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Call center jobs are coming back to the U.S.

Tue, 2014-08-05 02:00

If you’ve ever called a customer service line, you’ve likely talked to someone in India, the Philippines, or Mexico. Now, some U.S. companies are bringing their call centers home and changing the way they do business.

Have you ever been stuck in a phone tree so long you just lost it and started ranting on Twitter?

“In a call center, somebody’s calling to talk to you. In social media, somebody is talking about you,” says Paul Stockford, research director at the National Association of Call Centers.

Stockford says the industry has been growing in the U.S. since 2008, and more than half of contact centers here now have social media programs.

Kymberlaine Banks is a social media program manager with Telvista, which runs contact centers in Mexico, but also in Texas and Virginia. Her "small but mighty" stateside social media crew monitors the web for complaints. 

“They’re reaching out to people who are saying, ‘You suck, you failed, you whatever,’" she says. "It is not a happy thing.” 

She says social media representatives need more writing and problem-solving skills than people who answer phones. It’s a different skill set because they also respond to positive comments.

“If someone says, ‘I love you,’ we say, ‘We love you, too,’” Banks says.

General Motors brought back a number of customer service jobs from Argentina last year.

Just don't call them "call center" jobs. Now, the catch phrase is "customer engagement."

Comcast expands low-income internet program

Tue, 2014-08-05 01:00

Comcast is expanding its "Internet Essentials" program, which lets low-income Americans apply to receive broadband internet for ten dollars a month. The move to draw attention to the program has been part of a campaign to convince regulators to approve its merger with Time Warner Cable. Comcast says, if approved, the merger would extend Internet Essentials to millions more low-income people.

Comcast is also announcing is that they're changing their eligibility requirements so that former customers who still owe payments on their bills will be able to use the program.

“If your bill to Comcast is more than a year old, you will be able to apply for Internet Essentials,” says Brian Fung, technology reporter for the Washington Post.

While Comcast has touted the 1.4 million Americans currently enrolled in the program, critics counter that up to 2.6 million households would be eligible for the program, were it not for the current enrollment criteria -- A household is eligible for Internet Essentials if it has a child eligible for free or reduced school lunches.

What the program does make clear, according to Fung, is that there is now an understanding that internet access, especially for poorer families with children, is essential. 

Why does popcorn at the movies cost so much?

Mon, 2014-08-04 13:50

Why do cinemas charge so much for popcorn? Wouldn't they make more money if they lowered the price because, presumably, many more people would purchase it for $4 instead of $7?

- Basil Utter, Maryland

This is a question with some easy answers and some surprisingly complicated ones.

First the easy — and incomplete — answer...

Because they can.

This is what we all intuitively assume, that theaters are shooting fish in a barrel by charging high prices to a captive audience. 

“They’re basically in a monopoly selling position,” says Russell Winer, chair of the marketing department at NYU’s Stern School of Business. “Since they don’t allow you, theoretically, to bring food into theaters, they can pretty much charge what they feel the market will bear.”

Indeed, they do.

In theory, they will charge a price for popcorn where the spread between what it costs them to make another box of popcorn, and what consumers will pay for that box of popcorn is at its highest level.

Movie theater owners aren’t residing in some dark turret behind the screens, stroking a cat and reveling in the injustice they are inflicting upon hapless moviegoers. Ask movie theater owners, and they’ll tell you they charge so much for concessions. . .

Because they must.

Jack Oberleitner, a 55-year veteran of movie theaters, is now a consultant. He quotes a friend whose family has been in the business since 1908, with a line he says summarizes the situation of theater owners: “We left the movie business and we’re now in the popcorn business."

Movie theaters don’t make much money from movies. Movie studios do.  

“The film industry will charge movie theaters upwards of 70 percent of the box office revenue,” Oberleitner says. Revenue sharing schemes change over the years – sometimes studios take a peak percentage from the first few weeks and then adjust downward, sometimes they take a peak percentage from the best few weeks regardless of when they occur – but the outcome is the same: Studios take far and away the biggest chunk of ticket proceeds.

On top of that, he says, studios place a lot of conditions on playing their movies.

“So they’ll say if you have 14 screens, for instance, we want the latest film from our company to show on three of those screens for the first three weeks. If you’re not getting people into those screens, well, sorry about your luck.”

Being forced to fill screens with movies nobody’s watching can be a revenue suck, but if the theater says no, the studio can turn around and say, "Fine that’s the last MGM or Warner Brothers or Disney movie you ever screen."

At the same time, costs like rent, air conditioning and heating for large spaces are significant. And every few years there’s some new amenity or technology no theater can do without: surround sound, stadium seating, digital and 3D projection systems. Each requires hefty investment that brings down profit margins.

Theaters could raise ticket prices, but with 70 percent of any increase going to studios, it isn't particularly appealing. Plus, price competition between theaters is fierce.

The one thing that does not have to be shared with studios: concessions.

While concessions account for only about 20 percent of gross revenues, they represent some 40 percent of theaters’ profits. Even with $10 tubs of popcorn, and profit margins on concessions of 85 percent, profit margins for a whole theater average around 4.3 percent for the industry, according to IbisWorld.

“I would say the '70s is when it first started to change,” says Oberleitner. “The quarter cup of popcorn increased to 50 cents, 75 cents and then $1. This all happened pretty rapidly through the course of the '70s, and by the time we hit the '80s it was in full gear completely.”

Which do you prefer: expensive concessions, or expensive movie tickets?

Some consumers are paying a lot for concessions, but on the other hand, this means that all consumers are paying less for movie tickets than they otherwise might. If you factor in inflation, admission prices are actually about the same as they were 40 years ago. Those $10 buckets of popcorn are subsidizing everyone’s tickets.

But any good movie has a twist, and in this case it falls under the second part of our question: If they lowered the price of the popcorn wouldn’t they increase sales and profits?

The immediate answer is no.

Popcorn is a tool to get you to pay more.

Simply put, it’s quite possible for the profit from a few moviegoers who pay an obscene amount for popcorn to be worth more than dozens of people who pay a reasonable price. You can also think about it this way: A monopolist has a sweet spot between price, demand, and cost that lets it maximize profits. There is nothing in economics that requires that sweet spot to be reasonable for most people. And, in fact, it is pretty much always higher than a situation where there is competition.

But high-priced popcorn also is a valuable tool. 

“Movie theaters use this to price discriminate across moviegoers,” says Ricard Gil, associate professor of economics at Johns Hopkins’ Carey School of Business. He says popcorn lets theaters charge different consumers different prices for going to the movies, which helps maximize profits.

“Different movie viewers have different willingness to pay for the experience of watching a movie. When you’re on a date, you know you’re gonna spend some money.”

From a theater’s perspective, it would be fantastic if the theater could find out who would pay a lot to see a movie and charge them extra. But theaters can’t stop everyone in line and look at their tax returns. So, instead, they offer something only the spenders will buy: Really overpriced popcorn.

Voilà:  Some people get charged extra for going to the movies.

This is, incidentally, the same principle by which lot of other products operate. Video game manufacturers, for example, will sell a console at cost or even at a loss, but then charge a high mark-up on video games. Some people will only buy one or two video games, and others will buy a ton. By setting a low barrier for getting a console, and then charging a ton for games, the firm can extract profit from all different kinds of people.

Coupons operate the same way. Some people are willing to pay full price because the idea of saving, organizing and coordinating coupons is too much of a bother. So the store captures them at the highest price. Others won’t pay those prices, but they are willing to save and look for coupons, so the store is able to capture them too.

Some people are complete coupon fanatics, who won’t pay a penny more than they have to, will spend hours accumulating discounts, and the store can get them in the door as well.

Economic jargon at your local theater: Mixed bundling.

Not only does the selling of high-priced concessions allow a theater to locate which consumers can pay more for a movie experience, it also allows theaters to zero in on those consumers and figure out who is willing to pay more for certain types and combinations of snacks, says Daniel Vincent, professor of economics at the University of Maryland in College Park.

They do this through what’s called “mixed bundling” in economic jargon. Bundling is where you combine one product with another – like the popcorn-soda combo. Mixed bundling is where you offer combos like that, but also let people buy products – popcorn and soda – individually.

Here’s how it works: The theater charges the highest price it possibly can for soda and popcorn individually. But it offers a slight discount on the combo.

Some people really just want a Coke and nothing else, and they’ll be willing to pay that price. Maybe they’re really wealthy, or maybe they’re allergic to popcorn. Vice versa, there are some people who love popcorn but would rather get free water than soda. The theater captures them no problem.

However, there are some other high value consumers who are willing to pay a lot, but not that much. “The guy who is on the fence, he sees the current monopoly price for Coke and he’s willing to buy that. He sees the monopoly price for popcorn and says, 'Ehhh, I’m not willing to buy that for that price.'”

By offering the combo at a slight discount, the theater captures that guy and all the people who are on the fence. They’re still paying an arm and a leg for popcorn and soda, but not quite as much as the people the theater captured who are willing to pay even crazier prices for an individual item.

“Selling combos has as its ultimate goal the role of forcing the population to separate into different groups of people,” says Vincent, so they can be charged different prices.

Maybe there’s just something about popcorn?

Gil has an additional thought about pricing and popcorn. It has to do with the popcorn itself: It’s super salty and buttery. Which means, you can’t really buy just popcorn. You’d die of thirst. So if you want popcorn, you kind of have to commit to a soda, too. Maybe possibly to something sweet, as well.

So all of a sudden, a consumer isn’t choosing between buying no snacks and maybe just one little thing. They’re choosing between buying no snacks, and buying an armful of concessions.

If the choice is go big or go home, there are suddenly two types of consumers.

“The consumers that want to go all out, and the consumers that are very price sensitive,” says Gil.

Perhaps, he supposes, it helps that most people see a movie either before dinner or after dinner, so they’re either very hungry or not hungry at all.

Either way, once a theater has found a price where it can get all or most of the all-out consumers buying popcorn and soda and candy, if it lowers that price... it won’t get many new takers. There just won’t be that many more all-out people left. To get everyone else, they’d have to hit rock bottom prices – which just aren’t worth it.

“Theaters realize this and price accordingly,” Gil says.

Why ask why

There are a quite a few reasons consumers pay so much for concessions at the movies. So if you find yourself staring at the board of concession prices and shaking your head, just remember that basically, this is how theaters make their money.

 You could also just remember to sneak your snacks in next time.

Special thanks to 'Voice of Hollywood' Ben Patrick Johnson for doing the voice-over in the audio version of this story.

The Scrabble dictionary is getting an #upgrade

Mon, 2014-08-04 13:50

Here's your lexicographic update for the week.

Merriam-Webster has released some of the new words for the Official Scrabble Players Dictionary, due out next Monday. Standard rules apply: the word must be found in a standard dictionary, it can't require capitalization, it can't have hyphens or apostrophes, and it can't be an abbreviation.

"Bromance," "chillax," "hashtag," and "selfie" are just a few of the words that are now challenge-proof.

Now what about "synergy" or "deliverables"?

Municipal water systems are vulnerable

Mon, 2014-08-04 13:41

Toledo resident Lauren Birner's kitchen sink has looked a bit odd the past few days. Birner, who is 15 weeks pregnant, took extra precautions to keep herself from accidentally turning on the tap during the city's recent water ban. 

"I put plastic bags over the faucets because, without thinking, I would turn on the faucet, and think, 'Oh, wait!'" she says.

The ban was put in place Saturday and lifted Monday. Experts suspect that a big algae bloom on Lake Erie produced toxins that got into the water supply, affecting hundreds of thousands of people in Ohio's fourth-largest city.

Algae blooms have been growing on Lake Erie for years. The Ohio Sea Grant Research Lab told the Associated Press this year's bloom was smaller than in years past but it was pushed toward shore by wind and waves.

A number of factors make the algae flourish. Experts point to global warming and to fertilizer run-off from farm fields. "Algae blooms love fertilizer the same way wheat and corn love fertilizer," says Charles Fishman, author of "The Big Thirst," a book about water.

Fishman says when algae die, they produce a toxin, and that toxin appears to have gotten past Toledo's water treatment plant. Fishman fears the situation could happen on the other Great Lakes. That should put cities on guard, he says, especially if they rely on a single water source.

Fishman says the situation was not catastrophic in Toledo, but it could have been graver. "If this had happened in the middle of the week, it would've had a huge economic impact," he says. 

Experts say there are ways to mitigate problems tied to algal blooms, like improving water treatment facilities or getting farmers to grow crops that need less fertilizer, even if they're less lucrative. 

"A lot of farmers would see costs go up and revenues go down," says David Zetland, a water economist at Leiden University College in the Netherlands.

The state of Ohio has tried to address problem. Legislators passed a law this year requiring that farmers get training before using commercial fertilizers. 

But Alan Vicory, a principal in the water practice at Stantec Consulting in Cincinnati, says it's not clear what quantities of the fertilizer components nitrogen and phosphorous cause an algae bloom outbreak.

"We have been working on this as a community of scientists and engineers for many years, and it's very difficult," he says. "It's confounded our ability to tie all those things together to have any predictive capability as to an outbreak."

In Portugal, a 'bad bank' saves the day

Mon, 2014-08-04 13:41

A multi-billion dollar rescue is underway for a European bank, and global economy watchers are hopeful the fix will keep the problem from spreading beyond Portugal.

Banco Espirito Santo is getting chopped in two. Its toxic assets will be held in a so-called “bad bank,” a concept that drew attention during the worst of the global financial crisis.

The idea is that with bad loans and other toxic assets segregated from strong assets, the “good bank” can go on with the regular business of taking deposits and lending, without worries that customers will freak out and withdraw all their money, causing chaos.

When the bad bank tries to sell off the bad stuff, lots of money will be lost. But unlike previous bank bailouts, the burden doesn’t all land on taxpayers.

"The losses are gonna be borne by some of the creditors to that bank and the people that own stock in that bank, the shareholders," explains Matt Slaughter, associate dean at Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business. "That’s a good move."

Slaughter says banks will manage risk better, if they don’t assume taxpayers will ultimately pay the bills for their screw-ups.

Mark Garrison: The basic idea’s actually quite simple. Raj Bhala, who teaches international law at University of Kansas, gives us a visual aid.

Raj Bhala: If you were drawing it out on a blackboard, you would be drawing out good assets and putting a big circle around them and then you’d be drawing bad assets and putting a big circle around them. They would not be linked.

European bankers call this ring-fencing and they love to reference herding cattle. Kerry Cornelius runs a real cattle ranch and directs the Ranch Management Program at Texas Christian University. He says fencing plays a role, but EU officials seem a bit off with their terms.

Kerry Cornelius: I think that’s something that bankers probably came up or dreamed up on their own.

Linda Hooks: Regulators and analysts look for analogies and the fence analogy makes a lot of sense. You’re trying to contain a problem and keep it from growing any further.

Washington and Lee economics professor Linda Hooks says when a bad bank fences off or herds in or does whatever to toxic assets, the good bank can thrive. It goes on with regular business of taking deposits and lending and customers won’t freak out and pull all their money, causing chaos. When the bad bank tries to sell off the bad stuff, lots of money will be lost. But as Dartmouth business school associate dean Matt Slaughter points out, unlike previous bank bailouts, it doesn’t all land on taxpayers.

Matt Slaughter: The losses are gonna be borne by some of the creditors to that bank and the people that own stock in that bank, the shareholders. And that’s a good move actually, going forward.

Slaughter says banks will manage risk better, if they don’t assume taxpayers will pay for their screw-ups. I'm Mark Garrison, for Marketplace.

Can I ask you to blue sky that synergy?

Mon, 2014-08-04 12:45

"Last week in my email to you I synthesized our strategic direction as a productivity and platform company. Having a clear focus is the start of the journey, not the end. The more difficult steps are creating the organization and culture to bring our ambitions to life..."

This is an excerpt from a memo Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella put out last month, announcing major lay-offs at the company. Entitled "Starting to Evolve Our Organization and Culture", it got a lot of attention for its extreme use of business jargon.

But, as it turns out, using business jargon has some big advantages.

A new study from the University of Southern California's Marshall School of Business found people who use business jargon are assumed to have a higher position within a company, and are seen as better leaders.

"What we found is that there’s something about abstraction that communicates that ‘I’m a big picture person,’" explains author  Cheryl Wakslak, Assistant Professor of Management and Organization at USC. "That’s what we expect powerful people to be like."

In fact, says Wakslak, people who don’t use management-speak and, instead, lay their ideas out in a concrete, detailed way, are perceived as less effective leaders. Wakslak says we see this in the reaction voters sometimes have to politicians who get too granular with their ideas. "You want to know that a leader’s on top of everything, that your politician knows these details. But when politicians start to talk in that way, they get labeled as wonky and they just don’t seem as effective."

"I remember when I first went to work a long time ago at a Xerox Research Center and I got a memo on the first day that said: 'Cascade this to your people and see what the pushback is,'" says Geoffrey Nunberg, a linguist at the University of California Berkeley's School of Information. "I thought, you know, I’m not in Kansas anymore." Nunberg says business-speak really got going in the 1970s. "That was the moment when people started talking about corporate culture. That was when managers began to feel that workers could be motivated not just by their salaries and job security, but by a kind of language."

Language that made people feel like going to the office every day was important and epic, says Nunberg. "You gave people a special language to speak that suggested that the work experience was somehow different and grander than the experience of ordinary life. You had champions in the workplace. You make mission statements and you have a vision."

The rise of business-speak also came about just as executive salaries began rapidly outpacing line-worker pay. Jargon was a way for managers to differentiate themselves from people who were earning far less than they were. They began using it as a power play.

"Sitting in on board meetings and other things, you were at a disadvantage if you didn’t understand what they were saying," says entrepreneur and investor Ron Sturgeon. Sturgeon started out working on cars after high school and eventually built a huge auto salvage business, which he sold to Ford. Sturgeon hadn’t been to business school, and when he first started sitting in on big, corporate meetings, he was struck by the use of jargon. "If you’re in the meeting and you don’t know what the term is, then you’re definitely at a disadvantage," says Sturgeon. "And so the person would obviously have more power than you or seem more intellectual than you."

Sturgeon became fascinated with the jargon and wrote and published a dictionary of business jargon terms.

But jargon isn't always about power. Nunberg says business buzz-words are also ways for us to communicate larger issues happening around work and the place of work in our lives.

For example, now that flex-time has us working from our home-office, we sometimes have to unplug to achieve work-life balance. And women in the workplace are being encouraged to lean in and shatter the glass ceiling.

"Jargon arises very often in order to deal with new phenomena," says Nunberg. "We are working differently now, we have different relationships to our workplace and our co-workers and we need new language to describe that."

It’s even started creeping into popular culture. Weird Al Yankovic’s new album, Mandatory Fun, has a song called Mission Statement, that’s written entirely in business jargon.

In other words: At the end of the day, there are a lot of moving parts in today’s workplace. And in order to authentically describe the transformational change we’re seeing in our relationship with our jobs, we need terms that facilitate new levels of communication so that we can more effectively circle back to these big picture issues, and touch base with how to best thrive and create effective synergies in workplace 2.0. 

All of you. Excellent deliverables.

Luxury seats coming to an AMC theater near you

Mon, 2014-08-04 11:37

As movie ticket sales continue to decline, AMC has found a new way to attract moviegoers to its theaters.

The second largest movie chain plans to spend about $600 million to add luxury reclinable seats to 40 percent of theaters over the next five years. While this could mean up to 70 fewer seats per screen, AMC has seen an 80 percent increase in crowds at theaters that have undergone renovation. Wesley Morris, a staff writer for Grantland, says AMC hasn't raised the prices on these tickets yet.

"But they put a premium on that kind of movie going. You see it where the nicer theaters become this exclusive event. So they’ve all gone out to the suburbs… and so you got a whole class of movie goers that are stuck downtown with the crappy bedbug seats."

AMC plans to wait a year after revamping its theaters before increasing ticket prices. The average ticket price has been becoming more expensive every year, and with the added fee for luxury seats, it raises the question of who can actually afford these tickets.

“You can never get AMC to obviously sort of say, ‘Oh, well clearly we’ve got an upper class customer.’ But I think they would say that we are trying to appeal to an upper-echelon.” 

The push to protect student data

Mon, 2014-08-04 08:30

It’s summer. School is out and kids are more concerned with what they're wearing to the pool, than with history and algebra.

But that doesn't mean teachers and other educators are taking a break.

In fact,  lots of them are spending their summer breaks grappling with student data.  What to gather. How to use it. And how to protect it.

Data has never played a greater role in education, particularly as schools move to models of "personalized learning," or tailoring a child's education to meet his or her abilities.  

And while there are lots of upsides to having so much information on students, there are downsides as well.

Parents are concerned about privacy—especially after the  NSA revelations and the Target data breach. Parents are also worried that marketers could get a hold of their kids' information.

The U.S. Department of Education has jumped in.  It issued new guidance for schools and districts about how to keep parents informed about data collection.  

There’s also a new government website focused on the federal laws that cover how student data can be used.  

And this video highlighting The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act known as FERPA: 

 

Last week, U.S. Senators Edward Markey (D-Mass) and Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) introduced new federal legislation to protect student privacy.  They’ve called it the “Protecting Student Privacy Act of 2014.” 

Here are some highlights of the bill.   (And take note, it's  all about how data is shared--not about what's collected) 

   Security 

  • Requires educational agencies and schools to have security measures in place to keep student data confidential.
  • All parties to whom schools and agencies disclose data must have established security procedures to protect the data.
  • Any outside party obtaining access to records must destroy all copies, after the data has been used for the expressed purpose.

  Marketing

  • Outside parties can’t use the data to market to students.

 Transparency

  • Parents and students must be allowed to view records and request corrections of any data they believe is inaccurate.
  • Agencies and schools must keep track of who requests access to educational records.

 

The education benefits in the VA Reform Bill

Mon, 2014-08-04 03:00

The VA Reform Bill on its way to President Barack Obama's desk includes a benefit for vets who want to get a college degree. The benefit says public universities receiving GI Bill money must now give all veterans in-state tuition.

Right now, if a veteran wants to enroll in an out-of-state public college, Uncle Sam pays the in-state tuition while the veteran-turned-student has to pay any extra out-of-state fees. The new law, passed by Congress last week, means states will now have to swallow those extra costs, said Aaron Glantz, who covers Veterans Affairs for the Center for Investigative Reporting.

“The losers are those schools because they’re going to get less money,” Glatnz said. “But the big winners continue to be these giant publically traded for-profit schools.”

For-profit schools are winning in this equation because they're sucking in most of the GI Bill money by enrolling lots of veterans. Many of them are private schools, so if a veteran attends classes there, the university takes in up to $20,000 of taxpayer money in tuition.

The University of Phoenix has raked in nearly $1 billion of taxpayer money over the past five years this way.

However, not all state schools see the new law as a loser. Ross Bryant is a veteran and with the University of Nevada Las Vegas. He says veterans “bring a worldly view. They bring world leadership and when they graduate we hope they stay here in Nevada.”

States like Ohio and Nevada have already passed state laws doing exactly what this new law does. They’ve done it, in part, to lure skilled, educated workers to their state.

PODCAST: "Mini" muni in Colorado

Mon, 2014-08-04 03:00

Massachusetts-based Market Basket hosts a job fair on Monday in response to employees protesting the firing of CEO Arthur Demoulas -- The company is looking to replace said employees. Plus, the VA reform bill crossing President Barack Obama's desk has a new benefit for veterans looking to attend college -- public universities receiving G.I. money must charge in-state tuition for all vets. So who wins and who loses in this new set-up? And municipal bonds are the sort-of boring financial tool that big institutional investors use to hedge their bets. But this week, the city of Denver is hoping to attract a totally different class of buyers for its bond sale. The city is selling $500 “mini-bonds" to state residents, as a way to get locals literally invested in the community.

Airplanes become the new weather balloons

Mon, 2014-08-04 02:00

Flight delays and cancellations cost airlines billions of dollars a year. But what if better weather data -- data gathered by planes themselves -- could help prevent unnecessary delays?

Turns out, that’s already happening.

Let’s start with the old-school way of collecting data for weather forecasts. It’s 6:30 in the morning at a National Weather Service post in Sterling, Virginia.

“What we’re doing now is getting the helium to flow into the balloon,” says meteorologist Kevin Witt as he inflates a six foot latex weather balloon.

These balloons float into the sky twice a day, from about 90 sites, carrying instruments that send back pressure, temperature, and humidity data. They go high – about 19 miles high – transmitting data as the balloon expands to the size of a small building and ultimately pops. The instrument, called a radiosonde, floats back to earth on a little orange parachute.

The government has been launching weather balloons in some form since the 1930s.

The NWS Sterling office is near Dulles International Airport, so Witt calls the tower before releasing the balloon.

It just so happens, there could be planes flying through Dulles that are also collecting weather data. The government has long partnered with airlines to measure temperature and wind during flights. More recently, Southwest Airlines and UPS Airlines have installed sophisticated sensors that measure water vapor, like balloons do.

But unlike balloons, which provide a data snapshot over a shorter time, planes create a moving picture as they take off and land, then take off and land again. They transmit humidity data every few seconds upon ascent, every few minutes at cruising altitude, and multiple times a minute while landing. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the ascent and descent data are compiled into profiles for each flight, whether it's a long haul or a short jump.

“Without the aircraft observations, the models are only receiving data every 12 hours,” says Steve Pritchett, program manager for the National Weather Service Aircraft Observation Program.

Remember, weather balloons launch twice a day. So let’s say a thunderstorm is projected to hit Dulles at 3pm. A plane might send real time info that no, the air mass is drier -- No storm likely.

“And I don’t have to wait 12 hours to determine that,” Pritchett says. “I can see it because I have an observation coming in this hour from an aircraft.”

He says major airports in Los Angeles, Seattle, and Houston don’t even have upper-air balloon launches within one hundred miles. But they do have Southwest Airlines. Its chief meteorologist Rick Curtis says the company has equipped 87 planes with water vapor sensors, with 19 more in the pipeline. He says the technology is working.

In late November of this past year, we were able to use that information to determine whether or not an ice storm was gonna affect Dallas,” he says.

That’s Dallas, Texas, not Dulles. Curtis says Southwest looked at the atmospheric data, saw less moisture and some warmer layers, then kept flying.

“It saved the mass, wholesale cancellations of an event like that,” he says. “Something that’s commonplace when you see an ice storm come to a southern city.”

And that saves money. Economist Kevin Neels of the Brattle Group worked on a study that found delays directly cost airlines $8.3 billion in 2007. That’s not including the cost to passengers.

“We estimated that the cost to the people was twice as much as the cost to the airlines,” he says.

Right now, the government pays for the water vapor sensors. Steve Pritchett of the National Weather Service says it’s worth it. He wishes all planes were equipped with them. The only drawback of relying on planes for data, he says, is he can’t tell them where to fly.

 

 

 

"Mini" muni bonds — double your money, help your city

Mon, 2014-08-04 02:00

Municipal bonds are the sort-of boring financial tool that big institutional investors use to hedge their bets. But this week, the city of Denver is hoping to attract a totally different class of buyers for its bond sale.

The city is selling $500 “mini-bonds" to state residents, as a way to get locals literally invested in the community.

It’s a simple pitch for investors: buy a few of these mini-bonds, and in 14 years you’re guaranteed to double your money. In the meantime, the city gets funds to renovate two cultural attractions and build a new recreation center.

The yield is higher than what the city offers on traditional bonds, but Denver’s Chief Financial Officer Cary Kennedy believes the extra expense is worth it to keep the money in the state.

“We’re willing to offer this to the citizens of Colorado because we want to give them that investment opportunity,” Kennedy says. “And we also want them to feel like they can support these critical infrastructure projects.”

The concept of mini-bonds has been around for a while, but they’re rarely issued by governments. That’s in part because they can be a real headache to administer.

Lynnette Kelly, executive director of the Municipal Securities Rulemaking Board, says the back-office costs can be significant for the issuer. The customer service needs of thousands of individual small investors can add up to quite a headache.

“My mother, for example, had a lot of mini-bonds from a public power district,” Kelly says. “She had questions all the time. You know, 'Where’s my interest check?' And, 'I think I lost my mini-bond, what do I do now?' All of those basic everyday questions have to be handled and they have to be handled really well.”

Investors can now find the answers to a lot of those questions online, making mini-bonds easier to manage.

And Denver is certainly betting on their popularity. It hopes to sell $12 million in mini-bonds in just five days.

Hacking away in Las Vegas

Mon, 2014-08-04 02:00

This week, thousands of people interested in all sorts of hacking are gathering in Nevada. They're headed to two conferences, Black Hat and Defcon, which are well known to the cybersecurity industry. But a thriving ecosystem of other meet-ups, tear downs, and other tech events are happening in Vegas as well. 

One of the meetings this week is the Password Con, a two day event.

Sophos Cybersecurity expert Chester Wisniewski describes the event as, “kind of all the global minds in security coming together to figure out this authentication problem.”

There is arguably enough happening on that front for there to be a separate conference on passwords alone.

The audience at the conference, according to Wisniewski, is “nerds of every security stripe” — criminal hackers, government spies, security  professionals,  and ethical hackers.

He says privacy and mobile are at the top of mind this year — the hacker side of the community is very interested in maintaining privacy, especially in the face of the continuing to unfold NSA revelations.

 

Grocery chain workers fight for millionaire CEO

Mon, 2014-08-04 02:00

One of the country’s most successful regional grocery chains is holding a job fair on Monday.  Massachusetts-based Market Basket is looking to replace employees who’ve been holding protests and asking customers to boycott its stores.

Two weeks into the rallies, it’s like the aftermath of a snowstorm in New England - dozens of Market Basket stores with slim pickings and few customers.

It's not low wages or high prices the workers are upset about; they just want their old boss back. Ousted CEO Arthur T. Demoulas famously kept prices low and paid a living wage, plus provided good benefits and profit-sharing.  Now, workers and Market Basket customers alike worry the company's new leaders, under "Artie T's" cousin, will change all that.

"This is not a protest against the company, it’s a protest to save the company," says Thomas Kochan, Co-Director of MIT’s Institute for Work and Employment Research. "You have store managers, clerical employees, and warehouse workers all coalescing together to take this action. That's unprecedented."

Market Basket’s new CEOs say they'll welcome those workers back, and the company won't change its "unmatched compensation and benefits." But they warn that employees who keep up the protest could lose pay, and even their jobs.

At the Center for Corporate Citizenship at Boston College, Executive Director Katherine Smith says Market Basket has an obligation to its shareholders. But, she adds, the low cost chain won its edge in part by putting employees ahead of profits.  

"More and more we see companies struggling with the question of not only am I helping to create the world I want to do business in, but also the world I want to live in," she says.

Whichever way Market Basket goes, Smith says CEOs around the country are watching.

 

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