Paul Saums, who has been selling wine for more than 20 years, prefers his toilet tank to a $100 electronic wine chiller.
At noon, Saums put a bottle of Cheverny in the toilet tank of D.O.C. Wine Shop, the Brooklyn store where he works. Twenty minutes later, he pulled it out of the cold water, checked the temperature, and declared it perfectly chilled and ready for consumption.
“At a party, people use the bathroom,” says Saums, “As they flush the toilet, cool water keeps running over the bottle -- and that’s very important.” He believes this bath of flowing water is better for the wine than rapidly changing its temperature using a chiller or refrigerator.
The wine accessory business is flourishing in the U.S. More Americans are drinking wine, especially at home. By the end of 2013, they will have polished off 713 million gallons of wine, according to the Wine Market Council, a trade association. Several of them will either buy -- or be gifted -- a product that will help open, drink or store their alcohol. Wine sellers like Saums say a lot of the popular wine gadgets don’t actually make for better tasting wine. Still, they often have customers coming in to ask about the latest holiday innovations.
TJ Provenzano, manager of Brooklyn Oenology, says he for one does not find aerators to be helpful but he does sell them at his store.
“Absolutely,” Provenzano says, “Because it helps people checks something off their holiday shopping list.”
Every Christmas, Provanzano clears space at his store to make way for an accessories section with glassware, stone pump aerators, wine aroma training kits, champagne stoppers and more. He also carries a range of accessories for spirits, such as whisky glasses or liquor decanters, which he says are selling better than years past.
Wine Enthusiast, the parent company of the magazine, makes more than a hundred million dollars a year selling wine accessories. Jacki Strum, director of communications at the firm, says this year’s Cyber Monday was the biggest sales day in their 30-year history. She demonstrated a few of this season’s biggest hits: an Electric Wine Hub with a vacuum preserver, which extracts oxygen from an unfinished bottle, and a corkscrew that looks like a teleportation device. Also, part of this year’s bumper crop: pink wine pajamas emblazoned with the text, “Don’t Drink and Decorate!”
Strum says the company tests all the products it sells. She also believes these accessories add to the ritual experience of drinking wine, where appreciation is about more than just taste.
Wine Enthusiast, whose biggest customers in the U.S. are Costco and Target, has set its sights overseas. It recently launched the Mandarin version of its magazine in China.
This is all good news for people who sell wine accessories, but perhaps not so good for the people getting them as gifts.
“Last year, I received last year a ceramic dog that holds a bottle of wine,” says Provenzano. He also got a lot of corkscrews and wine charms. Provenzano finally cut his family off: no more wine accessory gifts.
His holiday gift suggestion? A bottle of wine, preferably local.
The Obama administration has extended the deadline for people who are signing up for health insurance on the federal exchange. People who haven't signed up yet now have until the end of today. It's an extension of only 24 hours, so it may seem like no big deal. But it was done at the last minute, and some insurance companies say they were caught off guard.
Some insurers are irritated. One extra day isn't a long time, but it is Christmas Eve and some insurers say, they planned to close their offices and call centers. Plus, they have one fewer day to take care of business like sending out membership cards.
But there could be a silver lining for insurers, says J.B. Silvers who teaches at Case Western Reserve and used to run an insurance company. More healthy people are a win for insurers.
"People wait until the last minute to sign up -- particularly people who are in better health, that don think they really need it," he says. "The people who sign up early are the sick ones, the people who sign up late are the healthy ones, and so an extra day's not a bad idea."
The Obama administration isn't the only one making last minute changes. When it comes to paying for these plans, the insurers themselves have been switching things around.
Normally, you pay for your insurance and then you're covered -- but you have to pay first. Last week, some companies that are selling plans on the federal exchange and on a lot of the state exchanges said they'll accept payments until January 10, for coverage that begins on New Year's Day. People can pay out of pocket for things like doctor's visits and be reimbursed later.
Insurance companies say it's necessary to prevent gaps in people's coverage, given the sheer number of hurdles the whole process has faced.
Hundreds of people have already been killed and thousands more have fled their homes. The power struggle that's underway has raised fears of a retreat into tribalism and the outbreak of a full-fledged war.
Congress dealt with the budget and sequester, but failed to extend Emergency Unemployment Compensation, before it adjourned for Christmas.
The EUC program is typically implemented by Congress when the jobless rate is high, as it is has been since the Great Recession. It enables the federal government to cover unemployment benefits after people exhaust their state benefits, which generally run six months. EUC benefits can last up to 73 weeks, depending on the unemployment rate in a given state. At this point, without further Congressional action expected before the New Year, 1.3 million of the long-term unemployed will lose their benefit checks, which average about $270/week, as of December 28.
And economists are beginning to worry that high long-term unemployment may be with us for a while.
Nancy Shields is 59 and lives in San Diego. She managed a chain clothing store with about sixty employees. The chain downsized, and Shields was laid off. She’s seen a lot of turnover during her nearly four-decade career in retail.
“I was usually able to get another job within a couple of weeks,” says Shields, “because I have quite a bit of experience under my belt.”
But she’s had no luck this time. She’s been job-hunting for two years and is about to run out of emergency unemployment benefits. She says she’ll take a job at McDonald’s at that point, if she can land one. She says it might cover her rent -- she rents a room from a family -- but not all of her living expenses.
Long-term unemployment has not been this high, for this long, since the government started keeping track after World War II. Nearly four in ten of the unemployed (37.3 percent in November 2013) have been looking for six months or longer. Long-term unemployment peaked at nearly double the peak it has hit in previous post-war recessions. (The runner-up peak was hit in June 1983, at 26 percent, and it fell back quickly after that).
The situation of the long-term unemployed has Michael Strain, an economist at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, sounding like a bleeding heart. He favors extending federal unemployment benefits to keep people engaged. He says many of these people, through no fault of their own, have been deprived of work and the ability to find work by the worst financial crisis in a generation.
“A lot of the long-term unemployed probably are hanging on to the labor force by a pretty thin thread,” says Strain, “feeling like they may not succeed and they don’t have a lot of confidence in their ability to reenter employment.”
As they go longer and longer without work, Strain says they are less likely to be considered by potential employers, who can afford to be choosy in a high-unemployment labor market.
With approximately three job-seekers for every available job, the danger is that many of the long-term unemployed will eventually give up: raid retirement savings, double-up with family, or try to go on disability.
But that won’t work for everyone.
“It’s been kind of a frantic lead-in to the holidays,” says Susan Prouty of Spokane, Washington. “We’ve put up the lights and I’m trying to put on a happy face for the kids, but I am in a panic.”
Prouty was laid off back in the spring from her job as a DJ and producer at a local Top-40 radio station. She’s a single-parent with two teenagers at home, and her emergency unemployment benefits from the federal government are about to stop due to Congressional inaction. She says she applies for jobs every day.
“With thirty years in the same business,” says Prouty, “you’re either under-qualified or overqualified for almost everything. It’s really hard to get somebody from a coffee shop to take you seriously.” But she says that, if offered, she absolutely would take a job like that.
In the meantime, Prouty’s been working hard to get a self-employment business off the ground. She's DJ’ing private parties, and developing a niche market: swing to disco, for senior citizens.
Eight months ago, a clothing factory in Bangladesh collapsed, killing more than 1,100 workers, in the industry's deadliest incident ever. Now comes news that families of those workers will get some financial help. Four retailers that bought the factory’s clothes have agreed to pitch into a fund — paying out an average of 25,000 dollars per household.
How far would that go in a country where per capita income is $1,900 a year?
Here's a first bit of context, courtesy of Scott Nova, director of the Workers Rights Consortium. If $1,900 sounds incredibly low to you, that’s actually a lot more than the victims were making.
"The workers who were killed were making about $600 or $700 a year," he says.
According to one recent study by his group and the Center for American Progress, Bangladesh has the world’s lowest wages for garment workers. Against numbers like that, a $25,000 payout looks a little bigger.
"Obviously it means more there than it does here," Nova says. "But at the same time it’s not going to make anybody wealthy, even in the Bangladeshi context."
Especially because it’s going to be paid out over the lifetime of survivors. Every year the families will get about half of what the worker would have earned.
U.S. government have several calculators that peg the value of a human life here. They start at $6 million.
Individuals buying life insurance in the United States have to make their own calculations. Jack Dolan, a spokesman for the American Council of Life Insurers, cites advice from the financial planning industry. "They tend to say that a person should have seven to ten times their annual income in coverage," he says.
In the end, a translation may not be possible, says Brad Adams, director for the Asia division of Human Rights Watch. "It’s so hard and some people would say almost pointless to compare the US to Bangladesh," he says.
In the U.S., he points out, if your boss’ building fell down on you, your family would expect to be compensated.
"In Bangladesh, there’s no such protection," he says. "People are really in it all by themselves."
In the absence of legal requirements, the companies involved in this agreement — retailers from France, Spain, Canada and Ireland — are all contributing voluntarily.
Several big U.S. brands also did business with the factory: Walmart, Children’s Place, JC Penney, Sears.
At this point, none of them have volunteered to kick in anything.
A well-respected consumer advocacy organization in Germany claims that Ritter Sport's popular chocolate product contains synthetic aroma. It has ignited a fierce court battle. But Ritter Sport says the aroma is natural, extracted from plants like dill or vanilla.
There is, in case you haven’t heard, a big cranberry surplus. We can thank our northern neighbors for that -- Canada produces hundreds of millions of them every year.
The Congressional Cranberry Caucus -- yes, such a thing exists -- asked the Department of Agriculture to add cranberries to what’s called the “USDA Foods Available List.” These are “foods that are available for schools to purchase as part of their commodity feeding programs,” says Scott Soares, the head of the Cranberry Marketing Committee.
These are the kinds of fruits and vegetables the federal government buys for school meals programs.
“When the National School Lunch Program started in 1946, it was very explicitly half about helping children and half about commodity disposal,” says Parke Wilde, who teaches nutrition at Tufts.
These days, Wilde says, that balance has shifted; now it is more about nutrition goals. The trouble is cranberries typically require some added sugar to make them palatable.
The Ag Department has approved dried cranberries and cranberry sauce, but that’s it. The cranberry industry needs to offload more than that. It has 750,000 barrels to get rid of -- that’s 75 million pounds.
Tonight millions of kids will be revved up in anticipation of tomorrow’s bacchanalia of presents, followed by a nice long break from dreaded school, making this the perfect time for Netflix to unveil its first original series for kids. It’s an animated show about a super-fast snail.
But before Netflix and DVRs, there was one day when children gathered around the TV, cereal bowl in lap and watched cartoons -- Saturday morning. And along with those cartoons came lots and lots of commercials. “So afar at least, the majority of online programming isn’t interspersed with commercial advertising,” says Rebecca Hains, who studies children’s media at Salem State University.
Many of the parents she talks to for her research prefer ad free content for their kids. And streaming services are also well-suited for keeping kids within a safe zone of programing, another plus for parents. It’s these parents that Netflix is courting with its first original kids series, "Turbo F.A.S.T."
“Little children love watching the same program again and again,” says Peter Bowden, a children’s television producer. This is yet another key advantage of on demand programing. Unlimited viewing is included in the monthly subscription fee. And if kids ever do ever tire of an episode they can binge on multiple episodes at once, like their parents do with other Netflix originals, "Orange is the New Black" and "House of Cards."
One of the most respected cybersecurity firms in the business, RSA, has reportedly accepted money from the NSA to push a flawed security product. This latest news comes from a report by Joseph Menn, an investigative reporter with Reuters. It's connected to earlier revelations about the National Security Agency building back doors into encryption to help its surveillance programs, which has had even the most capable cryptologists very worried.
The new report cites two unnamed sources that say the NSA gave $10 million to the cybersecruity firm in order to make a random number generator (often used in encryption) the default security setting in the product. Since RSA is a trusted security source, it was effectively an arrangement--paid for by the spy agency -- for the company to help establish the flawed encryption tool to be accepted by thousands of people who were building software. Some of the sources speaking to Menn said that RSA wasn't fully aware of what it was doing, but the suggestion is that the company should have known better, having a history of fighting things like the government's Clipper Chip.
RSA released a statement in response, which Ars Technica called a non-denying denial. It is interesting to read through it and try to parse the language; the part with the words "categorically deny" could refer to the suggestion that the contract with the NSA was "secret," or that there was a contract, or even that the flaw was known.
However you feel about the report or the response from the RSA (the NSA declined comment), the story brings an uncomfortable truth to light: for years, the NSA has worked in concert with cybersecurity experts. That's a good thing when it comes to national security--the U.S. government has expertise in the area of fighting a broad spectrum of cybercrime that has a very real impact on Americans. But as revelations about secret government surveillance continue, questions grow about whether online security is totally broken -- and who, exactly, can help fix it.