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Grease, griddles and gravy: 24 hours straight as a Waffle House grill operator

Fri, 2015-03-06 14:18

Feel like going “all the way” tonight? At diner-chain the Waffle House, that means you ordered something along the lines of poutine made in the South: Hash browns smothered in cheese, jalapeños and oh so much more.

This is just some of the lingo devised by Waffle House staff to keep the restaurant running like a well-oiled — err, greased — machine. Life at the griddle of the Waffle House is far from glamorous, but that didn't stop Bon Appétit restaurant and drinks editor — and Waffle House aficionado — Andrew Knowlton from trying his hand behind the counter of one in Atlanta, Georgia for 24 hours straight.

Brian Finke/ Bon Appetit

His piece, “What It’s Like to Work at the Waffle House for 24 Hours Straight” appears in Bon Appétit.

“It was a steep, steep learning curve,” says Knowlton. “The line cooks never see a ticket — it gets yelled out by the waiters. Then they take various condiments, whether it’s ketchup or grape jelly and where they put it on the plate … immediately identifies what the plate is that the grill operator needs to cook. I fumbled my way through that.”

The Waffle House is an American staple, with over 1,700 restaurants peppered across 25 states. A native Southerner, Knowlton is a bit of a Waffle House new convert; he was 17 years old when he first experienced the magic of the ‘House. Once he tried it, he was hooked. Fast-forward a few years and Knowlton found himself on the other side of the order window serving up nosh for hungry — and sometimes drunk — diners.

Brian Finke/ Bon Appetit

At the end of the long shift, Knowlton says he walked away with one lesson: “Being a gentleman and a professional costs you nothing… Smile, have a good time … most of the people coming through are good people … a few bad ones come in, but that’s kinda life anyway, and it’s how you roll with it."

In shale country, a boom in quiet

Fri, 2015-03-06 12:15

Carroll County, in eastern Ohio, was the original bird’s-eye for Utica shale gas development in the state.  Trucks with Texas license plates now jam the roads alongside Amish buggies. Farmers are fixing up their houses as money from mineral leases rolls in.

But for Frank Brothers, the price is too high.

“As you can see, that’s what’s coming right at our door,” Brothers says, nearly yelling to be heard above the continuous, grating hum emanating from a nearby gas compressor station.

It’s something you’d expect to hear inside a factory, not in a residential urban neighborhood – and less in a rural township like this one.

But even though their house sits on 21 forested acres, the Brothers family has been cooped up indoors with the windows closed since last March. That’s when the energy company Blue Racer Midstream started the huge engines of its compressor station across the street. They’ve run pretty much 24/7 since.

“They’re you’re hitting 87,” Brothers says, holding up a decibel meter at his front property line. It’s hard to have a conversation from just a few feet apart.

Compressors are needed about every 50 to 100 miles along pipelines to help move gas through them.

They’re always loud, but this situation is rare – energy companies do usually shield the neighbors. And that’s what’s pushing what you might call a "silent boom" accompanying the oil and gas bonanza – a boom in noise abatement. 

Companies say business took off with development of the Barnett Shale in the mid-to-late 2000s, as oil and gas companies were rushing to pull gold out of the ground under Fort Worth, Texas.

“Noise became a front-burner issue for them, because the sweet spot of the shale was literally underneath some of the more densely populated areas,” says Murray Stacy, vice president of Shreveport-based Sound Fighter Systems.

Stacy says energy companies improvised their own solutions at first, but soon realized they needed expert help. At the peak of Barnett development, 80 percent of Sound Fighters’ business came from the shale gas industry, he says. It’s still about 60 percent. 

The demand for noise control in the Utica and Marcellus shales drew Canadian company Noise Solutions to open a branch in western Pennsylvania.

“It was a growth of about 100 percent,” says Tyler Mose, the company’s business development engineer, as he stands on the busy production floor of the plant in Sharon. He shows off 15-inch-thick sound-absorbing walls, and explains that everything is custom-built to address specific sound frequencies.

Then he takes me outside to show me what his company can do.

He leads me across the snow to a little building, designed for loud equipment. One side is open, and another is walled off by a series of panels, a few inches thick and about a foot and a half deep.

From inside the building, it’s like you’re looking through open window blinds. The panels are made of perforated sheet metal and sound-absorbing insulation.

Mose crouches inside, looks out at me through the slats, and starts talking. Even though he’s only three or four feet away, I pick up only the faintest hints of his voice. Mostly, I watch his mouth move and hear nothing. It’s kind of amazing.

That kind of technology can reduce compressor noise from factory-floor level, like in Frank Brothers’ yard, to a low hum, about what you’d expect if you lived in an urban neighborhood.

In fact, when I stand about eight feet outside a noise-suppressing building housing a compressor station in Canton, Ohio, the sound is similar to the highway traffic I hear from my neighborhood in Cleveland.

Dominion East Ohio owns this station, and John Schniegenberg is the company’s principal engineer. He says the effect isn’t cheap.

“We’re probably talking in excess of a quarter million dollars,” for noise abatement at the $6 million facility, he says.

But that has bought much better relations with the neighbors.

Even with low oil prices, professional noise fighters are confident. Sound regulations are tightening. And gas producers profit on volume, so they’re always trying to move more gas, faster. That means stronger – and louder – compressors.

Noise Solutions’ CEO Scott MacDonald says his role is to referee.

“We help to ensure harmony between the industry and the community,” he says.

That doesn’t guarantee communities will embrace oil and gas development. But it might lower the volume on a little part of the debate.

Don't even think about sledding on Capitol Hill

Fri, 2015-03-06 10:07

Perhaps you've seen photos of kids sledding on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., since the federal government and schools were closed on Thursday.

But, did you know they were breaking the law?

"No person shall coast or slide a sled within Capitol Grounds." Also, kite-flying and tricycles are prohibited. http://t.co/PrvShwSyKA

— David Gura (@davidgura) March 5, 2015
It's true. From the Capitol Grounds Regulations, courtesy of the architect of the capitol's office: "No person shall coast or slide a sled within Capitol Grounds."

Bah ... humbug.

ISIS supporters have about 46,000 accounts on Twitter

Fri, 2015-03-06 09:33

According to a paper from the Brookings Institution, there are about 46,000 Twitter accounts out there being used by ISIS supporters.

And they're pretty active, too.

Those accounts had an average of a thousand followers each, which is way higher than your average non-ISIS-related Twitter user.

Fun fact Friday: A lot of business buzz

Fri, 2015-03-06 09:28

Kai talked to Nela Richardson of Redfin and John Carney of the Wall Street Journal today to discuss the week that was. But what else happened this week at Marketplace?

Fun Fact: Without bees, it would be tough to produce almonds.

On Monday, we visited a farm in California's Central Valley and uncovered the buzzy business behind growing almonds. The answer? Traveling bees. Commercial bees, the unsung heroes of the nut business Fun Fact: 75 percent of the $30 billion in military aid awarded to Israel by the Bush administration in 2007 will ultimately come back to the United States.

Political tensions were high when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressed congress on Tuesday. Not to worry, more than half of what the U.S. gives in military aid to Israel is returned to the U.S. in the form of armaments purchased from American defense contractors. Taking stock of U.S. aid to Israel Fun Fact:There will be around half a billion middle-class consumers in China five years from now. 

The private-equity industry is coming of age in China, and has been doing so for the past 20 years. Chinese investors are banking on the country's growing middle class and their sky-rocketing purchasing power. The buying power of the Chinese middle class Fun Fact: You can buy an antique brass clock from The New York Times store for $6,500.

The New York Times's retail shop had a recent makeover, further differentiating it from the online stores of other media outlets. Here's a comparison between its gift shop and NPR's wares. The New York Times picks up where SkyMall left off Fun Fact: The world's second largest economy announced a new growth target of 7 percent on Thursday.

Despite a growing middle class, China's progress is slowing a bit — though the U.S. and other established countries would be pleased to have China's growth rate. What a 7 percent growth rate could look like

The science – and the cost – behind weight loss

Fri, 2015-03-06 09:04

Obesity and related complications cost Americans roughly $150 billion per year in health care spending. And there’s still no silver bullet for treating obesity. Diet, exercise and surgery all work to a point, but these methods are plagued by relapses. It’s hard for most obese people to lose weight and keep it off.

But a new device approved by the FDA last year will attack obesity in a novel way. VBLOC therapy, which is delivered by the “Maestro system,” is essentially a pacemaker for the stomach. It is implanted under the skin, and ledes connect to the vagus nerve.

Mark Knudson, founder and president of Enteromedics, developed the technique. He said he realized that controlling hunger could be an integral part of obesity treatment.

“We tried to develop a way to treat a disease that affects millions of people in the U.S. without having to alter their anatomy or make them have to completely change everything that they eat,” he explained.

For some people, he said, combatting their obesity is a constant struggle – even at the grocery store.

“Can I go into a store and just buy the five items I want, or am I going to end up filling up my grocery cart and taking it all home?” he asked.

VBLOC sends signals to the stomach branch of the vagus nerve during waking hours. The electrical pulses interrupt the complex neurological process of hunger and, in essence, allow people who are obese to feel full. That makes it easier to decide not to eat.

Erica Roy-Nyline struggled with obesity for years. The 48-year-old health care worker from St. Paul, Minn., signed up for a trial of the treatment because diet and other weight loss methods hadn’t worked.

For the first year after she had the device implanted, she lost about five pounds.

“The one thing I said to myself is: ‘I will not go backwards. I will not gain weight on this thing,’” she said.

But after a year, researchers told her that she was in the placebo group – her device hadn’t actually been turned on. After it was turned on, she quickly dropped 30 pounds – half of her total weight loss goal.

“It’s just night and day,” Roy-Nyline said. “I couldn’t believe that sense of fullness and sense of satisfaction when I was done eating. I thought through… I don’t think I’ve ever really had that feeling.”

Her weight loss has been so dramatic that she’s thinking of going off her blood pressure medication. That’s because losing even a small amount of weight helps to improve obesity comorbidities, or related health complications.

If all this sounds like the silver bullet in the treatment of obesity, there’s a catch: the cost. The device’s cost isn’t officially set yet, but Enteromedics says it will be approximately $15,000 – and that does not include the costs of surgery and followup.

Melissa Martinson, president of the health economics consulting firm Technomics Research, says insurance companies might not rush to cover the treatment, even if it is highly effective.

“A lot of times insurance companies will claim they don’t consider cost when they make coverage decisions,” she said. “But most health economists and most people who work in the field don’t think that’s literally true.”

Aside from cost, insurers will consider safety and efficacy before approving something like VBLOC for people who are obese. Martinson says that defibrillating pacemakers, which are now common, faced similar hurdles when they were released.

And as for efficacy, that may be the toughest hurdle. William Dietz, director of the Redstone Center at George Washington University’s Milken Institute of Public Health, says obesity treatments have always struggled when it comes to maintaining weight loss. It’s still unknown if VBLOC’s effects will sustain over time or whether they will diminish.

“People are losing weight all the time, they just can’t sustain that weight loss,” Dietz said. “So we know the types of therapy available need to be long term.”

But the benefit of even a slight reduction in obesity has impacts on health. A five to 10 percent loss of excess weight can start to reverse high blood pressure, diabetes and other comorbidities.

Why Apple is replacing AT&T in the Dow

Fri, 2015-03-06 08:56

After the market closes on March 18, 2015, Apple will replace AT&T as one of the 30 blue-chip stocks that make up the Dow Jones Industrial Average. It will not make waves in the financial markets, because relatively little money is actually invested in funds pegged to this index. But it's nonetheless a sign of a sea change in the American economy. 

The composition of the Dow is decided by a committee of five, led by committee chair David Blitzer. He says the decision to change the index started not with Apple or AT&T but with Visa. The company split its stock, reducing its share price, and because the Dow is simply an average of companies' share prices, this unbalanced the portfolio. To rebalance it, since Visa is classified as a tech company, Blitzer says they had to ad another tech company.

"Apple is everybody's obvious choice," Blitzer says. "Nobody even thought about arguing against Apple." 

Adding Apple required removing another company, and Blitzer says he and his partners picked AT&T because they needed to reduce the index's share of telecommunications companies, and the index also includes Verizon.

But Jim Angel, associate professor of finance at the McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University, says it's also a sign of AT&T's declining significance, and the rise of the "iCompany."

Roger Kay, president of Endpoint Technologies Associates, adds that Apple, unlike Google or Facebook, has a long track record of making and selling tangible products.

Another oil train derails, as new rules approach

Fri, 2015-03-06 08:56

For the third time in three weeks, a train carrying crude oil derailed. This time, 21 cars derailed in western Illinois. No injuries or water pollution have been reported, but the incidents are turning up the pressure on federal regulators to craft new rules that accommodate both the petroleum boom and public safety.

Federal rules are due in May. A chief area of debate is tank cars. Industry prefers a revamped version of an existing model, known as CPC-1232. But that type of rail car, specifically one without a safety "jacket," leaked the last two incidents.

"The unjacketed 1232's seem increasingly likely to be part of the phase-out based on the recent events," says analyst Kevin Book of Clear View Energy Partners.

Book expects stricter rules in general, ones that go farther than industry would like. Yet the regulatory conversation does not go far enough for Sean Dixon of the New York nonprofit Riverkeeper. He cites oil train speed limits. The currently acceptable limit is 40 miles per hour.

"We've seen seen accident after accident happen below 40 miles an hour," Dixon says. "Below 20 miles per hour in many cases."

Also not on the regulatory table, critics say: track standards, bridge safety, and oil train accident insurance. Right now, a giant accident would not be fully covered by insurance, so the public would hold the financial bag.

 

Quiz: No test, no excuse, no problem

Fri, 2015-03-06 08:52

According to the Education Commission of the States, two states have laws that explicitly allow students to opt out of upcoming standardized tests.

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Your Wallet: Where are the products that you buy made?

Fri, 2015-03-06 08:31

Next week on Marketplace Weekend, we have our fourth installment in special series with the BBC - Six Routes to Riches: A look at the challenges and opportunities people face as they make a living around the world. Next week we will be in China, the world's second largest economy. 

That got us thinking, where are the products that you buy made? Is it important to you?

We want to hear your story. Send us an email, or reach us on Twitter, @MarketplaceWKND

PODCAST: The jobs report for February

Fri, 2015-03-06 03:00

First up on today's show, we'll talk about the strong jobs report for February. Plus, we'll talk about the marriage of personal values and investment portfolios when it comes to both index funds and other types of investments.

The Micky-D ripple effect

Fri, 2015-03-06 02:00

Joining the ranks of Chik-filet and Chipotle, fast-food giant McDonald’s is promising us antibiotic free chicken by 2017 in its 14,000 U.S. locations. 

Right now, farmers use antibiotics to keep flocks healthy and grow faster. McDonald's said more health conscious consumers drove their decision to start using chickens that are not given the same antibiotics that are used to treat people. The CDC says ‘superbugs’ lead to 23,000 deaths a year and 2 million illnesses.   

The Pew Charitable Trust's Gail Hansen says, "When you consider in the United States we raise 9 billion chickens a year. Every time you give an antibiotic into a bird, you potentially can get antibiotic resistance." Hansen calls McDonald's shift in policy a game changer. As another source said, when Chik-filet and McDonald’s do something, it’s not some Berkeley, California thing … it's mainstream.

So how much more money will consumers have to fork over to pay for this trend? Raising antibiotic-free chickens is more expensive says University of Georgia Veterinarian Chuck Hofacre: "It’ll take more corn and soybean to be fed to the chickens to get the same amount of chicken meat." The National Chicken Council says that translates into 5 to 7 cents a pound. In other words, if the price of corn goes up, so will your Chicken McNugget.

 

 

A bigger iPad on the way?

Fri, 2015-03-06 02:00

Apple is reportedly planning to start producing a bigger iPad with a 13-inch screen, and possibly with USB ports, by the second half of 2015.

The move would be aimed at business customers, says Eric Smith of Strategy Analytics, mirroring a strategy that a number of other companies are already employing — including Microsoft and Google's Android.

HP has a line of rugged Android and Windows tablets specialized for in-the-field applications, and anti-microbial surface models for health care use, says Smith. "Other vendors like Lenovo and Dell are also addressing this market." he says.

Microsoft has been selling its Surface Pro 3 tablet as a laptop alternative for both work and leisure use, and plans to release its new Windows operating system that can work on mobile and traditional PCs.

The question is "who can win over the CIOs in reliability, in security, in interoperability," says Smith.

The battle is important because growth in the multi-billion-dollar tablet market is slowing down on the consumer side, says JP Bouchard of the market research firm IDC, but adoption of tablets in business is still nascent and has the potential for more growth.

"People are not replacing tablets every two years or even every three years. So that market is a bit saturated on the consumer space," Bouchard says.

Kim Kardashian games the system

Fri, 2015-03-06 01:30
295,000

That's how many jobs the U.S. added in February, with the unemployment rate falling to 5.5 percent. 

$8 million

That's what the makers of the Snuggie will pay the Federal Trade Commission to settle charges it made customers pay exorbitant shipping and handling costs on buy-one-get-one-free items, the Associated Press reported.

13 inch

That's the supposed size of the next iPad's screen. It may also come with USB ports. Some speculate that the next iteration of the tablet will be aimed at business customers.

$74 million

That's what "Kim Kardashian: Hollywood" made last year after its summer launch, and the game is on track to reach $200 million this year. The surprise smash has been downloaded 28 million times and players have logged a shocking 11 billion minutes. Adweek's cover story is an interview with Kardashian about her success and her future plans in tech.

30

That's the age at which Tinder users will have to pay more, as outlined by the dating app's new Tinder Plus subscription service. But you already knew that, didn't you? So why not head over to our weekly quiz on the week in tech, Silicon Tally, and prove your news prowess?

Don't worry too much about productivity

Thu, 2015-03-05 14:01

We’ve tracked labor productivity in the U.S. for about 70 years. For most of that time, it’s risen steadily along with economic growth. Recessions just saw little blips — that is until the last one when productivity rose sharply.   

Researchers found that productivity jumped even more sharply in areas with higher unemployment — fear of the ax seems to have motivated Americans to work their tails off. 

Another factor that increases productivity is a growing rate of educational achievement. Dale Jorgenson, a professor of economics at Harvard University, says the impact of education is diminishing because the portion of the workforce with higher education is growing at a slower rate than before. 

Jorgenson says it takes decades of data to figure out what normal productivity is, so it’s best to not get too caught up in those quarterly reports.

 

A relic of science education goes offline

Thu, 2015-03-05 12:55

Argonne National Laboratory, a non-profit research lab operated by the University of Chicago for the Department of Energy, last weekend shut down one of the nation's oldest online educational tools, one that pre-dated the Internet itself.

NEWTON Ask A Scientist had been online in its current form since 1991. It offered a platform for students to ask science questions long before you could simply Google a query like "Why is the sky blue?" Answers were written by vetted scientific experts, who did their best to provide uncomplicated responses to complex questions such as "How long did the big bang last?"

Occasionally – when Pluto was reclassified as a planetoid, or when the Higgs-Boson particle was discovered – the site took on a newsy feel. Most of the time, however, it was a place where students indulged their curiosities by asking general-knowledge questions.

"You'd think over 25 years all the questions had been asked, but heck no," says Nathan Unterman, a 39-year Illinois high school science teacher. Unterman moderated the site with another, now-retired teacher, Steve Sample. They were employed as part-time staff at Argonne but mostly served as volunteers during the more than two decades they ran the site.

By the time Argonne finally pulled the plug, more than 110 volunteer scientists had answered questions, which were still coming in a steady stream. Still, the site was "limping along," says Meridith Bruozas, manager of educational programs and outreach at Argonne.

The institutional and funding structure that created NEWTON are long gone, she says, plus the site and the technology behind it are outdated. In an email, Sample said the high cost of updating the software was a factor in shutting the site down. Argonne spent about $10,000 per year on NEWTON over the past few years, spokesman Christopher Kramer said in an email, but to keep it running "is akin to supporting the telegraph in the era of smartphones."

Indeed, many Argonne's educational efforts now live on social media, and are centered around the lab's current research. Argonne now hosts Google Hangout tours, offers Reddit AMAs, posts lectures online, produces a series of videos called "Ask Argonne" and more.

"So instead of random questions on any topic, like 'Why is the sky blue?' we're actually talking about 'What does the next generation battery look like?' and 'What does supercomputing look like and how does modeling look like when you're crunching big data?'" Bruozas says. "Those are the things that kids need to be focused on now... because that's our the next generation of scientists and researchers."

Still, there was some value in the question-and-answer style, Unterman and Sample say. Often multiple scientists would chime in, arguing and adding to each other's responses. That type of dialogue isn't easily replicated with a Google search.

"Let's say you want to describe a cow. A very, very first attempt might be 'Well, let's make it a sphere.' That might be the level for a kindergartener, or a third grader. Another scientist might come in and say, 'Well, that's not really so,' and they'd start adding a head and legs. And somebody else might say, 'You could look at it that way but really...' and they'd start adding a tail and ears and horns and all of that," Unterman says. "Just how far do we simplify it, and have we simplified it to the point that it's just no longer true? We had some interesting interactions like that, which were stimulating and enriching."

Both teachers said they are grateful for impact the site had were disappointed to see it go, but ultimately understood its time had come. Unterman notes that if Argonne let the site simply stay online, the information could become outdated and NEWTON would be doing more harm than good.

Still, for those who still want to poke around, this relic of early ed tech lives on via the Internet archive.

"There were real people behind [the site]. There are all kinds of facts and figures and numbers ... and that's great, but there's also a human side to it, which – while it lasted – was great fun," Unterman says. "It's a little bit of a time capsule, I suppose."

Just who is watching the banks?

Thu, 2015-03-05 12:34

Think of this as a corporate restructuring 2.0.

A secret document penned by D.C. Federal Reserve governor Daniel Tarullo in 2010 set in motion a silent centralization of powers within the organization. Now, the change is having some unforeseen consequences.

Up until 2008, the New York Fed was in charge of keeping tabs on the nation’s banking industry.

"After the financial crisis," says the WSJ’s Jon Hilsenrath, "Tarullo came along with Ben Bernanke’s assent and said, basically, ‘we’re gonna do it a new way.’” This “new way” included stripping oversight powers from the New York Fed and placing them in the hands of a special committee based in Washington.

Referred to as the “Triangle Document,” the six-page document provided a blueprint for a new era. Now, oversight of all 12 Federal Reserve banks is managed by Tarullo’s committee.

Hilsenrath says, though, that the change hasn’t necessarily made the process any easier. “There are critics who say the banks feel burdened by the whole process … There are also complaints even within the system that the new system makes it a little bit harder for the information to flow up to the most senior people in the Fed.” 

The Chinese villages of Wasteland, Mud Town and Lonely Outpost

Thu, 2015-03-05 12:28

There is a small village called Wasteland in the Northeast China region. Despite its name, looks nothing like a wasteland, according to Michael Meyer, author of "In Manchuria: A Village Called Wasteland and the Transformation of Rural China."

Meyer spent three years living in Wasteland, while his wife pursued a legal career in Hong Kong. He explains early on that Wasteland was his wife’s childhood home, however, she had no interest in returning to the village.

"In the village, there is that divide right down the middle where there’s an older generation, say people over age 40 like myself, who want to stay and want to keep their roots there," says Meyer. "And then there’s this younger generation that says 'no there’s nothing for us here, we want to leave.'"

Villages surrounding Wasteland have similar names. There is Dunes, Mud Town and Lonely Outpost. So, Meyer spent some time investigating why the villages have these names.

"Although the villages were all founded in the early 18th century, the closest I could come to why they have these names is this sort of Greenland, Iceland name reversal – where the people who originally settled these areas didn’t want other migrants to come there, they didn’t want bandits to stop there," says Meyer. "So they gave them these very undesirable names, but in fact, they look nothing like what they are named."

In his book, Meyer finds that a privately owned rice company, called Eastern Fortune, buys the farmers off their land and moves them into company-built apartments, in order to use the land to grow rice. Some villagers welcome the new apartments and crop prices the company offers, while others don’t.

Read an excerpt from "In Manchuria":

chapter 1
Winter Solstice

In winter the land is frozen and still. A cloudless sky shines off
snow-covered rice paddies, reflecting light so bright, you have to shield
your eyes. I lean into a stinging wind and trudge north up Red Flag Road,
to a village named Wasteland.

The view is flat, lifeless, and silver fresh. The two-lane cement road
slices through the paddies like the courses plowed across frozen lakes in
my native Minnesota, but there are no icehouses to shelter in here. Ten
minutes ago, I set off from the coal-fueled warmth of Number 22 Middle
School, where I volunteer as an English teacher. Already my beard is
beaded with ice.

Tufts of dry husks sprout through the snow, resembling ripening brooms.
To my left, the sun sinks over the far horizon. It is 3:22 p.m. at December’s
end—or, as Chinese farmers know it, dongzhi (Winter Solstice), one of
twenty-four fortnight-long periods describing the seasons based on the sun’s
longitude. The previous solar term was Major Snow, which fell on schedule,
blanketing Wasteland in white. Next up, in early January, is Slight Cold,
which, given today’s high temperature of minus 8 degrees Fahrenheit, makes
me fear what “slight” will feel like. At school, a red nylon propaganda
banner lashed to the accordion entrance gate urges us to PREVENT HAND, FOOT AND MOUTH DISEASE and, less helpfully, announces that WINTER BRINGS THE BIGGEST CHANGE IN TEMPERATURE.

Red Flag Road’s single traffic sign displays a speed limit of forty kilometers
an hour. On school days I never see anyone break it; bicycles and
three-wheeled motorcycles saunter and sputter to the crossroads’ Agricultural
Bank, seed store, noodle shops, and train station. Painted bright pink and
crowned with a peaked tin roof whose cobalt-blue matches Wasteland’s
usual sky, the station has been rendered all but obsolete: the new highspeed
trains that cover the seventy miles between the cities of Jilin and
Changchun do not stop here. For passengers in the sealed compartment,
Wasteland whooshes by in a silent four-second blur, looking like any other
village in northeast China.

Closer inspection reveals a dotted line of trash aside Red Flag Road:
empty boxes of expensive Panda brand cigarettes and bottles of Moutai
brand liquor; broadsheets of stock tips, real estate flyers, and fortune-telling
booklets advising the most auspicious days to buy property; and selfpublished
circulars, sold in big cities, with titles such as Intriguing Stories
and Strange Affairs. In addition to the latest gossip about the private lives
of top officials, the pamphlets answer questions such as Will our capital be
moved from Beijing? (No.) Did the 1989 student protest movement fail? (Yes.)
How many people were killed during the Cultural Revolution? (Lots.)

Today the only sound on Red Flag Road comes from another banner,
strung between two Manchurian ash seedlings, whipping in the wind. The
cloth twists and unfurls, then twists again. Between gusts spin the Chinese
characters for plant, then seeds, then record and yield. I pass the banner
every day and, unlike the farmers, study its message. In the Chinese
countryside—free of newsstands and street signs—propaganda is my
primer, even when written by Comrade Obvious. This red ribbon teaches
me the characters that form: PLANT QUALITY SEEDS TO PRODUCE A RECORD YEILD.
For decades, the three-story middle school was Wasteland’s tallest structure.
From my English classroom window I can see all the village’s homes,
whose clusters make an archipelago across the fields. Now I walk toward
a billboard whose message I can read a mile away: BUILD THE NORTHEAST’S TOP VILLAGE. It was erected by Eastern Fortune Rice,
a private agribusiness company based in Wasteland. I never thought about
this propaganda—just another exercise in blatancy—until Eastern Fortune
began making it come true.

Gossip says that, like the railroad, Red Flag Road will be upgraded, too.
Locals wonder if it’s their way of life that will be made obsolete. There’s
even talk of changing the village’s name.

No one can say for certain why the place is called Wasteland. It may
have been a ploy by homesteaders to discourage other migrants from moving
to this fertile floodplain, stretching from the western banks of the Songhua
(Pine Flower) River to forested foothills. Neighboring hamlets, also
comprising a few dozen single-story homes abutting table-flat rice paddies,
include Lonely Outpost, Zhang’s Smelly Ditch, the Dunes, and Mud Town.
In the movie Caddyshack, Rodney Dangerfield boasts that he and his
partner, Wang, just bought some land at the Great Wall: “On the good
side!” Wasteland is in the other direction. Beyond the wall begins China’s
northeast, or Dongbei (rhymes with wrong way). Chinese say a map of their
country resembles a chicken, which makes the Northeast its head, squeezing
between Mongolian grasslands and the Ever-White Mountains before
bumping up against Siberia.

Dollar signs on the doilies

Thu, 2015-03-05 11:03

Etsy, the online marketplace for handmade products, filed for a $100 million IPO on Wednesday. The Brooklyn-based company reported revenue of $195 million last year, up from $125 million in 2013.
  High-profile online retailers like Zulily and Wayfair had solid debuts with their IPO’s in 2014. The timing is right for Etsy, says Mark Brohan, vice president of research for Internet Retailer Magazine.    William Sahlman, professor at Harvard Business School, says Etsy fulfills customers’ craving for something different. Etsy’s mission has been to change the way things are made and sold, and Sahlman says companies can retain that socially-minded philosophy — just look at Ben & Jerry’s.   “They were able to go public and still maintain a sense with their customers that they were different,” Sahlman says.    Steve Kaplan, who teaches entrepreneurship at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, says there might be some initial rumblings of discontent when the company goes public. But at the end of the day, “If you deliver something that your customers really like, you have created a huge amount of social value,” he says.  

Inspired by Etsy's crafty culture, this handmade world cloud shows some of the more unique words from the company's IPO filing.

Kelsey Fowler/Marketplace

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