stuff, Microsoft needs to be diversified," Johnson says. "Buying a company that makes a game like 'Minecraft' might help Microsoft sell people on the Windows Phone, for instance."

Microsoft's track record with buying gaming companies has been mixed. After they acquired Lionhead Studios, the company went on to create games from the "Fable" series exclusively, which garnered positive reviews. But their acquisition of Rare in 2002 was a disappointment; once known for landmark Nintendo titles such as "Banjo-Kazooie" and "Donkey Kong Country", Rare failed to live up to expectations in the years following the acquisition, and was restructured in 2009.

If the acquisition goes through, its success depends on how Microsoft reconciles company culture with Mojang, Johnson says.

"The big question is, how much is Microsoft going to interfere with what [Mojang] does, how much it can continue doing its indie-gaming stuff without Microsoft interfering? Maybe if Microsoft lets this company continue to exist and lets it do what it does best... it might be a pretty sensible partnership."

The numbers for September 10, 2014

Wed, 2014-09-10 07:39

380 days. That's how long ago President Barack Obama first weighed airstrikes to "deter and degrade" Syria's chemical weapons stockpile. Wednesday night, hours before the 13th anniversary of 9/11, Obama will outline plans for "degrading and ultimately destroying" extremist group the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria through airstrikes in the region.

As we wait for Obama's address, here's what we're reading — and the numbers we're keeping an eye on — Wednesday morning.

$2 billion

The initial valuation of Mojang — the company behind the cult megahit Minecraft — as Microsoft nears an acquisition deal, according to The Wall Street Journal. The game's fan base is reportedly flabbergasted. The game has sold over 50 million copies, spawned a toy line and even worked its way into the classroom

5 percent

The portion of college and university assets that are invested in energy and natural resources — or, about $22 billion. Schools across the country are facing mounting pressure to divest from fossil fuels, and the University of California system is the latest institution mulling it over. The Wall Street Journal has a breakdown of several schools' endowments and their decisions on divestment.

$90 billion

The mobile payment market is expected to quadruple by 2017. With the announcement of its own mobile payment system yesterday, Apple is angling to get in on that action. The tech giant has secured deals with partner banks, Bloomberg reported, giving Apple a cut of the so-called "swipe fees" from each Apple Pay transaction.

Questions raised over bullying in the gaming community

Wed, 2014-09-10 02:30

There's a fight underway that's tearing apart the community of people who play, write about, enthuse and obsess over video games. Earlier this month, the ex-boyfriend of game designer Zoe Quinn took to the Internet to publicly accuse her of infidelity. He said she'd cheated on him with a gaming journalist. Some gamers seized on the allegation and said a reporter and a gamer, whose work he might review, shouldn't have a relationship.

It seemed like an allegation of journalistic misconduct, but what followed was a flood of threats aimed at Zoe Quinn online.

To help us understand what led to all this, we reached out to Jennifer Hale. She's a member of the gaming community, an actress who does voice-over work for many video games.

There seems to be, in this response, some real misogyny — possibly even dangerous misogyny — in this community of people who play and write about video games. What have you experienced?

I had several friends advise me against even coming in here and doing this interview, because there's a segment of the game community — it's small, but it's vicious — that is bullying. It's giving the gaming community a bad name.

Some of the threats that were made against Zoe Quinn: People threatened to kneecap her, people threatened to give her brain damage if they could find her in person. Does the gaming community deserve to have a bad name?

The community does not. These people within the community do. We need to police ourselves. I don't know how to do that, because the members of our community that have called out to these people to stop doing what they're doing are being then themselves threatened.

At the same time that Zoe Quinn is facing this torrent of abuse, a feminist media critic named Anita Sarkeesian releases a video criticizing the way that women are treated or portrayed in video games. She calls them background decoration, victims, prostitutes, then she gets pilloried for what she said. You've worked in the video game industry. You've done the voices for some popular characters. Does Anita Sarkeesian have a point? 

I myself would love to see more equal representation of women in games, more empowered roles. Let's remove gender from casting everywhere we can and play around with it. Let's do the same with race. Let's go on and create the next level. We can't do that right now. I'm nervous about what this piece of the community is going to do to me for speaking up about anything, and that's not OK. We can't do anything until we deal with that.

Given the attention this back-and-forth has received, do you think we've reached a kind of tipping point moment where this conversation is bound to happen?

I hope so, because games are an incredible art form. I've used a couple of games to learn another language or recover from breaking my foot, things that would have stymied me. I think it is time for this part of the industry to fully step into [the idea that] we're not fringe anymore. We can, without losing the awesome, kid parts of ourselves, grow up and become leaders in a really cool way. And this is hopefully creating a crisis that will help us do that.

PODCAST: The spinning wheel of death

Wed, 2014-09-10 02:00

First up, after the Dow fell 97 points yesterday, what accounts for the cautious stance of some market participants in recent days? And when you click on a website today, you might have to endure a spinning worm of waiting. It may not be your internet connection to blame. Today, some big companies are deliberately slowing down their systems in an organized protest against ending what's called Network Neutrality. Plus, Saying the word "Minecraft" to many people produces a similar delighted glow about the eyes as produced by saying the word "Lego." It may have something to do with the videogame's low-fi graphics or open-ended invitation to creativity. Well, Bloomberg, Wall Street Journal, and the New York Times are reporting that Microsoft is in talks to buy Mojang-- the Swedish maker of Minecraft--for perhaps $2 billion.

Small-business confidence is up, but owners won't hire

Wed, 2014-09-10 02:00

The National Federation of Independent Business’ Optimism Index was up modestly in August 2014 to 96.1, the second-highest reading since the recession began in late 2007. (The index peaked post-recession in May 2014 at 96.6.)

Harold Jackson is executive chairman of Buffalo Supply, a medical supply company in Lafayette, Colorado, outside Denver, with approximately 20 employees.

“I’m cautiously optimistic [about the economy]," Jackson said. “We’re not going to have the kind of growth that we had seven years ago, but it’s going to be a slow, plodding process.” Jackson works with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and he says other business owners he knows generally feel the same way.

Jackson hired several new workers earlier this year. But now — also consistent with the NFIB survey — he is holding tight on more hiring, to see if business gets better. Overall, small-business owners’ job creation plans fell slightly in the August survey.

Economist and entrepreneurship expert Robert Litan of the Brookings Institution says geopolitical developments may dampen small-business confidence and hiring further in coming months.

“The headlines are scary — and you don’t have to read The New York Times to realize that the world’s looking a lot more like 1914 than 2014,” said Litan. “I think it is somewhat surprising and perplexing that the economy continues to chug along. But then, consumers, like businesses, may be just discounting it, and saying, ‘Well, these are problems in faraway places. They don’t affect us.’”

Some websites are slowing down today to make a point

Wed, 2014-09-10 02:00

When you click on a website on Wednesday, you might see a spinning wheel. It’s that familiar symbol signaling your Internet connection is sluggish, though it may not mean your webpage of choice is slow to load: More likely, you've stumbled onto an online protest designed to get people to support net neutrality. 

Oh, yeah, net neutrality. What's that again?

That can be a frustrating question to answer, said Evan Greer, the campaign manager for Fight for the Future, the nonprofit organization behind today’s protest.

“Net neutrality activists have had the experience of trying to talk about the issue, and as soon as they start saying words like 'tiered systems,' people’s eyes glaze over,” Greer says.

Today’s action is in protest of a tiered system, which the Federal Communications Commission is considering implementing. That system would allow websites to pay more in order to receive faster access to your home. But what about websites that can’t pay? Netflix, Reddit and thousands of smaller websites claim the result will be the "spinning wheel of death" on their sites. Net neutrality advocates are pushing for a more level playing field that will keep a small number of internet providers from building — and setting prices for — those tiers. 

Santa Clara University marketing professor Edward McQuarrie says if companies make users wait as part of this protest campaign, they risk turning them off.   

“You’re going to get this delay and you’re going to say, 'Oh, crap. Is there a problem with my internet service again?'” he says.  

And people will just click onto another site that’s not protesting. McQuarrie predicts the wheel of death won’t be understood as intended because, well, so few people understand what net neutrality is. 

 A visual guide to the net neutrality debate

Net neutrality is not a new issue; and if it were ever straightforward, the debate has been clouded by years of arguing between activist groups, internet service providers and tech companies, as well as a million public comments sent to the FCC, which has over time changed its approach to an open internet. We've collected a few of the best charts and tools from around the web to help make sense of the recent conversation surrounding net neutrality. 

Wednesday's slowdown protest comes five days before the second round of comments are due to the FCC. (Disclosure: Marketplace's distributor, American Public Media, filed a comment in favor of net neutrality.) The deadline for the first round had to be extended because the crush of traffic crippled the FCC's servers. Here's a look at that response hour-by-hour:


Once that first round of comments was made public, many news organizations tried to make sense of it all. The Verge started by counting common phrases like "Comcast" and all variations the f-word, for example. But the very best visualization came from analysis firm Quid, which was commissioned by the Knight Foundation to cluster responses by their overall message and shared language. The resulting chart, originally published by NPR, is beautiful to look at. 

Courtesy:Quid, NPR


But where are these comments coming from? The Verge published a tool that allows you to look up how many comments were submitted from your zip code, along with a ranking of the cities and neighborhoods that have filed the most comments with the FCC. The most came, unsurprisingly, from Washington, D.C. and the Bay Area. 

Finally, Netflix is one of the highest-profile sites participating in the slowdown protest, and they've been one of the loudest voices in the net neutrality debate overall. The company says they were strong-armed into deals for faster service with internet service providers after their streams were choked, and they lost customers as a result. The company recently filed a lengthy statement to the FCC opposing a proposed merger between Comcast and Time Warner Cable, which includes a chart showing the spike in complaints about poor service last fall.

Courtesy: Netflix

Even more striking is Netflix's streaming speeds after it signed agreements with Comcast for faster speeds. Netflix makes all of that data public, and the Washington Post collected it here:

The death of #NetNeutrality, in one chart. With @MaxEhrenfreund

— Christopher Ingraham (@_cingraham) April 25, 2014

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