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Updated: 12 min 23 sec ago

Amazon Prime's $99 bargain

Thu, 2014-03-13 13:33

Amazon has decided that just being the biggest seller of stuff online isn't enough -- they've got to make a profit, too.   The company announced this morning in what seems like a long-awaited move that its $79 dollar Amazon Prime service will henceforth be its $99 Amazon Prime Service.   The phrase here is "loss leader." Even at $99, Prime is a bargain for shoppers. And it works out well for Amazon, too. One estimate has Prime customers spending $1,340 bucks a year on the site.

States change rules to avoid SNAP cuts

Thu, 2014-03-13 11:53

The long-awaited Farm Bill that passed earlier this year promised to cut $8.6 billion out of SNAP – the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program formerly known as food stamps – over the next decade. It did so by restricting a practice known as “heat and eat,” which many in Congress saw as a loophole.

Now at least six states are getting around SNAP cuts by tweaking their “heat and eat” programs.

Here’s what more than a dozen “heat and eat” states realized years ago: Give people nominal heating and cooling assistance – even $1 a year – and SNAP recognized them as paying utilities, whether or not they actually did. That’s an expense which triggered more in food stamps.

The new Farm Bill raised that minimum level of help to $20. That was bad news for 70-year-old Barbara Skinner in Philadelphia.

“There was nothing that I could really do about it.” She says. “So I just left it in the hands of God.”

Without “heat and eat” Skinner would eventually lose most of her remaining food stamps.  (And remember, SNAP benefits already fell last year when the stimulus ran out).

And while we don’t know if God intervened in this case, Republican Governor Tom Corbett certainly did.

“I was elated,” Skinner says. “If I didn’t have the benefits of SNAP, if I wanted to buy a pair of stockings for church or something, it would be a hardship.”

Corbett and the Democratic governors of New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Montana and Oregon have all said to Congress: “We’ll see your 20 dollars” – boosting heating assistance to avoid cuts in SNAP.

Now, by spending about $19 million in mostly federal low-income home energy assistance, these states say they’ll preserve $951 million in SNAP benefits. (Though federal projections may differ, as the story is still unfolding.)

As for criticism that the loophole has returned, “there’s nothing loophole-ish about it,” says Connecticut Governor Dannell Malloy. “They wrote a law. And we acted accordingly to protect the families of Connecticut.”

Antihunger advocates say they’re thrilled states are taking action to preserve “heat and eat” programs at a time when they say SNAP benefits don’t go far enough. Whether or not recipients pay utilities separately from rent, they say the roughly 850,000 low-income households that benefitted from “heat and eat” in the past still have great need.

“Governors are doing what I would do too, if I had the fiduciary responsibility. But it’s sneaky,” says Norm Ornstein, with the American Enterprise Institute.

Make no mistake, Ornstein is a SNAP supporter. He believes the program is underfunded. But he says these workarounds by some states just give fodder to those who want to damage or eliminate the program.

“Congress will be tempted the next time around to set the bar much, much higher,” he says. “And in the process of setting the bar much higher they may hurt needed food stamp recipients, and they may hurt people who need additional heating oil assistance.”

Not long ago House Republicans tried to cut $40 billion out of SNAP. That’s a much different picture than the $8.6 billion in cuts states are unraveling now.

Herbalife's high profile investor war heats up

Thu, 2014-03-13 11:46

The Federal Trade Commission is investigating a company called Herbalife. It makes supplements.

Now, the FTC investigates companies all the time, so that's not such a big deal.  But that there has been a very public war going on between the company and one particular investor who has bet against it. 

That investor is a hedge fund manager named William Ackman. He bet more than a billion dollars that the stock price would fall and has been doing everything he can to... make the stock price fall. He's waged a very public campaign against Herbalife, claiming it's a pyramid scheme.

But the public hasn't paid attention: the company's stock has gone up this year. So the FTC investigation news is good news for Ackman.

When the regulators are done with their probe, we'll have more insight into the central question people have about this fight: is Ackman's campaign an unfair smear or a well-deserved takedown?

Alarms went off at Target during the security hack

Thu, 2014-03-13 11:44

Bloomberg Businessweek had a headline this morning: "Missed Alarms and 40 Million Stolen Credit Cards Numbers: How Target Blew It." 

Their story investigated the Target hack, where up to 70 million people had their credit card numbers stolen from the retailer's servers. One of the nuggets the article uncovered: The company had the latest, greatest software to protect them from hackers -- but when the software set off an alarm, Target ignored it.

It sounds sort of crazy, right? The burglar alarm goes off and they hit snooze?

Anthony Di Bello of cybersecurity firm Guidance Software  says it’s more complicated than that. He says computer networks at large retailers and financial organizations are constantly getting hit with malware.

“There’s an indication that this isn’t just a small number -- a 100 or 200 -- this is 10,000-20,000 attempts against a network every day,” he says.  

And an alarm goes off every time.

Sometimes it’s clear that the hack is serious. But there are a lot of false alarms. For example, when a company installs new cybersecurity software, it can take months of fine tuning to make sure it works well with others, says Cameron Camp, a cybersecurity researcher at ESET.

The malware detection tool that first sounded the alarm was installed by Target six months before the hack, according to Bloomberg. Camp says the bigger problem is that when companies aren’t sure how serious an alarm is, they aren’t structured to make decisions quickly.  

“You have silos: Over here is the C-suite, and over here’s the IT guys, and once a week you have a meeting,” Camp says.

He says most companies don’t have a Chief Information Security Officer in the C-suite and there isn’t a direct chain of command when urgent cybersecurity issues come up. That’s because, traditionally, the IT department was thought of as a "glorified garage" or "where the mechanics kept the engines running."

Of course technology’s role in business has changed dramatically. But the corporate structure hasn’t caught up. Camp expects that articles like Bloomberg’s Businessweek will help bring that change about.

“Security is a business imperative now because it costs you a lot of money when it’s done wrong for whatever reason,” he says.

Paparazzi photographer caught in the act!

Thu, 2014-03-13 10:39

Giles Harrison has been a celebrity photographer for 17 years. He studied journalism at California State Northridge before dipping his toe into the paparazzi life. He is now the founder and head of London Entertainment Group, a photo agency that has photographers in New York, Miami, Las Vegas, Jamaica, London, Philadelphia, Canada and France. The company syndicates over 1,000 images each month.

We followed him around for our series, "You Hate My Job".  Here's what he told us about the biz:

11 things we learned from Harrison:

1)    Paparazzi photographers love Jamba Juice. Jamba Juice is like a light bulb to a moth for celebrities, so Harrison often scopes them out. He also jokes that celebrities whose photos aren’t worth much are colloquially referred to as “Jamba Juice money” in the paparazzi biz (looking at you, Zach Galifianakis.)

2)    Dylan McDermott works out in jeans. (Watch the video above for proof!)

3)    Kanye West believes paparazzi photographers are better seen than heard. In fact, he’d prefer neither: "Kanye West comes over to the photographers and says, ‘You know what? Don’t speak to me now, don’t speak to me ever,’" Harrison says. “Well, I’m sorry, that’s not the way of the world. You can’t sit there and order everybody, ‘Don’t say a word to me ever.’ It doesn’t work like that.”

4)    Obviously, a parazzi photographer can make good money. Why else would they do it? But we didn't know how much. Harrison says he makes something in the range of “high six figures” running his agency.

5)    It’s not all about the big shot -- it’s about sets of photos. Harrison says he made over $150,000 on a series he took of Prince Harry outside of a Venice Beach restaurant. It was just after those naked pictures of him partying came out. Harrison keeps the rights to his photos, and can sell them to different publications for years. He’s made up to $250,000 on one set.

6)    New York and L.A. paparazzi have a coastal beef. “New York is a whole different thing, because celebrities can’t get away from it,” Harrison says they all get a bad name, “when you have the New York paparazzi calling Suri Cruise a brat because she doesn’t want her photo taken."

7)    The paparazzi minor leagues can be tough. “When I first started in this business, I was making $50 a day and 25 percent commission. To make matters worse, that $50 was being taken out of my commission,” Harrison says. “Then I got to the point where I was making more money than I could spend, and I used that to hire other photographers.”

8)    Some paparazzi photographers have their own agents. Harrison has one. The agent negotiates all of the deals for Harrison’s pictures and keeps a cut. That way, Harrison is able to focus on what he really loves - being a “field op.”

9)    A picture of Kim Kardashian in a bathing suit can make you almost twice as much as most Americans earn in a year. Harrison says $80,000, easy, for one magazine cover. 

10)  Some celebrities love the paparazzi (even if they pretend to hate them). “Paris Hilton will tweet the paparazzi when she’s going to be somewhere,” Harrison says. And according to him, she’s far from alone. “Yesterday, Joanna Krupa from Real Housewives of Miami and Gretchen Rossi from Real Housewives of Orange County were going to a restaurant in Beverly Hills and the photographers were waiting... because they told the photographers what time they were going to be there. Celebrities who do that have no right to complain because they are complicit to what’s going on.”

11)  There's a  Starbucks with a valet. (It’s this one.)

There's so much more, I just want to reveal all of it. Watch the video above for the EXCLUSIVE, BEHIND THE SCENES LOOK!

Video produced by Preditorial

Director: Rick Kent

Producer: Mimi Kent

Camera: Anton Seim, Zachary Rockwood

I'll take math and science for $200

Thu, 2014-03-13 09:41

From the Marketplace Datebook, here’s a look at what's coming up Friday:

  • In Washington, First Lady Michelle Obama delivers the keynote address at a summit on childhood obesity.
  • He won the Nobel Prize in Physics. Albert Einstein was born on March 14, 1879.
  • And sticking with the math and science category: You need it to solve some of life’s geometry problems like the area of a circle or the volume of a cylinder. What is Pi? Tomorrow is Pi day.

What the numbers behind unemployment really mean

Thu, 2014-03-13 09:00

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, 315,000 Americans filed new claims for state unemployment benefits last week. It’s the lowest weekly jobs number in three months, but it's also not the entire story.

Economists tend to more closely monitor and ascribe more value to employment numbers in monthly summaries from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The most recent report shows the U.S. economy added 175,000 in February, which pushed the unemployment rate to 6.7 percent.

Jobs data is subject to revisions, and it is probable that figures for the week that ended on March 8 will change in subsequent reports. It is especially likely because there has been so much bad weather across the U.S.

Cooper Howes, an economist at Barclays Capital, says “claims data have been volatile dating back to last fall.” In a note to investors, Howes stated:

“Factors such as computer system upgrades, seasonal adjustments related to moving holidays, and severe weather all potentially complicated the interpretation of the previously steady downward trend."

Democrats, led by President Obama, continue to call for an extension of long-term unemployment benefits, which expired on Dec. 28, 2013. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 3.8 million Americans have been out of work for 27 weeks or more.

Many Republicans have signaled they are open to reinstating those benefits, but they continue to call for the costs to be offset by cuts elsewhere. As of yet, the two parties have failed to agree on a way forward.

Top U.S. lawyer wants better drug sentencing policies

Thu, 2014-03-13 05:54

Today, Attorney General Eric Holder will tell the United States Sentencing Commission, an independent agency that comes up with the guidelines judges use when they sentence convicted criminals, that the average sentence for dealing drugs is too long.

“Eric Holder is signaling that he is drawing down the troops in the war on drugs” - Paul Butler, a law professor at Georgetown University

When it comes to marijuana, the attorney general continues to navigate a changing, challenging landscape. Almost two dozen states have legalized the drug for medicinal use, and recreational use is now legal in Colorado and Washington State. Still, the federal government classifies it as a Schedule I Controlled Substance.

Holder has decided not to stand in the way of state-by-state legalization, and a few weeks ago, the federal government issued new guidance to banks that may want “to provide services to marijuana-related businesses” in states where the drug is legal.

According to Douglas Berman, the Robert J. Watkins/Procter & Gamble Professor of Law at The Ohio State University, economic considerations have motivated Holder to advocate for scaled-back sentencing guidelines. A year of imprisonment in a federal correctional facility costs roughly $30,000 per inmate.

“You multiply that by literally hundreds of thousands of persons serving dozens of years, and it gets to be real money,” Berman says. In FY2013, almost a third of the Justice Department’s $27.1 billion went to the Bureau of Prisons.

“Use those savings to go after the drugs that really are causing the most significant harms to communities” - Douglas Berman, Ohio State University

Incarceration is expensive, but Nora Demleitner, Dean and Roy L. Steinheimer, Jr. Professor of Law at the Washington and Lee University School of Law, says that’s just the beginning.

“It’s not just the cost of imprisonment, it’s also all the subsequent costs.”

It isn’t easy to get a job after serving time in prison. There are stigmas and bans, and Demleitner notes, recidivism rates are high.

 

UPDATE:
In his testimony before the Sentencing Commission, Holder said "straightforward adjustment to sentencing ranges" would send "a strong message about the fairness of our criminal justice system, and it would help to rein in federal prison spending while focusing limited resources on the most serious threats to public safety."

PODCAST: Shop 'til you freeze

Thu, 2014-03-13 04:27

Americans put on their layers, their boots, their gloves and shopped anyway.  Economists are worried about what the weather's doing to the economy, yet there was a vivid sign today that Americans were out there buying after all.  The government said retail sales bounced back in February, up three tenths percent.  It was a decent months for cars and trucks, furniture, and clothes. 

Plus, foreclosure filings in the U.S. hit a seven-year low in February, according to a monthly report from RealtyTrac. But that doesn’t mean there aren't still problems – the newest of which is so-called “zombie properties,” properties vacated by the homeowner, lingering for years without being repossessed or resold, attracting vandals and blight. 

What would a post-Fannie and Freddie world look like?

Thu, 2014-03-13 03:42

Turns out Republicans and Democrats can agree on some things. A bipartisan plan emerged in the Senate this week, backed by Senate Banking Committee leaders Tim Johnson (D-SD) and Mike Crapo (R-ID), that would wind down mortgage providers Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. 

Fannie and Freddie were originally set up to make buying a home cheaper for many Americans. But after they went bust during the last financial crisis, many in Washington want the quasi-governmental outfits snuffed out for good. That's a tall order, since voters and the powerful real estate industry enjoy their subsidized mortgages.

Marketplace's economics commentator Chris Farrell joins Morning Report host David Brancaccio to discuss the potential consequences for home buyers -- good and bad.

Click on the audio player above to hear the full report. 

Hey, let's crowdsource this California law!

Thu, 2014-03-13 03:29

You know about Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia anyone can edit. Well, there’s an effort in California to use the wiki model to draft legislation -- actual bills that will be introduced to the state legislature.

It’s often said there are two certainties in life, death and taxes. That’s what’s California Assemblyman Mike Gatto was thinking about when he decided to launch an experiment in crowdsourcing legislation.

His chosen topic? The state’s probate code, which regulates wills.

“We’ve seen a lot of very excited feedback on what is, you know, a somewhat boring subject,” he says.

Gatto had heard the probate code needed some updating. And it seemed like a safe topic for his first wiki-bill. Plus, he wanted a boring subject, so special-interest groups would be less likely to co-opt the legislation.

“So we thought this was a wonderfully happy medium, pun intended, for the public to get involved to directly affect a bill,” Gatto says.

Through March 7, anyone can go to the page and add language or start a discussion. But, so far, not too many people have. The wiki-page shows about 12 contributors.

Tim Bonnemann is CEO of Intellitics, a company that helps organizations connect and interact with people through social media. He’s been observing the wiki-bill process and says Gatto’s team was too hands off.

“And they also started at the most difficult part, which is writing legislative copy,” he says. “When maybe they should have invited people more to share stories and indentify challenges and develop solutions together.”

And as for keeping special interests out of the mix, Bonnemann says wiki-bills might actually help. 

“In general, the more public, the more transparent the process is overall, the more difficult it becomes for people to slip things in unnoticed,” he says.

Gatto has pledged to introduce whatever bill his wiki-contributors come up with. And he says, maybe next year, they can refine the process and take on more timely issues, like crowd sourcing ideas for dealing with California’s drought.

Who are the Russian oligarchs?

Thu, 2014-03-13 02:48

Russian Oligarchs are everywhere. Whether they’re losing billions in Sochi investments, escaping sanctions over the Ukranian occupation, or fearing a new front in the crisis, they seem to pop up like boogeymen whenever the media talks about Russia. But who exactly are these shadowy figures? To put it simply, they’re extremely wealthy men that wield an incredible amount of influence in Russian politics. Think the Koch brothers or George Soros multiplied by a thousand. To understand anything about Russia, you have to understand the oligarchs. Here are six of the most prominent:

Alisher Usmanov

The richest man in Russia and the 40th richest person in the world, Alisher Usmanov started in the metal industry, but now has interests in telecommunications, media, and sports. Last year, he invested about $100 million in Apple. The former fencing champion spent six years in an Uzbeki jail on fraud and extortion charges, but was eventually cleared by a Soviet court. Usmanov is close with Putin, firing managers of a magazine he owned after it printed ‘anti-Putin’ photos. Last July, he was given the Order for Service to the Fatherland, Russia’s highest civil award.

Oleg Deripaska

Oleg Deripaska spent $1 billion of his own money to fund the Sochi Olympics, but he’s best known to western audiences for the $15,000 he spent to construct a dog shelter and save some of Sochi’s strays. That good publicity is something of a rarity for aluminum magnate Deripaska, as he was embroiled in ‘yachtgate’, when two prominent British politicians boarded a yacht he owned. He also lost a fair amount of his fortune when the great recession hit and the aluminum market collapsed. Nevertheless, he remains a favorite of Putin, and he’s still worth $6.5 billion, which is nothing to sneeze at.

Mikhail Prokorov

Mikhail Prokorov owns the Brooklyn Nets, rapped on Russian TV, and has backflipped on a jet ski. If that weren’t exciting enough, he’s even criticized Vladimir Putin. In public. Although Prokorov got rich through metals, his current concern is politics. He ran as an independent candidate against Putin in the 2012 election, and he’s now building a political party called ‘The Civic Platform’. Although he only got 8% of the vote two years ago, he intends to expand ‘The Civic Platform’ until it’s ready to face Putin’s ‘United Russia’ party.

Roman Abramovich

An oil tycoon, former governor, and owner of the world’s largest yacht, Roman Abramovich is one of Putin’s closest allies. He also happens to be the 137th richest person in the world. Not just a businessman, Abramovich was governor, then Duma chairman of Chutokta, an icy province in Russia’s far east. At times controversial, Abramovich had a major falling out with former bussiness-partner and Putin king-maker Boris Berezovsky, who committed suicide after his $5 billion lawsuit against Abramovich was unsuccessful.

Leonid Mikhelson

Leonid Mikhelson sold his Soviet car in order to take part in the first rounds of Russia’s privatization. He’s now CEO of Novatek, one of Russia’s largest natural gas producers, and his fortune is estimated at $15.6 billion. Mikhelson is also one of the most important players in the art world, running the V-A-C foundation, which promotes Russian art. And who does he want to eventually run the foundation after him? Why, his daughter Victoria, who, perhaps not coincidentally, the foundation is named after. Not bad for an art history student at NYU.

Mikhail Khodorkovsky

Perhaps the most well known oligarch isn’t really an oligarch at all, as he’s only worth $170 million. Before he spent more than a decade in prison on charges of tax evasion and fraud, Mikhail Khodorkovsky was the richest man in Russia. Like so many other oligarchs, he made his fortune when the Soviet Union privatized its resources, tying himself in to the country’s controversial move to a non-communist economy. But after supporting Putin’s liberal opposition, Khodorkovsky found himself in jail, on what his lawyers contended were trumped charges. Ten years later, in what was widely seen as a move to improve Russia’s image before the Sochi games, Putin pardoned him. Khodorkovsky declared that he would no longer be involved in Russian politics, but on March 10th, he addressed a crowd of protesters in Kiev, railing against the Russian government. As for what’s next for one of the most famous (former) Russian oligarchs, only time will tell.

Troubling economic data from China indicates slowdown

Thu, 2014-03-13 01:38

China’s industrial output, fixed asset investment and retail sales all fell the first two months of 2014, a troubling sign that indicates the world’s second largest economy isn’t recovering. Every single economic index released from Beijing today fell short of economists’ expectations, dipping to lows not seen since 2009, during the height of the global recession. News that won’t help investor confidence was a question that Premier Li Keqiang received from a reporter today at the National People’s Congress in Beijing. Li was asked what his biggest challenge was as Premier last year. His answer? –The economy: “We’ve had very limited space for maneuvering and carrying out our new fiscal and monetary policies, and we were faced with touch choices in exercising microeconomic control,” Li told reporters.  “What should we do? When confronted with such challenges, one needs to show guts.”

Showing guts is how some economists explain today’s lackluster economic numbers, theorizing that a dip in these indices means China’s government has taken efforts to stabilize the country’s economy. A competing theory says China’s not doing enough to rebalance its economy and that these numbers are a sign of bad things to come. This camp points to the fact that China’s central bank has loosened credit for businesses lately – something that, if left unchecked, has proven to be a bad idea for China’s economy in recent years. China’s currency, the Renminbi, is also being deliberately weakened by the central bank to make Chinese exports cheaper.

 

 

 

Zombie Attack!! (Foreclosures, that is)

Thu, 2014-03-13 00:48

New foreclosure filings are down to pre-recession levels. But the blight of abandoned homes in foreclosure — so-called 'zombie properties' — hasn’t improved. According to data released by RealtyTrac, 21 percent of homes in foreclosure nationwide in February had been vacated by the owner—unchanged from one year earlier. The rate was 30 percent or higher in distressed real estate markets in states such as Michigan, Nevada and Alabama. The average amount of time nationwide that an owner-abandonned home sits in the foreclosure process—without being repaired, put on the market and resold—was 1,031 days, or nearly three years.

"They're sitting vacant," said RealtyTrac vice president Daren Blomquist of these so-called zombie properties. "The bank is not claiming responsibility, the homeowner is not claiming responsibility, the property is falling into disrepair. The property taxes aren't being paid. So it's causing an eyesore in the community, and also potentially dragging down home values of surrounding properties."

University of Arizona law professor Brent White said there's an even worse problem for the housing market right now: "Hundreds of thousands of bank-owned properties that are similarly 'zombie properties,' for which banks have foreclosed and then just let the properties sit there."

States with the most and least number of 'zombie properties' (i.e., owner-vacated properties in foreclosure):

1. Florida

2. Illinois

3. New York

4. New Jersey

5. Ohio

6. California

7. Indiana

8. Pennsylvania

9. South Carolina

10. Nevada

...

42. Alaska

43. Nebraska

44. Wyoming

45. Arkansas

46. South Dakota

47. West Virginia

48. Mississippi

49. Montana

50. District of Columbia

51. Vermont

...

Some Metro Areas with a High Percentage of Properties in Foreclosure that are 'Zombies' (i.e., owner-vacated):


Salem, Oregon -- 48%

Flint, Michigan -- 39%

Ocala, Florida -- 39%

Peoria, Illinois -- 39%

Des Moines, Iowa -- 35%

St. Louis, Missouri -- 33%

Las Vegas, Nevada -- 33%

Indianapolis, Indiana -- 33%

Port St. Lucie, Florida -- 32%

Binghamton, New York -- 32%

(Source: RealtyTrac, February 2014 U.S. Foreclosure Market Report)

Amazon, Apple want a piece of the TV set top box

Wed, 2014-03-12 23:39

You’ve heard of Roku - the little box you attach to your television to stream TV shows, movies and music. There’s also Apple's TV, its set-top box. And the word is Amazon is going to release one any day too.  

Why? Well, if you want to watch Amazon Prime’s streaming videos you can go to their website or download an app. But for most people, there’s no straightforward way to get Amazon Prime onto your TV. Kevin Klowden, an economist with the Milken Institute, says that’s a problem.

"The best screen that somebody’s going to have in their home is the TV screen," he says. 

And Amazon wants to be on that screen. The set-top box gives it direct access and once it’s there, it can sell you other goods too. Word is Google is also going to introduce a set-top box and they might start selling video games. 

For years, the tech industry’s talked about the impending fall of the TV. And so the set-top box, well, it seems sort of old-fashioned. But Susan Etlinger, an analyst at Altimeter group, says most of America hasn’t got the memo.

"People are kind of stubborn, we love our TVs," she  says.  

Etlinger says that while cable companies know what you like to watch on TV, tech companies are running blind. And so the new mantra is, if you can’t beat it, join it to a set-top box.

Neil Young: Good music is like an amazing drug

Wed, 2014-03-12 21:42

Neil Young's new music player focuses on high quality digital files, Pono, and seems on the surface like a dubious idea. In the age of smartphones as the ultimate mobile computing device, building something that looks like a weird cross between a Zune and an iPod seems like an old idea.

But now that we've got that skepticism out of the way, it's worth noting the PonoMusic Kickstarter project started on Tuesday has raised over $2 million dollars--breaking records for speedy funding on the site. Also, the players actually do sound really good. That's the goal for Young, who has said that even if Pono doesn't succeed, merely offering an alternative to our compressed, degraded MP3 world.

Good music, says the Canadian musician, is still something people love. And if young people heard it the way musicians meant for it to be heard, then Young thinks they might go for it.

"It's like an amazing drug, that once you have it, you have to have more," says Young. "That's the way real, good-sounding music is." 

The question is, will earbud-toting mellenials will even know the difference. Or if I can tell, for that matter. And the answer remains to be seen. But Young believes in it enough to work on it for several years, and this is the result. If the kickstarter is any indication, Young is not alone. Listening to the player through earbuds and through a stereo at Pono's demo location in South Austin, you can almost imagine vinyl lovers of all ages picking it up. 

 

Caffeine: America's addictive drug of choice

Wed, 2014-03-12 15:58

There’s a good chance that, while you’re reading this, you’re "under the influence of a drug." And "it’s completely legal, it’s completely socially acceptable, most Americans take this drug daily, even most adolescents take the drug daily, in smaller doses," says Murray Carpenter, author of  “Caffeinated: How Our Daily Habit Helps, Hurts, and Hooks us.

The drug is, of course, caffeine. It’s most often associated with coffee, but you can find caffeine in tea, soda pop, chocolate, and, of course, energy drinks.

From the coffee counter in back, to walls lined with coolers full of sodas, to the five-hour energy shots crammed near the cash register, "Corner stores are monuments to our lust for caffeine," says Carpenter.

The soft drink industry is a $70 billion industry  and Carpenter estimates that coffee is another $30 billion.

“It’s a huge business,” he says.

And that’s because the effect caffeine has on us isn’t too different from nicotine. We reach for a daily cup of coffee or can of soda because we’re addicted.

“I think that they consistently downplay the importance of caffeine in their products, in terms of how appealing it makes the products to the consumer.”
 
While the Food and Drug Administration is investigating the effects of caffeine -- and the trend of adding caffeine to foods not normally associated with caffeine (like gum) -- even Carpenter says he still reaches for a daily up of caffeinated coffee: “I’m not crazy about decaf.”

Tips for landing a new job inside your company

Wed, 2014-03-12 14:50

The economy might not be firing on all cylinders, but it is adding jobs. So what’s the best strategy for people who are employed and looking for something better in their own company? Internal candidates often have an advantage, but being an insider can sometimes prove a double-edged sword: You know the terrain, but everyone else knows your baggage.

Here are a few pieces of advice from Beth Kelly, managing partner of HR Collaborative in Michigan, and Thomas Kochan of MIT’s Sloan School of Management.

Think about projects or assignments you’ve had in the past that would be good predictors for the new job you want. Beth Kelly says internal candidates are sometimes typecast as the accounting clerk or the receptionist. It can be hard to break out of those roles and convince the hiring manager you can also be a marketing specialist. Having concrete examples of your potential can help.

If your only route into a company is as temporary employee, treat that temp job like it’s the most important job you’ve had. In some fields, like manufacturing, temporary work has increasingly become the path to employment. Beth Kelly calls it a 90-day interview. Contingent hiring may be unsettling, but Kelly advises you to seize the opportunity and show what a team player you are.

If you trust your current boss, tell them you’re thinking about a job switch right away. If there’s not a trusting relationship, it’s different. Ask the manager to whom you’re applying for a job to tell you before speaking to your current supervisor. Having an open conversation with a trusted boss can open up opportunities. Thomas Kochan also encourages internal candidates who don’t get the new job to seek honest feedback on how to prepare for the next opening.

Apply for the job. Yes, it might be uncomfortable. But Thomas Kochan says many potential internal candidates who talk themselves out of applying for jobs later regret it.

The final push for Affordable Care Act signups

Wed, 2014-03-12 14:43

If you haven't signed up for health insurance by March 31, you'll likely face a penalty. 

The thing is, a lot of the uninsured don’t seem to know that the deadline is March 31.  Kantar Media says  insurance companies are now devoting almost half of all their ad spending to commercials with a health reform theme. 

Insurers are also giving financial support to some grassroots groups, like Enroll America.  It's organizing 3,000 enrollment events just in March aimed at getting people to sign up on one of the healthcare exchanges. The Service Employees International Union is also spreading the word, going door to door and making phone calls. "So far we’ve had 274,000 direct conversations but we want to pump that number up,” says SEIU International President Mary Kay Henry.

Both groups are focusing on states like Texas and Florida, which aren’t too keen on the Affordable Care Act but have lots of uninsured residents. 

Twitter invites writers to think beyond 140 characters

Wed, 2014-03-12 13:52

What's the pay-off for writers to keep sharing online? Twitter and publishers say the answer is simple: The social platform offers access to new audiences and book buyers. 

Twitter, the Association of American Publishers (AAP), and Penguin Random House (the publishing company that merged in mid-2013) organized a writing competition and a series of in-person and online events for writers. #TwitterFiction Festival, running March 12-16, includes formal talks and informal chats with a logophile cornucopia: published writers, young and old writers, unpublished but professional writers, famous writers who aren’t writing as much anymore, and the “new” and undiscovered writer.

In fact, #TwitterFiction is not really about any specific genre of storytelling. The organizers even included a category for non-fiction submissions, making the event more about writing andwriters, than the actual genre of fiction. #TwitterFiction isn’t really about Twitter itself, either, although it’s certainly not about the writing on Facebook walls.

Twitter emphasizes new writing styles the social network is known to appreciate and promote:  

“We encourage writers to use Twitter in a variety of ways — everything from connecting with their readers to experiments with new forms of narrative. Twitter is even a great way for writers to play with visual narratives in real time. We ask them to be experimental - taking the art of storytelling and character-creation and using Twitter to bring it to life. Twitter is a wide open frontier for creative experimentation with a built-in global audience of millions and we encourage writers to take advantage of that.” - Andrew Fitzgerald, media partnerships at Twitter

The event’s website offers a creative tweet generator, which is a great Mad Libs for the 140-character set.

And answering the question of what the event isn’t (an event about Twitter or fiction or meeting new people in-person) reveals what it is: an attempt by a more traditional industry to meet the demands of the social media age by mimicking its personality.

Twitter wants to be form-friendly

It’s perhaps not a surprise that social media is a willing participant in a project that allows it to counter criticisms that Twitter is killing the English language. It also makes sense for Twitter to find creative ways to help content creators feel comfortable using the network as a publishing and promotional tool.

I tweet that I have a book, that I like a book, that I like your book… and all of a sudden I am hooked to a regular stream of information. Twitter is looking for new sources of revenue, and the more active users of its technology the better, if only from a purely fiscal point of view.

No one will check your follower count if you tweet away at #TwitterFiction, publishers aren’t treating it like the last pitch they will ever take from you, and writers have embraced the opportunity to do what they love best. However, this unique collaboration doesn’t mean there aren’t high stakes.

Twitter is a publishing and a promotional platform, to be sure -- but is it a marketplace where creative content, such as works of fiction, can be sold and bought?

And how does the supply-side (the authors and the publishers) see Twitter? Mostly as a way to reach the demand side (readers). Authors want to be read, and Twitter gives them instant gratification, in a sense. I asked Twitter what they think writers gain from using the network and attending such events:

“#TwitterFiction is a great way for writers to challenge themselves with a new genre or new technique. It’s also really beneficial to writers because Twitter makes for such an interesting stage: authors are essentially performing their work in front of a live, global audience. Twitter Fiction offers something traditional writing does not, as the possibility for creative storytelling are endless.” - Andrew Fitzgerald, Twitter

Soft-selling books on social media

Author and non-fiction #TwitterFiction contest winner Adam Popescu, 29,  says at first he was concerned that sharing an entire chapter of his (as-of-yet unpublished) book about a trip to the base of Mount Everest would result in a net loss. Popescu (who has worked on contract for Marketplace) was surprised to see his following increase by 700 people on the popular community site Wattpad after he published the chapter. 

When asked if he ever reached out directly on Twitter to publisher accounts (@-replying or @-mentioning publishers to get their attention), Popescu said that using Twitter is a delicate balance for writers. Using the platform without spending time to understand or engage in the reader community is “the equivalent of making a joke on a public stage, and then pointing to someone in the fourth row to ask if they got it,” Popescu noted.

Authors: Tweet to @MarketplaceAPM and tell us if you’ve successfully reached out to publishers online.

Petru Popescu, 70, who is both Adam’s father and a successfully published author himself, sits apart from his son -- on the suspicious-of-sharing-content-online camp, so I asked him what he thought about his son’s success writing both short and long form online:

“[On Twitter] you can't be long winded AT ALL, your readers don't look for rhetoric effect/intellectual complication; you have to have a voice, EVEN TWEETING, actually more so, because the space is so limited. The first person narrative, the ultra direct engaging of readers, those are writing ways of great value.” - Petru Popescu

UPDATE: We received comments on #TwitterFiction from Emma Straub, author of The Vacationers, Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures, and Other People We Married, on how she approaches Twitter for writers. Straub highlights the community on Twitter which she is able to see and particpate in: 

"Before I had a baby, Twitter was my pretend office, a place I could go to talk about cheese and television and books and my cats. Nowadays I use it more sleepily, as a late night companion, an insomniac friend. I know lots of writers find Twitter too distracting, but I really love being able to dip in and out and see what people are up to. Maybe that doesn't answer your question. I suppose that what I gain (as a writer) is a conversation. Some writers like to hide in their garrets, but I'm not one of those. I'm an extrovert in an introvert's universe, and Twitter is a bubbly, chatty place for the likes of me. 

"There are very few writers who I think use Twitter really well--that is, writers who are clearly having fun playing with the form itself. Teju Cole, Gary Shytengart, Colson Whitehead. Poets are often good, practiced as they are in pithiness. Standalone tweets, be they funny or wry or sarcastic or what have you, are the best. And, of course, the key to writing while using the platform is to turn it off." - Emma Straub, author

 

If Twitter builds it, they should come

Publishers, too, see Twitter’s short form style as a good way to introduce a soft sell. The bird du jour has won the favorable participation of well-heeled publication houses, which have a continual influx of submissions using traditional means.

In explaining its participation, Penguin Random House focused on the use of reader engagement on Twitter:

“Penguin Random House believes that social media is an excellent way for publishers and authors to connect with readers. There is an active and enthusiastic community of book lovers on Twitter who are very engaged in the conversation about books and reading.” - Christine McNamara, Vice President and Director of Partnerships at Random House

On making Twitter a friendly place for book buyers:

“We have seen tremendous interaction on Twitter through the various accounts and dialogs we participate in. It’s our experience that the conversation surrounding books on Twitter is diverse, smart, dynamic, and constant. Innovative events like the TwitterFiction Festival provide a wonderful opportunity for celebrating storytelling in its myriad forms and engaging with readers all over the world. We are proud to be one of the supporters for this great celebration of storytelling.” -  McNamara, Random House

AAP on its members, publishers, and authors/writers (a list of their featured participants at #TwitterFiction):

“The publishers who are our member organizations are committed to promoting the joy of reading and improving literacy. We get involved in a number of such initiatives supporting that mission and this fit perfectly. ...We welcome opportunities that showcase authors, writers and the expertise required in compelling storytelling.” - Andi Sporkin, AAP

#TwitterFiction shows the strength of Twitter’s user base and access to readers, the demand-side of the social platform. If Twitter can pull off becoming a platform for buying and selling, one suspects it could attempt the same with other media, too: news, photography, film, oil paintings, clothing… the list goes on.

Publishers are reaching out to readers. Authors are reaching out to readers. Twitter is helping the industry to showcase its work in all forms. The market is set for selling success. The only unknown is whether writers and authors-to-be will continue to share online. Concerns still exist, and publishers do not appear to be using social media to open up the field for writers. 

As long as Twitter and publishers keep trying, writers should take note: the readers are out there, tweeting, and reading. 

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