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Updated: 27 min 20 sec ago

We're paying more to pay taxes

Tue, 2014-04-15 11:37

Courtesy of the Wall Street Journal:

Inflation is riding at just about 1.5 percent, at an annualized rate, as Marketplace's Mitchell Hartman reported.

Buried just slightly deeper in the data, though was this: Inflation in the tax preparation and accounting fees category is up 5.1 percent.

So not only are we paying taxes this April 15, we're paying more to pay them.  

Ukraine's economy, as felt on the street

Tue, 2014-04-15 11:08

Ukraine launched a "special operation" on Tuesday to push pro-Russian militants out of an airbase they had occuppied in the eastern part of that country. In Kiev, the interim government declared a victory over rebels by saying the air base had been "liberated". But there was no sign of militants.

"You drive along normal roads, the traffic police keep an eye on everybody's speed, you get to town squares [and] you see people playing in playgrounds, buses running on time, so that's all on one side," said the BBC's James Reynolds in Donetsk. "But then when you see some of the occupations, you see men walking around with sticks, balaclavas, ski masks. You see protesters inside Ukrainian government buildings, taken over by Russian protesters, stocking up on food, on macaroni."

In Washington, the administration said it was not considering sending arms to Ukraine but that it was "seriously considering" additional sanctions. 

"Ukraine needs help from abroad, that's what the interim government knows, and indeed, where Ukraine should get that economic help from abroad is what precipitated this crisis back in November," Reynolds says. "Essentially the problem from Ukraine is that its got to choose help and it has to either choose, 'do you get the bulk of that help from Russia ... or do you go to the EU and the United States?'"

Russian stock market shares fell about three percent.

Born to fly

Tue, 2014-04-15 10:51

From the Marketplace Datebook, here's a look at what's coming up April 16, 2014:

  • In Washington, the Commerce Department reports on construction of new homes for March.
  • The Federal Reserve releases its latest Beige Book summary of commentary on current economic conditions.
  • "Protecting Your Personal Data: How Law Enforcement Works With the Private Sector to Prevent Cybercrime": The name of a House field hearing being held in Philadelphia.
  • Actor Charlie Chaplin was born on April 16, 1889.
  • And aviation pioneer Wilbur Wright was born on April 16, 1867. He and his younger brother, Orville, took flight 36 years later. 

The next time you 'Google' it may be via drone

Tue, 2014-04-15 07:34

Millions of people in developing countries still don’t have access to the Internet. Google would like to change that, which is why it’s acquired Titan Aerospace, manufacturer of solar-powered drones. 

The world's most famous search engine plans to send the drones up to hover high in the atmosphere, beaming the internet down to earth. More people could 'google', but will these people like having drones peering down at them? 

We asked Patrick Egan, editor of the drone-focused sUAS News website, about privacy concerns: 

“I don’t think in this case it’s going to be a privacy issue. They’re going to fly at really high altitudes.  They probably won’t even have cameras on them.”

Google’s already experimented with aerial hot spots, using balloons, but drones are expected to be more reliable. 

“The winds at altitude can be pretty strong. So, the more controllability you have the better,” says Kurt Barnhart, director of the Applied Aviation Research Center at Kansas State University.

Plus, Titan says its drones can stay aloft for years, without refueling.

Ever find it difficult to talk to your boss - or your boss's boss?

Tue, 2014-04-15 07:07

Talking to your boss, or even worse –your boss’s boss, can be one of the most awkward parts of office life. Chris Colin and Rob Baedeker are here to help with this excerpt from their new book, “What to Talk About: On a Plane, at a Cocktail Party, in a Tiny Elevator with your Boss’s Boss”. 

The doom of the unknown co-worker:
You should know this guy’s name by now -- he’s in sales and you’re in marketing.  You run into him every two weeks. He looks like a Scott, but he’s not a Scott.

What to do?

Visit the Social Security Administration web site -- they have a list of the most popular birth names by year. Guess the unknown co-worker’s age, study the top names for those years, and be ready to play the odds during your next encounter.

The Interview:
Most of us try to be too original during job interviews. Behold:

BOSS: We’re looking for a manager who can build our core competencies.

PROSPECTIVE NEW HIRE: I’m a Trebuchet m’lady, a War Wolf. I will hurl flaming orbs of competency at your charge d’affairs.

BOSS: …We'll be in touch.

To succeed in an interview, you’ve got to use the gift that’s given you -- listen to what the interviewer is saying and repeat her language.

BOSS: We’re looking for a manager who can build our core competencies.

PROSPECTIVE NEW HIRE: I hear you saying you want someone who can really build on your core competencies.

BOSS: You’re hired!

It's that easy – you're now on your way to a brown-belt in the talking arts. With your new mastery of conversation, you'll cruise through the next office holiday party, conference call, and trip to the water cooler!

PODCAST: Google's drones

Tue, 2014-04-15 06:35

Millions of people in developing countries still don’t have access to the Internet. Google would like to change that, which is why it’s acquired Titan Aerospace, manufacturer of solar-powered drones. The world's most famous search engine plans to send the drones up to hover high in the atmosphere, beaming the internet down to earth.

Heartbleed continues to dominate the news and scare the daylights out of all of us. The massive data flaw has thrown a huge curveball to millions of companies and the collective fix is a big, expensive deal.

The deadline to file income taxes is April 15. For many businesses, deductions on things like labor and rent help to keep tax bills low. But that's not the case for marijuana dispensaries in states that have legalized medical or recreational use. Many licensed marijuana business owners file taxes. But because of an Internal Revenue Service code known as 280E—originally written for illegal drug traffickers—they can't write off retail expenses associated with the business.

IRS budget problems help tax evaders

Tue, 2014-04-15 02:22

The IRS says it will audit fewer people this year than it has in many years. And, in telling us that, it's walking a fine line.

It wants you to know it's tough on tax cheats. It also wants you to know that it doesn't have enough money to be as tough on tax cheats.

"We hear a lot about people going to prison for tax fraud, but at the same time, the IRS needs budgetary resources," says Joshua Blank, faculty director of the Graduate Tax Program at New York University School of Law.

With a smaller budget and staff, the agency says fewer than one percent of returns will be audited this year. The IRS hopes that number will get a hostile Congress to increase its budget.

"A less enforced tax system rewards tax evaders, which in turn hurts everyone else," says Joel Slemrod, a professor at the University of Michigan's Ross School of Business.

Fewer audits means the IRS is also losing the deterrent effects of what happens when someone tells all his friends about his experience, saying something like, "And, here's what they caught me on. They caught me on home office deduction, or they caught me on something else, and I had to write a big check. Geeze, I hope you don't have to go through that," says former IRS acting commissioner Kevin Brown, now with PriceWaterhouseCoopers.

The IRS hopes it can simultaneously scare you, and scare Congress into giving it more money.

It's Tax Day! Now for pot dealers, too

Tue, 2014-04-15 02:16

The deadline to file income taxes is April 15. For many businesses, deductions on things like labor and rent help to keep tax bills low. But that's not the case for marijuana dispensaries in states that have legalized medical or recreational use.

It's frustrating for business owners like Erica Freeman, who runs Choice Organics near Fort Collins, Colo. She's marking a big milestone this month. After voters legalized recreational pot in the state, Freeman spent thousands opening a new shop right next to her medical dispensary.

"...a whole separate video surveillance and security systems—and all of those kinds of things," she says.

Freeman and many other licensed marijuana business owners file taxes. But because of an Internal Revenue Service code known as 280E—originally written for illegal drug traffickers—they can't write off retail expenses associated with the business.

"I mean, all of these things are necessary for the front of the house, and therefore it's really not eligible to be written off," she says.

Recent rulings from tax court have allowed businesses to write off costs associated with growing marijuana. But the income tax rate for pot shops in Colorado can be as high as 70 percent. That's according to Jim Marty, a tax accountant who works with dozens of dispensaries across the state.

"Depending on where they're at it can be catastrophic," says Marty, who adds that the situation is particularly onerous for dispensaries just starting out.

"If they have losses—real, cash-basis losses—it can be a shock to them to find out that they owe taxes in years when they haven't made any money."

In California, 280E is even a problem for nonprofit dispensaries. Aaron Smith with the National Cannabis Industry Association says stores that sell medical marijuana can't get tax-exempt status from the IRS. That means they're filing taxes as for-profit businesses.

"The cruel irony behind this is that illegal drug dealers almost never even file income taxes," he says. "So this provision really only affects the legitimate state-licensed marijuana providers."

The Association recently hired a full-time lobbyist to push reform in Congress. In Colorado, a solution could come from the courts. Arguments on one dispensary's tax case are expected to be heard later this year.

The GM hearings could be just for show

Tue, 2014-04-15 01:06

General Motors CEO Mary Barra has been getting a lot of heat from Congress for the troubles at GM. In a blog post yesterday, Barra promised "accountability" from senior leadership when it comes to dealing with future safety problems at the company.

We ask: just who is accountable? Marketplace regular Alan Sloan, senior editor-at-large at Fortune magazine has been watching Barra, who's only been in the job since January 15th,  try to weather the storm which originated years ago. Sloan says Congress is villanizing the wrong person.

Click on the audio player above to hear more. 

Bleeding out

Tue, 2014-04-15 01:00

Heartbleed continues to dominate the news and scare the daylights out of all of us. The massive data flaw has thrown a huge curveball to millions of companies and the collective fix is a big, expensive deal. 

"When you add up all these IT hours as well as physical costs, you know, buying additional software for security reasons for these companies. I have to believe that the cost will probably be in the billions," says tech consultant Tim Bajarin.

Another blow that's a bit harder to calculate: the PR cost

"You first need to fix the issue. Plug the hole and then secondly, you need to re-instill confidence in your user base so that Heartbleed doesn’t continue to drain you, even after the fact," says data consultant Will Riegel. He says many consumers have scaled back online shopping and other transactions and coaxing them back will require outreach.

Riegel says it will take months before we can start to assess the full economic impact of Heartbleed.

Neel Mehta, Bug Bounty Hunter

Heartbleed is going to cost a lot of people a lot of money. But even before IT departments everywhere kicked into overdrive to install patches, there were already big bucks at play courtesy of a bug bounty paid to the man who discovered Heartbleed, Google security researcher Neel Mehta. For his discovery, he received $15,000, which he charitably donated to the Freedom of the Press Foundation, a group that was in the midst of crowd-funding for new encryption tools designed specifically for journalists. Though, some estimate that with the scope of security flaws like Heartbleed, future bounties could yield prizes closer to $100,000 - $500,000.

In the meantime, if you know an IT guy/gal burning the midnight oil, go ahead and buy them this shirt.

Survey results: What's your type?

Mon, 2014-04-14 13:55

The break-up of a graphic design duo has resulted in a lawsuit of $20 million – over fonts. Tobias Frere-Jones and Jonathan Hoefler worked together for 15 years to create some of the most famous and ubiquitous fonts around– used by GQ, Martha Stewart, the New York Jets and Saturday Night Live. They won awards for their typefaces - before the relationship turned sour.

When this story broke, we found out one thing for sure: Wow, Marketplace fans care about fonts. Here are the results of our font survey:

You like...

Sally Herships/Marketplace

And you really, really don't like...

Sally Herships/Marketplace

Kraft hits refresh button on vintage brands

Mon, 2014-04-14 13:41

Maxwell House coffee gets a makeover today. The Kraft brand is unveiling a new logo, new packaging, and, bringing back its “good to the last drop” tagline – to remind consumers how good it is, it says. But is it a good idea to tinker with a classic brand’s identity?

An idea that might have seemed great a few decades ago-- we're talking about Quaker Oats’ old version of Aunt Jemima--might not seem so hot just a little bit later. But even when brands need to make big changes, they need to step carefully, says Dave Reibstein, a professor of marketing at the Wharton School of Business.

“In general, what it is you want to do is to be very, very, very consistent with your brand,” Reibstein says, especially to avoid the worst case scenario. “I walk down the aisle and I don’t even see it."

Tom Meyvis, a professor of marketing at the Stern School of Business at New York University, cites Brawny paper towel's sucessful handling of an image problem the brand had with its illustrated spokeman.

“The Wall Street Journal described him as a 70s porn star," Meyvis says.

But, Meyvis notes, that brand handled its image right–by taking baby steps. It slowly shrank the problem mustache, and character, until they were replaced by one a little more up to date. But Matt Egan, senior director of strategy for Siegel+Gale, a brand consultancy based in New York, says even though Kraft says its coffee has a brand new campaign, relying on its old slogan, "Good to the last drop," may not do the trick.

"When a food company resorts to talking about goodness," he says, "that’s always a sign they don’t have much of a real story to tell."

Global warming: 15 years to change things...

Mon, 2014-04-14 13:38

The latest U.N. climate change report says that if the world doesn't do some really tough, expensive things over the next 15 years, the costs of climate change may spiral out of control. Some of those things involve technology that isn't available yet, such as removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Others involve things countries have done a terrible job of so far— like burning less coal, oil and gas. Scientists have been saying carbon-dioxide emissions have to be reduced for decades, but emissions actually went up in the early twenty-first century. Some people deny global warming is caused by human activitity, but what holds the rest of the world back? A lot. 

Robert Gifford, a psychologist at the University of Victoria, studies what he calls the “dragons of inaction” on climate change. So far, he says he’s counted more than 30. 

"Certainly one that would be in the top ten is 'lack of perceived behavioral control,'" he says. "Which in plain English is: What can I do about it? I’m only one person out of 7 and a half billion people?”

Another one is fatalism. "If people think the game is already over, then why should I do anything?" Gifford says. He thinks "apocalyptic" predictions by scientists can actually make that problem worse. 

"I’ve called this the policy problem from hell," says Anthony Leiserowitz, who runs the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication.  "You almost couldn’t design a problem that in some ways is a worse fit for our psychology as well as our institutional decision making."

Psychologically, he says, it doesn’t help that carbon dioxide itself is invisible. It's hard to fight what you can’t see.

Climate change also seems too far away to focus on. "Even if they accept that climate change is real," he says, "many people still think it’s distant in time—that the impacts won’t be felt for a generation or more. Or distant in space -- that this is about polar bears."

Institutionally, he thinks politicians have more practical reasons for thinking short-term: The next election cycle. "Many of them aren't going to be around to see the ultimate effect of the decisions they make today," he says.  

"What makes this even harder is that countries need to coordinate," says David Victor, the author of Global Warming Gridlock, who helped put together the U.N. report's introductory chapter. "No big emitter is going to control its emissions aggressively and bear that cost unless it sees other major emitters in the world doing something similar."

The U.N. climate report outlines steps to hold global warming to 2 degrees Celsius. Victor says he expects the world to “blow past” that target.

Global warming: 15 years to change things...

Mon, 2014-04-14 13:38

The latest U.N. climate change report says that if the world doesn't do some really tough, expensive things over the next 15 years, the costs of climate change may spiral out of control. Some of those things involve technology that isn't available yet, such as removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Others involve things countries have done a terrible job of so far— like burning less coal, oil and gas. Scientists have been saying carbon-dioxide emissions have to be reduced for decades, but emissions actually went up in the early twenty-first century. Some people deny global warming is caused by human activitity, but what holds the rest of the world back? A lot. 

Robert Gifford, a psychologist at the University of Victoria, studies what he calls the “dragons of inaction” on climate change. So far, he says he’s counted more than 30. 

"Certainly one that would be in the top ten is 'lack of perceived behavioral control,'" he says. "Which in plain English is: What can I do about it? I’m only one person out of 7 and a half billion people?”

Another one is fatalism. "If people think the game is already over, then why should I do anything?" Gifford says. He thinks "apocalyptic" predictions by scientists can actually make that problem worse. 

"I’ve called this the policy problem from hell," says Anthony Leiserowitz, who runs the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication.  "You almost couldn’t design a problem that in some ways is a worse fit for our psychology as well as our institutional decision making."

Psychologically, he says, it doesn’t help that carbon dioxide itself is invisible. It's hard to fight what you can’t see.

Climate change also seems too far away to focus on. "Even if they accept that climate change is real," he says, "many people still think it’s distant in time—that the impacts won’t be felt for a generation or more. Or distant in space -- that this is about polar bears."

Institutionally, he thinks politicians have more practical reasons for thinking short-term: The next election cycle. "Many of them aren't going to be around to see the ultimate effect of the decisions they make today," he says.  

"What makes this even harder is that countries need to coordinate," says David Victor, the author of Global Warming Gridlock, who helped put together the U.N. report's introductory chapter. "No big emitter is going to control its emissions aggressively and bear that cost unless it sees other major emitters in the world doing something similar."

The U.N. climate report outlines steps to hold global warming to 2 degrees Celsius. Victor says he expects the world to “blow past” that target.

Retail sales: What's driving demand?

Mon, 2014-04-14 13:35

The Commerce Department reports retail sales in March rose 1.1 percent from the previous month, and 3.8 percent from one year ago. It’s the biggest gain since September 2012, and was led by auto sales—up 3.1 percent—and building materials and garden supplies—up 1.8 percent. Except for electronics stores, appliances stores and gas stations—which saw their sales fall—the retail rebound in March was across the board—clothing, bars and restaurants, health and personal care, books and music.

The rise in March came from improving weather, after a dismal winter with frigid temperatures and heavy snowfall across the East and Midwest, and drenching rain at times in the Pacific Northwest.

Deborah Trout-Kolb was heading into a Nordstrom department store in downtown Portland, Ore. She owns a fitness studio in New Haven, Conn., where she lives, and she said the ‘horrendous’ winter weather depressed her income.

“Obviously if people can’t come into a dance and fitness studio they don’t pay,” she said. “But I believe it’s getting better.” And that’s making her feel a bit more like shopping now. “You’ve got to do that retail therapy every once in a while,” she said.

Nationwide, people who didn’t shop for clothes or washing machines or cars in mid-winter, have come into stores with a vengeance. However, there are still headwinds at the bottom of the income ladder, said economist Chris Christopher at IHS Global Insight: “Extended unemployment benefits being phased out, in addition to food stamps being lowered.”

And for the middle-class, income and household wealth still haven’t caught up to pre-recession levels, said NYU economist Edward Wolff. He said a main driver of the improving store-sales figures is increased borrowing.

“Rising debt levels, consumer debt particularly, is helping to increase consumer spending [and] retail sales,” said Wolff.

Some of that consumer borrowing is driven by people feeling better-off—a so-called ‘wealth effect’—if their home or stock portfolio has risen in value. And some of it is the need for ‘retail therapy’ that the shopper heading into Nordstrom was talking about.

By Shea Huffman/Marketplace

Kentucky fried prom corsages

Mon, 2014-04-14 13:16

Prom season is almost upon us.   Sadly, any conceivable connection to reality ends there. A florist in Louisville, Kentucky is offering a Kentucky Fried Chicken corsage. $20 plus shipping. It has Baby's breath and the whole nine yards of a regular floral corsage, plus you get a $5 KFC gift certificate. You can customize it with Original Recipe or Extra Crispy.   There are only 100 available... so kids, act now.  

Kentucky fried prom corsages

Mon, 2014-04-14 13:16

Prom season is almost upon us.   Sadly, any conceivable connection to reality ends there. A florist in Louisville, Kentucky is offering a Kentucky Fried Chicken corsage. $20 plus shipping. It has Baby's breath and the whole nine yards of a regular floral corsage, plus you get a $5 KFC gift certificate. You can customize it with Original Recipe or Extra Crispy.   There are only 100 available... so kids, act now.  

When the IRS 'likes' your Facebook update

Mon, 2014-04-14 11:43

Taxes are due tomorrow, which means that today is the last minute scramble. Really, we're all just trying to get through this time of year without losing our shirts and —of course--without getting audited. The IRS is kicking into high gear, too. Their goals are a bit different than ours, though. The agency is hoping to catch tax dodgers. It loses an estimated $300 billion a year to tax evasion, and getting that money isn’t getting easier. Because of budget cuts, the IRS will have fewer auditing agents than at any time since the 1980s.

Enter robots. After all, the IRS may not have a whole lot of money or manpower, but it has a gold mine of data on you. A lot of it from... well... you.

"It’s hard to believe that anybody who puts anything on Facebook has any legitimate expectation of privacy," says Edward Zelinsky, a professor of tax law at the Cordozo School of Law.

Those fancy vacation photos you posted on Instagram? The Facebook status update about your new car? The tweets about your wildly successful side business?

All fair game for the IRS.

Not that the IRS is perusing everyone’s Facebook photos. It’s probably only looking at your Facebook photos if it suspects you might be a tax dodger. How does it get suspicious? Data, of course.

"It appears from its public statements and some other reports, that it’s using data to piece together likely profiles or likely candidates for closer review," says Behnam Dayanim, co-chair of the privacy and data practice at Paul Hastings.

The IRS is notoriously secretive about its methods; it didn’t respond to repeated requests for comment. But recent private sector hires and off-the-record sources indicate the IRS is seriously gearing up its data mining, using tools like online activity trackers to enhance the vast cache of information it’s already privy to: your social security number, your health records, your banking transactions.

The result? A pretty sophisticated data profile.

"It seems they may be using predictive analytics," says Joseph Turow, professor at University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg School of Communication. "That takes a huge amount of data and puts it together in a big pot to see if they can predict which individuals don’t pay their taxes."

Creating profiles based on that data could be problematic, says Turow. "Once you begin giving people scores like that, you’ve given them reputations that might stay with them over years, and might be used by the IRS and other agencies in really incorrect ways."

Of course, these days everyone from Google to Nike is cobbling our data together to create profiles of us.

Still, it’s different when the IRS does it. "If Nike is analyzing my information, the worst consequence is that they market stuff to me that I don’t want and it’s annoying," says  Dayanim. "If the government does it, the worst consequence is there could be legal ramifications, whether it’s fines, penalties or imprisonment."

If you don’t want the IRS in your online business, Dyanim suggests ratcheting up the privacy settings on all of your social media accounts. And never posting anything that you wouldn’t want the agency to see. You could also try a charm offensive. The IRS has 24,000 Facebook fans and 52,000 Twitter followers.

Tyrant lizard king arrives in Washington

Mon, 2014-04-14 11:13

From the Marketplace Datebook, here's what's coming up April 15:

  • The National Association of Homebuilders reports on builder confidence in the single family housing market.
  • Did consumers pay more or less for stuff in March than they did in February? The Labor Department issues its Consumer Price Index.
  • On April 15, 1912 the Titanic sank after a fatal run-in with an iceberg.
  • Federal tax returns need to be postmarked by tomorrow. Some post offices have extended hours to accommodate procrastinators. Sounds like fun.
  • And here's some news with teeth. A ceremony at the Smithsonian's Natural History Museum marks the arrival of a nearly-complete Tyrannosaurus rex fossil. I see a future of selfie's with T rex.

Digital advertisers losing the 'bot arms race'

Mon, 2014-04-14 09:15

Cyber-crime is a serious threat to anyone who does businesss on the internet. Some of the biggest heists have involved credit card data and banking information.

But that is changing.

Criminal rings have found a new target, one that is turning out to be very lucrative and less risky than bank and credit card fraud: digital ad fraud. Researchers believe that more than one third of all internet traffic is from bots--software programs, and not actual humans. And all those fake eyeballs are wreaking havoc on the $50 billion digital ad market.

Let's say you are a big box retail store. To get people into your store you place thousands of online ads on thousands of websites. Some of those websites are very secure, but others are set up to generate ad views from bots. So you, the retailer, keep a list of the sites that are viewed by humans and those that could be overrun by bots.

"The problem is those lists are not updated frequently enough," says Dr. Augustine Fou, a marketing science consultant. We are in the midst of what he calls a bot arms race. The good guys can detect bots, maybe by noticing that the bot doesn't move the mouse like a human. But then, the bots get more sophisticated, they learn to move a mouse like a person would. "Once the good guys detect that kind of stuff," Fou says, " then the bad guys now add the next level and they can now simulate those things."

Fou says that between 30 and 60 percent of all display ad views are fraudulent--meaning they're on websites being viewed by bots.

Several companies have tried to recoup ad spending when they discovered their ads weren't seen by humans. They are also turning to companies like White Ops.

"Whenever a page is loaded on the web, we determine in real time whether it was viewed by a human or a bot," says *Tamar Hassan, the chief technical officer of White Ops.

He says criminals are increasingly turning to digital ad fraud because it can be more profitable than good old-fashioned credit card fraud. "Now, the price is around 25 cents a credit card, and you still have to get away with the fraud," Hassan says. Not only that, "when you do, somebody is actually chasing you because the money is missing."

But in advertising the money is just as good if not better than credit card fraud. And no one is chasing you because the money isn't missing. It's the human eyeballs that are nowhere to be found.

*CORRECTION: The original article misidentified an executive with White Ops. He is Tamar Hassan, the company’s chief technical officer. The text has been corrected.

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