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PODCAST: GE's new direction

Fri, 2015-04-10 03:00

Airing on Friday, April 10, 2015: General Electric likes to be known for its power plants, it's cat scanners, it's fridges, but less so for its massive real estate holdings. There's news just now that GE is going to refocus on its roots in manufacturing. Plus, LinkedIn, the social networking tool, is purchasing Lynda.com, an online business skills training company. The price tag? $1.5 billion. We look at why LinkedIn would want to spend that kind of money. And in a lot of cities in Mexico, it's not that easy to get safe drinking water - and a lot of folks reach for a soda pop instead. The Mexican government is trying to change that. 

 

In Mexico, things go better with...water

Fri, 2015-04-10 02:00

If you’re looking for lunch in the northern Mexico border town of Nuevo Laredo, you might walk into a spot called La Parilla. When I walked in there, I noticed almost every table has 4 or 5 empty soda bottles on it. This isn’t a big restaurant – less than 20 tables. My waiter tells me that he sells about 100 sodas every day.

“It’s because people just enjoy the flavor,” he says.

And his customers aren’t alone. The Mexican population drinks more soda than anywhere else in the world. The numbers work out to more than 160 liters of the sugary stuff a year. That’s about half a liter per person every day.

Jose Luis Quinones drives a cab in Monterrey. He says when he leaves for work in the morning he grabs something quick.
“And what’s the cheapest thing I can buy?” he asks. “A can of soda and some crackers. It’s cheaper to buy a can of soda than a bottle of water.”

Why is that the case? It could be that poor Mexicans don’t have the purchasing power to create a viable market for water. That’s certainly the case in a lot of the rural parts of the country where more than 10 percent of people don’t have access to potable water. But for some reason, they can always grab a soda. Tom Bollyky, Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, says the reason behind that is a combination of things.

“It’s something that costs the same price as water," he says. "And it’s more accessible in schools in Mexico. And it’s sweet. That combination is literally deadly.”

It leads to obesity. Mexico now has the highest obesity rate in the world. And the Mexican government is trying to do something about it. Last year, the government passed a soda tax. It also started running ads urging children to drink water instead of soda. But Bollyky says the way they’re using the money – earmarking it for raising access to drinking water in elementary schools – is just as important.

It will still take a while to see how well the tax and ads work. But early numbers look pretty good. According to Bollyky, while still high, soda consumption in Mexico is down 7 percent.

In Panama, President Obama seeks economic growth

Fri, 2015-04-10 02:00

President Barack Obama is in Panama for the Summit of the Americas, a gathering of American heads of state. This year the leaders will be joined for the first time by Raul Castro, Cuba's leader. For years, Cuba was excluded from the summit, which created tension between Latin American leaders and the U.S. 

Disagreement over the U.S. embargo of Cuba wasn't the only gripe Latin American leaders had with U.S. policy in the region. "American presidents have a hard time paying attention to Latin America," says Moises Naim, a fellow at the Carnegie Endowment.

But the Obama Administration seeks to slow the tide of illegal immigrants, so Naim says "the top priority for the United States ... is to have strong economies that produce jobs."

That's a shift from years of sending money to the region's militaries to pay for the War on Drugs. 

"The United States has moved beyond a single policy toward Latin America," said Bruce Bagley, a professor of political science at the University of Miami. But focusing on poverty alleviation in places like Honduras, which has high violence and a high level of emigration, isn't easy, because "one of the major constraints is the absence of capital and expertise," he said.

That absence of capital is one reason why cabinet member and U.S. Small Business Administrator Maria Contreras-Sweet was in Panama to announce a new partnership between the SBA and ConnectAmericas, a social network for Latin American entrepreneurs. "That's how we help their youth change their future and change their lives," Contreras-Sweet says. 

LinkedIn wants to teach you stuff

Fri, 2015-04-10 02:00

LinkedIn, the professional networking site, is purchasing Lynda.com, the online video training company, in a deal worth $1.5 billion in cash and stock. The acquisition is expected to close in the second quarter of 2015, LinkedIn said in a press release.

"The combination of LinkedIn and lynda.com is the kind of fit that benefits everyone," LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner wrote in a company blog post. "LinkedIn has the members, the jobs... and... can be accessed by roughly 350 million people to share professionally relevant knowledge. lynda.com's service has the premium library of skills-based courses."

The acquisition makes sense in terms of LinkedIn's goals "to build out kind of an entire ecosystem around training, job recruitment, job hiring, talent development," says Analyst Mark Mahaney of RBC Capital Markets.

But it also has pitfalls for LinkedIn, says Colin Gillis of BGC Partners. "You're paying $1.5 billion for a business that is a subscription business and may come into pressure from free sites like YouTube."

Silicon Tally: Defending your digital life

Fri, 2015-04-10 02:00

It's time for Silicon Tally! How well have you kept up with the week in tech news?

This week, we're joined by Jason Scott, the curator of the Internet Arcade.

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Do wings give you wings?

Fri, 2015-04-10 01:00
$ 1.5 billion

That's how much LinkedIn paid for Lynda.com, an online video training company. The huge price tag may be worth it for LinkedIn. As part of LinkedIn's broad strategic ambition, the acquisition build out an ecosystem around training, recruitment, hiring, and talent development. 

100 million

That's how many chicken wings sports bar chain Buffalo Wild Wings sold during this year's NCAA basketball tournament, Bloomberg reported. The Minneapolis-based company has been on an extraordinary rise, riding the fast-casual wave and adapting to volatile wing prices and crowds that come and go with sports seasons.

650

That's how many men and women under 25 working at the IRS. The total staff? 87,000. The IRS is trying to convince more millennials it's cool to work for the tax agency, according to Bloomberg. Four years from now, about 40 percent of its workforce will be eligible to retire. The recruiting page for student and recent grads reads, "You’ll be part of a tax collection process that funds our nation’s most vital programs—from securing the nation and protecting social services, to maintaining parklands and forests, building libraries, opening museums, enhancing schools and much, much more.” 

April 24

The hotly anticipated release of the Apple Watch. But Business Insider notes Apple is changing the way it approaches launch day, letting people try on the smart watch by appointment and encouraging them to order online. Part of this shift is practical — with so many watch combinations and price points, it could be tough to keep everything in stock — but it's also about image. Apple's new retail chief came over from Burberry, and the Watch is being sold in part as a luxury item. Long lines and tents outside of the store isn't exactly classy.

87 days

That's how long oil flowed into the Gulf of Mexico after the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded in 2010, spilling nearly 5 million gallons. Five years later, the Gulf's reputation for great seafood is starting to recover, but there isn't as much to sell as there used to be.

160 liters

That's how much soda the Mexican population consumes every year — or about half a liter per person per day. Mexico drinks more of this sugary stuff than anywhere else in the world. And in areas without easy access to fresh water, people more often turn to soda to quench their thirst. This trend has lead to obesity, but the Mexican government is trying to tackle it with a soda tax. 

LinkedIn purchasing Lynda.com for $1.5 billion

Thu, 2015-04-09 15:34

Kind of a biggie in the social media professional networking space: LinkedIn said this morning it's going to spend $1.5 billion to buy Lynda.com,  a company that specializes in online professional training videos and tutorials.

The bet LinkedIn is making, of course, is that people will go to LinkedIn for something other than just random clicking around looking for a new job.

Which is what you guys do too, right?

LinkedIn purchasing Lynda.com for $1.5 billion

Thu, 2015-04-09 15:34

Kind of a biggie in the social media professional networking space: LinkedIn said this morning it's going to spend $1.5 billion to buy Lynda.com,  a company that specializes in online professional training videos and tutorials.

The bet LinkedIn is making, of course, is that people will go to LinkedIn for something other than just random clicking around looking for a new job.

Which is what you guys do too, right?

Selena lives on via hologram

Thu, 2015-04-09 13:00

The Latin American pop star Selena Quintanilla has been dead for a couple of decades, but now her family is collaborating with a tech firm called Acrovirt to create what it's calling a 360 degree "digital embodiment" of the singer.

 

The hologram will be able to dance, move and interact. It will sing Selena's old repertoire, as well as new songs. The project, called Selena the One, is meant to be a cut above the hologram performances we've seen in recent years of singers like Michael Jackson or Tupac Shakur.

Media expert Aram Sinnreich at Rutgers University says there's plenty of demand from consumers to see a second life for their favorite entertainers, even if they're not really there.

Thank California for your low-flow faucet

Thu, 2015-04-09 13:00

New water restrictions in California are imposing steep cutbacks in cities and towns across the state.

Those cutbacks are also coming to bathrooms and kitchens. New low-flow standards for fixtures like faucets and toilets are forecast to save around 10 billion gallons of water the first year, and up to 105 billion gallons per year over time, according to the California Energy Commission. 

Because of its size, California has a history of pulling industry in the direction of conservation. The new standards go into effect for toilets and urinals, but also for kitchen and bath faucets sold after January 1, 2016.

When California rolled out stricter fuel and emissions regulations for cars, the auto industry eventually adopted the guidelines for all cars. Now, many are saying the same could be true for toilets and faucets. 

"The adage is, where California goes, so goes the market," says Andy Hoffman, Faculty Director of the University of Michigan’s Erb Institute, which focuses on sustainability and business. 

Converting a standard faucet into low-flow isn’t as complex as re-engineering a car, but companies could have an incentive to market the more efficient products.

“It could also get them to bring down the cost because they are going to increase sales,” Hoffman said.  “Certainly California will be a motivated market to buy, perhaps,  waterless urinals or dual-flush toilets.”

People who don’t like low-flow faucets might be tempted to buy out of state or online, but state incentives could keep that activity to a minimum.

Others say consumers are already accustomed to efficient products, and won’t go out of their way to buy older ones. Tracy Quinn is a water policy analyst with the Natural Resources Defense Council.

"I don't think most consumers out there will notice the difference between a toilet that flushes with 1.6 gallons and one that flushes with 1.28," Quinn said.

Even in states that aren’t wracked by drought, Quinn notes that saving drinking water that now goes down the drain or toilet still makes financial sense, and is something she thinks consumers will want access to.

Can YouTube get us to pay for ad-free cat videos?

Thu, 2015-04-09 13:00

Google is reportedly planning an ad-free version of its YouTube service, for which users will pay around $10 per month. Netflix has amassed millions of paying customers for its streaming video, and just this week, HBO launched a stand-alone streaming service. 

Getting users to pay for ad-free cat videos seems worth a shot, says Brian Wieser, an analyst with Pivotal Research.  "If you could sell content that costs you nothing— and charge a very premium price for that inventory — it’s worth trying, isn’t it?" 

He does think it’s a long shot. Asked whether people hate ads enough to pay a fee to skip them, Wieser called the idea “silly.”

Although lots of people pay for Netflix, he doesn’t think YouTube is real competition. 

"'House of Cards' will be meeting people building houses with cards," Wieser says.

Count Hank Green among those who think the new model is worth a shot. He earns his living making YouTube videos, and says he's got 33 employees.

His channels include Vlogbrothers, with his brother John, who wrote the best-selling young-adult novel, "The Fault in Our Stars".

Another, Crash Course, features education videos.

Hank Green says he hates advertisements.

"I much prefer the paid models to advertising models," he says. "I think advertising models are inefficient, and I hate seeing ads that are blatantly manipulative — and even deceptive — on my content."  

What’s been working for him recently is asking viewers for support directly. Not everybody has to give, he says— just enough.

"So really it’s not about creating content that everybody wants to watch," Green says. "It’s about creating content where people say, after they watch it: 'You know, I’d feel better if I paid for that.'"

It sounds suspiciously like, well, public radio.

Later, Green wrote back with a response to the "House of Cards" swipe:

"If you're one of the 5,000 super die hard card-stackers in the world," he wrote, "maybe videos of people building houses of cards is more valuable to you than House of Cards, is what I should have said." 

Here's what you need to know about the Apple Watch

Thu, 2015-04-09 11:17

Presales for the Apple Watch started Friday, and anticipation is running high. It's Apple's first brand-new product line since the iPad, and like the iPad, the smart watch has potential to bring a niche product into the mainstream.

Apple lent a few models to members of the media, and a torrent of reviews came in last week. Most talked about the device's potential, noting that the first iteration comes with major compromises. New York Times tech columnist Farhad Manjoo, praised the device while noting it's not for everyone, writing that Apple is "on to something."

We've pored over this week's major reviews and found these key takeaways:

It's worth the steep learning curve

Though the Watch in inextricably linked to the iPhone, it's not like having an iPhone strapped to your wrist.

The Watch takes some of the iPhone's swipes and taps, but also adds a side dial — the "digital crown" — for scrolling and zooming, as well as a side button. You can also press the screen to activate other functions, a feature called "force touch," and you navigate the software differently than on the iPhone.

All of this adds up to a steep learning curve — maybe too steep, if you haven't mastered your iPhone yet. Most reviewers said it took at least a day of regular use to figure it all out, but the new interfaces were smooth after that. Apple is also offering prospective Watch buyers a one-on-one tour of the device.

The Watch is stuck in Apple's walled garden

You need an iPhone 5 or later to use the Watch, because it relies on your phone for just about everything. It's constantly communicating with the phone via Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, so your directions, calls and messages travel back and forth from your pocket or bag. That can lead to performance issues.

Committing to technology that's a little slow to respond to you is dicey at best, especially when it's supposed to step in for your phone," Nilay Patel writes in the Verge. "If the Watch is slow, I'm going to pull out my phone. But if I keep pulling out my phone, I'll never use the Watch."

It's a bigger problem with third-party apps. There aren't tons available yet, and many act as little more than remotes for their counterpart application on your phone. Without the phone, the Apple Watch basically bricks, becoming, well, a watch. 

"Over the weekend, my iPhone 6 ran out of battery before the Apple Watch did, and it was a couple of hours before I could charge my phone again," Bonnie Cha in her review of third-party Watch apps in Re/Code. "During that down period, I could only use the Apple Watch to get the time and view existing messages and calendar appointments."

All of this is bound to improve over time, but it limits the Watch's potential at launch.

Notifications, notifications, notifications

Just about everyone dinged the Watch for sending too many notifications out of the box, notifications that feel all the more urgent when they're coming to your wrist.

Most people have grown used to glancing at their phones while talking to others, and the Watch is supposed to cut down on that and keep users in the moment. But how does that play out when glancing at your watch can be considered so rude? 

"[Using the Watch] calls for new rules of etiquette, or at least new tolerance." Geoffrey A. Fowler writes in the Wall Street Journal. "Is it appropriate to peek at a wrist alert during a meeting with your boss? What about on a date?"

In the Times, Manjoo wrote that the stream of notifications on his Watch kept him from getting lost in his phone and improved his (and others') day as a result, but only after he'd done the work of really pruning the Watch's settings.

The new features are good... mostly

Besides the obvious hardware differences, Apple is using the Watch to explore new territory.

The first is health tracking, which most reviews noted is limited but solid. The Watch keeps track of how long you're seated, moving and working out. The latter is mostly tied to heart rate, meaning weightlifters and yogis might not get as much out of it.

"I have no idea if this will have any lasting impact on my health," Joshua Topolsky writes in Bloomberg. "But I think Apple's beautiful and frictionless approach to teaching people about exercise habits is a leap in the right direction."

The other much-touted new feature is messaging, which Apple has expanded considerably for Watch users. You can draw a little picture to send to a friend, share your pulse or animate a small set of emoji. Most reviewers wrote this off as a novelty, and the Verge called the animations "nightmare fuel."

Overall, the Watch, like many first-generation Apple products, seems to be the first step in a much bigger sea change in tech. Every review I read seemed to be writing with an eye toward what's to come, and Apple is sure to refine the Watch more after people buy this model in droves starting April 24.

Learning how the Germans learn

Thu, 2015-04-09 11:00

WGBH's "On Campus" producer Mallory Noe-Payne traveled to Germany with reporter Kirk Carapezza, where they visited a handful of cities and universities for a recent series of stories — that also aired on Marketplace — about higher education in the country.

Here's a behind-the-scenes look at Mallory's photo journal of their travels recording on the road.

We arrived in Cologne at the beginning of February, just before the end of the semester.

Universities in Germany work on a different timetable, with a winter semester and summer semester, instead of fall and spring.

Mallory Noe-Payne/WGBH

As soon as we landed, we met up with a group of Americans who are studying in Germany. They meet regularly to "cafe-hop" on Sundays. The particular Sunday we were there was actually Super Bowl Sunday, and we laughed at the irony of a group of American college students sipping their espressos and eating pastries, instead of drinking Bud Light and chowing down on chips and dip.

Mallory Noe-Payne/WGBH

For a radio story, you're constantly thinking about getting natural sound, or background noise, to help give listeners a sense of place. Here's Kirk Carapezza making sure we have the sound of the espresso machine in case we wanted it:

Mallory Noe-Payne/WGBH

Unlike American universities, the University of Cologne doesn't have any staff dedicated to giving tours. Still, the school provided us with a Ph.D. student who was happy to show us around. Valerija Schwarz was actually born in Russia, but has lived in Germany since she was young.

Mallory Noe-Payne/WGBH

I graduated from a large state school, and the facilities, classrooms and cafeterias at the University of Cologne felt very similar to Virginia Tech: large, spare and clean. Architecturally, the school felt very modern — no ivy-covered brick buildings.

Mallory Noe-Payne/WGBH

We asked Valerija to show us the university gift shop and she laughed. While there were some T-shirts for sale, we didn't see any students wearing one, and there weren't any bumper stickers either.

Mallory Noe-Payne/WGBH

We also visited the University of Heidelberg, about a two hour drive south of Cologne on the Autobahn. The library there was beautiful, but dead silent. I cringed every time my camera shutter clicked. American Rachael Smith told us she hated studying in German libraries because of how quiet they are.

Mallory Noe-Payne/WGBH

In our first story, you can hear the University of Cologne's symphony play. They were performing their end-of-semester concert. Every pew in the large church where they performed was filled.

Mallory Noe-Payne/WGBH

Perhaps my favorite part of our trip was the time we got to spend with families in their homes. Everyone was so welcoming and accommodating, even as we followed them around with a microphone and camera. We spent one evening with the Park-Kim family in Essen, Germany — talking to parents Jane and Johaness as they made dinner for their three children and put them to bed. They three kids are young, which makes it difficult to interview in quiet. So, I handed over the role of journalist and played babysitter for an hour so Kirk could interview Jane and Johaness in peace.

Even though their children are still young, Jane Park and Johaness Kim are already planning for their future: They just don't know yet if that will be American colleges or German ones. You can hear their story here.

Mallory Noe-Payne/WGBH

Jay Malone showed us around the old town of Siegen, where he lived when he attended the university there. Unfortunately, his favorite schnitzel place had closed. That night we ate Italian — what a shame.

Mallory Noe-Payne/WGBH

Interviewing children for the radio can be tough. Throw a translator into the mix and things get even harder. The day we visited this elementary school in Essen, the class was just beginning a lesson on the history of the bicycle. They would soon be taking a test, a sort of driver's license for a bike.

Mallory Noe-Payne/WGBH

Touring Bayer's chemical production factory in Leverkusen felt like entering a man's world. I was the only woman among the group of men that traveled from room-to-room.

That observation held true among the apprentices as well. I only saw one young female participating in Bayer's vocational training. Recruiters there told me they struggle each year to convince young women to apply for the training program.

Mallory Noe-Payne/WGBH

For more about German higher education and how it compares to the system in America, you can read the stories Mallory and Kirk worked on here: Part 1. Part 2. Part 3. Part 4.

Janice Min pulls the curtain on Hollywood

Thu, 2015-04-09 10:37

The Hollywood Reporter, a trade magazine for the entertainment industry, was on its last legs in 2010 when Janice Min joined the team as editorial director.

Since then, Min has transformed the daily entertainment trade paper into a weekly glossy with longform pieces and photo galleries, as well as revamped the website. Her bosses must have really liked her work, because last year, they promoted her to Co-President and Chief Creative Officer. The title change coincided with the addition of Billboard Magazine to her portfolio as well.

“I was at the mindset, at the time when we were doing this, that Hollywood was such a strange place, in that you had this incredibly visual industry with storytellers,” Min says.  “Everyone in the world is fascinated by Hollywood, yet the press that covered Hollywood was nowhere. It wasn’t keeping up with that conversation at all.”

Min can also be partly credited with that fascination. Before moving to The Hollywood Reporter, Min was the editor at Us Weekly. Her time there, from 2003 to 2009, coincides with the rise of reality television — something Us Weekly was quick to capitalize on. Min notes that Us Weekly was the first publication to put "The Bachelor" on the cover.

“I mean, now you can fast-forward ten years and say, ‘Oh my god, these are the things that have destroyed society,'” Min jokes.  

When she moved to The Hollywood Reporter, some critics worried Min might remake the 85-year-old publication in Us Weekly’s image. That hasn’t been the case, but there are, perhaps, hints of it.

“When I left Us Weekly, they did a going away video for me. And Kim Kardashian, who was sort of a nobody, was just becoming a somebody. They got her to say in the video something funny, something like, ‘Thanks for making my A-S-S a star,’” remembers Min.  Fast-forward to a recent issue of The Hollywood Reporter which included the story, “From Jennifer Lopez to Kim Kardashian: How Butts Stole The Spotlight From Boobs.” It describes the influence of the larger derriere on everything from plastic surgery to red carpet styling.

With Min as editorial director, The Hollywood Reporter is thriving. Circulation for the weekly is only at 70,000 households, but the demographic is high-profile. Min’s plans include growing the brand’s digital influence through video, podcasts, and more.   

Min credits her success at the Hollywood Reporter, and what her bosses are hoping she’ll do for Billboard, with her ability to observe the industry as an outsider.

“I noticed this right away in New York… the Wall Street factor in New York. You have a whole community of people whose one goal in life is to make money," Min says. "In Hollywood, you have a whole group of people whose goal in life is to make money, but along the way they’d like to be critically acclaimed. They’d like to be thought of as smart people, intelligent people… funny. They want to create something that they are proud of on their way to making that money.”

Janice Min pulls the curtain on Hollywood

Thu, 2015-04-09 10:37

The Hollywood Reporter, a trade magazine for the entertainment industry, was on its last legs in 2010 when Janice Min joined the team as editorial director.

Since then, Min has transformed the daily entertainment trade paper into a weekly glossy with longform pieces and photo galleries, as well as revamped the website. Her bosses must have really liked her work, because last year, they promoted her to Co-President and Chief Creative Officer. The title change coincided with the addition of Billboard Magazine to her portfolio as well.

“I was at the mindset, at the time when we were doing this, that Hollywood was such a strange place, in that you had this incredibly visual industry with storytellers,” Min says.  “Everyone in the world is fascinated by Hollywood, yet the press that covered Hollywood was nowhere. It wasn’t keeping up with that conversation at all.”

Min can also be partly credited with that fascination. Before moving to The Hollywood Reporter, Min was the editor at Us Weekly. Her time there, from 2003 to 2009, coincides with the rise of reality television — something Us Weekly was quick to capitalize on. Min notes that Us Weekly was the first publication to put "The Bachelor" on the cover.

“I mean, now you can fast-forward ten years and say, ‘Oh my god, these are the things that have destroyed society,'” Min jokes.  

When she moved to The Hollywood Reporter, some critics worried Min might remake the 85-year-old publication in Us Weekly’s image. That hasn’t been the case, but there are, perhaps, hints of it.

“When I left Us Weekly, they did a going away video for me. And Kim Kardashian, who was sort of a nobody, was just becoming a somebody. They got her to say in the video something funny, something like, ‘Thanks for making my A-S-S a star,’” remembers Min.  Fast-forward to a recent issue of The Hollywood Reporter which included the story, “From Jennifer Lopez to Kim Kardashian: How Butts Stole The Spotlight From Boobs.” It describes the influence of the larger derriere on everything from plastic surgery to red carpet styling.

With Min as editorial director, The Hollywood Reporter is thriving. Circulation for the weekly is only at 70,000 households, but the demographic is high-profile. Min’s plans include growing the brand’s digital influence through video, podcasts, and more.   

Min credits her success at the Hollywood Reporter, and what her bosses are hoping she’ll do for Billboard, with her ability to observe the industry as an outsider.

“I noticed this right away in New York… the Wall Street factor in New York. You have a whole community of people whose one goal in life is to make money," Min says. "In Hollywood, you have a whole group of people whose goal in life is to make money, but along the way they’d like to be critically acclaimed. They’d like to be thought of as smart people, intelligent people… funny. They want to create something that they are proud of on their way to making that money.”

Why your cell phone battery life still stinks

Thu, 2015-04-09 09:43

The reviews for the Apple Watch have been mixed so far. One of the big complaints: battery life.

And it's not just an Apple problem. The batteries that power most of our devices, from smart phones to laptops, are lithium ion batteries. Compared with Alkaline batteries that pop into TV remotes and flashlights, lithium ion batteries are fairly bulky, charge slowly, and drain relatively fast as they struggle to keep up with all the computing power that tech firms have stuffed into our devices. 

Lots of people are working to improve batteries, including Astro Teller, who recently spoke with Marketplace Tech's Ben Johnson. Teller is the guy who heads up Google X, where his title is the Google-esque "Captain of Moonshots."

Johnson asked Teller about one thing that would make a dramatic difference, among the array of R&D projects underway at Google X. No big surprise given our subject matter: batteries topped the list. But in true Moonshot Captain fashion, his goal is more than incremental improvement. 

"A ten-times increase in the weight-oriented density of batteries would enable so many other moonshots, if we can find a great idea. We just haven't found one yet," Teller said. 

So, why haven't scientists and tech leaders found one yet? Unlike computing power, which doubles every 18 months or so, following Moore's Law, batteries are slower to change. 

The short answer there, Johnson says, is chemistry. There is no equivalent to Moore's Law in the world of battery chemistry. In fact, improving the battery is even less methodical than you'd think, according to Matthew Norden at MNL Partners, which also explores leaps in technological change. 

"That's more dark art. It's not quite a witch around a cauldron, but it's close," Norden says. 

Even so, the wizards at Stanford have a study out with some promising findings. Researchers made an aluminum smartphone battery that charges in — no joke — one minute. But Johnson warns it doesn't last too long. 

The key characteristics to improve the device battery are safety, speed, and cost. 

"That's the holy grail," Johnson says. "Once we get a battery that has all of those things, then we will truly be in the future."

For now, we're stuck with two out of three. 

After oil spill, Gulf seafood industry is recovering

Thu, 2015-04-09 07:52

You think a seafood dock smells bad? Try walking in to the New Orleans Fish House. More than a dozen workers in white aprons and knee-high rubber boots feverishly sharpen knives to clean puppy drum and hand-cut tuna steaks.

Michael Ketchum is director for national retail sales at the Fish House. He convinces grocery stores and restaurants that Gulf seafood is the way to go.

"We supply almost every restaurant in the city: We supply Acme Oyster House, Commander's Palace, Emeril's, the Brennans' restaurants. We're running 300 to 500 deliveries a day."

Five years after the Deepwater Horizon disaster spilled millions of barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, Ketchum says the reputation of Gulf seafood is back, with the help of QR codes — those square barcodes that look like static-y TV screens. Looking at a bag of frozen shrimp, Ketchum describes the process. "On the back of each bag of product is a QR code, it's right by our UPC code, and the shopper can scan this code with their smart phone and it will pull up a map of where this product was harvested from."

The more you know exactly where something comes from, Ketchum says, the more you trust it.

"If you look where the oil spill was, and look at the questions people had, you knew there was a disconnect between what products were caught where. I had someone ask me if crawfish and catfish were affected. Those two items weren't harvested in the Gulf!" They're freshwater species.

So people trust the seafood again, but now there's a new problem: Supply. Restaurants can change menus when an order falls through. But for Ketchum's big box clients like Target and Costco, that doesn't fly.

"When you're talking to a nice retail chain, you're not talking 200-300 pounds, you're talking hundreds of thousands of pounds of product. They want to know if they plan it out and run ads that it's going to be there."

Part of the seafood industry's full-time job is to say "Hey, it's going to be there," like ads put out by the Louisiana Seafood and Marketing Board. Their campaigns brand Gulf seafood as a specialty product. The hope is that an "Authentic Louisiana" label will get fishermen a better price.

Tony Goutierrez is sorting crabs on his dock in Hopedale, Louisiana, about an hour outside New Orleans. He's not happy with the day's catch.

"You see what we had this morning — that was $220 worth of crabs. And you had $100 worth of bait, and $100 worth of fuel to get here. So it doesn't add up."

Crabs seemed fine right after the spill. But for the past few years, Goutierrez is pulling up empty traps. He says the dispersants used to sink the oil to the bottom of the gulf destroyed the beds where crabs lay eggs. Now, fewer areas to catch crabs mean more competition. "Everyone's being shoved between Hopedale Bayou and Point Lahache- it's putting too many fishermen in one spot."

There's the irony: after the spill, people needed persuading to eat the available seafood. Now consumers want it, and it's hard to find. That's why Goutierrez is struggling to meet the demand.

Over in the French Quarter, the 135-year-old P+J Oyster Company is having the same problem. "They're saying that the oyster landings are the same as what they were pre-oil spill, and there's no way," says owner Al Sunseri. "If it was, we would not have a 300 percent increase on the dock for the price of oysters."

For the first time in its century-old existence, P+J has lost a lot of customers.

"We did fine after World War One, World War Two, during the Depression, recessions, environmental issues like hurricanes and natural disasters," lists Sunseri. "Until this happened."

Back at wholesaler New Orleans Fish House, Ketchum also worries about long-term supply. "I may be trying to build a career here and it may go away, who knows. I'm banking 2015 sales on product that's not even born yet, not even harvested. I know historically it's been there, but now we've done something to the environment."

Five years after the spill, Gulf seafood is probably safe to eat, if you can find it.

Explaining stock buybacks

Thu, 2015-04-09 05:40

Stock buybacks are in the news again. Usually buyback stories are all about companies using their cash reserves to buy back their stock, but this week they’re all about companies stopping their buyback programs.

Viacom announced it’s going to curtail its buyback program until October. And Phillip Morris recently announced a suspension of its buyback program, barring a favorable change in currency fluctuations.

So what is a buyback, exactly?

Here’s a short video explaining how they work — using handbags.

Buybacks are pretty simple: when a company buys back its stock, it does exactly that: it goes into the market and buys its own stock. It can do this in one of two ways. It can simply buy the shares in the open market, just like everyone else. Or it can use a tender offer, where it makes an announcement to existing shareholders, telling them that it’s prepared to buy a certain amount of stock at a certain price.

Why do companies use buybacks? They do it to support their share price. Sometimes they do it to juice their share price. A company might feel that the market price of its shares may not reflect the real value of the shares. By buying some of those shares up, the company reduces the supply of shares on the market. That should increase demand, and therefore lift the price.

You may ask, why does a company want to spend money on buying back its shares when it could be spending that cash on growing the company, buying up competitors, expanding into new markets, hiring more people and helping the economy grow? That’s a good question. Companies that use buybacks are often criticized for sacrificing long-term growth on the altar of short term financial gain. But that’s a consequence on having a shareholder economy. Shareholders like it when their stock goes up, because that means they’re making more money (on paper, at least).

PODCAST: Tell a story about your product

Thu, 2015-04-09 03:00

Airing on Thursday, April 9th, 2015: The people who control interest rates in America look at prices, they look at jobs. But we now know the Federal Reserve is also looking warily at the high U.S. dollar. We consult economist Diane Swonk to understand this key wrinkle in the economy here in the spring of 2015. Plus, a company called Oyster - with agreements from all five major publishers - has opened an eBook store. We look at whether it can compete with the Amazon's standing in the industry. Finally, digital audio downloads can enlighten and entertain. They can also sell things to you. Now, there's a growing sector of podcasting for companies. We learn more about how experts can build a podcast around a product.

Harvard's business women push

Thu, 2015-04-09 02:00

Harvard Business School is extremely selective — only about 12 percent of applicants are admitted. But even with such a large pool of applicants to choose from, the school still has a serious gender imbalance. Only 41 percent of the student body is female.

The school's new PEEK program is HBS' newest effort to reach out to women and encourage them to apply. For a $500 fee, women who attend women's colleges can experience the business school for a weekend. 

"They will immediately be in a classroom here doing a case," explained Dee Leopold, Harvard Business School's director of admissions. "They will have had a case sent to them before; they will be hitting the ground running."

Many business schools also have a gender imbalance, said Linda Scott, the DP World Chair for Entrepreneurship and Innovation at Saïd Business School, University of Oxford. Why? "Mostly, I think it's because the environment is fairly hostile," she said.

Business Schools are male dominated, and so are the faculty. Even the course material can be presented in a masculine way, Scott said.

"I think a lot of women just want to avoid that environment." 

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