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Avocado sales ripen around the world

Wed, 2014-10-15 02:00

The U.S. is the biggest importer of Mexican avocados—We eat about 1.7 billion pounds a year. But Mexico is eyeing an even larger market: Asia.  

Behind 20-foot-doors in a chilly warehouse, hundreds of thousands of avocados are ripening in cardboard boxes. 

“We take the rooms up as far as 72 degrees,” says Luis Galicia. He’s the assistant manager at Mission Produce’s ripening center in Grand Prairie, Texas.

Customers want to sell and use avocados at different stages of softness. So, Galicia explains, the avocados are heated to ripen only a certain amount, and then chilled at about 38 degrees.

The avocado business, he says, is hot. Mexican avocado sales increased by about 30 percent the first half of this year—and that’s not the result of a Chipotle rush or a Super Bowl guacamole bump. Yes, avocados are a popular condiment for sandwiches at Subway and breakfast items at Denny’s, but the real growth is happening in Asia. Japan is already the second largest importer of Mexican avocados. And in the first six months of 2014, Mexico sent nearly $3 million dollars worth of avocados to China.

Eduardo Serena, Marketing Director of the Mexican Avocado Industry, says for the first time, the industry will have marketing campaigns specifically designed for China and Japan.  

Maura Maxwell, Latin America editor for The Market Intelligence Group, says marketers will have their work cut out for them.

“The thing with China is there isn’t an avocado consuming habit,” she says. “People aren’t familiar with the fruit yet.”

Consumers need basic education about when the fruit is ripe—Black on the outside for Hass avocados is a good thing, but Maxwell says many people assume the soft bumpy pear-shaped fruit is rotten.

Right now, Serena says the most popular ways to eat avocados in Japan is with sushi, or fried. 

“In China in particular, they like to use as smoothies as a juice, and also of course in soups,” Serena says. In today’s avocado awakening, there’s no wrong way to eat the fruit.

So go ahead, toss on the Tabasco, limón, or soy sauce.

 

 

Netflix raised prices on a service nobody uses (yet)

Wed, 2014-10-15 02:00

Until recently, streaming Netflix video in 4K, or ultra-high-definition display, was available for $8 or $9 a month. It now requires a $12 dollar-a-month subscription. 

Only a few manufacturers make devices with 4K displays, and it’s probably not too late to be the first on your block to get one.  

"We’re expecting 10 million of these 4K TVs to be sold this year, worldwide," says Eric Smith, who looks at home-entertainment devices for Strategy Analytics. "And most of them are in China, actually."

But prices are dropping, and sales will probably go up. Smith says in a few years, a third of new TVs may be 4K.

Strategy Analytics projects that sales of ultra-high-definition TVs will climb in the next few years.

Eric Smith/Strategy Analytics

Overall, getting 4K will mean paying more: a new TV, and probably more bandwidth, since the sharper picture takes four times as much data.

For Netflix, producing shows like “House of Cards” in 4K means spending more. The company says that’s why it's raising prices. 

But, despite the costs, the tech ramp-up in video will continue. 

"We’ll get to three-dimensional, eventually we’ll get to holographic projection," says Larry Hettick, who looks at consumer services for Current Analysis, a telecom consultancy. "And as the price point becomes bearable to consumers, then eventually they’re going to pay for it."

Medicare open enrollment brings change

Wed, 2014-10-15 02:00

Medicare’s open enrollment period runs from October 15 to December 7. 

The open enrollment is for Medicare Part D, prescription drug coverage, and for private Medicare Advantage plans. You can enroll in Medicare at age 65. The open enrollment period is when you tweak your coverage.

“It’s a little bit like eating your spinach," says Tricia Neuman, director of Medicare policy research at the Kaiser Family Foundation. "Nobody likes to do it.”

Neuman says most seniors are reluctant to change their Part D prescription plans, but should consider it.

“Just to be sure that there are no surprises," she says. "That might mean having greater difficulty seeing a doctor or difficulty getting a prescription you want to fill.”

Medicare is getting a few surprises from baby boomers. Almost two million more are expected to enroll this year.

They smoked less than their parents—Their problem is obesity. 

“They’re likely to cost more than their parents did but not just because of living longer lives," says Kate Baicker, a health economist at Harvard. "But also because of having more complicated health conditions."

Conditions like diabetes and heart disease, for instance.

Black Friday to start two hours earlier at Macy's

Tue, 2014-10-14 13:42

Another step in the relentless march of commerce over common sense, as found in the Huffington Post: Macy's is going to start Black Friday, the big day-after-Thanksgiving kickoff of Christmas shopping season by two hours. 

It's now 6 p.m... Thanksgiving Day.

Yes, I know it's not even Halloween yet. Don't get me started on that one.

 

Private donors keep pace with government Ebola funding

Tue, 2014-10-14 13:19

In September, the United Nations reported it would need nearly $1 billion to fight the Ebola virus, which has killed more than 4,000 people in West Africa, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Private donors have recently stepped up in order to help reach that goal. Donations so far have helped provide supplies such as masks, gloves and disinfectant. New thermal scanners help check travelers for fevers, one Ebola symptom, at airport screenings. More than 200 computers equipped with software and printers were part of donations for use in the field by the CDC and staff in the countries.

The CDC reported the U.S. government had contributed roughly $100 million by mid-September to fight Ebola, about as much as this (not-comprehensive) list of private organizations combined:

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and wife Priscilla Chan ($25 million)
Zuckerberg and his wife gave the money straight to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation ($50 million)
The Foundation donated to United Nations agencies and international organizations involved in the response, specifically $5 million to the World Health Organization and $5 million to UNICEF.

Microsoft co-founder and Seattle Seahawks owner Paul Allen ($20 million)
Allen gave to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, American Red Cross, Doctors Without Borders, Medical Teams International, various other emergency services and medical supplies.

Kaiser Permanente ($1 million)
The health company gave to Doctors Without Borders and International Medical Corps.

William and Flora Hewlett Foundation ($5 million)
This foundation gave to CDC Foundation, the UN Foundation, Humanitarian Open Street Map Team, International Medical Corps, Population Services International, the Global Giving Foundation and Capital for Good.

Why raising money to fight Ebola is so tough

Tue, 2014-10-14 12:24

Raising money for Ebola is hard.

“We try to put up stories and information and photos and let people know we have a microsite and a designated button that makes it easy for people to give,” says Jana Sweeny of the American Red Cross.

But people aren’t giving in significant numbers. The Red Cross, UNICEF and Doctors without Borders have raised a combined $20 million toward combating Ebola. Compare that to the $486 million the Red Cross alone raised after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti.

“In the case of disease outbreak, I think that Americans tend to think immediately of government, our government helps manage that,” says Sweeny.

The CDC Foundation – the philanthropic arm of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – is having more success than the traditional charities; it’s raised $40 million.

“What we’ve had to say to our donors is trust those 150 CDC experts who are putting their lives on the line,” says Foundation President Charlie Stokes.

Stokes says major givers like Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Dr. Priscilla Chan, who pledged $25 million Tuesday, are trusting CDC epidemiologists to spend money at the scientists’ discretion. That risk, plus the invisibility of a viral epidemic makes raising money tricky, Stokes says.

“We’re talking about raising funding for people who are not yet sick but may die two weeks from now,” he says. “It’s harder to put a face on those victims.”

So, Stokes puts a face on public health scientists in the spooky Hazmat suits in West Africa, and how they are the ones best positioned to control this virus.

MOOCs go to high school

Tue, 2014-10-14 11:43

At this point, you're probably familiar with MOOCs – those massive open online courses offered by the likes of Harvard, Stanford and MIT.  MOOCs are often geared toward college kids or curious adults. But that’s changing. 

MOOCs are going to high school.

One of the people tasked with making the jump is Dr. Jeneen Graham at St. Margaret’s Episcopal School in California. She currently teaches psychology to 18 students; next year she’ll be teaching thousands. “I think it’s incredible,” says Graham, “and also a little bit scary.”

Graham is creating an intro to psychology MOOC for the online learning nonprofit EdX, one of the biggest MOOC providers. Her class will be one of about two-dozen free high-school classes EdX is launching.

Graham says for St. Margaret's, it’s a chance to extend the school's mission of service and education. And personally, she says, her high school self would have jumped at the chance to take a class like this.  “I grew up in a small, rural town and I didn’t have access to this kind of course work,” says Graham. “I think I would have loved it.”

Those are the kids the new EdX offerings are after. Kids who are motivated.  Kids without access.

Many of the courses are AP level in subjects like physics, environmental science and chemistry. They are taught by high school instructors and professor from Berkeley, Rice and MIT.

“A lot of high schools do not have a rich set of AP courses, it’s just too expensive,” says Anant Agarwal, the CEO of EdX.

MOOCs, on the other hand, are free (though students can pay for a “certificate of achievement”).

Agarwal  thinks the number of middle and high schoolers taking EdX’s MOOCs could one day grow to about a third of their students. That’s a pretty compelling market, considering EdX has about 3 million users now.

“I think high schools will embrace this, because learners can directly take some of these high school courses,” says Agarwal. 

The big question is whether they’ll finish them. Currently, the MOOC completion rate is only about 10 percent.

It's a number that has slowed the adoption by high schools – but not stopped it. Some allow students to take college-geared MOOCs for credit as part of an independent study. In Florida, there’s a state law that allows students to earn credit for certain MOOCs.

And while there has been hand wringing at the university level about MOOCs replacing professors, the high school educators I talked to weren't worried.

“I see MOOCs as a supplement,” said Craig Wilson, head of the University of Miami Global Academy. “ An addition to, not a take away from, the education experience.”

His school is an online program, that has experimented with creating its own MOOCs.

He says there are parts of the MOOC model that can work with high-schoolers—but it’s not perfect.

Most teenagers, he says, need teachers or mentors.  They need help getting across the finish line.

“What I think is that high-schoolers still need that sense of community,” says Wilson

The ed-tech industry is also trying to figure out how to work that sense of community and adult supervision into MOOCs.

The digital education company Amplify is experimenting with a mentor based model.  It’s offering an AP Computer Science MOOC— with in-school coaches.

Of course, some super motivated, hyper-focused high schoolers aren’t waiting on adults to figure MOOCs out.

They’re doing it for themselves.

Take, for instance, James Lintner. He’s a 17 year old student in Georgia who takes MOOCS in his free time. So far, he says, he’s completed five, including classes in behavioral economics,  energy, and medicinal chemistry.

“I feel like if I’m learning something, that’s better than rotting my mind playing video games,” he said.

Lintner says the classes have helped him figure out what he might want study in college. He’s also hopeful they might help him get in. He’s including the MOOCs in the extracurricular section on his applications.

Now you basically have to go to college before you can get into college.

More fracking produces more open waste pits

Tue, 2014-10-14 11:40

The United States is on the verge of becoming the world’s top producer of oil, according to the International Energy Agency. But the oil boom is also leading to a boom in toxic oil field waste that can end up in open pit disposal sites. There are increasing concerns over the dangers these disposal sites pose for air quality.

All energy producing states have to deal with an ever-escalating amount of waste. In Wyoming, there are 35 commercial waste pits and permits pending on six more. North Dakota shipped 1.75 million tons of oil and gas waste to landfills in 2013. And, while Colorado - like North Dakota - has been tightening regulations on the waste water resulting from drilling operations, the state's solid waste pits are still left uncovered.

None of these states have conducted studies to determine if the air coming off pits is safe. A recent investigation in Texas by InsideClimate News and the Center for Public Integrity uncovered a troublesome gap in oversight by state and federal regulators over these giant pools of oil field muck.

That problem is clear in the situation facing the residents of Nordheim, Texas, a town of 300 people about 75 miles southeast of San Antonio. Farmers and ranchers gathered recently at the old dance hall there to organize against what they see as an environmental threat to their town.

"They’re going to dump liquid oil field waste, all the chemicals that have to do with fracking," rancher Jim Fulbright said, "and they have to do something with it."

Here's what he's worried about: two enormous oil waste disposal facilities – one 200 acres and the other 575 acres - proposed for right outside of his town. Retired teacher Lyn Janssen is worried about her ranch, settled by her family in 1897. "There’s really no reason for our area to become the dump site for the Eagle Ford Shale,” she said.

Nordheim is in the middle of the most productive parts of the Eagle Ford Shale, a geological formation saturated in oil. But because it’s locked in a rocky honeycomb, it was once thought that this oil was too expensive and troublesome to get out of the ground. New drilling technologies like fracking changed that. Each day, 900,000 barrels of oil are produced in the Eagle Ford play. In 2013, it generated $87 billion in total economic output for the state of Texas. And many people in Nordheim, like Fulbright, are also getting oil royalty checks from this oil and gas bounty.

"I'm not against fracking," he said. "I’m not against the oil and gas industry. It’s necessary. The country needs the energy." The proposed waste facilities near Nordheim and elsewhere in South Texas call for billions of gallons of toxic sludge to be dumped in the plastic-lined pits left open to the air, where fracking waste is allowed to evaporate. What’s left behind is a viscous goop that’s mixed with soil and eventually buried on-site. There are currently at least 67 large commercial surface facilities for oil field waste operating in Texas.

And if you live or work nearby, it's hard to miss.

"There ain’t no Chanel No. 5 there – it all stinks,” Fulbright said.

It doesn’t just stink – the EPA and others have found that the fumes contain chemicals known to be hazardous to human health, including volatile organic compounds like benzene. But, because oil and gas waste is exempted from federal hazardous waste regulations, most states don’t require monitoring waste pit air emissions. It’s impossible to know whether chemicals are drifting into the air at levels that could affect human health.

The only hope that residents of Nordheim have to stop the pits is to block their permitting at the Texas Rail Road Commission – the state agency that has oversight of the oil and gas industry. So, last month about 30 residents of Nordheim chartered a bus and took the 150-mile trip to Austin to testify at a public hearing about the pits. One-by-one, they stood before the hearing examiner and explained how the proposed waste pits would contaminate their water wells and pollute nearby creeks.

"We have 36 acres of land that’s adjacent to the proposed site. We have a 150-f00t deep water well. It is 60 feet from the property line of the proposed waste facility,” resident Howard Ann Bouman said.

“My husband and I own 54 acres that is bordered by Smith Creek. All of the toxins that are allowed in and out of the facility because they talk about mechanical failure or human error and those things are going to run into the creeks,” Gail Tisdale said.

Also at the hearing was Republican state Representative Geanie Morrison, who has represented Nordheim for over 15 years. She expressed her concerns, even though she does believe the state needs these facilities.

“I am not naïve that we always be confronted with the 'not in my backyard' position. But this is truly in the backyard of the entire city of Nordheim," she said.

But as Nordheim had its say, so did the company proposing the pits - Pyote Reclamation Systems. John Soule is their attorney and his argument in favor of the permitting hinged on the fact that the oil field waste going into the pits is considered non-hazardous. He stressed that point five times in the first two minutes of his presentation:

"The waste that will be received," he said, "is RCRA or Resource Conservation and Recovery Act exempt oil and gas waste, by definition non-hazardous.”

A week after the hearing, the CEO of Pyote Reclamation Systems, George Wommack, expressed confidence about the ruling from the railroad commission. He was representing his company at their booth at the DUG Eagle Ford Conference in San Antonio, a gathering of about 4500 oil industry professionals. Wommack was there pitching his services as an oilfield waste processor.

He restated the fact the the company is dealing solely in non-hazardous materials:  “They need to understand this is nonhazardous material. It’s mainly rocks and dirt that has come in contact with the hydrocarbon.”

But that's the key issue in this dispute: Is oil and gas waste hazardous, or not?

Right now, oil and gas waste is officially considered non-hazardous because of a decision made by Congress and the EPA back in 1988 to exempt oil and gas waste from federal regulations. It was a move to spur domestic oil production and keep costs low. Professor Ernest Smith, of the University of Texas School of Law, says it was all about politics. He literally wrote the book - a text book - on oil and gas law and is a specialist in the area.

“The oil and gas companies had sufficient pull that they were able to get it classified as non-hazardous,” he said.

But Smith believes this exemption won’t last forever. He says pressure is building on the federal government to fix it. But that would come at quite a cost to industry, at least a three-fold increase in waste processing costs. That’s why that change isn't likely to happen in time to keep the pits out of Nordheim.

This story was a collaboration between Inside Energy, InsideClimateNews and the Center for Public Integrity.

Behind big banks profits, a sea change

Tue, 2014-10-14 11:33

Wells Fargo, Citigroup and JP Morgan Chase all reported earnings Tuesday morning. The results were more or less what analysts expected, with two banks barely beating expectations, and JP Morgan Chase barely missing. But all three are profitable, with gains in the single-digit billions of dollars for the quarter.

"The return to profitability by banks of all sizes is a good thing for our economy," says Aaron Klein, director of the Financial Regulatory Reform Initiative at the Bipartisan Policy Center. "It shows that loans are being made and repaid."

But the more significant change since the financial crisis is the quality of those loans. "You've seen a significant reduction in lending to individuals who are outside the traditional credit box," says Klein.  

Safer loans are part of a broader sea change in bank processes that have reduced risk, sometimes at the cost of profits. 

"I would say [the big banks are] far safer, better capitalized today than they were before the crisis, but they certainly aren’t as profitable," says Fred Cannon, global director of research at KBW. 

In addition to making safer loans, banks have been forced to spin off risky "proprietary trading" desks, and to increase capital or equity. The latter directly impacts one key measure of profitability: Return on equity.

"Citigroup is a good example," says Cannon. "Before the crisis, because they didn’t have much equity, the returns on equity, were you know in the mid-twenties. And today, Citigroup struggles to make it to 10 percent."

A less profitable Citigroup, but a safer financial system?

"So that’s the good news," says Dennis Kelleher is the president of Better Markets, an organization that  pushes tighter regulation of the financial industry. "The bad news is if those circumstances repeat themselves, we’re not in dramatically different  position than we were in '08."

The problem, he says, is that while the big banks may be less likely to fail, if they do fail, they're still too big to avoid having taxpayers bail them out.

Weak demand for oil is sign of weak global economy

Tue, 2014-10-14 11:04

Oil prices have been on a downward swing for the past few months and now there is an expectation among industry forecasters that demand for oil will slow soon.

The International Energy Agency says oil demand growth is at its lowest in five years, with demand expected to grow by 700,000 barrels a day. That’s 200,000 fewer than it previously expected.

Antoine Halff is the chief oil analyst for the agency: “The main driver really has been the economy," says Halff. “The economic recovery continues to be slower than expected.”

The agency lowered its forecasts in large part because the International Monetary Fund recently lowered its forecast for GDP growth worldwide.  

“And now China, which for the last 10 to 15 years was the main engine of economic growth, has been slowing dramatically as well,” says Halff.

Slower growth in Asia and in developing nations around the world is a big factor in oil demand. Last year, for the first time, the demand for oil in developing countries exceeded that of developed nations.

Growth in those developing nations is slowing, a worrying sign for oil producers, says IHS oil analyst Jamie Webster. “It’s also a worrying sign for the economy and for oil markets because that is really considered to be the home for demand growth long term.”

Despite the drop in global demand, so far at least, oil production has not declined. As a result, analyst Steven Kopits expects gas prices to drop in the U.S. which could spur demand.

“The caveat on that is that the miles per gallon for our automobiles has increased quite a bit," he says. "For new cars over the last seven years, or so it’s up 20 percent.”

Renewable energy sources don’t make up a big enough share to cut into demand for oil. But gains in efficiency, and the rise of the electric car, Kopits says, could be game changers.

The BuzzFeed wizard who changed media as we know it

Tue, 2014-10-14 09:37

Dao Nguyen got a big promotion Tuesday. She's now BuzzFeed's publisher, a title that means something a whole lot different than it used to in the media world. But that media world is a whole lot different too, in no small part because of Nguyen.

As BuzzFeed's head of growth and data, Nguyen is credited with orchestrating the by-the-numbers approach that has made the site explode to more than 150 million users a month and changed the way we consume media. Before a listicle gets posted or a headline goes viral, it's gone through BuzzFeed's testing system, orchestrated by Nguyen.

"Data should not dictate your strategy," Nguyen says, "But you should understand what data tells you and also what its limits are." 

Nguyen and her team have used that data to figure out how and why we share content, and it's led to some surprising discoveries.

"Women share at a much higher rate than men, and when I talk about that now at a conference or with other people I say women share more than men online as it is in life. But men click at the same rate as women," Nguyen says. "So women will start the conversation and men will participate. If you think about it in the context of just regular human people, it isn't that surprising."

Nguyen says she spends her days deep in sprea sheets and data, but her team thinks about people all the time. "That's our competitive advantage." 

She now has a seat at BuzzFeed's leadership table, and Nguyen is pretty confident in the company's future. 

"I think that BuzzFeed has a great opportunity to become the pre-eminent media for the social age." 

The numbers for October 14, 2014

Tue, 2014-10-14 08:09

A World Bank projection pegs the total global economic cost of the Ebola outbreak in West Africa at $32.6 billion by the end of 2015. The New York Times reports that model is a "worst-case" scenario, but doesn't take into account dramatic, global spread. In contrast, the same report notes if the disease is contained in the short term, the total economic hit might be as low as $359 million.

As a nurse in Dallas is hospitalized with Ebola, the Centers for Disease Control is calling for a reassessment of treatment protocols.

Here's what we're reading - and other numbers we're watching - Tuesday.

$950 million

That's how much Disney could end up paying for Maker Studios. The YouTube network was acquired by Disney in May, and now Maker's YouTube stars are getting their own programming blocks on Disney XD and Fusion, Variety reported. The news comes less than a day after the Wall Street Journal reported on the wave of book deals being thrown to YouTube personalities.

$50,000-$75,000

The cost of digital projectors, the new movie theater standard some studios are still subsidizing. Digital distribution should theoretically be cheaper, but those costs could still be keeping major releases from small markets, the Los Angeles Times reported, and theater owners aren't happy about it. Another reason one executive gave for the delayed release of "Gone Girl" in those markets: "R-rated movies in small towns don't always go together."

25

That's how many Crumbs Bake Shop locations will open in the next 30 days, Bloomberg reported. After dramatically closing down in July, the cupcake chain just refuses to die.

Google expands delivery service

Tue, 2014-10-14 07:00

In a bid to take a bigger bite out of Amazon’s business, this week Google is expanding its same-day delivery service.

If you didn’t know Google was in the delivery business, here's the gist: In a handful of cities — now including Boston, Chicago, and Washington, D.C. — you can buy stuff from brick and mortar stores and receive it the same day.

The service formerly known as Google Shopping Express, and formerly free, it will now be called simply Google Express. Members can pay $10 a month for unlimited same-day and overnight delivery on items costing more than $15.

Google used to be the go-to place for product research, says Forrester Research analyst Sucharita Mulpuru.

“Amazon is now the primary place where consumers go when they are looking to research almost any product,” she says. “Google wants its crown back.”

In a speech in Berlin yesterday, Google chairman Eric Schmidt acknowledged as much.

“Many people think our main competition is Bing or Yahoo,” he said. “But, really, our biggest search competitor is Amazon.”

Delivery is an expensive and labor-intensive business, though, says analyst Colin Gillis with BGC Financial. Another same-day delivery service, offered by eBay, has struggled to get off the ground.

“Either you hire an army of people to get these packages and to deliver them to your customers, or you outsource it to a carrier or logistics company,” Gillis says.

Then again, Forrester’s Mulpuru says Google is such a profitable company, it can afford to experiment.

PODCAST: Talking statues

Tue, 2014-10-14 03:00

The Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) continues to cut the price of oil in part because there's so much of it being produced in the Middle East and North Africa, and also here in North America. More on that. And Google's taken another step today in its quest to take over world commerce. The search engine giant is expanding its Google Express delivery service this week, and introducing a new fee. And as we discover, it's all about competing with Amazon. Plus, they are a city's permanent residents, yet many of them are forgotten; often ignored. We're talking about statues. But there's a British non-profit that says statues have stories to tell, and they're working to give these figures...a voice.

Giving voice to London's statues

Tue, 2014-10-14 02:00

With an aquiline nose, deerstalker hat, meerschaum pipe and haughty air, he cuts a familiar figure.

Sherlock Homes is instantly recognizable, but on his plinth outside Baker Street subway station in London, the statue of the famous fictional detective is often ignored. Most people pass him by with barely a second glance.

Colette Hiller, a U.S.-born resident of London, is determined to change that.

"Too many people walk through this city without paying attention to the public art," says Hiller. "They bury their faces in their phones and miss so much that’s around them."

As part of a group called Sing London, which tries to promote the enjoyment of public spaces, Hiller came up with the idea of "Talking Statues."

"You use your smart phone to scan a barcode which we have placed on or near a statue," Hiller explains. "You then get a call from Sherlock Holmes, or Peter Pan, or Queen Victoria and they tell you something about themselves."

This is what Sherlock Holmes has to say:

The dour-looking statue of Victoria on Blackfriars Bridge offers this insight into her private life: the famously prudish monarch confides that it wasn’t for love of children that she had nine babies.

"I thought they were all terribly ugly when they were born. And I hated breastfeeding. I loved Albert, though," says the queen in her recorded message, voiced by British TV actress Prunella Scales.

Sing London has programmed 35 statues to tell their own tales. There are statues of statesmen, artists, engineers and even animals.

"Hello and meow. Good of you to call by," purrs Hodge, the cat that belonged to Samuel Johnson. The cat’s statue sits outside the great lexicographer’s former home in Gough Square off Fleet Street.

Talk isn’t cheap. Each talking statue cost $15,000 in actors’ and writers’ fees, a sum raised partially from corporate sponsorship and partially from the British Arts Council. Hiller is now seeking funding to take her idea across the Atlantic; first to Chicago and then, she hopes, to many other U.S. cities.

"There’s a whole range of American cities that are absolutely full of fantastic statues. New York, Boston, Baltimore, Seattle," she says. "And every statue is just waiting for the gift of voice."

Photos courtesy of Sing London and Stephen Beard

The magic number in fighting Ebola

Tue, 2014-10-14 02:00

"Break the chain of transmission" is the phrase mathematical epidemiologist Gerardo Chowell keeps turning over in his head—which makes sense when you consider that every person with Ebola generates as many as two new cases.

“So you can start to visualize in your mind how quickly this virus can spread in the population,” he says.

Chowell, who has been tracking transmission since this summer, says in Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia, the growth rate is exponential.

The way to get in front of that awful math, says the World Health Organization’s Dan Epstein, involves a financial kind of math.

“For a United Nations-wide response, we need about $978 million,” he says.

Epstein says that money would cover 3 million protective suits, 1,000 ambulances and new health centers. But to contain this outbreak, says Epstein, what is needed is courage.

“We really need more people. People to treat Ebola patients. People to bury the ones who have died safely,” he says.

Epstein says at least 750 more doctors are needed. That, and the aid, are the numbers needed to make the outbreak math more manageable.

Banks seek profits in credit cards

Tue, 2014-10-14 02:00

When J.P. Morgan Chase and Citigroup announce earnings Tuesday, many analysts will be looking for profits in a traditionally less-than-exciting place: credit cards.

Unlike a few years ago, consumers are being smart with their cards, which means low delinquency rates, and they’re also starting to feel comfortable enough with the state of the economy to spend a bit more.

Credit cards look pretty good compared with mortgages or other low-interest bank products, says Jim Sinegal, who covers banks and credit card companies for Morningstar. They generally charge rates of “12 percent plus, up to 20 percent in some cases," he says.

He says banks also like the steady income from merchants each time people use their cards.

Overall, the economy is stronger and the industry is reaping the rewards of tighter lending standards.

“That made for really good results in the way of losses,” he explains. “Banks aren’t losing much money at all because of those two factors.”

Ironically, the industry may also be benefitting from regulation. The CARD Act of 2009 sought to limit certain fees and simply interest rates.

“Obviously, the card industry did feel it had increased costs as a result of the regulation,” says Andrew Davidson, a senior vice president with Mintel Comperemedia. “They, I think, in the long term, benefit from this better consumer behavior in terms of paying back their bills.”

Davidson says card issuers are feeling confident enough to again pitch cards to mid- and sub-prime borrowers.

But Madeline Aufseeser, a senior analyst with Aite Group, cautions that credit cards are also a very competitive business.

“It’s bullish compared to where we’ve been over the last couple of years,” she says, though she notes that recent security breaches could be costly. “But in the credit card business, it’s a very tight rope that we walk on balance between expense and  revenue. It’s a low margin business.” 

 

How do cemeteries make money?

Mon, 2014-10-13 11:51

At Washington Cemetery in Brooklyn, a weed-whacker sends a spray of grass clippings into the air, as the ground crew weaves in between black and grey tombstones packed so tightly they almost touch.

Manager Michael Ciamaga stumbled into a summer job here in the late '90s, when plots were selling for $2,800. A few years ago, they’d climbed to $16,000.

And now?

“People come in [and say] ‘I’ll give you $30,000 if you give us a grave,’” he says. “You could give us $1 million, we don’t have nothing to sell you.”

Washington Cemetery is sold out, though not all of its plots are occupied yet. It has already squeezed out every single possible plot – shrinking the parking lot, tearing up roads, even offering up a small lawn in front of the office.

“It’s an odd business setup, you know,” Ciamaga shrugs, surveying a stretch of newer glossy-black graves etched with portraits of the deceased. 

State laws require that many cemeteries put a certain amount of their proceeds from the sale of plots into an endowment to support it once it’s sold out – much like a 401(k). But while a retirement plan has to support a person for a few decades, this money is supposed to fund the cemeteries forever. 

“Forever is a pretty big promise,” says John Llewellyn, the chairman of the board of the Forest Lawn Memorial-Park Association and author of a book called, “A Cemetery Should Be Forever.

Llewellyn worries that many cemeteries won’t be able to keep that promise.

“Not all cemeteries put aside enough money,” he says. “Some are not required by state law to put aside money. In other instances, the state sets certain minimums are that inadequate.”

Just like people need to sock away as much as possible in their prime earning years, Llewellyn thinks cemeteries, many of which are non-profits, should be saving more. He says the best time from cemeteries is two or three generations into its life, when the high start-up costs of land, roads, and irrigation systems are behind it and revenue from sales starts really flowing.

Celebrating its 150th anniversary this year, Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx already houses 300,000 people and there’s space for tens of thousands more on its rolling hills.

“We are going to cater to every case, whether it be an individual on social security or somebody that’s a multi-millionaire,” says Woodlawn’s executive director David Ison. “We have to have pricing structures to fit all needs.”

Options range from cremation to a private mausoleum available for $4.6 million.

Density is key, says Ison. On a little less than an acre of new space, Woodlawn be able to fit 2,500 new people, a mix of burials and cremations.

By expanding, Woodlawn gives itself more inventory – more time in this middle, lucrative selling phase.

Back in Brooklyn, Washington Cemetery looks at a lot different from the Bronx. It’s under a subway line in a much more urban area, but it’s still popular with local residents.

“I couldn’t, like, emphasize enough to you how people desperately want to be buried here,” says Michael Ciamaga.

He’s hoping a new section the cemetery’s opening will help it emerge from its forced retirement.

“With the Staten Island section that we’re opening, we’ll be good for, you know, anywhere from 10 to 15 years,” he explains. “After that, I have no idea.”

It’s relatively rare, but cemeteries can fail. On average, eight cemeteries have been abandoned in New York State each year since 2001, according to the state’s Division of Cemeteries. They generally become the responsibility of the town, though they may also be taken over by another cemetery.

Ciamaga says if Washington runs out of money, they’ll close the office, cut the maintenance staff, and maybe just keep on a gravedigger until all its “reservations” have been filled.

The Internet is not big enough for political ads

Mon, 2014-10-13 11:48

Whoever said "there’s plenty of room for everyone on the Internet" was wrong - at least if you’re looking for advertisement space for your political campaign.

"There’s a finite amount of inventory on premium video sites like on YouTube or Hulu," says New York Times reporter Ashley Parker.

There are two types of online video ads, and they are priced differently. Skip-able ads give you the option to skip the ad onto the music video or clip that you went on the Internet to watch in the first place. But these are also usually… skipped.

"Those ads do not sell out, but they are sold via an auction system," says Parker. "Closer to Election Day more people are demanding them, so the price goes up."

The other type of ad is called “reserved by ads.” These are normally 15 to 30 seconds long.

"Those are more expensive, often, but they can be reserved in advance which is a big advantage for campaigns that think ahead," says Parker.

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