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Who let the cats out? Russia did.

Thu, 2014-08-28 13:18

The biggest bank in Russia, Sberbank, has started lending out cats.

Actual live cats.

Basically, if you take out a mortgage, they'll lend you a cat because apparently Russian lore says letting a cat walk through your house before you move in is good luck.

You've even got your choice of ten breeds including tabbies, Siamese, and, reports Bloomberg Businessweek, an exotic hairless cat resembling a sphinx.

Regrettably, Hello Kitty was not on the list.

Immigrants closing gap on homeownership

Thu, 2014-08-28 13:18

The U.S. homeownership rate fell in the Great Recession and its aftermath — from a peak of 69.2 percent in 2004, to 64.7 percent in the most recent report from the U.S. Census Bureau.

It turns out immigrant households bucked that trend, according to a recent report.

The analysis, published by economist Azanaw Mengistu at Fannie Mae, says that from 2000 to 2010, immigrant homeownership rose more than 2.5 percent, to 52.4 percent, while native-born homeownership fell more than 1 percent over the same period. Research by economists Kusum Mundra at Rutgers University and Ruth Uwaifo Oyelere at Georgia Tech, comes to similar conclusions.

Immigrant homeownership is likely to remain lower than native-born homeownership for the foreseeable future — that's a simple reflection of assets and income, as well as the high-priced metro areas they tend to immigrate to first when arriving in the U.S.

The gap between immigrants and those born in the U.S. appear to be narrowing significantly, though.

A possible explanation for the better homeownership outcome of immigrants in the past decade is that the documented and undocumented immigrants who arrived in droves during the 1980s and 1990s, are now well-established in communities, and in the workforce.

“The immigrants today are more educated, they have more time in the United States, and they’re more likely to be citizens, things that boost home-ownership rates,” says Rakesh Kochhar at the Pew Research Center’s Hispanic Trends Project.

He also points out that recent immigrants are more heavily Asian and Middle Eastern; compared to Latinos. They tend to come to the U.S. with higher levels of education and wealth to begin with.

Mundra and Oyelere speculate in their paper that so-called ‘birth networks’ might help explain why some immigrant groups do better at homeownership. A large concentration of other immigrants from the same country or region might help people get and keep jobs, and pool the financial resources to buy and hold onto their homes in bad economic times.

Jose Quinonez, CEO of the nonprofit Mission Asset Fund in San Francisco, believes immigrant families may have social characteristics that make holding onto their homes more likely.

“Their home means much more than just a mere investment that they can flip,” he says. “It’s really their realization of the American dream, of establishing themselves in the community and in the economy.”

Quinonez says immigrant families have a long history of pool financial resources across generations, and also tend to live together in multi-generational households. So if one adult loses a job, another may be available in the household to keep up the mortgage and hold off foreclosure.

Twitter offers free classes for would-be advertisers

Thu, 2014-08-28 13:18

Angela D'Amario, president of Firebee, a small PR firm in Atlanta, Georgia, says she constantly promotes clients on Facebook and LinkedIn, but she has yet to figure out Twitter.

“It just seemed like no one was getting good results," she says. "Everything that was out about Twitter advertising was very confusing."

D’Amario says she really wants to know how to target specific groups of consumers the same way she says is possible on Facebook and LinkedIn.

"So, you’re not having your message seen by all these people who could care less," she says. "Where on Twitter – I really don’t get how it’s possible to do that – to say I want moms who are between the ages of 25-35, in Minnesota who like sports."

Enter flight school, the multimedia training plan that includes what Twitter calls “Story Problems.”

"They’re designed to be like real life client situations," says Kevin Lange, senior vice president, social media director at Starcom MediaVest Group. His agency helped Twitter develop the new training.

"The question might give you the objective of a hypothetical client, their advertising budget and then you have to pick from the choices which strategy on Twitter or which tweet is going to be most appropriate,he says

But, notes John Greening, a professor of brand management at Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, figuring out what works on Twitter can be harder than it sounds.

“Everybody’s talking about it and they think they need it, but they don’t know why and they don’t know how," he says.

Some agencies said they couldn't even figure out how to sign up for the new training. (The signup link is here, just in case any of them are reading.)

One problem, says Greening, is simple lack of understanding of the new.

"With any of these new tools – people aren’t sure how to use them. What you find is that they put the old way of doing things against the new tool," he says. "So, if it’s video they might treat it like a TV commercial. Well... that might not be the most effective way that Twitter works."

Greening says just because consumers are using a platform doesn’t mean it’s valuable for advertisers.

"Just because it's out there and popular," he says, "doesn't mean it's an effective marketing tool."

What can ISIS do with oil wells it captures?

Thu, 2014-08-28 13:18

By some estimates, the extremist group ISIS controls 60 percent of oil production in Syria, as well as six oil wells in Iraq.

Much of this oil ends up in the black market, and given that, the "purchase" and sale of this oil is far from typical.

In addition to its holdings, the group is also assumed to pilfer from pipelines and storage facilities, said Valerie Marcel, oil and Middle East analyst at the Chatham House think tank in London.

Marcel says ISIS, also known as ISIL or the Islamic State, takes some of its crude and refines it. “They have an open pit, they burn the oil very crudely,” Marcel says. “And then they have some gasoline which they can provide to local residents, and to their own Humvees.”

The rest of the oil goes to market, largely in Turkey, through a murky set of intermediaries.

“Some of them are Iraqi middlemen, and they take the crude to the border,” Marcel says. “Others are Turkish middlemen. And they’re able to actually sometimes get the oil sold directly to a refinery in Turkey. So that involves a quite well-informed organization.”

Middlemen take a big cut of the money on the way to the black market. So instead of earning the world market price of $100 a barrel, ISIS pockets half or a quarter of that.

Still, assuming intelligence estimates that the group sells 40,000 to 60,000 barrels each day, daily revenue comes out to $1 million to $3 million.

This is enough oil that intelligence may be able to spot its movement.

“We are talking about at least 200 trucks,” says Luay al-Khateeb, an advisor to the Iraqi parliament and head of the Iraq Energy Institute. “And these fleets should be legitimate targets of U.S. and Iraqi air forces.”

Convoys may be a key point of interception. Once the crude gets to market, it can be untraceable.

“Once oil is integrated, it’s very hard to know, literally impossible to know, if a drop comes from here or from there,” says Matthew Levitt, a former Treasury Department intelligence official now with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “What we are going to need is intelligence identifying those middlemen, and then deciding how to target their ability to continue functioning in that manner.”

As important as oil revenue is to ISIS, Levitt thinks it’s a small piece of the group’s overall finances.

The extremist group is also assumed to raid banks, and tax farmers and commerce in the territory it controls.

ISIS revenue comes from oil sold on the black market

Thu, 2014-08-28 13:18

By some estimates, ISIS controls 60 percent of oil production in Syria, as well as six oil wells in Iraq.

Much of this oil ends up in the black market and given that, the "purchase" and sale of this oil is far from typical.

In addition to their holdings, the group is also assumed to pilfer from pipelines and storage facilities, said Valerie Marcel, oil and Middle East analyst at the Chatham House think tank in London.

Marcel says ISIS, also known as ISIL or the Islamic State, takes some of its crude and refines it.

“They have an open pit, they burn the oil very crudely,” Marcel says. “And then they have some gasoline in which they can provide to local residents, and to their own Humvees.”

The rest of the oil goes to market, largely in Turkey, through a murky set of intermediaries.

“Some of them are Iraqi middlemen, and they take the crude to the border,” Marcel says. “Others are Turkish middlemen. And they’re able to actually sometimes get the oil sold directly to a refinery in Turkey. So that involves a quite well-informed organization.”

Middlemen take a big cut of the money on the way to the black market. So instead of earning the world market price of $100 a barrel, ISIS pockets half or a quarter of that.

Still, assuming intelligence estimates that the group sells 40,000 to 60,000 barrels each day, daily revenue comes out to $1 million to $3 million.

This is enough oil that intelligence may be able to spot its movement.

“We are talking about at least 200 trucks,” says Luay al-Khateeb, an advisor to the Iraqi parliament and head of the Iraq Energy Institute. “And these fleets should be legitimate targets of U.S. and Iraqi air forces.”

Convoys may a key point of interception. Once the crude gets to market, it can be untraceable.

“Once oil is integrated, it’s very hard to know, literally impossible to know if a drop comes from here or from there,” says Matthew Levitt, a former treasury department intelligence official now with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “What we are going to need is intelligence identifying those middlemen, and then deciding how to target their ability to continue functioning in that manner.”

As important as oil revenue is to ISIS, Levitt thinks it’s a small piece of the group’s overall finances.

The extremist group is also assumed to raid banks, and tax farmers and commerce in the territory it controls.

An auction where you can buy a $1 million oil lease

Thu, 2014-08-28 10:53

It happens twice a year at the New Orleans Mercedes-Benz Superdome, but it has nothing to do with football. We're talking about a much bigger game, one that's only growing: Offshore oil and gas.

Twice a year "landmen" from energy companies file into the Superdome for an auction. They bid for the right to drill for oil and natural gas under the sea. And who's selling that right? You and me, by way of the federal government.

The first thing you see at the Western Planning Area Lease Sale 238 is the map of what's for sale. There's the familiar curve of Texas along the Gulf: Corpus Christi, Galveston.  A grid overlays 21.6 million acres of the waters off the coast.

"These blocks are generally 3-by-3 miles, " says Caryl Fagot, with the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management. "The companies are bidding on the right to drill in that particular block. Actually these are, um—"

We're interrupted by an extensive mike check. This is a public auction, after all. Bids must be heard loud and clear.  The feeling in the room is dry-as-a-bone serious. But there's a sign posted that hints at drama. "No masks, costumes with head coverings, props or posters."

"Well, we have had protesters," Fagot says. "We've had someone in a polar bear costume, we've had people come with dollar bills attached to themselves, they want to bring in large signs, and we're conducting business here, so we really can't allow that type of thing in the bidding room."

This is big government business. There are thousands of these 3-by-3-mile blocks to manage. All blocks look the same on paper, blue squares of water, but names of certain areas hint at what's underneath: Alaminos Canyon, East Breaks.

The so-called landmen here, who are from BP, Shell, Chevron and others, know what's under the sea floor, or they hope they do, at least.

"It's somewhat of a gamble," says Randall Luthi, president of the National Ocean Industries Association. "They do it by looking at seismic data, by looking at other blocks nearby that have been producing, so you use your best expertise to guess which areas might contain important geological formations that might contain oil and gas, and then you take a guess at how much that might be worth."

This year marks the return of BP to this auction. The Environmental Protection Agency banned the company from bidding on new blocks as part of the fallout of the 2010 oil spill. BP had been the biggest producer in the Gulf, so there's some suspense around its plans, which aren't known until the auction starts.

"The bids are sealed until they're opened up later today, so it's a little like the Academy Awards," Luthi says. "You open the envelope and see who's bid and how much."

Now, without further ado… "Welcome, and I thank you for attending today's sale…"  No long acceptance speeches. Auctioneer John Rodi with the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management moves pretty quick.

"Alaminos Canyon block … a bid by BHP Billiton…3,106,250…a bid by BP Exploration and Production Inc…$2,327,027…"

The oil company landmen are tight-lipped. Most hold up a hand when they see a reporter's microphone, indicating no interviews. But they carefully mark down each bid, and whisper to each other as the prices go public. Each bid is whisked off in a briefcase.

The relatively small sale is all over in half an hour.

The government's own geologists and other experts will make sure the company has paid a fair price for what they think is under the water. If not, the bid gets rejected. Tallied up, this sale brought in about $110 million.

Ben Waring sells data systems to oil companies for offshore exploration. He points to the map and says the sale held surprises. "BP bought everything that wasn't nailed down in this area right here…"

It's an area called Port Isabel. If there's oil worth tapping, it'll take years of development and many millions of investment to get it out. The auction bids are a drop in the bucket of the lucrative universe that is Gulf of Mexico deepwater drilling.

This 20-year-old covers Apple like a pro

Thu, 2014-08-28 09:37

Mark Gurman began seriously covering Apple as a journalist when he was just 15.

At 17, he broke news about Siri. At 19, Business Insider named Gurman the "World's Best Apple Reporter."

Gurman says it was a natural progression.

"I've always been interested in Apple and technology," Gurman says. "So, I thought it was a natural intersection to start digging around Apple. And here I am."

Gurman, now 20, is a senior editor at 9to5mac.com — hustling day in and day out to break the next big story on one of the biggest companies in the world.

Oh, and he's also a junior pursuing his bachelor's from the School of Information at the University of Michigan.

"The way I look at it... is that lots of students have jobs," Gurman says. "Some work in restaurants, others work in other places. People make music, they do what they love, and this is just what I like doing." 

Despite all he's achieved, Gurman isn’t one of Apple’s trusted, favorite reporters and, as such, the company excludes him from Apple events and reviewing new products.” He says it used to get under his skin, "but then I realized being able to do this all on my own without the intervention of Apple PR has allowed me to do things that otherwise I wouldn't be able to do being under the constant spotlight of not wanting to upset a company."

It's more challenging to find stories, he says, but the outcome is more rewarding.

His paycheck is dependent on page views. But with an exceptional source list and a record of breaking stories, Gurman says he could see as many as hundreds of thousands of clicks a day. Though he would not confirm, some reports have put his salary at six figures.

So, what's next for the superstar reporter who is expected to graduate in two years?

"That is the golden question... To be honest, I'd like to move into something mostly different than what I do now," Gurman says. "Instead of being the person who covers the companies, I'd like there to be someone like me, covering my company."

This story was also reported by the Columbia Journalism Review and other outlets.

CLARIFICATION: An earlier version of this story did not accurately reflect Gurman's relationship with Apple. The text has been modified.

VA hospitals turn to private doctors for help

Thu, 2014-08-28 09:26

Ever since Ralph Taylor joined the Navy in 1960, boating has been in his blood.

“You could stick me out in the middle of the ocean, I’d love it,” he says, sitting in his 24-foot pontoon, parked in his Waxahachie driveway.

Ten years ago, Taylor moved to Waxahachie from the coldest city in Texas, Dalhart, because he needed to be closer to the Veterans Affairs facility in Dallas after a liver transplant.

His wife passed away in 1999, so his daughters help him get to and from the hospital for appointments.

“This VA down here is really modern, they take good care of you,” Taylor says. “It’s just they overwhelmed the system.”

The VA North Texas Health Care System is the second busiest in the country. Last year, there were about 1.4 million outpatient visits and although the majority of appointments are made in less than 30 days, new patients often wait a month, even two months on average for a specialty care visit.

So when Taylor started having trouble seeing, the VA turned to Dallas-based Key-Whitman Eye Center.

The Vision For Faster Health Care

Weeks before the Veterans Affairs hospital controversy dominated headlines, Dallas-based Key-Whitman Eye Center received a call from the North Texas VA.

The VA was hoping to expedite eye care services for veterans in the Dallas-Ft. Worth area, and wanted to establish a formal partnership.

“In the last 80 days, we’ve probably had appointments for 200 patients already,” says Dr. Jeffrey Whitman.

Whitman says it’s an honor to serve the veterans, and he enjoys listening to their stories while helping improve their vision.

“I can have a patient come in with a cataract and within a couple of weeks we probably can have them, with functional vision, back to work,” he says. “And there’s no reason the veteran population shouldn't be able to take advantage of that.”

Dr. Jeffrey Whitman with patient Eddie Carter, a veteran referred to his clinic through the VA North Texas Health Care System.

Key-Whitman Eye Center

Just The Beginning

In the last few months, partnerships with local health care providers have ramped up. Jennifer Purdy, assistant director for Outpatient Services at the North Texas VA, says collaboration is part of a long-term solution to cut wait times.

“We've got to ensure that patients have a way to be seen and that their needs are met,” she says. “So I think we will continue to grow [partnerships] out in the community.”

Purdy estimates more than 30 new health care vendors were added this year.

Finding new partners isn’t always easy. Purdy says private practice doctors in some specialties, like endocrinology and psychiatry, haven’t been able to fit veterans in. Part of the reason could be doctors have to wait longer for VA payments, which Dr. Whitman says can be especially tough on smaller practices.

"Every practice may not be able to do this, but I think practices that know that they’re able to do this should raise their hand and volunteer,” Whitman says. “And it’s a win-win. If we have excess capacity, it’s not completely altruistic, I get to stay busier!”

A Glimpse Into The Future For Veterans

Ralph Taylor was happy to go to Key-Whitman, where he had surgery to remove cataracts in both eyes.

Before surgery, Taylor couldn’t drive, couldn’t fix his boat and he definitely couldn’t see individual leaves on the cottonwood outside his window. He couldn't even see individual stars in the evening sky. 

“But I was out here the other night and it was a full moon, and boy, I just love Texas at times like that,” he says, smiling.

Lauren Silverman

Taylor says the VA, by helping pay for medications and surgeries, has kept him from being, as he puts it, "completely destitute."

Congress is trying to help the VA from going broke and form more partnerships. The $16 billion health care bill signed by President Barack Obama provides money for more partnerships like the one between Key-Whitman Eye Clinic and the North Texas VA.

If providers step up, the second busiest VA system might get some relief. And patients waiting in line might be able to get back to doing the things they love faster.

PODCAST: iPad giant

Thu, 2014-08-28 03:00

First up, we talk to Susan Schmidt, Managing Director at Mesirow Financial in Chicago about signs that the U.S. economy is gathering strength. And it's been the man-bites-dog business story of the summer: the company where they employees didn't loath the boss, they liked him to the point they effectively shut down the business after he was ousted in a family feud for control. Today, at the New England grocery chain Market Basket, those employees and supportive customers got what they were looking for. Arthur T. Demoulis is coming back as CEO after his reported $1.5 billion buyout offer was accepted. Plus, how about an iPad the size of a bathroom mirror? Published reports suggest that what may be on the way is a 13-incher, big as a modest laptop. 

Apple bets bigger is better with new iPad

Thu, 2014-08-28 02:30

Rumors are swirling that Apple has a bigger iPad in the works. Bloomberg reports that the new tablet's screen would be nearly 13 inches diagonally — as big as some laptops. 

Apple's iPads have been losing market share to cheaper, smaller smart phones, according to the research firm International Data Corporation or IDC.  

“Launching a bigger iPad would help them gain a lot more revenue,” says Jitesh Ubrani an analyst at IDC. 

Ubrani says businesses, schools and government offices increasingly use tablets and might like a bigger iPad screen. He says in the second quarter, 16 percent of tablet sales went to those groups. 

Apple recently announced a partnership with IBM to offer businesses more applications and services. Van Baker, research vice president in Mobility at Gartner Inc., says a bigger iPad might be good for companies that want to put spreadsheets or documents on the device. 

“There are productivity type applications like spreadsheet applications — things more on the content creation side than on the content consumption side — that would make sense to have a bigger screen,” he says. 

Apple couldn't be reached for comment. A bigger iPad would theoretically compete with Microsoft's biggest Surface tablet. But analysts say the Windows system has not been popular on tablets.

Harvard hangs up its landlines

Thu, 2014-08-28 02:00

If you want to disrupt higher education, you’ve gotta look the part.

So when the team at HarvardX,  the university’s online learning initiative, began setting up its new offices in Cambridge, down came the walls and the cubicles, in came the long tables and shared work spaces. And out went the landlines.

Or most of them anyway.

“The space was developed de novo and it was meant to have a kind of start-up feel,” said Michael Patrick Rutter, a spokesman for HarvardX.

Instead of  traditional desk phones, employees at HarvardX use their own cell phones and collect $50 per month from the university to help cover the bills.

As Justin Reich, a 36-year-old researcher at HarvardX, sees it, they’re just embracing the obvious.

“I think it’s more convenient,” he said. “I probably would have just given people my cell phone number anyway.”

The Great Landline Purge started years ago, when colleges began disconnecting dorm-room phones. Americans have also been ditching their relics. About 40 percent of American households were wireless-only at the end of 2013, up from 10 percent in 2006, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

When Harvard’s IT department set out a strategic plan in January, one of its main goals was to reduce use of “legacy phone infrastructure.” (Apparently that’s what we’re calling landlines now.)

“The landline system that the university uses is older and rates are increasing,” said Kevin Donovan, a spokesman for Harvard IT.

Donovan says the university isn’t forcing employees to dump their landlines. It’s already happening. And, true to form, Harvard has collected the data to back it up.

The number of calls from Harvard desk phones dropped 40 percent from 2009 to 2013, from more than 6.5 million to fewer than 4 million, according to the IT department.

Which means that most faculty and staff, should their department choose to follow HarvardX’s lead and dispense with office phones, are likely to respond like Reich did — with a shrug and a monthly expense report.

Matching roommates before sparks fly

Thu, 2014-08-28 02:00

As the university move-in season gets into full swing, many freshmen will be meeting their roommates for the first time. At the University of Massachusetts Lowell, the housing department is using a service called Room Sync to streamline the process.

Click the media player above to hear Matt Austin, Associate Director for Resident Life at UMass Lowell, in conversation with Marketplace Tech host Ben Johnson.

The software asks prospective roommates a series of lifestyle questions, allowing them to filter others by majors and other lifestyle preferences. They can then view other freshmen and choose among a list of possible roommates.  

Students can communicate through Facebook accounts, and send roommate requests similar to “friend requests.”

According to Austin, students that don’t use the site request a new roommate 8% of the time, while those who use it and find a match are only 1% likely to change roommates.

“Students that continue with the same roommate throughout the freshman year are more likely to return to housing in their sophomore year, which keeps them more engaged on campus,” says Austin, also citing statistics showing on-campus students receive higher grades.

While Austin admitted that the software may reduce the chances of students living with a roommate markedly different from themselves, he argued that the makeup of the floors and residences as a whole would still provide the opportunity for that cross-pollination of experiences. 

Donations flow in to help Detroit water customers

Thu, 2014-08-28 02:00

The United Way for Southeastern Michigan, which oversees the Detroit Water Fund, is currently helping around 200 households with a payment plan that covers 25 percent of a delinquent resident's bill, while the resident pays the rest. A recent $2 million award from the Michigan Health Endowment will help the fund assist more people. 

"We anticipate we'll be able to help about 6,000 customers," says Doug Plant, the vice president of operations for the United Way for Southeastern Michigan.

Another campaign, the crowdfunded "Detroit Water Project," is connecting donors directly with people who need help. The project's website says it has 7,000 donors.

Greg Eno, a public affairs specialist with Detroit Water and Sewerage says his office has only one goal. "The theme right now is keep the water on," says Eno. "And whether that's through donations, through our payments plans or through any other source of funding, whatever it takes, that's the mission."

 

NFL and the FCC square off over TV blackouts

Thu, 2014-08-28 02:00

The Federal Communications Commission is thinking about eliminating what’s known as the "sports blackout rule," which says NFL games can’t be broadcast locally unless they’re sold out 72 hours in advance.

The debate pits government authority against NFL brawn.

The NFL likes things the way they are: The blackout rule fills stadiums, and fans – even teams — will buy up extra tickets to make sure the stadium is full. 

If not, the game can’t be broadcast within a 75-mile radius. 

Hall of Famer Lynn Swann is the NFL’s spokesman in the blackout rule showdown. 

The Pittsburgh Steelers Super Bowl champ says the NFL could move its games to cable TV if the blackout rule were repealed. The rule allows everyone to watch NFL games right now, he says. 

“And it protects a model that allows it to be over the air and free for everyone when the games are sold out,” he explains.

Also on Swann’s side: the Congressional Black Caucus. Caucus members wrote a letter to the FCC, saying minority fans who can’t afford cable rely on free TV broadcasts of games.

“In my view, that argument doesn’t hold water for a couple of different reasons,” says Ajit Pai, an FCC commissioner.

He's on the other side of the line of scrimmage. Pai is demanding that the blackout rule be repealed. He says the NFL is bluffing, and would never take games off free TV because the broadcasts are so profitable.

“Taking the product off the air is simply cutting off your nose to spite your face, ” he says.

Sports economists have been watching anxiously from the sidelines. 

Rob Baade teaches economics at Lake Forest College. He thinks we should use economics to decide the fate of the blackout rule. 

Do the benefits of the rule outweigh the costs? He says no, it’s not fair to require fans to shell out hundreds of dollars to go to a game, and black it out if they don’t.

“And so, $75 a ticket, add to that parking, concessions and paraphernalia, I mean it’s a very expensive family outing,” he maintains.

The FCC could vote on whether to repeal the blackout rule as soon as this fall.

In the meantime, you could just listen to the game on the radio. The blackout rule only applies to TV. 

The dangerous trio of twitch, streaming, and swatting

Thu, 2014-08-28 01:00

It is arguably just a synchronicity, but I've been thinking about how two Twitch-related events that happened this week are connected.

The big one is, of course, Amazon's $970 million purchase of the live-streaming video game website, which I chatted about with David Gura.

The second is a smaller event: the shutdown of schools and some buildings in Littleton, Colorado. Littleton may sound familiar because it's near Columbine, where the Columbine High School Massacre occurred in 1999. It's a place where you could probably forgive law enforcement for reacting immediately and intensely to a 9-1-1 caller who claimed to have shot two co-workers and to be holding more hostage.

When that call came in Wednesday, it was taken seriously. But it was apparently fake -- an example of something called "swatting." Swatting is when someone with some technical chops calls 9-1-1 and makes it look like the call is coming from a victim's phone or a location in a building where something has gone very wrong, sending large numbers of law enforcement to a place where they're not actually needed. Hilarious, right?

Admittedly the popular -- get this -- video game streamer and Twitch user Jordan Mathewson, a.k.a. "Kootra" did crack a smile when heavily armed officers busted into his office in search of a shooter. Maybe it was because he realized his Twitch viewers were seeing the whole thing via his live webcam. Or maybe he was actually amused by the irony or meta layers of having your first person shooter video game session be interrupted by actual real life rifles. But Mathewson looks nervous more than anything. Here's the video, where officers burst in on the gamer just after he says "I think we're being swatted." 

Police figured out that the call was fake and luckily there were no injuries. But businesses were evacuated, and parents got a message from a nearby school saying their kids were under lockdown because of an "active shooter situation." Law enforcement now think they've found a Twitter account connected with a person who may have made the phone call. 

Swatting, which is apparently on the rise, is not a good prank. It sends heavily armed law enforcement looking for possible armed resistance to a place where there is none. That's insanely wasteful and dangerous. What is interesting about this case is that people were watching someone's live feed as it all happened.

For a cybercriminal, hacker or troll, the promise of a big live audience via a live streaming website like Twitch could be really attractive. And that might be bad news. 

How to sell your private data - if you really want to

Wed, 2014-08-27 13:53

So, what is your online activity worth? You know: social media posts, web history, GPS location—the works. Right now, data brokers trade with advertisers in a multi-billion dollar market. There are also a bunch of new ways you can sell your own data. But it may not add up to as much as you would hope.

Big data brokers like Acxiom want to create a precise file on you. They want to know things like how much money you make and where you shop – online and in person. 

Matt Hogan says amassing an accurate, personal file filled with info is no easy task. “If you're Acxiom, you're the largest data broker, you're cobbling together all these different piece-meal, publicly available, stale, maybe leaked data sources and what you get is a profile that is not correct.”

Hogan is the founder of Datacoup, a start-up where consumers can sell their data directly to advertisers. He says his platform gives marketers a clearer picture of consumers, and it will give consumers some return for their data. “Why not sell your information?" he asks. "Companies already do it.”

The information sold through Datacoup is currently anonymous, and not tied to a user's identity. Still, it's an advertiser's dream—disparate information from our online lives all packaged up and sent straight from the source: us. Datacoup pays users $10 a month for it all. 

Katryna Dow, CEO of a start-up called Meeco, says your info will soon be worth much more. Meeco allows users to hide data from outsiders and record it themselves. The personal information users save could become more valuable in the future, especially as their files becomes fatter and fatter.

Dow says, “there's no reason why you wouldn't take information from your teen years and mash it up with time in your twenties or thirties or forties which just makes that core data more valuable.” She says that information may have all kinds of unforeseeable applications ten years down the road.

Dow envisions private data becoming a kind of cryptocurrency in a “Me Economy.” It could be used in transactions to purchase items and get discounts, or even secure mortgages, loans, and insurance. In a way, it would alter how we define personal identity.

All this terrifies Jeffrey Chester at the Center for Digital Democracy. 

“A huge depersonalized system has emerged that treats bits of our self like we were simply hog bellies at a commodities market,” he says. “Our data is much more valuable than just a few dollars a month it might bring us. It is really the key to who we are as, as human beings.”

Trying to put a price on that, he says, is a dangerous thing.

By the way, you can find out what Axciom knows about you through a website they launched: www.aboutthedata.com. But beware: It requires you to input some personal information. And its Private Policy section discloses that the company may use that data at a later date. 

Survey says: People don't trust pollsters anymore

Wed, 2014-08-27 13:51

When the monthly jobs report comes out Friday, many eyes will undoubtedly shoot to the unemployment rate. But that number alone doesn't tell the whole story.

"It's gotten harder [to figure the unemployment rate] because Americans have become less willing to respond to surveys of all kinds," says David Leonhardt, columnist and editor of the Upshot at the New York Times.

A large part of that, Leonhardt says, is our changing behavior when it comes to answering our phones.

"Think back to 1975 — you're sitting at home, your phone rings, you have no idea who it is, you pick it up, it's a pollster, you're willing to answer it," he says. "Today, you've got your cell phone, you don't even have a landline, it may be harder for the poll firms to figure out where you are and thus [how] to reach you. But it's also a case of, you see '888' pop up and you think to yourself, 'I'm not answering that.'"

It's a reminder, Leonhardt says, that the unemployment numbers aren't the be-all, end-all of economic data.

"I would encourage some people to take the attention that now goes to the unemployment rate and shift it to job growth, which actually comes from a larger survey of businesses, or look at the number of Americans who are employed, which captures this phenomenon of discouraged workers," Leonhardt says.

American Airlines, Orbitz on the outs

Wed, 2014-08-27 13:32

American Airlines and Orbitz are having a tiff.  American has pulled its flight listings from Orbitz websites. 

Since American and US Airways have merged, their fares will disappear, too.  Orbitz's corporate clients aren't affected. Still, will Orbitz take a big hit if you can't buy American or US Airways tickets on its sites?  How does it make its money, anyway? 

Well, when you book a flight online you spread the love.  Everybody gets a cut; the airline and ticket distributors, who then pay travel websites like Orbitz.

American and Orbitz aren’t saying much about their dispute. 

“But ultimately it all comes down to economics,” says Robert Mann,  a former American executive who started his own consulting business, R.W. Mann & Company.

He says big carriers like American are trying to stay competitive with budget guys like Southwest.  Southwest tickets are only available from the airline.  It doesn’t use Orbitz. 

"And airlines have gotten really attentive to this because of the difference in cost,” Mann says.

Of course, online travel agencies like Orbitz are happy to take the airlines’ cash, but they have lots of other ways to make money.

Tom Parsons, CEO of Bestfares.com, says agencies need to sell plane tickets because that’s the first thing consumers buy.  But after that, travel sites will try to sell you packages including rental cars and hotel rooms.

"Where you make your better money is on the hotels," he says. "It wouldn’t be uncommon for us to make 10 to 12 percent on a package.”

That is, Bestfares would get 10 to 12 percent of the total package price. Travel sites also sell cruises. But just as Orbitz needs American, American needs Orbitz, or it’ll lose business to other airlines. 

Gary Leff writes the View From the Wing.   Here’s how he describes the situation: "This is a lose-lose if it goes on," he says.  "It’s a do-what-I-want-or-I’ll-shoot-myself kind of a scenario.”

Leff expects American and Orbitz to smooth things over in a matter of weeks, but no one really knows how long this will drag on.

US sugar policy leaves sour taste for candy makers

Wed, 2014-08-27 13:32

The U.S. Commerce Department will impose new duties on sugar from Mexico, responding to complaints from U.S. growers that Mexico was dumping sugar here for less than it sells for there. Sugar growers have a track record of getting what they want from policymakers: Government protections have kept U.S. sugar more expensive than the world market price for decades.

That doesn't sit well with bakers and gumball makers.

Make that gumball-maker. Singular. George Stege,  president of Ford Gum and Machine Co. in upstate New York, says he is the only gumball manufacturer left in the United States. His last domestic competitor, he says, moved production to Canada more than a decade ago.

"The advantages of being in Canada are that they can acquire sugar at world sugar pricing, which tends to be 40 to 50 percent lower than what I’m paying," he says. "The cost of sugar becomes an insurmountable edge."

He says the newest ruling is just more of the same: Government policy protecting sugar growers at his expense.

Iowa State University economist John Beghin recently looked at how many jobs the U.S. could save — making things like candy, baked goods and breakfast cereal — by changing policy to lower the cost of sugar. His best estimate is 15,000 to 20,000.  That's lower than some industry estimates, he says. "But still, 15,000 jobs is nothing to neglect."

Similarly, costs to U.S. consumers from high sugar prices look modest. Beghin pegs them around $3 billion dollars a year for the whole country — which breaks down to about $10 a year per person. Not enough, he says, to write your senator about.

On the other hand, the American Sugar Alliance, which lobbies for sugar growers, is a diligent bunch of letter writers. "You have to admire them for their effectiveness," says Beghin.

"Thank you for saying that the sugar industry is an effective lobby," says Sugar Alliance spokesman Phillip Hayes. "I would certainly agree with that."

He says they have to be — in order to protect their members from sugar growers in other countries, who pressure their own governments to protect their interests in much the same way.

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