November 17, 2011
Retirement: A Fading Dream
by Ray McNally
We used to buy into the American Dream. Work hard, buy a house, have a family, and then retire to an idyllic life when you turn 65. That dream is now a nightmare for countless Americans. They did all the right things, but now don't stand a chance of retiring.
A new Wells Fargo survey shows that one fourth of middle-class Americans say they will have to put off retirement until they are at least 80 years old! That's two years longer than the average person is even expected to live. So basically, many people will just have to work until they die. Not exactly the American Dream.
The survey found the average American has saved just seven percent of the money that they once thought they would need to get them through their retirement years. Seventy-five percent of middle-class Americans now expect to work through retirement.
At one time, baby boomers were considered the young and hip generation. They are now the retirement generation.
On January 1st of this year the very first baby boomers turned 65.
The U.S. Census Bureau defines the baby boomers as those born between January 1st, 1946 and December 31st, 1964. They were born during the years that U.S. troops returned from World War II. Baby boomers had as much impact on the development of this country as any generation before them. And as of the start of this year, every day, more than 10,000 Baby Boomers reach the age of 65. That will continue every day for the next 19 years.
Most of the baby boomers saw their parents work, save money and retire. Economic conditions have changed all that. The baby boomers are faced with an economy hit hard by unemployment, a stock market that cut into their retirement savings plans, and a housing market that put a huge dent in their plans to sell the house and use the proceeds for retirement. The boomers are also looking at changes in pension plans and uncertainty over the future of Social Security and Medicare benefits.
There's little chance of getting any help from our leaders in Washington either. They are mired in partisan politics.
So what are baby boomers to do? Like the survey says... keep on working.
November 16, 2011
By Evan Kravitz
Most of us have had to work on the holidays at one time or another. We hate it, but we deal with it. Once in a while though, you catch a break and you get to spend one with the family. I'll have limited time with my family this year for Thanksgiving because I work the early shift. But at least I'll have some time with them.
For employees at several retailers it will be a different story this year. Target, Best Buy, Macy's and Kohl's will be opening at midnight on Black Friday, the official kick off for holiday shopping...or is it? Walmart will open its doors at 10 p.m. on Thanksgiving and Toys R Us will be open for business at 9 p.m. There's good reason for corporate to order their doors opened earlier and earlier.
Thanksgiving Day openings are money makers for retailers in this sluggish economy. The number of people who shop on Thanksgiving -- both online and in stores -- rose to 22.3 million in 2010, about double the amount from just five years earlier, according to the National Retail Federation. Last year, the number of people who began their Black Friday shopping at midnight was triple the amount in 2009.
But not every one is seeing dollar signs in this year's retail schedules. It's their sense of smell that's eating at them. They'll be missing all of that turkey and stuffing. Target employee Anthony Hardwick started an online petition to have the retailer push back its opening hours so that employees could spend time with their families. As of this writing, he had more than 97,000 signatures.
But its not just employees who feel the pain of working on Thanksgiving. Shoppers are sticking up for them as well. "I used to love shopping on Black Friday," said Sarah Caron, 31, "but the earlier hours -- or worse, opening on Thanksgiving -- have been a complete turnoff to me. That takes people away from their families on a day that should be all about family."
But even on Thanksgiving it still comes down to the bottom line- money. And before you cast me off for saying that, consider that there is a case to be made that in this rough and tough economy we want people to spend, to spur business, and perhaps permanently hire all of the temporary workers they're bringing on to get them through the holidays. Besides, those in charge say they are just taking their cue from consumers.
As reported in USA Today, Target spokeswoman Molly Snyder says the decision to open earlier is due to consumer desire. "We have heard from our guests that they want to shop Target following their Thanksgiving celebrations rather than only having the option of getting up in the middle of the night," she says, adding that the store does its "best to work around the schedules of our team members."
ConsumerSearch.com found in a recent survey of 1,003 people that 87% felt retailers should stay closed on Thanksgiving. Truth is, it would be nice for everything to shut down during all holidays and for us to be with the ones we love. But, with 9% unemployment we have to make our choices. My family has made the choice to have an earlier dinner to fit my schedule. If you have to work, I hope similar accommodations are made for you as well.
And if you plan to go shopping on Thanksgiving, hey, enjoy. Just remember to wish a happy holiday to the employees at the checkout line and those filling the shelves. I guarantee you they'll appreciate it. Actually, they might like some leftovers even more. Happy Thanksgiving.
November 15, 2011
Bank Fees: They're Baaaack!
by Ray McNally
Big banks may end up having the last word on fees, after all.
The banks canceled plans for debit card fees after a huge customer backlash...but it now looks like those fees are popping up in other places. Some of those places are not so obvious as the debit card fees.
For instance, banks have either added new fees or raised existing fees for ATM withdrawals and for customers who still want to get their statements on paper. And banks are making it harder to avoid fees for minimum balance accounts.
One of the co-founders of MyBankTracker.com says, "Banks tried the in-your-face fee with debit cards, and consumers said enough." But, he adds, "What most people don't realize is that they have been adding new charges or taking fees that have always existed and increased them, or are making them harder to avoid."
Consumers upset with their bank do have options, and many are taking advantage of those options.
The Credit Union National Association found in a survey of 5,000 credit unions that at least 650,000 consumers joined credit unions in October. Last year, it took six months for that many people to switch to credit unions.
The Credit Union Association says 40,000 people made the switch on Saturday, November 5, the day that fee opponents designated as Bank Transfer Day.
So was that the end of it?
Adding a fee for debit card purchases was an obvious move, something that consumers rebelled against.
Apparently though, the bank strategy is to work with existing fees to get their added income. The question over time will be whether the move away from banks to credit unions continues, and whether or not banks are impacted enough to care.
November 14, 2011
Searching for a job online
By: Ray McNally
Searching for a job online certainly has its good points and its bad points, but either way, it's frustrating.
The days of typing letters and addressing and stamping envelopes are long gone, replaced by hours and hours of sitting in front of a computer, searching for that magic job opening with your name on it. The problem is.. if you see it, so can anyone else. It's even more frustrating when you hear that you have the latest technology to pursue jobs, but the employers you are trying to reach do not.
A study by online recruiting research lab Potentialpark reported on Mashable says even though mobile devices are everywhere these days, employers are clueless about how job seekers are using mobile devices and how their businesses could take advantage of the mobile web to find top talent.
The study found that only a limited number of employers have implemented mobile recruiting strategies using apps and mobile websites. The study also finds that 19 percent of job seekers use their mobile devices for career-related purposes and more than half could imagine doing so. But, only seven percent of employers have a mobile version of their career website and only three percent have a mobile job app.
There is hope for improvement though. A separate Potentialpark survey, also reported by Mashable, found that three quarters of employers surveyed say they plan to have either a job app or mobile career website by September 2012. It's studies like this that make job seekers wonder if anyone ever sees the resume they just fired out on their computer. Odds of getting your resume viewed are slim enough, but it would at least be encouraging to think that employers were up to date with their technology. And companies who use the latest technology often have automatic resume screening programs that reduce chances of a resume getting viewed even more.
Recruiters say the percentage of online applications viewed by an actual human being ranges from five percent to 25 percent. In this world of Linkedin, Facebook, Craigslist, and Twitter, it's easy to get your resume and experience out on the internet. The challenge is getting someone to actually see it and consider you.
Vets Deserve a Break
by Ray McNally
Finally something that both parties in Congress can get behind. Just in time for Veterans Day, the Senate unanimously passed a bill to help unemployed veterans seeking jobs. It was the first... and so far only... piece of President Obama's jobs package to get out of the Senate. The House is expected to take up the bill and pass it next week. Lawmakers say the bill is a bipartisan jobs creator that is fully paid for and would even reduce federal deficits by $2 billion over the next decade. The bill gives employers tax credits of up to $5,600 for hiring veterans who have been unemployed longer than six months. It would also give employers a tax credit of up to $9,600 for hiring long-unemployed disabled veterans.
The bill also expands an education and jobs retraining program for unemployed veterans. And it creates a new project that directs the Labor Department to figure out ways for veterans to use their specialized training to get licenses in different fields in the civilian work force.
The White House says the October unemployment rate for veterans who left the military after 2001 was 12.1 percent, leaving about 240,000 veterans out of work.
It's not a new situation. We send young men and women overseas.. some to combat.. and when they return home, they can't find a job. They deserve better. And some big businesses are answering the call.
First Lady Michelle Obama announced this week that U.S. business has pledged to hire 100,000 veterans and military spouses by 2014. She vowed not to rest until all of the country's 859,000 unemployed veterans have gainful employment.
The pledge from U.S. big business supports the "Joining Forces" initiative that Mrs. Obama and Jill Biden, the vice president's wife, launched earlier this year. Mrs. Obama said the hiring pledge comes from companies including UPS, Microsoft, Home Depot and Citi.
This is the kind of approach that business needs to take to help our unemployed veterans. And the hiring has to go beyond pledges and beyond just Veterans Day.
November 9, 2011
No Bonuses for the Poor
By Ray McNally
Recently, we've heard news reports that illustrate just how big the gap is between the haves and the have-nots in this country. We heard about frightening numbers of people in our country living below the poverty line. And now we hear that bonuses on Wall Street will be down this year. Well, tell that to the poor and see how much they care.
The Census Bureau says there are more people living in poverty than it originally reported. The official poverty rate released in September was 15 percent... 46.2 million people. Now, under a different method of measuring poverty, the Census Bureau says there were more than 49 million Americans living in poverty last year, making the poverty rate 16 percent.
New research shows that older Americans are leaving the younger generations in the dust when it comes to how much money they have. That could very well lead to a whole new generation of poor people.
The Pew Research Center says that on average, households headed by people age 65 and older in 2009 were worth 47 times more than households headed by people 35 and younger. It's the largest wealth gap ever recorded between the two age groups. Households headed by younger adults had a median net worth of about $3,600 in 2009... a 68 percent decline in wealth from 25 years earlier
And Census data also shows that the number of adult children who live with their parents, especially young males, has soared since the economy turned bad. Among males age 25 to 34, 19 percent live with their parents today, a 5 percent increase from 2005.
Today, there's a report that Wall Street workers will see their bonuses decline by as much as 30 percent this year. Johnson Associates says Wall street bonuses can range from $10,000 on up to the millions. But this year's "representative" bonus is about $75,000. Bonuses are down 30 percent, and still the median is $75,000.
It was funny when Clark Griswold went ballistic in the 1989 movie "Christmas Vacation" when he learned that the bonus he had already spent on a swimming pool was being cut by his boss. It's probable that there is similar complaining this year in homes of Wall Street workers lamenting their shrinking bonuses.
They should try that in the homes of our nation's poor. Those who still have homes.
November 8, 2011
Super Committee or Stupor Committee?
By Ray McNally
Throwing a hot potato usually means someone is going to get burned. A big political hot potato was lobbed at the debt reduction Super Committee in August, and hopefully Americans won't be the ones getting burned. But the way things are going, that could happen.
The Super Committee was created as part of the debt ceiling deal in August. After a seemingly endless impasse, specific deficit reductions were put in the hands of the newly formed committee. In August, a Thanksgiving deadline seemed to be plenty of time for the committee to come up with cuts. Now the deadline is looming. The committee's mission was to reach a compromise by Thanksgiving to slash at least $1.2 trillion from the nation's deficits over the next decade-- and then get Congress to agree. If that doesn't happen, heavy automatic spending cuts will hit military and discretionary budgets starting in 2013.
The only thing that both parties agree on is that no one wants those automatic spending cuts to kick in.
House Speaker John Boehner has publicly told the Super Committee that tax increases should be "off the table," making their goal of compromise difficult, if not impossible, because the Democratic proposals include a mix of new tax revenues, along with spending cuts.
The situation seemed grim, but now a small but growing number of lawmakers from both parties is setting aside partisan demands in hopes of coming up with an agreement on deficit reduction totaling $4 trillion or more. The committee's goal is clear, as are the consequences if they don't reach a deal.
It would be nice if a compromise is reached without the heavy sword of a Thanksgiving deadline hanging over the heads of committee members. It also would be nice if we don't have to have daily news reports and stock market declines as the deadline approaches with no solution. Something has to be done, so hopefully the committee will do it sooner, rather than later.
November 4, 2011
The Runaway Bride
By Evan Kravitz
Filene's Basement is famous for its annual "Running of the Brides" when women camp out all night in front of its retail stores waiting for the doors to open and getting their chance to grab drastically discounted wedding dresses. The competition is fierce. Many women work in teams, their bridesmaids at their side grabbing the right size and style before it gets snatched up. Make no mistake. This is the bride's equivalent of the Normandy invasion.
Unfortunately, this time-honored tradition came to a close last Friday in Boston with the final "Running of the Brides". Filene's parent company, Syms, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection on Wednesday and said it would shut down all of its stores by the end of January 2012. In the fiscal year that ended in February, Syms Corp. posted a $51.7 million loss. So far this year, the company has lost $16.7 million. With no one in the wings to rescue it, the company's nearly 2,500 employees will be out of jobs.
I personally owe a lot to Filene's. My wife was one of those crazed women who grabbed her girlfriend, camped out all night and made the mad dash through aisles and aisles of racks of white and ivory to find her perfect fit...her perfect dress.
Tradition is that the groom should not see the bride's dress before the ceremony. So I warned my wife that the "Running of the Brides" was covered by the media. Women didn't care if there was a camera and reporter in front of them while they were practically naked trying on dresses. As long as they were getting the dress, that's all that mattered. Of course my bride-to-be thought there was no chance she would get caught on the news, or for that matter, that her groom would be able to pick her out from the masses.
As luck would have it, I saw my wife on the local news that night and got a glimpse of the dress. She was only on air for a few seconds, but it was enough to put a smile on my face as I knew what would be coming down the wedding aisle soon.
So, it's a bittersweet farewell to Filene's. I think I speak for all men whose dreams came true when they set eyes on their bride wearing a gown from one of your stores. You gave my wife a beautiful dress at the right price. We were on a budget, and that's what made the "Running of the Brides" such a hit. Not many companies have their legacies captured in wedding albums.
November 3, 2011
Time is Money
by Ray McNally
One of the things in life that we all hate to hear is when our friendly cable TV representative on the phone says, "We'll have to send a repairman." Invariably, we are given a four-hour window of time for the service call, and almost without fail, we watch that four-hour window tick away before he or she arrives. Usually we have to rearrange our lives to be home, even if it means taking time off from work. We can beg and plead, but there's no way to get a more specific time for service call.
Now, there's a poll of more than 1,000 adults done by IBOPE Zogby that finds time spent waiting for in-home services and appointments cost American workers $37.7 billion in 2011! We hate to be kept waiting and even more, we hate to lose money.
More than half, or 58%, of Americans said they waited for in-home appointments in the past year, for an average of four and a half hours. The average number of times they waited last year was about three. When it's all said and done, about the only thing we can do about bad service and long waiting times is to not recommend the business...or not do business with them.
Only about 43% of respondents to the poll said they would recommend a company if they have to wait an extra 15 minutes for someone to show up.
The study found that companies lose an average of $330 for each customer who decides to stop doing business with them. So, companies should look at ways to improve their service call system. It's costing them money too. Bloggers Ken Boyer and Rohit Verma from Cornell University suggest that with all the technology we now have available, companies could email, text or tweet the customer when they have a daily schedule with a more specific time, or even better, contact the customer about 15 minutes or a half hour before the service person arrives. It sounds simple, but the companies probably could come up with a million reasons why that wouldn't work. One cable company actually is doing something, but with an extra cost. Time Warner Cable (whose owner is also the parent company of CNN) has a new level of service called "Signature Home" that has a number of higher level services, including a more specific service appointment. The catch: The higher service level costs about $200 a month.
Monday, October 31
No More Fees, Please!
By Ray McNally
Consumers seem to have scored a victory of sorts against fees from the banking industry. Bank of America is now considering softening its new policy of charging most customers a $5 a month fee to use their debit cards, according to a source familiar with the bank's plans. Bank of America is apparently thinking about ways for customers to avoid having to pay the fee. Some of the ideas being kicked around Bank of America include customers setting up direct deposit for their pay checks, maintaining certain minimum balances or using Bank of America credit cards.
JPMorgan Chase and Wells Fargo decided not to charge customers to use their debit cards as well. All of this comes after a month of loud and constant consumer complaints about the fees.
But the fee madness continues!
Now we are hearing that the hotel industry is slapping guests with hidden fees for services that have always been included in the bill.
There was a time when you didn't have to wonder if you were going to be charged extra to use a hotel's pool or gym, or request an early or late check-in, or to ask the hotel to hold your luggage for a while after you check out.
Apparently you can't assume that services like that are included any more. Some hotels are now charging extra for those basic services.
According to a recent study by New York University's Preston Robert Tisch Center for Hospitality, Tourism and Sports Management, total fees and surcharges collected by hotels in the U.S. are projected to hit a record $1.8 billion this year, up 80% from a decade ago!
How much is too much? How much extra are we willing to pay when jobs are being lost and services are being cut back?
Americans are in the mood to be fed up. Maybe it's the delayed Howard Beale syndrome. Remember him? The crazy anchorman from the 1976 movie "Network," who told people to open the window and scream "I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this any more!"
Consumers showed the banking industry how fed up they are and banks finally listened. Other industries imposing fees certainly must be paying attention.
Friday, October 21
The New Campus Brochure
By Evan Kravitz
In 1993, when I selected my college of choice, it was based, primarily, on academics. I didn't know much about the social scene on campus or what to expect from the town. So, I drove cross-country with my father to tour the campus. We got the royal treatment from the school's well-groomed and smooth-talking student reps.
Looking back on it now, what I did not get from the campus brochures and tour was a feel for what the students really thought of the school and the town. Was the school worth its weight in student loans? Were they happy with their choice?
Nearly twenty years since I took my tour of that campus, social media has made it possible for prospective students to find out, on their own, what a school really has to offer, by hearing it from current students themselves. Schools are using Facebook and Twitter to engage these young adults, peer-to-peer.
According to a recent study by the Center for Marketing Research at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth, 100% of universities surveyed use social media to communicate with students, up from 61% in 2007-08. The study found that 98% of the responding colleges have a Facebook page and 84% have a Twitter account.
Daniel Creasy, the associate director of admissions and one of the people behind Johns Hopkins University Interactive, believes that social media provides an uncensored look at the school. "You definitely take a leap of faith when you put this much control of your message in the students' hands," he says. "But the students feel a sense of pride that they are part of this process."
Dean Tsouvalas, editor-in-chief of StudentAdvisor.com, says university catalogs don't always impress students. "Students view the brochures similarly to school propaganda," Tsouvalas says. Instead, Tsouvalas says that applicants often turn to the web to talk with enrolled students about their experiences. "They can get a sense of what life is really like on campus through social media, whether it's through a virtual tour or Twitter."
I switched schools after two years because I wanted something different. While the school I started at in 1993 was, and remains, a fine institution, it never quite felt like the right fit for me. The school I eventual wound up earning my degree at suited me well. I researched the school through friends I knew there. There was no Facebook page for me to have exchanges on. I had to go right to the source.
And that is what students are doing now with social media. Higher education is big money and students, and parents, want to get their money's worth. Social media are now the new campus brochure.
Thursday, October 20
A Bargain for You
By Evan Kravitz
All right, it's official... it's ok to be vain!! I'm talking to you, the holiday shopper who is so busy thinking about others during your shopping that you turn your head from the bargains on the goodies that you so desire. "It's wrong to spend on myself during the holidays," you tell yourself.
Well, it's not wrong. In fact, according to some new data, you're not alone if you splurge a little bit on yourself this holiday season.
According to the National Retail Federation's 2011 Holiday Consumer Intentions and Actions survey, which is conducted by BIGresearch, consumers say they plan to spend less on gifts for others and more on themselves while doing their holiday shopping this year. Holiday shoppers will, on average, spend $704.18 on gifts and other seasonal items this year, down slightly from last year's $718.98. About 60% of those surveyed said they plan to take advantage of seasonal sales and discounts to make purchases for themselves during the holidays.
Of course, with the sluggish economy impacting much of the nation, I am not suggesting that selfish shopping armageddon will be the rage this year. The survey found that 62.2% of Americans say the economy will impact their holiday spending plans and that sales or price discounts are the most important factors when making purchases this year.
But all funny business aside, what I take away from this is that Americans might treat themselves to, well, a treat this year. Be it a sweater, television, jewelry or whatever, don't feel guilty about taking advantage of some of the bargains for yourself. It has been a tough year for the nation, and the numbers are mixed on the economic front. So, if you catch a deal go for it. You're not being selfish.
Wednesday, October 19
By Evan Kravitz
The last time I dressed up for Halloween was in the late nineties, when I was in my twenties, just a kid (ha!). My roommates and I were having a massive Halloween party at our rented house. Some 60 people were expected to be there. I wanted to be original. We all did. So, I kept my devious plan to myself. I would dress up as Dr. Evil from the Austin Powers movie. I bought the bold skull cap, found the uniform and got the make-up for the fake plastic face scar. I was hands down the winner at the party.
I am out of the costume game these days, until I have kids at least. But it seems to me that everyone wants to be original, and they will pay for it too. According to American Express Spending and Saving Tracker, costumes rank as the biggest Halloween expense for young professionals. They will spend an average $63 on costumes.
Spending $63 doesn't sound outrageous to me, especially if it brings out the kid in us once in a while. That is a good thing these days. But what I find fascinating is that the secret to being original these days might be not keeping secrets at all. Enter Facebook.
According to USA Today, this year will be the first year that HalloweenCostumes.com and BuyCostumes.com are encouraging consumers to "like" costumes on their sites. "This way, you can let others know that you're staking a claim on a particular costume," says Travis Mattick, lead buyer at HalloweenCostumes.com. In other words, you are telling your friends, or potential competition, "hands off, I found it first!"
Halloween is heavy online traffic time for Facebook and its more than 750 million members. Facebook spokesman Larry Lu tells USA Today that the site is already preparing for the day after Halloween - its biggest day of the year for uploaded photos. "Halloween is the social, visual and perfect stew that people want to share," he says. So, who wouldn't want to have the standout picture that everyone is talking about among your circle of friends?
My Dr. Evil costume was part of a covert operation; it was guarded in secrecy. Now, it seems it might pay, literally, to make your costume ideas well known ahead of time to your friends in order to be the standout. Especially now, with the explosion of social media, the best costume is fodder at the water cooler the next day (for better or for worse).
So, stake your claim now and make it known. By the way, I still have my Dr. Evil costume if anyone wants to use it.
Tuesday, October 18
Occupy's Time for Leadership?
By Evan Kravitz
It was just last week that I was talking about the "Occupy Wall Street" movement and whether they would fade away. Well, the protesters have now officially entered their second month of occupancy in the financial district in New York City, and by all accounts it would appear that they are here to stay a while.
Watching the news reports and seeing the images today of the protesters camped out at Zuccotti Park, where the demonstrators are based in New York, I was reminded of something in particular that I said last week. "If the protest keeps growing, organization, of course, will be key. For now, as long as things remain peaceful that is good enough for me."
The protest, by and large, has remained peaceful, though there have been minor scuffles with police in satellite movements of "Occupy Wall Street" across the nation. In Seattle, police arrested six men and one woman who refused orders to remove their tents from a city-owned site. Most of the others asked to move voluntarily complied. A potential confrontation in Atlanta was averted when Mayor Kasim Reed extended an executive order allowing demonstrators to remain in a city-owned park through November 7. And just last week, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg got out of what would have been a sticky situation when he, and the owners of Zuccotti Park, backed off their attempt to clear the park for cleaning. Protesters vowed not to be moved.
So the peaceful part of this movement seems to be holding up, for now. But what about leadership? There is no official spokesperson for "Occupy Wall Street," no "go-to" person. Perhaps that is because this movement is tackling so many issues and still has not defined itself to itself. Issues being tackled by "Occupy Wall Street" include corporate greed, economic inequity, Wall Street practices, political partisanship, anti-war sentiment and the over-arching feeling that the protestors represent what they call the 99% being ruled by the 1% of the elite class in society.
According to a Quinnipiac University poll released Monday, poll respondents in New York City said by 67% to 23% that they agree with demonstrators' views. A USA Today/Gallop Poll shows that most Americans are paying attention to the protest movement. However, most don't know enough to take a position. Even among those who have followed the protests closely, 43% don't know enough to say whether they support or oppose the movement's goals.
Sooner or later "Occupy Wall Street" may need to develop a hierarchy of leadership to keep it growing long after they have left the parks... if they do.
October 17, 2011
Apologizing with Apps
By Evan Kravitz
I think it is fair to say that last week was hell for anyone working in Research in Motion's costumer support department. The maker of the BlackBerry smartphone suffered its largest-ever network disruption. It began on Monday in Europe, the Middle East and Africa. By Tuesday it had spread to South America and on Wednesday costumers in the United States were experiencing problems with the phones. The outage primarily affected text messaging and Internet access, leaving some voice calling services operational. The problem was eventually fixed. But how much damage was done to the company's image?
RIM doesn't have much room for technical mishaps like this. Its last financial quarter was grim, with sales missing forecasts. The stock is down almost 60% year-to-date. RIM's current devices have drawn mixed reviews.
But BlackBerry's user base is strong. The service had more than 70 million global subscribers as of September 15th, a whopping 40% growth over the previous year. Coming up, RIM will have a high-profile platform to debut their new line. At the U.S. developer conference, DevCon Americas, in San Francisco, RIM plans to show off its forthcoming line of smartphones built around QNX, its next-generation operating system, and its "PlayBook 2.0" update for its struggling tablet.
But RIM has a lot of catching up to do with its new line of phones, no matter how good they are. Apple reports that it sold more than 4 million iPhone 4S smartphones since its launch three days ago, setting a sales record for the device. That's the kind of news RIM is looking to generate for itself.
To make amends with its customers, RIM announced today that it would be offering a selection of premium apps worth a total value of more than $100, free of charge, to subscribers as an expression of appreciation for their patience during the recent service disruptions. The apps will be made available to customers over the coming weeks on BlackBerry App World and will continue to be available until December 31st. In addition, technical service plans for existing customers will be extended. RIM Co-CEO Mike Lazaridis was essentially on his hands and knees pleading with BlackBerry users to keep the faith.
"We are grateful to our loyal BlackBerry customers for their patience," said Lazaridis. "We have apologized to our customers and we will work tirelessly to restore their confidence. We are taking immediate and aggressive steps to help prevent something like this from happening again."
RIM stock was down more than 4% in early trading today. It may be too soon to tell if their offer of free apps will help the company. It may. Or it may be a band aid on a wound that will leave a scar. But scarring is part of life, and as a BlackBerry user myself, I am not ready to ditch the phone. I consider it more of a hassle to start a new contract or pay for a new phone. The problem was fixed. My phone works. Now, If there were only an app that could make a stock price go up.
Friday, October 14
Here to Stay?
By Evan Kravitz
On television this morning, news crews in New York City were ready to capture a possible showdown between the 1,000-strong "Occupy Wall Street" protesters gathered in the financial district and police. The owners of Zuccotti Park, where the protesters are camped out, asked for police assistance to clean the area this morning. Many of the protesters started to clean the park on their own to avert a confrontation with police and to show their care for the property. But then word came from the mayor's office that Brookfield Properties, the owners of Zuccotti Park, told the city that the scheduled cleaning was off for now and "for the time being" they were "withdrawing their request" made earlier in the week for police assistance during the cleaning operation.
Was this a win for the protesters or a PR move by the city and Brookfield Properties? I think it was a little of both. At least, in the end, any potential disturbance to the overall peace was averted.
A few days ago I wrote about "Occupy Wall Street" and whether or not they had enough traction to keep their cross-country momentum going. Now, it seems to me, the answer is yes. In fact, they are getting more organized, at least in New York, it would appear.
It has been 28 days since the protests began in New York and the movement has raised more than $150,000 in donations. The fundraising was made through donations via mail, two websites and in person to members of what the movement calls its "Finance Working Group."
A "Finance Working Group!" Less anyone think these folks are going away anytime soon, think again. The "Finance Working Group" is made up of 12 individuals, many of whom have backgrounds in business and finance. They have been entrusted with the responsibility of disbursing funds to the other groups within the movement, which range from security and media teams, to temporary teams assigned to isolated tasks.
"Occupy Wall Street" is even thinking about forming a publication. "Occupy Wall Street Media" successfully raised more than $75,000 worth of donation pledges to be used toward the protest's official publication, The Occupy Wall Street Journal.
The influx of money has given "Occupy Wall Street" some added lift to its wings. And some protesters have expressed interest in larger long-term goals.
"I think that obviously it's going to influence what we're capable of doing, in terms of whether it's getting the newspaper out more often or supplying enough sleeping bags and blankets for people here," said Tyler Combelic, a member of the protest's media group.
"We are looking for some facilities to help maintain infrastructure," says Pete Dutro, a member of the protest's financial arm. "We're in negotiations for getting a storefront close to the site." In addition, efforts are under way to find a commercial kitchen to feed participants in a more cost-efficient manner, Dutro said.
By all indications, an infrastructure is starting to take shape within "Occupy Wall Street." How stable it is remains to be seen. And whether you agree with their agenda or not, they are making their voices heard for U.S. cities (let's not forget there are satellite movements throughout the country), the media and politicians. But their message is still varied. Listen to any one reporter ask a protester what they are there for and you will get a different answer every time: corporate greed, unemployment, political turmoil, war, the environment, the haves and the have nots.
Part of me wants to say "Occupy Wall Street" needs a unified voice. Another part thinks diversity in message is a good thing. After all, take a look at political campaigns. It's one voice tackling a myriad of issues. If the protest keeps growing, organization, of course, will be key. For now, as long as things remain peaceful that is good enough for me.
Thursday, October 13
Black Days for Blackberry
By Jason Evans
Service disruptions on five continents! The manufacturer of a cell phone used by more than 70 million earthlings reporting an "extremely critical issue!'
Meanwhile, I thought I had done something wrong when I noticed I didn't have any new messages when I made the habitual morning grab for the Blackberry Wednesday morning.
As sleepy as I was, I seriously didn't think I had brought the smartphone's network to its knees. My first instinct was that once again I had failed to get my e-mail inbox (in digital terms the weight of a grand piano with an anvil tied to it) under control and that I wasn't able to get new messages.
When I learned otherwise, I was relieved. But relief was certainly not an emotion felt over at Research in Motion, the makers of the Blackberry smartphone.
The outage first reported in the Middle East and Europe before spreading to other regions, could not come at a worse time for the company.
RIM stock is down almost 60% percent this year, sales are down, and a little company called Apple is releasing the latest version of the iPhone on Friday.
To be fair, headline grabbing smartphone problems aren't exclusive to RIM, as folks who dealt with iPhone 4's "antennagate" can attest to.
The current situation with Blackberry is not an isolated incident -- there have been noted outages with the service every year since 2007.
A reasonable person might figure this could happen again. Hopefully I won't be responsible for any of those either!
Wednesday, October 12
A Very Scary Drive
By Evan Kravitz
The other night, I left for my daily commute from Philadelphia to New York City in the middle of the night (I work the early, early shift). Driving along, I thought everything was perfect. I had good tunes on the radio, a full tank of gas and I was heading off to a job I enjoy. Then, it all came crashing down on me. I had left my cell phone at home! I was already ten miles away from the house and on a highway with long stretches between exits. There was no turning back. I couldn't waste the time. What if something happened mechanically to the car? How would I get in touch with my wife, co-workers, AAA, anyone? It dawned on me that had I had the choice I would have rather left my wallet at home than my phone.
Well, the time is now upon us when we won't have to worry about leaving anything behind when we leave the house. We won't have to choose between our wallet and our keys, like in my crazed scenario. Our keys, wallet and everything else we stuff into our pockets and need for the day will be stored in our cell phones.
The phone-as-wallet trend has its origins in South Korea and Japan, and it has recently caught on in the United States. It became a reality September 19, when the Google Wallet app went public for Nexus S smartphones on Sprint's network. Even though that only represents a small group of people with that capability for Sprint, Google says there is a bigger rollout on the way. For a purchase, instead of pulling out a credit card to pay, you get out your phone. You tap it on a special electronic reader to log the payment. You have to enter a PIN for security. Google Wallet currently works only with Citi MasterCard. This technology is still in its infancy. But imagine how it will grow.
When you think about all of the apps and connectivity we get with smartphones these days, it is not hard to imagine a day when our phones will indeed be the only thing we need to carry with us. The trend, at least to me, seems to point to consumers wanting newer and better features from their phones. Just look at the craze for the iPhone for proof.
But could we really live in a wallet free world for example?
"We definitely hope one day you can walk out of the house with your phone in your hand -- and nothing else," says Marc Freed-Finnegan of Google. "Mobile phones are definitely becoming a center of all of our lives, I think.... When you're carrying around this small computer, you can do all kinds of things with it."
On the other hand...
"Other forms of payment are easier and quicker," says Jeff Blyskal, a senior editor at Consumer Reports, who tested Google Wallet in San Francisco. "I don't think the Google wallet or any of these digital wallets are going to replace your leather wallet.... I just don't think it will happen."
Phones these days have apps for just about anything. From GPS to Angry Birds, the technology available through these phones just keeps growing. It would be great to have an all-in-one device to make life simpler. But when it gets taken away, lost or stolen you're out of luck. So, there are risks. Rest assured there are developers out there right now trying to take smartphone technology to the next level where you can do anything from starting your car with it to showing it as a legitimate form of identification. It's either a case of technology making our lives simpler or more complicated.
In the meantime I've developed a new pre-2 a.m. ritual for when I leave for work. That cell phone will not be left home again.
Tuesday, October 11
Wealth and the Holidays
By Evan Kravitz
When I was younger, like a year ago, the holidays were all about the gifts. Will I get what I asked for, and did I buy the right thing? But now, as Hannukah and Christmas approach, and the time for gift buying and gift giving is upon us, I find myself more involved with planning for my family to be together under one roof. I'm hoping that will be the best gift I can give.
And it seems I don't have the "corner" on this gift.
According to a new survey, wealthier Americans are bucking a stereotype and putting the holiday emphasis back on family and friends rather than on expensive gifts. The wealthiest Americans -- with annual household incomes above $130,000-- are expected to spend $68.7 billion on gifts this season, a 6.1% decline from 2010, according to the survey of "Affluence and Wealth in America," conducted by Harrison Group and American Express Publishing.
Surprisingly, these findings aren't suggesting that the wealthy have fallen on hard times and have to scale back. In fact, nearly one-third of wealthy families said their household income actually rose since last year. The majority, or 57%, of affluent consumers surveyed said they are buying fewer gifts this holiday season because they "just don't need as much stuff."
Of course, there is a down side to this. America's sluggish economy needs an infusion of consumer spending on gifts so that retailers can make money and, in turn, do more hiring. It's almost like a "Catch 22." Do you spend more time on family and strengthen the ties that bind or spend more to spur the economy and help out a nation?
I think the answer lies somewhere in the middle. The holidays don't need to be expensive. Last year I bought my wife multiple gifts (some cheap, some expensive) because I was so afraid of buying her the wrong thing. I know now all she really wants is to be with family. This year I will be focusing on one gift. I don't know how much it will cost, but it will be all about sentiment. It might be as simple as a card or as expensive and logistically involved as flying her parents out from New Mexico to see us. The point is, it all goes back to family.
The survey shows that 84% of affluent Americans said that they want this to be a great holiday season for their families. Eighty-one percent said that the best part of the holidays is spending time with the people they care about, versus only 15% who said it was giving gifts. Just 3% said the best part of the holiday season was receiving gifts.
There is no denying that there is a certain gleam in all of our eyes when we unwrap a gift. And whether it's eight nights of fantastic gifts for Hannukah or a bundle of boxes underneath the tree, we will always be giddy with excitement to see what we got and maybe how much was spent. But it is nice to know that there is new data out there showing the trend going in the opposite direction. It just goes to show that some people define wealth differently around the holiday season.
Friday, September 30
A Debit Card Mess
By Evan Kravitz
Bank of America, the nation's largest bank, will begin charging a $5 monthly fee beginning next year for customers who make debit card purchases. It doesn't matter whether you use your card for just one purchase a month, you will pay $5 per month starting in 2012. In addition, it doesn't matter if you select "debit" or "credit" at the point of sale. You are going to get charged. You can still use ATMs at will without getting hit with the new charge, as long as you don't make any debit purchases in the same month. In addition, customers with certain premium accounts will be exempt.
As a Bank of America cardholder, who doesn't have a premium account, I dumbfounded by this move. Why is this happening? After all, isn't my bank supposed to be paying me for my business?
Bank of America's move is a reaction to new rules limiting the revenue banks will be able to get from merchants. Banks used to charge merchants an average fee of 44 cents for processing every purchase put on a debit or credit card. Now, the maximum fee is only 21 cents. This will cost the banking industry billions of dollars.
So, where do the banks make up for the loss...with us!
Chase and Wells Fargo say they are testing $3 dollar monthly debit card fees in select markets. Suntrust started charging a $5 dollar debit card fee on basic accounts this summer and Regions Financial is expected to roll out a $4 dollar fee on debit cards next month.
"The economics of offering a debit card have changed with recent regulations," said Bank of America spokeswoman Betty Riess, adding that customers will be notified of the change at least 30 days before it takes effect.
Those words don't come as much comfort to me, or to Bank of America customer Rian Kelly who told CNN that he wasn't too "psyched" about the charge and was going to switch banks.
But which bank do you switch to? As noted above, several of the biggest banks are also implementing the new fees.
Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL.) might appear to be the culprit behind this. After all, he introduced the swipe-fee cap in an amendment to the Dodd-Frank Financial Reform Act. But he said he was aiming to even out the playing field for retailers because the fees Visa and MasterCard have set for banks "grossly exceed the cost of processing a debit card transaction by some 400%."
Reacting to Bank of America's move, Durbin said, "After years of raking in excess profits off an unfair and anti-competitive interchange system, Bank of America is trying to find new ways to pad their profits by sticking it to its customers. It's overt, unfair and I hope their customers have the final say."
It will be interesting to see who has the final say in this tussle with the banks. It feels like David verse Goliath. I use my debit card for almost every transaction. I can either get off my butt and look for another bank, call Bank of America and raise my voice in opposition to this or live with it. Five dollars a month isn't going to kill me, but it's my money! I earned it, and I want to do with it as I please. Bank of America, like other banks instituting such fees, is treading on shaky ground, at the very least in terms of an image standpoint. The banks aren't going to be too "psyched" when they see more and more reaction to these fees.
Thursday, September 29
Are You Being Tracked?
By Evan Kravitz
Is Facebook watching you? Invading your privacy? The massive social network with more than 750 million members is under scrutiny by two members of Congress, Reps. Ed Markey of Massachusetts and Joe Barton of Texas. They have filed a letter with the Federal Trade Commission asking for an investigation of Facebook's business practices.
Earlier this week, an Australian tech blogger claimed that after logging off of Facebook, the website was still collecting information about sites he was visiting online. The information was gathered by "cookies," or small files that websites commonly leave on a user's computer.
In their letter, Markey and Barton said that "tracking users without their knowledge or consent raises serious privacy concerns....When users log out of Facebook, they are under the impression that Facebook is no longer monitoring their activities. We believe this impression should be the reality."
For its part, a spokesman for Facebook said, "Facebook did not store or use any information it should not have." The spokesman added that three cookies on some users' computers "inadvertently included unique identifiers when the user had logged out of Facebook." That said, the spokesman said once Facebook was notified of the issue it "moved quickly to fix the cookies so that they won't include unique information in the future when people log out."
It's not clear if the FTC will launch an investigation. But Markey and Barton are pushing hard for one nonetheless because they say the violation falls within the agency's mandate to protect Americans from "unfair and deceptive acts or practices."
This is just the latest salvo in what appears to be a backlash against Facebook by many users, and in this case lawmakers, who are unhappy with recent changes made to the site and are concerned with its reach. It seems consumers are less and less confident that when they flip the off switch to anything connected to the Internet they are truly disconnected.
You leave an online footprint. That's at the heart of Facebook's massive success. It has followed and fed your likes and dislikes. The debate is about where that pursuit is legitimate and where it is an invasion of your privacy.
Wednesday, September 28
Comfort Cards and the Unemployed
Job loss is painful. You don't need me to tell you. I have been through it, and more than 14 million Americans are living with it currently. As our lawmakers try to grapple with how to combat 9% unemployment in the nation, some wonder how they can comfort their friends or loved ones who have fallen on tough times. It is hard to imagine that a sympathy card could do the trick, but Hallmark and other card makers think differently.
Layoff greeting cards are being printed by Hallmark, Zazzle and Greeting Card Universe. Examples of Hallmark cards for the unemployed include one with a photo of a cat that reads: "Is there anywhere I could hack up a hairball, like say, on a former employer's head?" Another card says: "Losing a job is just plain painful. So I want you to remember I'm in your cheering section . . ."
But can cards like this really help ease the pain of job loss?
Stanford University professor Bob Sutton tells the Dallas Morning News that layoff cards might be a good way to show compassion to someone who needs support during a tough time.
"Treating them as if they are invisible is often the worst thing," says Sutton, author of several books on management and the workplace. "It is a very small thing, but may matter to some people."
David Smason, unemployed in the hospitality industry, tells the paper he's unsure if getting a layoff card would have been all that encouraging for him when he lost his job.
"I do think it's thoughtful," Smason says. "But I think you have to have a healthy sense of humor to appreciate that kind of thing."
Although a card can never replace a paycheck, it can help friends reach out to you if they're unable to find the right words on their own. I believe that's why we buy cards. We let someone else do the talking for us, but the gesture is our own. And that's what matters. We would much rather be able to give someone a job. A card isn't necessarily the next best thing. It's just a way to say I'm thinking about you.
In today's economy, with so many people out of work and down on their luck, a card won't make much difference. But if it provides just a little bit of comfort, then it's worth its weight in gold.
Tuesday, September 27
Breaking Up is Hard to Do?
By Evan Kravitz
Social networking, tweeting, texting are all great methods of communication in a world where technology is increasingly playing a part in the way we interact with each other. What it isn't so great for is the "good" old-fashioned break up. In my day, if you wanted to break up, you did it face to face. Maybe a hand-written letter would suffice (tear-stained of course). But an email or phone call, to me, was simply taking the easy way out. But now it seems that bleeding hearts like me may be a lost cause in this age of social networking where you can drop a relationship with ease of hitting "send."
Twenty-five percent of the more than 1,000 people who responded to a Facebook survey conducted by AreYouInterested.com said they found out their relationship was over when they noticed a change in their partner's relationship status on a Facebook page. Ouch, that's cold! And 21% of people admitted they would break up with someone by changing their status to "single" on Facebook, the largest social networking site in the world with more than 750 million users. An additional 40% of respondents said they updated their Facebook status to make their girlfriends/boyfriends think they have plans, even if they don't.
As noted in the Huffington Post, these trends have opened the door for entrepreneurs to discover a new niche in online dating: the break up.
Discouraged, or encouraged, after a series of bad break ups and heartache, Bradley Laborman developed "iDUMP4U.com" where users send information about those they want to end relationships with and they, in turn, leave it to Laborman to roll up his sleeves and do the dirty work. Services include the "Basic Breakup," which has a fee of $10, "Engagement Breakup," which is $25, and "Divorce Call," which costs $50. Audio recordings of the calls are also posted on the website as audio files for others to hear. On average, the site gets about 15,000 to 20,000 hits per month, with numbers going up around Valentine's Day and other holidays.
This goes to prove that there is money to be made anywhere. But when it comes to the break up, it's gotta be one-on-one. I have had my heart broken a few times. It would have been worse if it came via the Internet or by any other third-party means. Spend your money on a card if you can't bring yourself to do it face to face.
Monday, September 26
DreamWorks to the Rescue?
By Evan Kravitz
Today, DreamWorks Animation, the studio behind the highly successful "Shrek" movies among others, announced a new licensing agreement making Netflix the exclusive subscription television service for first-run DreamWorks feature films and select television specials. Starting with its 2013 feature films, new DreamWorks Animation titles, once they finish their theatrical run, will be made instantly available for Netflix members on multiple platforms.
According to the New York Times, DreamWorks Animation passed on what the Times called a "less lucrative" pact with HBO. The Netflix/DreamWorks deal, which analysts estimate is worth $30 million per picture to DreamWorks over an unspecified period of years, is being touted by the companies as the first time a major Hollywood supplier has chosen Web streaming over pay television.
With the DreamWorks deal, according to the Times, Netflix will be able to provide customers with exclusive access to films which have the potential to become the year's biggest box office successes. The opportunity to bolster its children's and family offerings was a primary reason why Netflix pursued a DreamWorks deal. Netflix added additional television content with Discovery, the owner of channels like TLC and Animal Planet.
This is not the first time I have addressed Netflix in a blog. Twice last week I talked about issues with the company. I am a bit biased, I will admit. I am a customer and have lately found myself on the fence when it comes to my pleasure/displeasure with the service's cost, content and ease of use.
This summer, the company raised its prices from $10 to $16 ($8 for DVD-by-mail and $8 for streaming). Angered, many Netflix subscribers dropped the service. Netflix cut its subscriber forecast for the current quarter to 24 million customers -- down from the 25 million the company projected just a few weeks ago.
Early next year, Netflix will lose the right to stream films from Walt Disney Studios and Sony Pictures Entertainment. This comes as a result of a failed renegotiation with the premium cable channel Starz.
Also, Netflix will be separating its streaming video service and DVD-by-mail operation in two. Streaming video will be offered through Netflix and DVDs-by-mail through a new service called Qwikster, which will also offer video games. Customers will have to log onto the separate websites to purchase content.
In a move that caught many off guard last week, Netflix CEO and co-founder Reed Hastings apologized for some of the company's missteps.
"I messed up," Hastings said in the official Netflix blog. "It is clear from the feedback over the past two months that many members felt we lacked respect and humility in the way we announced the separation of DVD and streaming, and the price changes. That was certainly not our intent, and I offer my sincere apology....In hindsight, I slid into arrogance based upon past success...."
The DreamWorks Animation deal is the latest attempt Netflix is making to keep its members, bring back the ones who left, and gain some new ones. But can DreamWorks really be the rescue ladder?
I don't know if I can justify the expense of being a member for the sake of some family-oriented animated movies that I won't be able to watch until 2013- and I don't even have children yet! That said, if Netflix continues to make deals with major production studios like DreamWorks Animation and Discovery, then it remains a top contender amid a growing field of competitors. And I'll keep watching...for now.
CNN, which assisted in the preparation of this report, is owned by Time Warner, which is also the parent company of HBO.
Friday, September 23
Facebook's Changes: Inevitable?
By Evan Kravitz
Facebook has some 750 million members, and many of them of them are not happy about some of the changes made to the site this week. One of the most talked about changes involves the News Feed. Instead of defaulting to your friends' most recent posts, the Feed is now topped by what the site calls "Top Stories" for you. An algorithm is used to combine factors like which friends you interact with most and which friends' posts have the most comments and "likes" on them.
One user didn't mince words when it came to his reaction to the change.
"This is absolutely the worst of the many wrong-headed 'improvements' you have made, and that's quite a feat," a user named Franklin Habit wrote on the site's official Facebook page. "I think Facebook's usefulness to me has now been outstripped by its lack of ease in use."
Facebook developer Mark Tonkelowitz defended the change on the site's official blog.
"...News Feed will act more like your own personal newspaper," he wrote. "You won't have to worry about missing important stuff. All your news will be in a single stream with the most interesting stories featured at the top."
Facebook's PR department might be working late hours in the coming weeks because more changes are in store for the world's largest social networking site. Several thousand Facebook developers gathered in San Francisco on Thursday for Facebook's annual F8 strategy conference to hear about some of the new features coming down the pike.
In his keynote speech at F8, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg said there would be new ways for users to share information -- and for content creators to gather fresh intel on what is being shared. Facebook's vocabulary is expanding beyond "Like." The site will start using verbs soon, adding "watch" for movies or "read" for books. Facebook also announced changes to the permissions process users go through when they install new apps. Facebook is also venturing into streaming music.
Too much change too soon?
Facebook has competition in its rearview. Google+ and even My Space want a share of the audience, but they have a long way to go. That said, Facebook has no choice but to be innovative and stay ahead of the pack. But at the same time, they have to remember what their members want first and foremost. It seems to me, as a Facebook user myself, that we want a simple means to stay in touch with family and friends, near and far, and share life's experieces. The initial negative reactions will most likely fade as users become adjusted to the new features. But Facebook should take heed of the warnings none-the-less, and users should have seen this coming. Change is inevitable in business.
Thursday, September 22
The Value of a Library Card
By Evan Kravitz
When I was younger, just out of college and beginning my career, I lived in an apartment with a roommate who had a library card- and used it quite frequently. I never thought much of it because I never cared to spend much time in libraries. I always associated them with homework, essays, book reports, research, etc. From grade school on up through college I never found much joy in a library. That's not to say I didn't, or don't, read. It just wasn't my thing. But my roommate went to the library for the simple joy of discovering a new book or re-reading a classic. It was free entertainment and enrichment. Maybe I missed out on something. Then again, maybe it's not too late.
I'm a big fan of all the latest technological gadgets, which currently include e-readers like Amazon's Kindle. I bought one for my wife, and she can't put it down. It's the same with people I know who have Barnes & Noble's Nook or Sony's Reader. These devices have opened up a new window into how we purchase and read books. Whether you like reading a book on an e-reader or by print is a separate debate. But what caught my attention recently is that a reader now has the ability to use your Kindle, in this case, to borrow books from a public library. The latest in technology meets the traditional public library. I'm hooked! Here's how it works:
Amazon has a library lending program, in which it brings a selection of books to 11,000 participating libraries across the U.S. If you have a library card you can browse your library's website and borrow digital books, which will be sent wirelessly to your Kindle. A basic model Kindle runs about $114. Now, of course, you have to weigh whether or not you want to spend the money on a Kindle or just sign out a book for free. But, in this case, you don't even need a Kindle necessarily. The program works with Amazon's Kindle apps, which are available on many mobile devices. Books can be borrowed for a set duration, typically around two weeks, after which they are deleted from the borrower's digital collection.
This doesn't mean that you will now have free access to all Amazon's digital catalog which consists of more than one million Kindle titles. Right now, only a small fraction is being lent out. The publishers decide which books they will allow libraries to lend out digitally.
As alluded to in the beginning of this piece, I have not been in a public library in ages. So, I don't know how many kids I would find hanging out there these days. But I do know that kids love this new wave of technology that has brought them smartphones with apps, tablets, iPods, etc. I think kids would find an e-reader like the Kindle, or the like, to be pretty neat. Any way that we can encourage our youth to read more is a worthy cause. Perhaps we live in a time when people use public libraries less and less because they get what they need from their home computers. Then again, I can't help but think that there must be some value left in a public library for a company like Amazon to take notice of. And there's money to be made here as well. People may find a $114 purchase worth it for the thousands of books you will be able to borrow for free.
I have lost touch with my roommate from long ago, but I would like to think he still has his library card. Whether he's reading by Kindle or by book in hand, he's reading. I'm pretty sure of it. I think it might be time for me to get a library card as well (and steal my wife's Kindle).
Wednesday, September 21
Can Apple Do No Wrong?
By Evan Kravitz
What is it about Apple that makes it such a winner with consumers? Is there nothing this company can do wrong? I'm beginning to think not.
An American Customer Satisfaction Index report released this week shows that consumers are quiet smitten with Apple. Its satisfaction rating climbed higher this year, scoring 87 out of a possible 100, up from 86 in 2010. This year marks the eighth straight year in which Apple led the computer category.
For PC owners the news is not so good. The PC received a score of 78 out of 100. This year was the first since 2008 that PC satisfaction didn't rise. In fact, last year, all PC makers' scores rose about 4% from 2009.
There were a couple of bright spots for the PC however. Hewlett-Packard scored higher this year. Then again, HP recently got out of the PC business. And Microsoft's Windows 8 is on the horizon and is said to be built with tablet technology in mind. But will PC and Windows-based products ever be able to match up with Apple when it comes to customer satisfaction?
According to Claes Fornell, founder of the ACSI, an Ann Arbor, Mich.-based research group, it is "Apple's winning combination of innovation and product diversification [that] has kept the company consistently at the leading edge." In fact, ACSI points out that Apple's satisfaction reign over the PC is fueled by the company's ability to radiate a sense of wonderment that spreads to so many of its products such as the iPod, iPhone and tablet. In so doing, people, like me, who are shopping around for a new computer may very well be drawn to the Macintosh line because we're either using other Apple products or we want to be a part of the Apple experience.
That experience is going to cost you. For example, a quick check on Best Buy's website for laptops shows that you can easily purchase a PC-based laptop for well under $800. A Mac sends you sky-rocketing past $900. Though prices vary with the options you want, by and large, Macs are going to cost you more than a PC.
So why are so many people paying more for the Apple brand and what is behind this winning satisfaction streak?
Apple continues to be a leader and one step ahead of the rest. People look to leaders. Many are willing to pay a little extra for the experience and are satisfied with their return on the investment. Go to an Apple store in a mall and look at the crowds. It is unreal. PC makers need to ask themselves when was the last time they felt that kind of satisfaction with crowd turnout for a product? There is still hope for the PC. Some people are never completely satisfied.
Tuesday, September 20 Irreconcilable Differences? By Evan Kravitz
President Obama announced his plan on Monday to cut the national debt by some $3 trillion over the next decade. A key part of his proposal: pushing for wealthier Americans and corporations to pay more in taxes than they do now-- and basically share more of the debt burden going forward. In fact, the President threatened to veto any debt-reduction legislation that cuts benefits like Medicare-- and doesn't include higher taxes on the wealthy. Is this the first salvo in another political showdown?
Republicans oppose the tax increases and they were quick to respond.
It's "a thinly veiled attempt to score political points," said Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus. "By raising taxes on job creators, Obama may win back some support from disgruntled liberal voters, but America will lose even more sorely needed jobs."
"Veto threats, a massive tax hike, phantom savings and punting on entitlement reform is not a recipe for economic or job growth - or even meaningful deficit reduction," said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky.
"Pitting one group of Americans against another is not leadership," added House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio.
We've seen the fights over healthcare legislation, raising the debt ceiling, and now it looks like another battle is brewing.
The President responded to the GOP response at a New York fundraising event last night, saying the debt issue shows the fundamental difference between the parties. He said, "What has been clear over the last two and a half years is that we have not had a willing partner...Now, we've been able to get some stuff done despite that, and despite a filibuster in the Senate. But at least over the last nine months what we've seen is some irreconcilable differences, let's put it that way."
Irreconcilable differences. For couples, that usually means divorce. But what does it mean for the country? The President is threatening a veto, but the Republicans are apparently ready to hold their ground. We'll have to see what happens. Perhaps, in the end, the winning solution is going to be compromise. But how do the two parties do that, and maintain their strongly help fiscal principles? Stay tuned.
September 16, 2011
The Netflix Dilemma
By Evan Kravitz
Netflix is a company with a revolt of sorts on its hands. It has gone from a favorite among movie and television show buffs, who like next-day delivery of DVDs by mail or streaming video, to a let down to many. I, myself, am a subscriber who is in love with the streaming video component of Netflix. My wife likes the DVD selection and delivery. But now, customers are left wondering why they're paying more for the combined services. What happened?
Back in July, Netflix angered many subscribers when it instituted separate prices for its DVDs-by-mail and streaming video plans-- requiring customers to pay $8 a month for each service, sending the price of the combo from $10 to $16. Angry customers took to the Internet and posted complaints on the company's Facebook site. They threatened to drop the service-- and many did.
This week Netflix cut its subscriber forecast for the current quarter to 24 million customers -- down from the 25 million the company projected just a few weeks ago. Investors aren't happy. They slaughtered the stock Thursday sending it down 19% by the end of the day. The company was down more than 4% in early trading Friday.
So why did Netflix go with the price hike? Netflix is facing competition from other companies like Hulu, Google and Amazon. What will set these companies apart, in large part, will be the amount and diversity of content they provide. Netflix is trying to deliver a wide variety of entertainment to its subscribers. But that costs money, and that is what the studios demand more of as they threaten to take their content to Netflix's growing list of rivals. For example, Netflix and movie network Starz failed to reach a pricing agreement to keep the network's content on Netflix through next year. Starz will pull its movies and shows, leaving customers with fewer options. Not good.
To be fair, it is not exactly easy to be Netflix. Due to the growing popularity of streaming video, providers like Starz are upping the price for the content they're licensing. One analyst predicts that Netflix's streaming content licensing costs will rise from $180 million in 2010 to $1.98 billion in 2012!
Anthony DiClemente, Internet and media analyst at Barclays Capital, which owns stock in Netflix, predicts that the U.S. subscriber base for Netflix will recover to a subscriber base of 28.8 million by the end of the year. However, that is still lower than the 30 million subscribers DiClemente had projected. But DiClemente notes that in recent quarters the company's revenue has been up about 40% to 50% year-over-year -- which gives it a bigger purse for gathering new content.
I'm not dropping Netflix just yet. There's still a vast amount of movies and television shows to pick from and for now it still fits within our budget. But other companies are out there competing for our dollars-- and our attention, so Netflix should beware.
September 15, 2011
By Evan Kravitz
There's nothing like the smell of a new car. And there is nothing like the stench of sludge-filled water flowing into your new car when you find yourself in the middle of a flooded road. That is where I found myself last week. My car survived Hurricane Irene in the Philadelphia suburbs but lost its battle to flash flooding a week later when I was driving through my neighborhood at night and found myself floating down the street when I misjudged the depth of the water. I managed to get out of the car just as the water reached the steering wheel. I was lucky.
By all accounts, from the insurance company to mechanics to friends with similar experiences, my car is totaled. The engine was flooded and the electronics systems fried. It looks like its final destination lies in a scrap yard. Right? Maybe not.
It appears that some flood-ravaged cars make it back to used car lots and take buyers for a ride. In an article posted on AOL's money and finance site, DailyFinance, Carfax spokesman Chris Basso said buyers need to be on the lookout for flood-damaged cars following Hurricane Irene, as about half of flood-damaged vehicles find their way back to market.
So, how do these cars wind up back on the market, with you behind the wheel?
What should happen is that an insurance company claim will be filed on a flooded car, and it is then declared a total loss or repaired. Claims are then submitted to the state department of motor vehicles and a salvage title is issued. A salvage title is a form of vehicle title identification, which notes that the vehicle has been badly damaged or deemed a total loss by an insurance company that paid a claim on it.
But, a salvage dealer can purchase the car and move it to a state that doesn't track that information which results in a clear title from the new state. So, when the car is resold, the buyer won't know the history.
Phillip Reed with Edmonds.com told DailyFinance that states do not always communicate about a vehicle's history and unscrupulous sellers take advantage of that. Sellers can also forge a fake title or try to alter the real one.
In the end, the best way to check the quality of a used car is to have it looked over by a mechanic. Even if there are no tell-tale signs like interior damage or rust you never know what lurks within the engine. Flood-damaged cars will take your wallet for a ride and, when they fail on you in the middle of a busy highway, put your safety at risk.
I really miss my car, and I was sad to see it hauled away. It is most likely a goner. There might be some hope for it, but if turns out to be damaged goods hopefully it will not be a potential problem for another buyer down the road.
September 14, 2011
Cell Phone Ban for Truckers
By Bervette Carree
We've all noticed drivers talking on their cell phones when behind the wheel. But, it makes me very nervous when I see a commercial truck driver hauling a big load...chatting on the phone and speeding down the highway! I will confess...I hate driving beside big rigs. I always feel like the driver doesn't see me in the next lane and could possibly hit me if he changed lanes. Actually, I've had a few close calls!
I'm not the only one concerned about truck drivers talking on cell phones. The National Transportation Safety Board is concerned, too. That's why the group has proposed banning commercial truck drivers from using hand-held and hands-free mobile phones while driving. The only exception would be for emergencies. Truckers are already prohibited from texting while driving. This latest move from the NTSB regarding cell phone use is just a recommendation, but their proposals often lead to state and federal legislation.
The board's recommendation comes after a deadly crash involving a truck driver in Kentucky last year. Investigators say the truck driver likely got distracted on his cell phone, crossed the median and slammed into a van. Authorities say fatigue may have been a factor as well. The truck driver, van driver and nine passengers in the van died. Investigators say records show the 45-year-old truck driver made four calls within minutes leading up to the wreck.
It makes you wonder is that phone call really worth it? Or can you wait until you're home to have that conversation? One thing is for certain. A cell phone ban could save lives on the road -- no matter if you're driving a small car or a big rig.
September 13, 2011
A Taxing Question
By Evan Kravitz
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor critiqued the $447 billion Obama jobs plan on Tuesday, pointing out areas lawmakers can agree on as well as areas that House Republicans will oppose. Such opposition includes stimulus spending and tax hikes on the rich.
"We need to work very hard to try to peel off things that we can actually agree on," said Cantor. The question is, what can Democrats and Republicans agree on?
One of the things Republicans want to leave to voters to decide -- tax hikes for the rich. But President Obama's largest proposed tax change -- which the White House estimates would raise roughly $400 billion over 10 years -- limits itemized deductions and certain other exemptions for individuals with adjusted gross incomes of $200,000 or more ($250,000 and up for married couples). Cantor says this is not going to happen.
But Cantor also points out areas of bipartisan agreement, such as giving more generous tax breaks to small businesses and pulling back burdensome regulations.
President Obama has said he will push hard for his new jobs proposal to be passed in its entirety -- not piecemeal. However, administration sources say the president won't veto pieces of the jobs package, if Congress passes them that way.
So the question comes back around to what exactly will Republicans and Democrats be able to agree on that will bring down the 9.1% unemployment rate, and get 14 million people back to work? Both sides have just begun to roll up their sleeves and dig into Obama's jobs plan. How much room for compromise is there -- especially with an election looming?
September 12, 2011
Can't Buy Me Love
By Evan Kravitz
On Sunday, my wife and I had what has come to be a classic, continuing, argument in our six-year marriage. It was over finances. I always look at extra money in the bank as being there to spend on things like the newest tech toys, clothes or maybe even a car. My wife is the practical one. She sees our savings as exactly that: savings. We buy what we need and hold off on that which can wait. I hate it when she wins. But she's right, and it turns out we're not alone in the arguments we have over household finances.
In a recent American Express poll, 61% of couples said discussions of household finances were turning into arguments. A year ago it was 45%. The arguments my wife and I get into usually aren't that drawn out, but we do hold fast to our positions until one inevitably caves (usually me). I make fun of this stuff, but it is actually quiet serious. In an analysis of 4,500 couples, Jeffrey Dew of Utah State University found that those who disagreed about money once a week were twice as likely to divorce as those who differed less than once a month.
My wife and I don't have disagreements every week, but we do discuss our finances frequently as we prepare to move into a new home and plan for our future. Barbara Nusbaum, a New York psychologist specializing in Money quoted in a report on the survey, says having the same fight again and again is a red flag. My wife and I fall into that category.
These topics can become toxic to a relationship, especially for couples with heavy debts. Thankfully, our debt is manageable, thanks in large part to my wife's responsible approach with our finances. Some research has found greater marital dissatisfaction when one spouse disapproves of how the other handles money.
I have a lot to learn when it comes to money; how to save it, spend it, invest it, etc. My wife, thankfully, has a good head on her shoulders and keeps me on the right path, though I stray a bit sometimes. Financial arguments are inevitable in relationships with joint checking accounts. But I find that when I eventually come around and put things in perspective I grow a bit more. There is enormous value to that.
September 9, 2011
Giving in the Face of Tragedy
By Evan Kravitz
America changed in many ways after 9/11. Beyond war and increased security in the homeland in the wake of the horrific attacks, we bonded together as Americans. No matter where we were on that day, so many of us wanted to do something to help. One of the things we did was give... and we gave big.
Americans donated a record-breaking $2.8 billion to help the victims of 9/11, according to the Chronicle of Philanthropy, a Washington-based news agency that tracks institutional charities like the American Red Cross. "September 11 was the first time there was such an outpouring for an event like that," said Michael Solomon, spokesman for the Chronicle of Philanthropy.
But that was just the start. Americans kept giving.
Americans donated nearly $2 billion to victims of the tsunami that slammed into Indonesia and other parts of the South Pacific in 2004, killing more than 180,000 people. This was not a terrorist attack on U.S. soil, and many of us could have turned a blind eye. But we gave.
Then came Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Echoes of 9/11 in the form of calls for assistance in rebuilding and support for the victims rang across the land. Katrina left a path of devastation through Louisiana, Mississippi and other states, killing 1,723 people in what the Federal Emergency Management Agency called "the single most catastrophic natural disaster in U.S. history." Americans donated $5.3 billion to the victims of Katrina, according to the Chronicle. That outpaced the 9/11 charity by 90%.
And Americans continued to give. More than a billion was donated to victims of the massive earthquake the rocked Haiti last year and killed more than 300,000 people. Americans also dug into their wallets to donate to Japan this year when Mother Nature unleashed her fury with a 9.0 magnitude earthquake that triggered a tsunami and a nuclear meltdown killing more than 15,000 people.
Donation amounts vary from situation to situation. Sometimes more is given when events happen in our own "backyards" rather than overseas. But, in the end, it really is no contest. Giving is giving. We lost so much on 9/11. I simply don't have the words to capture the enormity of that day. Perhaps we make up for what we lost with what we give. If that's the case, Americans have shown a resounding sense of empathy for their fellow citizens and people around the world in times of need since that day. May we always be there to help one another in times of need.
September 8, 2011
Middle class slips, fear among 20-somethings rises
By Beth Hall in Atlanta
I'm an Air Force brat. I grew up with my dad in the military. When he retired after 20-years, he accepted a civil servant job for the military. My mom was a stay-at-home-mom. We lived the comfortable middle-class lifestyle. My brother and I never wanted for anything, but we didn't go on lavish European summer vacations with our friends or get sports cars at 16 either.
For others who grew up like me, the expectation is that we'll continue to live the lifestyle of our parents. Not so.
According to a new report by the Pew Charitable Trusts, one in three Americans will not maintain the same income bracket as their parents. Yikes!
Those surveyed were middle-class teenagers in 1979 and were between 39 and 44 years old in 2004 and 2006. The downward slip was most common among middle-class people who were divorced or separated, did not attend college, scored poorly on standardized tests or used hard drugs. In the study, middle-class is defined as a family of four making between $33-thousand and $64-thousand a year.
The Pew study's findings are echoed by PNC Financial Services Group's Financial Independence Survey that shows 20-somethings are pessimistic and fearful about their financial futures.
According to the PNC Group, 23% of those in their 20s are financially independent, and only 30% have actually gotten a job in the field they went to college for. In fact almost half of those surveyed thought they would be better off than they are now.
I remember my parents always saying, "We want what's best for you. We want you to have more than we had -- a better life."
As such, my parents instilled an early respect for the value of money. I had to put half of what I earned from baby-sitting and my first fast-food job in a savings account.
As an adult looking back, it was a great idea -- even if I didn't think so at the time. And I learned the life lessons about managing my income -- even if I have some credit card splurges.
I consider myself middle class now, and although I'm in my thirties, I still have the same fears as 20-somethings, and for that matter many Americans in this economy.
Let's hope for a turnaround soon.
September 6, 2011
The Four-Day Workweek
By Evan Kravitz
Last week I wrote about the benefits of working part-time, noting that people who make that switch are ok with a salary cut -- what they lose by way of money, they gain in the form of a flexible work schedule.
Now, how about a four-day work week?
What if my employer offered me the opportunity to work four ten-hour days per week, instead of a traditional five eight-hour-day workweek? I would jump on it in a second. I would come in earlier (mornings are most productive for me) and leave at my usual time. I would use this new day off, which really is not a day off in the conventional sense, for doctor's appointments, errands, car maintenance and basically everything that would free up my weekend for real relaxation.
The reality is that broadcasting requires you to be in a newsroom or somewhere out on location. In other words, there is no way to realistically work from home, although some are able to do it, and they do it quite well. As a news producer, I need to be in the studio five days a week.
However, for many businesses, a four-day workweek has its advantages. For employees, it could save a day of child-care costs. Employers might be pleased to have extended hours of office coverage. According to a report by CareerBuilder.com, in Utah, where a four-day workweek became mandatory for many state employees, energy use was reduced 13 percent during the first year of implementation, and it is estimated that employees saved as much as $6 million in gasoline costs by not driving into the office on Fridays.
But as with all up sides, there are down sides. The less time you're in the office the less you are seen. "Out of sight out of mind," as they say. I'll admit, sometimes it's nice being off the radar when your boss is grumpy, but face time is a reminder that you're working. Important decisions can be made and you're not around to be a part of them. Unless, of course, you stay tied to work via your smartphone. If that's the case, are you really on your day off or working from home or on the go?
According to Xan Raskin, owner of Artixan Consulting Group, a human resources consultancy in New York City, it is important for the employer and employee to know what they are getting into. "The key is to set agreed-upon ground rules, communicate expectations clearly, and take action if productivity levels drop off," said Raskin. "Compared to the exorbitant costs of employee turnover, if you can keep one valuable employee who otherwise would have left, the benefits definitely outweigh the costs and risk."
I think this type of schedule comes down to two primary things: discipline and feasibility. Can you handle working the extra hours during the week, and get enough done so that when you walk away from your desk before your day off, you are not leaving a mess for someone else to clean up? And do you work in the type of profession that can accommodate this life style? There are simply some things that you need to be in the office for.
It is an interesting concept, and I hope it gains more traction. It could really be a benefit for some people, especially those with families, or those who feel like they never have enough time to get the little things done. What do you think?
September 5, 2011
How Badly Do You Want My Money?
By Evan Kravitz
It seems that many Americans, whether they are registered Republicans, Democrats, Tea Partiers or independents, just want our political leaders to come to the table and get the country moving in the right direction when it comes to the economy and, in particular, unemployment. Some are tired of all the political swipes back and forth. They are looking for voices of reason, or maybe those with enough sway, to bring bi-partisan legislating into the mix.
Well, a man known for mixing a good cup of joe is trying to get Washington's attention. Starbucks Chief Executive Officer Howard Schultz wants fellow CEOs to withhold political donations until lawmakers learn to get along. He believes the combination of unemployment, uncertainty, and massive deficits are creating a major crisis in the country. But it is not just CEOs he is calling on to support his initiative. He is urging Americans to take to the Internet, mail and telephone lines to get their lawmakers to quit the squabbling and look for solutions to the nation's problems.
"The country is going in the wrong direction because Washington is taking us there," Schultz said. "We cannot allow that to happen; they work for us."
Schultz insists he's just the head of a coffee company and not an economist or government expert who has any concrete policy prescriptions. But he is the leader of a growing movement of his peers. Other corporate titans like AOL's Tim Armstrong, Frontier Communications' Maggie Wilderotter, Zipcar's Scott Griffith, Whole Foods' Walter Robb and Intuit's Bill Campbell have all signed Schultz's pledge to withhold political donations.
There is a lot of money to be had in donations by companies like Starbucks, and it's there for the taking, according to Schultz. He suggests that more cooperation in Washington would restore some confidence among business leaders, perhaps enticing them to spend some of the $2 trillion in capital currently sitting on corporate balance sheets.
Of course, political donations in return for favorable legislation is a time-honored practice in Washington, so can statements from one person like Howard Schultz really put an end to bi-partisan bickering? If he gains the support of more corporate heavyweights and builds momentum among Americans seeking unity in a time of distress it will certainly be interesting to see...and perhaps inspiring too.
September 2, 2011
Lord of the Rings
By Evan Kravitz
I am so glad I did not spend a lot on my wedding ring. After all, I'm on my second one. Not my second marriage, I simply lost the first band. My current ring is stainless steel and cost about $200. The price for my head will be twice that if I lose this one. I really don't care much for precious metals. I just wanted something simple. That's what I got.
My wife's rings are a whole different story. When I bought them six years ago, I went with platinum for the engagement ring and white gold for the wedding band. I knew that's what she liked and I wanted her to have it. Truth be told, she's the type of woman who would be happy with anything. But I wanted to give her the best that I could on my salary. The precious metals were in my price range. It is a different story for couples these days.
Sky high gold prices have jewelers and penny-counting couples clamoring for wedding bands made of less expensive metals, like tungsten, cobalt and even stainless steel. Blue Nile, an online jewelry seller, reports that in a 30-day time period, one in every ten men's wedding bands sold were titanium.
The price differences are quiet dramatic. Blue Nile's tungsten wedding bands cost a little over $200, and the cost for a titanium band is $100. Compare that to $1,900 for a classic men's platinum wedding band, and $700 or higher for a white gold band sold at Blue Nile.
Gold costs about $1,840 an ounce, up 204% from about $605 per ounce just five years ago. So jewelry makers and sellers themselves are struggling with sharply higher prices for precious metals like gold and platinum.
For men, there's an argument to be made for the cheaper brands, at least when it comes to their fingers. Peggy Donahue, spokeswoman with Manufacturing Jewelers & Suppliers of America, says, "To men, there's a coolness factor with tungsten, titanium and stainless steel." Industry experts say men seem to like knowing that these industrial, space-age metals are used in making fighter jets, for example. Sounds cool to me. Not so for women it would seem.
Amanda Gizzi, spokesperson for Jewelers of America, says women "aren't there yet. Especially with wedding jewelry, women want to stay traditional and buy gold or platinum. They don't want to compromise at all because they're thinking about passing down these rings for generations."
When we talk about what we hand down from generation to generation, I believe it should always come down to thought over substance. Sure, it would be great to be able to afford the ring of your dreams. But I truly believe most couples who really love one another look past the material stuff and go for symbolism. Truth be told, I don't even need a ring on my finger for me to know who my heart belongs to. But, like I said, that same woman will have my head if l lose another ring. Buy cheap.
September 1, 2011
The Great Mark Down
By Evan Kravitz
Hewlett-Packard wanted to compete with Apple's iPad with its own version of the increasingly popular tablet technology. So, HP unleashed the TouchPad. And now, the TouchPad is the No. 2 best-selling tablet after the iPad, according to FastCompany. Not bad you might say for a company taking on a goliath like Apple (though HP is no small fish, even though its stock is down 38% year to date). However, HP got to the No. 2 spot in a nightmare scenario for the company. After only 49 days on the market, the TouchPad failed to ignite sales. So, HP scrapped its production and reduced the price for the 16-gigabyte version to $100, and the 32-gigabyte model to $150. The result: they flew off the shelves. After all, now they were competing with the iPad2 which, according to Best Buy's website, runs between $500 and $600, and other brands like Samsung and Acer for hundreds of dollars as well. HP created a steal. I even thought about running out to get one since I've had my eye on tablets for some time. But, I waited too long...or did I?
HP has plans to put more of its TouchPads back on store shelves. On a blog post on the company's website, an official says: "Despite announcing an end to manufacturing webOS hardware, we have decided to produce one last run of TouchPads to meet unfulfilled demand. We don't know exactly when these units will be available or how many we'll get, and we can't promise we'll have enough for everyone. We do know that it will be at least a few weeks before you can purchase."
So, all I need to do is hang in there for this second round, right? I can spare $100. My wife won't notice it, perhaps. But the question is: will HP maintain its marked down prices? Maybe not.
Speculation by the website "iSupply" indicates that, in terms of components alone, a 16GB TouchPad costs HP approximately $300 to build. That's a $200 loss HP is taking on each individual unit sold, not including the cost of labor, shipping and associated expenses. Perhaps HP is merely trying to use up the rest of the TouchPad components that are sitting in factories waiting to be put together? What else could they be used for?
If you're in the market for a tablet, like I am, do you wait and see if HP stays true to these marked down prices and enter the mayhem of actually trying to get one either online or off the shelf or do you save up for the much more costly Apple, Samsung or Acer models? Ah, life is filled with tough decisions. The one thing I know is this. I can't hide the more expensive ones from my wife.
August 30, 2011
By Evan Kravitz
I love working in broadcast news. It's such an exciting field. There's always something going on, always something to question, and always a story worth covering. Here's what I don't like about broadcast news: the hours. The news never stops. It's a 24-hour cycle. So, the work hours are not necessarily 9 to 5.
I don't expect you to shed any tears for me. I know I'm not the only one who works a crazy shift (5 a.m. to 1 p.m. for me). I also know I'm not the only one who will agree with an online survey that was just released by the Dayton Business Journal, which shows nearly 80% of business people do not sleep the adequate 7.5 hours adults need at night. Now this may not be a scientific poll, but in the article, an expert talks about the underlying issues. Why that much sleep? According to Dr. Kevin Huban, clinical director for the Centers for Sleep and Wake Disorders at Miami Valley Hospital, adults need 7.5 hours of sleep a night to stay productive and alert during the day.
"If you are sleep deprived, your concentration will be less and you may have more problems with memory because your attention is lower," Huban said. "Also, when you're sleepy, you're more likely to make errors."
There were a lucky few who reported getting eight hours (12%), and some who get close to 10 hours (6%). Is there such a thing as too much sleep? Gee, I would love to find out.
I average about six hours of sleep a night. Because of my work shift and commute, I need to be in bed by 7 p.m. It's tough to do that when all of my favorite television shows are on at night, and I want to spend time with my wife, who is just wrapping up her day when I'm heading off to bed. In addition, it's tough to force yourself to go to sleep when you know it's still early. But maybe there are some things I can do to help my situation, and add another hour or so into my sleep schedule.
Huban says people should sleep an adequate amount at a regular time and without interruptions. I suppose that means that my short naps when I get home aren't doing me much good in the long run. They are short bursts that get interrupted by my dog wanting attention or the phone ringing.
In addition, to sleep better at night, Huban recommends people stop drinking caffeine about noon and refrain from alcohol three hours prior to bedtime. TVs also should be turned off.
Hold on a second! I have no problem giving up alcohol before bedtime because I'm not a big drinker. But my caffeine needs run straight past noon and well into the early evening. That's going to be tough. And as for the television, come on, give me something! This is madness I say!
I guess I will just have to think of happy thoughts and count sheep like my mother taught me when I was a child. I suppose what I take away from this is that good quality sleep requires discipline. I want to be my best at work, behind the wheel and in conversations. If better sleep habits are key to that, then don't call me after 7 p.m. Thank you...and good night.
August 29, 2011
A Room with a View
By Evan Kravitz
It was the end of an era when NASA's space shuttle program came to a conclusion this summer with the final flight of Atlantis. The 4-person crew visited the International Space Station for the last time, tinkered about, and came safely back home. Right now, the space station is home to 6 astronauts from the United States, Russia and Japan. A recent launch of an unmanned Russian spacecraft carrying tons of supplies for the crew ended in disaster when the rocket malfunctioned and crashed back to earth. It's not clear when the next mission to the ISS will take off.
So are the glory days of space exploration over? No way. Enter private enterprise.
Right now, a Russia-based company called Orbital Technologies is designing what it calls the Hotel in the Heavens. It will be a 4-room, zero-gravity, orbital penthouse in the biggest playground of them all. The hotel can accommodate up to seven people. Sounds great, doesn't it? Give it about 5 years to get built and then take your place in line for a ride into outer space and a chance to drink all the Tang you could ever want.
Not so fast. The CEO of Orbital Technologies is quite clear about the kind of guests his hotel is looking to attract.
"The hotel will be aimed at wealthy individuals and people working for private companies who want to do research in space," says Orbital Technologies CEO Sergei Kostenko.
Well, I should have known: It's not going to be for everyone. After all, space travel isn't cheap, and I have nothing against the wealthy. But, let's be dreamers for the sake of it and indulge ourselves. What if we had the money to go? What could we expect?
The hotel itself will cost about $60 million to build. So it's sure to have amenities. Guests will have access to showers, air-flush toilets, sleeping bags attached to the walls and fine dining. You'll race around the planet once every 90 minutes and greet 16 sunrises and say good night to another 16 sunsets daily. The total package will cost you about $1 million for a 5-day trip. That breaks down to $164,000 for roundtrip rocket ride, and $820,000 for lodging. So beside the costs, what's the downside? Well you can only get to your heavenly room on a cramped Russian Soyuz spacecraft, and that trip takes two days. That part might be rough, but can you really complain given your destination? Bigger problem: you snooze in a sleeping bag attached to the wall? Maybe that view will be worth it.
Ah, to have a million dollars. Can you imagine what the waiting list will be like if this thing really comes to fruition?
Right now it looks like space travel is for the scientists and, perhaps in time, the wealthy. But there are plenty of dreamers like me, and that's what I catch myself doing sometimes at night in the backyard on my hammock as I gaze up at the stars. There's no cost for that. Maybe you can't put a price tag on space exploration.
August 26, 2011
The Hazardous Workplace
By Evan Kravitz at the NASDAQ
Here's some good news on a bad news topic. The American workplace is much less hazardous than it was a decade ago. Only 4,547 workers died on the job last year. That's a 23% decline from the 5,915 fatalities that occurred in 2000, according to the latest report on workplace fatalities from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Major disasters like the explosion of the Upper Big Branch Mine in West Virginia, which killed 29 workers, and the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion in the Gulf of Mexico, which killed 11 workers, remind us of the dangers that exist in the American workplace that stretch beyond the relative safety of traditional offices and cubicles. CNNMoney.com put together a list of the top ten most dangerous jobs in America. I was honestly struck by some of them simply because I never realized just how much danger there is out there for vocations I never thought much about. It's something I took for granted. For instance, here are just some of the most dangerous jobs based on fatality rates per 100,000 workers.
Death caused by livestock is one of several dangers farmers and ranchers face every day. For example, a 53-year-old Iowa farmer was trying to separate a bull from the rest of the cattle when it charged and severely injured her. She died three days later. In addition, according to John Lundell, of the Injury Prevention Research Center, University of Iowa, even more common are fatalities caused by tractor rollovers. New tractors are built to prevent such occurrences, but some farmers still use their old tractors for other duties which can lead to accidents.
Sanitation workers driving city streets certainly don't suffer from many high-speed accidents but they do endure impatient drivers who rush to squeeze by the sanitation workers and their trucks on the narrow streets. Workers are struck and injured or killed. But it's not only traffic they have to look out for. They also have to be careful about what they're handling. Hazardous waste sometimes finds its way into garbage and can be quite dangerous. And what about fatigue? We all feel it at work. But think about this: the average New York City sanitation worker lifts and loads more than five tons of refuse each day. By the end of a shift, judgment can get impaired and workers can be less careful.
Here's another one for you. More truckers and delivery men die on the job than any other vocation, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Last year, there were 683 fatalities among this group. More than 3 million people drive trucks for a living, whether it's delivering packages or driving long hauls across country. Anthony Prince, an attorney with Teamsters Local 705 in Chicago, says that the biggest safety challenge for the industry is that employers are cutting back on safety and that sometimes the equipment is not as well maintained as it should be; other times, drivers are pushed too hard.
These are just three examples from the list of ten which I encourage you to read about on CNNMoney.com's website. The other professions may seem like no-brainers, while some might come as a shock. This might seem like a shameless plug for a website, but I assure you my intentions are quite sincere. On the eve of a major hurricane that will be hammering the East Coast we will most likely see many more people in risky professions doing what they can to keep the country running. Every once in a while it's nice to tip our hats to those who put their lives on the line to make a buck for themselves and their families and to make our lives a little bit better.
August 25, 2011
Tablets are Everywhere!
By Evan Kravitz at the NASDAQ
Sometimes you need to get away from it all, you know: disconnect. Well, it seems that some folks want to stay connected, especially in the bathroom. Yes, the one place reserved for some peace and quiet while we do our business is turning into a digital sanctum, thanks to the ever growing popularity of electronic tablets.
Whether you have an iPad, Samsung, BlackBerry or HP device, you might be among the 35% of those polled by Staples Advantage, the business-to-business unit of the office supply company, who admit to taking their tablets into the bathroom. Some 200 tablet owners from companies of various sizes and across multiple industries were polled. Just in case you're curious, the tablet's reach stretches well beyond the bathroom. 30% of respondents admit to taking their tablets to restaurants, while 60% take them on vacation. Leading the pack was the bedroom, with 78% admitting to that guilty pleasure.
But let's get back to the bathroom because that's my favorite part of this. Come on, we're all adults. We take our newspapers and magazines in there. Why not our tablets? 60% of the survey respondents say they get more work done using a tablet. So, why stop the work flow when you're in the loo? More than 40% said that staying connected with colleagues and clients was the main factor for buying one. So, your business correspondents won't miss a beat while you're on the seat! And about 75% of tablet owners use it to check their e-mail. Just think about it. That thoughtful message you got from a friend just couldn't wait.
I have been wanting a tablet for quite a while, but my wife will not allow it. She says we need to save our money for more important things like the mortgage, blah, blah, blah. So I guess, in the meantime, I'm sticking with paper. The only downside of this whole tablet-in-the-bathroom thing is it might cause a traffic jam for those waiting. In that case, we've got a real mess.
August 24, 2011
The Earthquake and Social Media
By Evan Kravitz at the NASDAQ
If you're not hip to social media, you may be in the minority. And if you didn't feel Tuesday's 5.8 magnitude earthquake that rippled along the East Coast, you may be in the minority as well. Count me in both categories.
I was in Manhattan eating a sandwich when the quake struck at 1:51 p.m. The only thing I felt rumble was my stomach. As people evacuated buildings around me for safety, I was munching away. I didn't notice a thing. I did begin to think it odd when I got in my car to start my commute home to Philadelphia that my wife didn't call to check in for our daily afternoon chat. Little did I know that cell phone service along the East Coast was spotty due to the high volume of calls during the quake, and even worse, little did I know that my wife was indeed trying to call me because she herself felt the quake and wanted to make sure I was all right. Nope, I was just listening to my tunes and cruising down the highway.
Meanwhile, social media sites were exploding with coverage of the quake. People took to Twitter, Facebook and Foursquare to communicate what they felt, what they saw, where they were, and, maybe for reassurance, noting that this was not a terrorist attack.
The amount of social media traffic was massive. Five minutes after the quake hit, Twitter's average response time slowed from 2.16 seconds to 4.17 seconds, according to monitoring site AlertSite. Thousands of Foursquare users checked into an event created specifically for the earthquake called "Earthquakepocalypse," which became the location-based social network's fastest venue to hit 10,000 check-ins. And on Facebook, the quake was also showing its strength. A Facebook representative told CNN Money that they saw the term "earthquake" appear in status updates for nearly 3 million people on Facebook in the U.S.
But it wasn't just the general public using social media to spread the word and get information out. The Department of Homeland Security took to Twitter to encourage people to use e-mail and social media to reach out to friends and family. New York's MTA transit system also used the service to update commuters.
In the case of Twitter, Sav Banerjee, strategy director of digital ad agency Rokkan, put the use of social media in times of emergencies into what I believe is proper context. "Regular people can document real-time experiences and broadcast news simply using personal mobile devices," said Banerjee. "Twitter single-handedly creates a domino effect of real-time reporting, enabling the world to share news quickly and effectively using multiple mediums -- photos, videos, text -- as it happens."
Whether it be Twitter, Facebook, Foursquare or other social media platforms, there's no denying its place in society today. People and officials are finding new ways to communicate with one another, especially times of emergencies. Maybe it's time for me to get hip to it.
August 22, 2011
Cheesesteaks and Social Media
By Evan Kravitz
When I was growing up in the suburbs of Philadelphia, way back in the day, going into the city for a cheesesteak was tradition in my family. In case you didn't know, Philadelphia is kinda well-known for its cheesesteaks. There are a lot of ways to order them. Some folks ask for their steaks topped with Cheese Wiz and some with provolone (I prefer wiz). You can also pile on fried peppers, mushrooms, onions or just about anything else. My father always claimed that the best part of the cheesesteak was the roll. Nothing can beat a good, crisp Philadelphia long roll.
I don't eat cheesesteaks anymore; the wife has me on a strict diet. But it warmed my heart when I read an article in the Philadelphia Business Journal today that reported my favorite cheesesteak stand, Pat's King of Steaks in South Philly, was ranked number one in a new social media experiment that may be changing the way we pass down traditions from one generation to another when it comes to favorite places to eat.
Neiman Labs launched a website called PhillySteakout.com that ranks 25 Philly cheesesteak restaurants by "check-ins" on the social media site Foursquare. Foursquare, which claims to have 10 million users worldwide and three million "check-ins" per day, is a smartphone app that aims to make cities easier to navigate. By "checking in," users share their location with friends while collecting points and virtual badges. Foursquare guides real-world experiences by allowing users to bookmark information about venues they want to visit. It also makes suggestions about other choices nearby. Merchants and brands use Foursquare to obtain, engage, and retain customers and audiences.
So, back to cheesesteaks: According to the article, the quality of the sandwich wasn't ranked. The number of people standing in line wasn't a factor. It simply came down to what cheesesteak stand the customer was visiting while plugging the information into Foursquare. So what does this say about Pat's sandwiches?
This social experiment gets a little more interesting when you factor in whether you're a local like me or a tourist who has heard so much about Philly cheesesteaks that you will settle for nothing less than the best. Opinions vary. For Philadelphia locals, the debate over the best place for a cheesesteak is legendary. So, Foursquare factors in the user's profile and hometown information, thereby helping determine whether the "check-in" is from a local or a tourist.
Pat's shot to the top of the list largely due to tourists flocking to this Philly landmark? it enjoys a lot of press. But it wasn't tops with locals. Meanwhile, a place like Steve's Prince of Steaks in Northeast Philadelphia scored low with tourists, but much higher than Pat's when the locals weigh in.
It's interesting the way social media has been integrated into just about every facet of our culture, even the cheesesteak. I work in Manhattan now, and I would much rather know where the locals go than the tourists. But that leaves me in a quandary. Does that mean I shouldn't recommend Pat's anymore because a new survey shows it's not the local favorite? Social media has its place. But when it comes to food, I'm sticking with family tradition and my gut. Where should I eat in your town?
August 19, 2011
The Presidential Vacation
By Evan Kravitz
The last vacation I went on lasted two days. I went to the Jersey shore with my wife. All I wanted to do was sit by the ocean, feel that cool breeze wash over me and listen to the Beach Boys on my iPod. But even on this small retreat, I brought my company-issued BlackBerry with me so that I could stay in touch with the world around me and be available to anyone who might need me. Nothing major hinged on my absence for a brief retreat to the beach. I just thought it prudent to keep an eye on things once in a while during the weekend.
Speaking of vacations, President Obama has received a lot of criticism and questioning lately for his decision to go on vacation to Martha's Vineyard. After all, the nation is in the midst of a horrid time on Wall Street which is wreaking havoc on an already fragile economy struggling to get back on its feet; there's high unemployment and there are international situations that need his attention -- like the situation in Syria -- where the U.S. wants President Bashar al-Assad to step down. Is this really a time to escape for a little R&R?
FOX News Contributor and former Republican Vice Presidential nominee Sarah Palin said the president is "very, very tone deaf" for continuing with his vacation because of economic problems facing the country. Palin went on to say that, "I think he will hear from enough Americans that he will come back early."
White House Press Secretary Jay Carney took a different view of the presidential retreat. He told reporters in a briefing that, "There's no such thing as a presidential vacation. The presidency travels with you. He will be in constant communication and get regular briefings from his national security team, as well as his economic team, and he will, of course, be fully capable, if necessary, of traveling back if that were required."
So can a president really get away from the daily grind or is it always a working vacation?
August 18, 2011
$2 Gas, Really?
By Bervette Carree
It's hard to believe that only one year ago the national average price for a gallon of regular was about $2.74 a gallon! I would love to pay for cheaper gas. Who wouldn't? Right now, AAA reports the national average price is $3.58. But, here's a question...do you remember the last time gas prices were under two dollars? I certainly don't. Any chance of seeing those prices again?
Congresswoman Michele Bachmann promises gas prices under $2 if she's in the White House. She made the comments yesterday while campaigning in South Carolina. Yes, we've all heard presidential candidates make promises about everything under the sun...when they're stumping for votes. Bachmann, a contender for the Republican nomination, didn't mention a specific plan on how to decrease the pain at the pump, but just the thought of gas under $2 gets me excited! I mean...think about how much more money you could save each month.
I confess when I first started driving, I never thought about the impact of gas prices. I really didn't have a reason to...since I was still living in my parents' house and I didn't have any "real world" responsibilities at the time. In fact, my parents were usually the ones giving me gas money so I could drive around! Of course, that's changed now that I'm an adult. Shelling out gas money can put a dent in my wallet at times...especially when prices inch toward the $4 mark. That extra $50 bucks can go a long way! That could pay for a few extra cups of joe in the morning on the way to work or a spa date for a mani and pedi. Or you could always save it.
I'm not an expert on domestic oil drilling or how to get cheaper gas. I know it's not as easy as snapping your finger. Two dollar gas, really? I don't think it will happen anytime soon. And, it doesn't necessarily need to...to make me happy. I'll just be glad when prices bounce back to the pre-recession era.
August 17, 2011
By Evan Kravitz
Clothing retailer Abercrombie & Fitch should be celebrating a bit today. The company released its quarterly earnings report and by all accounts, things could have been worse. Its fiscal second quarter earnings rose 64%, though rising costs hurt margins. Still, the company beat quarterly estimates and saw more teens both in the U.S. and abroad shop at its stores. A breakdown of the numbers shows the growth.
The company's press release says: "Net sales for the thirteen weeks ended July 30, 2011 increased 23% to $916.8 million from $745.8 million for the thirteen weeks ended July 31, 2010. U.S. sales, including direct-to-consumer sales, increased 12% to $684.9 million. International sales, including direct-to-consumer sales, increased 74% to $231.9 million. Total company direct-to-consumer sales, including shipping and handling, increased 28% to $102.1 million."
But the big story with Abercrombie & Fitch isn't necessarily in the numbers today. It's in the image it wants to convey to its customers: teens and young adults.
In a press release issued by the company titled, "Abercrombie & Fitch Proposes A Win-Win Situation," the company offers compensation to Michael 'The Situation' Sorrentino, a character on MTV's TV show "The Jersey Shore," to cease wearing its products. A spokesman for Abercrombie in the press release goes on to say:
"We are deeply concerned that Mr. Sorrentino's association with our brand could cause significant damage to our image. We understand that the show is for entertainment purposes, but believe this association is contrary to the aspirational nature of our brand, and may be distressing to many of our fans. We have therefore offered a substantial payment to Michael 'The Situation' Sorrentino and the producers of MTV's The Jersey Shore to have the character wear an alternate brand. We have also extended this offer to other members of the cast, and are urgently waiting a response."
If the "Jersey Shore" cast goes along with this, then it looks like they stand to make some money for shopping elsewhere. They win. Abercrombie gets to protect its image. They win too. I would love to be in that 'situation.' To have someone pay me not to wear their clothes and shop elsewhere. But that's my dream.
"The Jersey Shore" is a ratings gold mine for MTV. In fact, MTV reports that the show hooked a record 8.8 million viewers with their season four premier earlier this month, beating out season three. So why would Abercrombie want out?
I admit that I have only seen "The Jersey Shore" television show once. It wasn't my cup of tea. I have shopped at Abercrombie & Fitch, and I do like their clothes (though a little pricey, if I may say). It's going to be interesting to see how these young stars and their legions of teenage fans react to Abercrombie's offer. Anything could happen.
August 16, 2011
Does it Pay to be Nice?
By Evan Kravitz
Does it pay to be nice? Quiet literally, maybe not.
An interesting study was just released in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in which the authors make the case that "niceness," in the form of agreeableness, won't get you anything extra in your paycheck. Apart from the advantages of being liked by your co-workers, and the joy you might feel when you put a smile on someone's face who's having a rough day, the bottom line, according to the study, is that it doesn't do much to bump up your income.
What a bummer. But wait, it gets worse.
The study, titled "Do Nice Guys -- and Gals -- Really Finish Last? The Joint Effects of Sex and Agreeableness on Income," also goes on to state that women, on the other hand, do not appear to get the same benefits men do for being disagreeable. So, essentially, neither sex can really win if this becomes a debate over which means more, character or pay. If you're a nice guy, you're taking home less. If you're a shrewd businesswoman, you still face a lopsided playing field when it comes to your male counterparts.
Two opinions from the study struck a chord with me. Farhana Qaosar of Sydney said, "You have to be ruthless in the corporate world. If you have a weak spot or dare to show it, people will take your advantage. That's how it is. You don't succeed because you know more but because you can adapt."
Then there's Jessica Fearnow of Sacramento, California. She said she drew some cold comfort from the study.
"I was just thinking about how I am not making that much more than I was as an intern" nine years ago, she said. "I guess that makes me a really nice person?"
Given the perceived nature of the corporate world, where you always have to keep one eye on your back, I can see where Farhana is coming from. We have unemployment hovering above 9% in the U.S. People will fight to keep their jobs, and they will do what they need to do to get one. That might mean a personality adjustment here and there.
That said, I mostly identify with Jessica. I'd like to think that any success I have had has been due to a combination of growth of knowledge and a respect for others that has kept me on the right path so far. I don't see myself ever accumulating massive sums of financial wealth or becoming a captain of industry -- though I will certainly give it a try. I do, however, envision people continuing to say I'm a decent guy, a nice person. I can live with that. I hope you can too, Jessica. That agrees with me.
August 15, 2011
Doing What You Can
By Evan Kravitz
The United Nations has declared famine in five areas in central and southern Somalia, including the capital of Mogadishu. The catalyst for this human catastrophe is the worst drought in more than half a century. Decades of conflict, high inflation and increasing global food and fuel prices have added to the crisis. In all, about 12 million people in the Horn of Africa region need assistance. Somalia is the worst hit.
Dadaab refugee complex in Kenya was originally built to house 100,000 refugees. It is now holding more than 400,000 -- and more are coming. Most of the children who come to the camp are severely malnourished. Many have spent weeks on the road with their mothers, walking at night to avoid the heat, braving dust and dirt storms.
The U.N.'s refugee agency is putting out the call for more private and government donations for emergency operations in the area. The aid organization says it needs $145 million to cover operations through the end of the year. It hasn't yet received even half that amount.
I have kept an ear to this story for days now, watching the heartbreaking images of the suffering beamed back to comfort of my living room. Every time I see a story on the suffering I tell myself that I must do something, that I cannot just remain complacent. And then that's exactly what I do, become complacent. I'm sure that all around me there are Americans doing what they can, giving what they can to help. But with employment hovering over 9%, sometimes its hard to find that extra buck in your pocket to spare.
I have given money to relief efforts in the past, but I could have given more. After the January 2010 earthquake in Haiti I felt compelled to give, and I did. But I could be doing more for others. Right now I have the means to be doing more and I plan to. I can only hope that I have not waited too long to lend a hand.
August 12, 2011
Faith in Numbers
By Evan Kravitz
It's been a rollercoaster of a ride this week on Wall Street, and I think it's safe to say the nation is feeling a bit woozy due to the twists and turns the economy has been taking. So, let's steady ourselves for a moment.
We did get some good news this week. Initial jobless claims are down, below the 400,000 mark (395,000 to be exact). Getting below 400,000 is seen as an indicator of some job growth. That's welcome news. And just today we learned that retail sales rose 0.5% last month, aided by auto purchases, gasoline station sales, and a jump in purchases of electronics. According to CNN Money, July is a key month for back-to-school shopping. In fact, it's the second most important sales event of the year after Christmas. The rise in retail sales proved that consumers were ready to shop. In addition, analysts said that the July retail sales data from the Commerce Department will help to ease concerns that consumer spending is losing momentum.
So, we have less people filing for first time unemployment, and folks are spending a little more, which is helping out the economy. Sure, the numbers could be better. But given the week we've seen in the stock market, and the fact the economy is still fragile, let's take what we can get. I think these days we are clinging on to any bit of good financial news that comes along.
I know what it's like to file for unemployment. Been there, done that. So it honestly warms my heart to know that a few more Americans have found employment somewhere. I also know what it's like to keep a tight grip on my wallet and avoid spending. I never really thought about spending money in terms of keeping the wheels of the economy moving. I just always think of the ramifications of having to justify my purchases to my wife.
So, it's been a rough few days, but I hope we can all enjoy a weekend where we have a job to look forward to on Monday, and a buck to spend on ourselves. If not, hang in there. I'm rooting for you.
August 11, 2011
The Lost Art of Writing
By Evan Kravitz
When I was in grade school I remember spending a great deal of time on handwriting, specifically cursive. We were drilled on it. While some students may have found it tedious, I actually enjoyed it. I did, and still do, take my handwriting seriously. I may not be the best when it comes to grammar, but at least you can read my mistakes with ease.
However, it seems that the art of handwriting is becoming a lost cause in schools more and more. Many states don't require children to learn cursive writing. According to a CNN report, some 46 states have adopted the Common Core Standards, a set of educational guidelines that do not require cursive writing as part of a school's curriculum. For example, the state of Indiana recently announced it would drop a district requirement to teach cursive writing as of this fall. Instead, students must be able to type on keyboards.
Typing skills are essential; I won't argue that point. It looks good on a resume and makes any job a lot less tedious. Schools should focus on typing. However, there is a case to be made for the fundamentals to remain in place as well. At a time when kids are using smartphones more and more to text their friends, and e-mail and correspondence on social networks like Facebook are the most common form of exchange, it seems that there needs to be a renaissance of sorts for good, old-fashioned, handwriting. Ask yourself which holds more weight: a love letter penned with care and precision, or a typed message sent via email? I've tried both. I got my wife with the pen.
My in-laws write the most fantastic letters to both me and my wife. They are pages long, on custom made stationary. And their cursive is immaculate. It makes you feel special just knowing that they took the time to think about each word before committing it to paper and writing it with such care so as not to make a mistake and have to do a sloppy cross out or, even worse, start over. You feel compelled to read it because they spent the time to write it. It's also nice to see a handwritten thank you note after a wedding or special occasion. Getting something typed would just seem so generic.
Vanderbilt University Professor Steven Graham says, "If you have sloppy handwriting, people make [negative] judgments about the quality of your ideas." I couldn't agree more with this comment contained in the CNN report. So many times I have been handed notes by colleagues which should contain simple, readable, messages like: so and so called about this and call them back. Instead, you need military training in decoding techniques.
If you go to the National Archives in Washington, DC and take a look at the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution or any of our written treasures you can't help but be in awe of not just the message and meaning behind those words but the way they were written -- with artistry. It really is a thing of beauty. Can you imagine the time and care that went into the physical penmanship of those documents? It's art.
I do hope schools re-think their positions on teaching cursive writing. Computers crash and smartphones run out of battery power. But there always seems to be a pen and paper lying around. How you write is just as important as what you write.
August 10, 2011
Colleagues and Health By Evan Kravitz
A 20-year study by researchers at Tel Aviv University, published in Health Psychology, set out to examine the relationship between the workplace and a person's risk of death. In 1988, some 820 adults were recruited, underwent a routine physical examination, and were then asked questions about their workplace conditions, specifically about their relationships with their bosses, coworkers, and how much autonomy they had in their positions. The participants worked in various fields.
The part of the study that I found worrisome is that people who reported having little or no social support from their coworkers were 2.4 times more likely to die during the course of the study, than those who reported having good social relations with their colleagues. It's interesting to note that the risk of death was linked only to the participants perceptions of their coworkers, not their bosses. In the study, people who said they had a negative relationship with their supervisors were no more at risk of dying than others.
Whether bad work environments actually cause death -- that's for another study. This one only looked at whether there was any correlation with risk. One of the conclusions drawn from the study was that having a supportive social network decreases stress and helps to foster good health. On the other hand, being exposed to chronic stress contributes to poor health, both mentally and physically.
As much as this study worries me it actually comes as no surprise. We spend 40 hours, or more, a week with our work colleagues. They surround us. Heck, we spend more time with them than we do with our family and friends. Colleagues can be intrusive, annoying, a hindrance and just plain mean. But, they can also be a pleasure. And when they are, I believe we are more productive and in a better mindset.
Fortunately, I work with some great people who make my job less of a task and more of a joy. I learn and grow with them, share stories with them and contribute constructively to our little part of the world with them. I wish this were true for everyone. Colleagues can make all the difference. Even if you work for an employer you don't see eye-to-eye with, coworkers can ease the "pain" and maybe even relate.
Unfortunately, at a time when unemployment is above nine percent, and resumes are floating around everywhere, we can't always work in the perfect environment. We have to take what we can get. But maybe if we all took a moment to reflect on the impact positive behavior can have on those around us in the office, we would find our jobs a little more enjoyable, tolerable, and fulfilling. More importantly, it would appear that it might even be healthier for us. That's reason enough for me.
August 9, 2011
Dirty Dancing and Flirting with Disaster
By Evan Kravitz
I never thought I would admit this in a public forum, but everyone needs to bare their soul once in a while. So, here it goes. I'm a guy, and I like the film "Dirty Dancing." Yup, you read it right. In fact, come to think of it, I like a lot of musicals. "West Side Story," "Grease," Wizard of Oz," they're all greats in my book.
Originally released in 1987, I remember seeing "Dirty Dancing" with my parents and sister. I went kicking and screaming. I left with a smile on my face. What a great movie. It had something for everyone. In my opinion, it's a classic. It had all the right ingredients to make it one. The right cast, music, choreography and dialogue ("Nobody puts Baby in a corner"). If you haven't seen it, you should. It's a real treat.
But wait, you don't have to run out and see it. They're remaking it. The film's original choreographer, Kenny Ortega, is going to direct a new version with a yet to be named cast. They are going to take a movie that grossed nearly $214 million worldwide and try to, I don't know, somehow connect it to a younger generation I suppose. For crying out loud, the movie is only 24-years-old! It still holds up. The new film will reportedly contain hits from the original film along with some new compositions. New compositions, are you kidding me? The incredible and diverse array of classics tunes and new music from the original helped catapult "Dirty Dancing" to cult status. Incidentally, while we're on the topic of musicals, they are remaking the 1984 movie "Footloose," yet another classic, in my opinion, that can stand the test of time. What is the world coming to?
I'm not just taking the position of no remakes of popular musicals. I don't want any remake for any movie of any genre at all. Be it action, western, comedy or drama- just leave it alone. Unless the movie utterly tanked at the box office, leave it be and let new generations discover what us "old" folks found so enjoyable and want to share. Would anyone dare remake "Casablanca," "Gone with the Wind" or "Citizen Kane"? Hollywood needs to be original. There are plenty of things to sing and dance about. I'm sure we can think of something. Come on Hollywood! Come up with a new idea for this generation that will help us pull our parents into the movies kicking and screaming only to leave with smiles on their faces. There are so many aspiring filmmakers out there with original scripts, fresh ideas and the wind at their backs to push the medium forward. Let them conquer uncharted territory. In the end, what makes a movie a "classic" is all relative. The world isn't going to come crumbling down because of a remake of "Dirty Dancing." It's just a movie. I just don't see how we're going to be any better off when it comes to capturing and preserving pure movie magic.
August 8, 2011
Bruce Lee's Jacket
By Evan Kravitz
A jacket worn by famed martial arts actor Bruce Lee sold for $77,000 on Saturday. An American couple won the bid for the fur-lined jacket that was worn by Lee on several occasions, both on film -- including his last one -- and on the red carpet. Lee may be best known for his stunning action choreography in such popular films as "Enter the Dragon." Lee died in 1973. He was only 32 years old.
I am not a martial arts fan, and I must admit that maybe I am in the minority of people who have never seen "Enter the Dragon." But I am a fan of money, and it must be nice to have enough of it to indulge in bidding of this magnitude.
That being said, I have never really understood people who bid on Hollywood memorabilia. This is probably because I have never had the money to put myself in the class of people who can do so. To be honest, I don't think I will ever have $77,000 dollars to spare on a jacket.
What are these people going to do with this jacket? Wear it? Put it in an air-tight display in their home? I wish that all Hollywood memorabilia could simply be donated to museums, like the Smithsonian, for all to see. I remember going to the Smithsonian and seeing Dorothy's ruby slippers from the "Wizard of Oz." It would be a shame to think that someone may have bid on them and kept them to themselves instead of sharing them with generations of children and adults who love the movie.
Maybe this couple plans on lending the jacket to a museum so that Bruce Lee fans who can't afford such luxuries can gaze upon it. That would be great. There's nothing wrong with having the money to afford such items. I imagine that it must feel better to share the memories though.
August 5, 2011
Tweens and Fame
By Evan Kravitz
What's wrong with a kid wanting to be famous? I think it's just a question of what your famous for. If it's for some great invention that maybe helps the environment, then that's cool, in my opinion. But I think most kids these days equate fame with what they see kids their age, or slightly older, doing on reality shows and in entertainment. In an age where young celebs are often in the spotlight for all the wrong reasons (bad marriages, divorce, drugs, alcohol), this can present a problem for parents trying to guide their children.
According to a new report by the University of California in Los Angeles, "tweens" (ages 9-11) who were studied said they valued fame above everything else. Financial success and physical fitness also ranked high. There's some good in that, for sure. But the researchers were alarmed by what they saw as a shift in values over the past decade, that may have a negative effect on the future goals and endeavors of American youth.
Yalda Uhls, the lead author of the study from UCLA, was alarmed by the findings and the impressions fame can have on youngsters. "With Internet celebrities and reality TV stars everywhere, the pathway for nearly anyone to become famous, without a connection to hard work and skill, may seem easier than ever," said Uhls. "When being famous and rich is much more important than being kind to others, what will happen to kids as they form their values and their identities?"
The days of the wholesome family sitcom and "Star Search" are fading away rapidly in favor of reality television shows where young teens have a shot at fame and fortune for being obnoxious (MTV's "Jersey Shore" and "Jackass") or belting out a tune at the right pitch before you have even paid your dues in the industry (Fox's "American Idol"). I don't think tweens know much about how the Beatles played in dives for years before the British Invasion. And I suppose it's not like Britney Spears or Christina Aguilera just burst onto the spotlight with no credibility. They were on the Mickey Mouse Club as kids, and grew a following over time as their talents became apparent.
I'm not a parent yet. But when I do have kids, I believe it will be my responsibility to shape their values. Their identity will be theirs to mold. I won't be a dictator when it comes to what my tween watches or listens to, but I will keep my ears and eyes open. I hope my child does shoot for the stars -- but whether they become famous doesn't matter. Role models are key and the ones I hold dear to me worked hard for everything they have. They are parents and educators, politicians and journalists. And yes, some are celebrities. But I believe more and more that it's the younger generation that is defining fame. We "old" folks either have to get with the times or hold the line.
August 4, 2011
A Vacation at What Cost?
By Evan Kravitz
The last vacation I went on was my honeymoon, seven years ago. Before we left, we arranged for someone to pick up our mail, we boarded our beloved dog (Floyd), paid our bills, and made sure our new home was safe and secure. Basically, we put things in order and left no loose ends. That allowed us to have a relaxing vacation.
It seems the United States Senate left for vacation without tying up loose ends. The Senate went on break Tuesday without approving a funding extension for the Federal Aviation Administration. The result? The FAA has been partially shut down for more than a week. Rest assured, air traffic controllers, mechanics and others integral to keeping you flying safely are on the job. But there are some 4,000 federal employees, and tens of thousands more construction and support staff workers, off the job.
Making matters worse, the failure to extend funding for the FAA prevents collection of federal taxes on airline tickets -- some $30 million a day. If the dispute continues until Congress returns in September, the federal government will be out more than $1 billion in revenue.
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, a Republican and former congressman, perhaps summed the situation up best. "They talk a lot about jobs," said LaHood. "They give good speeches about it. I want them to walk the walk. Put hard-working Americans to work so they can get a paycheck just like Congress is receiving on their vacations."
Our lawmakers burned the midnight oil to inch out a debt deal at the last hour and save the country from default. We demanded that they do it, even if it meant that they had to give up their weekends and down time. This is no different. At a time when unemployment is on the rise, the Senate has the opportunity to put thousands of Americans back to work, and allow them to keep collecting a paycheck, rather than dip into their savings and file for unemployment.
Lawmakers, you have been elected to do a job. Do it. Earn your vacation. I know my analogy about my honeymoon isn't nearly the same as the issues that need to be tied up here. But the next time I leave for a vacation, I would like to think I won't leave a mess behind for others to deal with.
August 3, 2011
The Debt Crisis: Blame Me
By Evan Kravitz
Wow, talk about a nail-biter. This debt debate had the country on edge these past few weeks -- and especially these last 48 hours. The House passed the bill to raise the debt ceiling on Monday. Then yesterday, the day that Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner said was the absolute deadline for raising the $14.3 trillion legal cap on federal borrowing, the Senate passed the bill and rushed it to the White House, where the president signed it almost immediately. Crisis averted.
Now it's time for the post game analysis to occur. How do Democrats and Republicans feel about the final product? How did the Tea Party fare in all of this? How did the president do handling the situation, and how will the country judge him on it in the upcoming election? Did the government really fix a problem or did it just put chewing gum on a leaky faucet? Lots of questions.
I keep going back to Secretary Geithner and how he warned us all in January that the U.S. debt load was nearing the cap. Then, in May, he gave the August 2 deadline. We knew this was coming, but maybe we all thought that we wouldn't find ourselves in such a crunch, because some solution would be found as in times past.
I blame myself for not being more aware. It's easy to put this all on the politicians for a mess like this but, hey, I helped elect them. This whole experience has made me take note of the financial world around me and how it impacts me. This is serious stuff and it calls for serious minds. You don't have to have a degree in economics, or be the politician casting votes to understand the magnitude of something like this. We all have the ability to educate ourselves and form opinions. Maybe some of us will become more engaged the next time something like this rolls around.
August 1, 2011
The Parking Dilemma
By Evan Kravitz
Ah, my first time behind the wheel of a car. The freedom. The excitement. The tension, as my father put the fear of God into me as I practiced parallel parking. Yes, the test of all tests for a young driver yearning to prove their trust-worthiness before gaining the keys to an automotive expense parents like to keep on the low end.
I learned how to drive in full-sized gas guzzler. I didn't care what kind of car it was. It was just great to be driving. And to be fair, my father was a good and patient teacher. However, my mother did most of the instruction due to my father's hypertension -- a condition that somehow became more pronounced when I turned 16. I passed my driving test with flying colors, and the parallel parking part of the test turned out to be a breeze, even with the DMV instructor gauging my every move. After all, I had practiced the move time and time again with plastic cones. By the time it came to the test, it had become routine.
But it has gotten easier for drivers these days to parallel park and maneuver in tight corners. My parents, who are part of the baby boomer generation, learned to drive in big fat Buicks, Chevys, Cadillacs and Fords. So even though my father had a sports car, he made me learn on my mother's Dodge Dynasty.
I now drive a mid-sized Subaru and I work in New York City. I've got to tell you, it would scare me to death to have to parallel park in this town. If I decided to live here permanently, I would definitely have to either give up the car or follow the latest reviews from Automobile Magazine which just came out with its list of best cars for those who hate to park. I don't hate to park, but my car is new and I take my good old time positioning it just right to avoid dings and scratches.
The magazine recommends the Fiat, Smart, and Mini as obvious picks for tight spaces. But what you gain in maneuverability you lose in cabin space. Then, there are the cars with the camera systems in the console which give give you a rear view picture as you put it in reverse. My sister has one of these devices in her SUV, but she still does the one arm over the passenger seat and look around. I would too. It's a nifty invention, but when it comes time to teaching my child to drive one day, I will still err on the side of all eyes looking everywhere. But now, there are cars that can even parallel park themselves. You can buy a Ford Focus that does it. Technology is amazing. Maybe my teen won't need me to learn how to parallel park.
When it comes to parking and learning the ins and outs of driving, nothing beats a good set of eyes. Wear your contacts, glasses or clean your windshield if you need to. And everyone should have to take a driving lesson from my mother. She didn't mind if I brushed up against a cone. My dad on the other hand ... he loved his bumpers.
July 29, 2011
The Happy Shopper
By Evan Kravitz
A new study due out in the Journal of Marketing Research is said to make the point that the more relaxed you are when you enter a store, the more money you are likely to spend. Researchers used videos and music on 670 participants to see what type of level of relaxation it would induce in them. Some of the subjects reported being very relaxed after listening to the music and watching the videos and others were not as relaxed, but still in a pleasant mood. In the end, it was reasoned by one of the researchers that in a relaxed environment, your brain does not perceive a threat, like can you really afford a product? The example was made of purchasing a camera. A more relaxed person took into account that the camera would be used to capture memories and would be less inclined to think about price. The less relaxed person was more prone to focus on whether the camera was worth the price.
When it comes to money I am very relaxed. It's not because I have a lot of it, far from it. It's simply because I'm financially irresponsible. Thankfully, my wife watches over me like a hawk. She's the brains in our little economic empire. So she and I struck a balance, and it doesn't require music or videos. The more I save the more I can buy- within reason. For example, I really, really, really want a new high definition television. I have been tempted, so many times, to simply buy one already. But I know the wrath of my wife would be far worse than any horror flick I would watch in HD. Even if I drove to the store while listening to my favorite band with a smile on my face, I still wouldn't be able to go through with it. If you're single, I suppose you might not have this problem. But everything is relative, and in this economy buying a new television isn't a priority for my household and maybe not for yours.
I like the fact that I'm putting aside a little bit of money each month to buy what I want. I don't have to worry about making an impulse buy and worrying about the incoming credit card bill. This study makes a lot of sense to me, especially the bit about the camera. But when I was a kid I was told to save up for the things I wanted, namely toys and baseball cards. And there was no greater reward then the day when I was able to make my purchase.
Having said this, I will definitely play my wife's favorite Sting album in the car tonight as we drive by Best Buy. You never know.
July 28, 2011
Put the Phone Down
By Evan Kravitz
When I was recently issued a BlackBerry for work purposes, I must admit that I was pretty excited to get it. My personal phone is a relic by today's standards. My new phone would allow me to check work email, text with ease and hop onto the internet at will. But as excited as I was to get the phone, the more I became wary of it. I soon found myself checking it constantly for emails, not that I'm the most important person in the world and everyone needs to get a hold of me. Then, I found myself fooling around with it in social settings while my friends would try to carry on a conversation with me. How rude.
Walking the streets of New York, I have noticed that it appears like every other person is either talking on their phone, checking email or doing who knows what. I've seen people narrowly escape getting hit by a car because they're so focused on their phone while crossing the street. Can't we even take a stroll down the street on a gorgeous afternoon without this device at our ear or at our finger tips? Take a look around your own city and I bet you'll notice the same thing.
A study in the journal Personal and Ubiquitous Computing shows that smartphone users have developed what they call "checking habits" -- repetitive checks of e-mail and other applications such as Facebook. The checks typically lasted less than 30 seconds and are often done within 10 minutes of each other. On average, the study subjects checked their phones 34 times a day, not necessarily because they really needed to check them that many times, but because it had become a habit or compulsion.
This compulsion is about to get fed a heaping dose of what it wants. Listen to this -- according to market research and consultancy firm IMS Global, sales of smartphones will exceed 420 million units this year. Smartphones will account for some 28% of all handsets sold. Furthermore, the firm says that by 2016 sales will sore past one billion, with one out of every two handsets sold being a smartphone. To me, this means the battle against this compulsion to constantly check or dabble with your phone is only going to become greater.
I've stated before in previous blogs that I am all for technology and its continuous evolution. I think smartphones are pretty darn cool, and I'm glad to have one. Certainly there are more dangerous compulsions to have than this. But anything can become an addiction without you even realizing it. Maybe the lesson here is to be careful with what you have and how you use it. My teenage cousins are constantly on their phones, even when we're gathered together for family dinners. It bugs me. I fear the younger generation is going to be the one that falls into trouble with this compulsion the most.
So, like anything else in life, we will have to police it like responsible adults. But we, as adults, must get a grip on our own habits first.
CNN's Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen filed a report on this very topic. She goes into great detail on how you can determine if your "checking habits" are out of hand, and what you can do about them. Her article can be found on CNN.com.
Disclaimer: This report was prepared by CNN
July 27, 2011
Don't Take My Keyboard Away
By Evan Kravitz
My father used to have this weird obsession with computer keyboards. The keys had to make the right sounding click when pressed. Furthermore, the keys had to spring back to life like an erupting volcano after being released from your fingers. If you're familiar with the old, original, IBM keyboards then you are halfway to my father's insanity. Unfortunately, this got passed onto me.
Yup, I'm weird too. I need a certain type of keyboard for a desktop computer. The one I'm using right now, for my work computer, doesn't meet all of my standards. They keys don't make a thunderous sound when I pound them. It's just a soft, gentle, whisper. Who wants that?
But all of my typing woes might be headed for complete Armageddon. According to Patently Apple, it seems that Apple has taken out a patent for a new type of glass-based keyless keyboard that lights up. Now, I must remain calm. After all, no official product announcement has come from Apple yet. But you can't deny that in the computer world, Apple is a trend setter. If Apple does indeed produce a keyless keyboard, and it's as popular as their iPhone and iPad, then all the other computer manufacturers are going to follow along. What am I going to do? I'm still getting use to "thumbing it" on my BlackBerry.
Maybe I should just get with the times. After all, it's my fault for not taking typing in high school and relying on the feel of the keys. Then again, I have clumsy fingers and they're big and fat and they need the larger surface of individual keys.
I don't know when Apple is going to make their move. Right now, this is mostly the tech world feeding on any bit of Apple news they can get. I'm all for technological evolution, but this might be where I finally draw the line.
I would write more...but I really don't like this keyboard.
July 26, 2011 My Wake Up Call
By Evan Kravitz
I have a crazy commute into work. I leave my house in the Philadelphia suburbs at 3 a.m. every weekday to make it into New York City by 4:30 a.m. to begin producing live financial broadcast segments from the NASDAQ. This means that I have to go to sleep by, at the very least, 7 p.m. every night in order to survive. Thankfully, I have satellite radio in my car which gives me hundreds of channels to listen to on the way in. Music, news, comedy you name it, I've got it. This makes the drive enjoyable, to some degree. It allows me to get in tune with the previous night's news that I missed while I was in deep slumber.
As I was driving in this morning I listened to a replay of CNN's broadcast of President Obama's prime-time address to the nation on the debt ceiling debate. It was followed by House Speaker John Boehner's response. Having covered the debt ceiling showdown for the last few weeks, I was seriously hoping for a bit of good news for a change. Maybe today would be the day we would actually have something positive to report, both financially and politically. Nope. Instead, I heard partisan passion plays by both men. President Obama continues to push for a comprehensive plan that includes spending cuts, increased tax revenue and entitlement reforms, while Republicans have been seeking to shrink government by proposing spending cuts and reforms, with no provision for increasing revenue. Senators and House members from both parties are still coming forth with compromises of one kind of another, but nothing seems to be gaining any traction.
Suddenly it dawned on me on how serious this is, and a bit scary.
If no agreement is reached by August 2, and no action taken to raise the $14.3 trillion debt limit, Americans could face rising interest rates and a potential stock market crash. And as the cost of borrowing rises, individual mortgages, car loans and student loans could become significantly more costly. On top of that, the president has said he could not guarantee Social Security checks would be mailed out on time. That affects some members of my family, and probably yours, too.
Election-season politics aside, this is a moment that screams for leadership. Tough choices must be made, compromises worked out. Optimists like me think there's still a chance that will happen.
July 25, 2011
The Big Apple
By Evan Kravitz
I don't have an iPhone. I don't have an iPad. These are two big sellers for Apple. However, I have a 5-year-old iPod that I love. So, I guess that makes me an Apple fan of sorts. I have never had a problem with MY iPod, and it allows me to escape the every day with tons and tons of my favorite music right in the palm of my hand. It truly is one of neatest things I have ever owned.
At first, being an Apple fan was a label I tried to resist. Computer-wise, I'm a PC guy, born and raised. I always WILL be. But there is something "cool" about the Apple brand that makes owning one of its products kind of special. And more and more it seems to be the company that every other business in the industry is trying to keep pace with. Well, the race just took a new turn.
Apple has submitted plans to New York's Metropolitan Transportation Authority Board to open a new store in Grand Central Terminal -- 23,000 square feet OF SPACE THAT would make it, by far, the largest Apple store worldwide. If the plan is approved, Apple will pay $800,000 a year in rent. After 10 years, the annual cost will exceed $1 million. Is it worth it for Apple? Definitely. In the few smaller stores that I have been to in malls I have seen crowds of people, of all ages, playing with the gadgets. It's like being at Disney World. The PC makers of the world have their work cut out for them as far generating that kind of store frenzy. An Apple store of this magnitude at such a central location in New York will become an instant attraction. It will be where you go after you're done at the Empire State Building.
Now, I can't afford most Apple stuff. Well, actually, I can. But my wife won't let me spend the money because she's always worried about the little things in life like the mortgage. But I've got to tell you, I hope this store works out for Apple. No other electronics store, in my humble opinion, can transform itself into a giant playground for the masses. There is just a friendly openness to it. It's like a please touch museum. It actually makes you want to supplement your income with a paper route to buy one of their new toys.
Grand Central Terminal is a landmark in New York. It will be interesting to see what Apple does with it. Maybe if I let my wife go to Bloomingdales and she lets me go to Apple then we can keep everything in between a secret.
July 22, 2011
By Evan Kravitz at the Nasdaq
I sure am glad not to be a parent right now (though I hope to be one day). I would have such a tough time keeping up with trends. I need to start practicing. I mean seriously, kids are hip to everything. Where do they get their information? How do their personality compasses know which way to point? The answer, it seems, is right at your finger tips- if you have the right phone with the right app in this case.
Have you heard about "Angry Birds?" It's this year's back-to-school craze for kids. It's based on an app that launched almost two years ago for the iPhone in which birds are slung at pigs living in wood houses, and you rack up points for what you're able to knock out. It seems pretty ordinary to me. Boy, am I wrong.
Shipments of "Angry Birds" related goods -- everything from toys to backpacks and blankets -- have surged 500% just in the past five months. This is all based on an app that you can download for free or up to $2.99 for a version that gives you access to more levels.
Wait, it gets better. Adults love "Angry Birds." You want proof? The CNN correspondent I produce financial segments for is crazy for this game. We did countless stories on it today for our reporting, and he was all too happy to hold his iPad up to the camera and show our audience how to play the game. He just had a baby, but you can only imagine what kind of backpack his child would have if he were going to school.
So is there anything controversial here? No. Is there any reason to be alarmed? Not really. After all, technology has always been a trend-setter. Before there were apps, you had the original video game consoles that provided you with Pac-Man, Donkey Kong and Space Invaders. I had t-shirts and backpacks for all that stuff.
So maybe I will be a good parent after all, now that I think of it. Phones with apps are here to stay and who knows what my kid(s) will be playing with and asking to wear when they go to school. If "Angry Birds" is all the rage for kids right now, hey, things could be worse. It's better than the days when some kids were keen on "Joe Camel" for Camel cigarettes or "Spuds MacKenzie" for Bud Light.
Yeah, I'll be a good parent. But I will restrict their phone usage. So, I won't be cool. But that's all relative I suppose.
July 21, 2011
Internet Background Searches
By Evan Kravitz at the NASDAQ
The fact of the matter is, when you apply for a job you are setting yourself up for examination that is sometimes gut-wrenching. Your resume is probed, references checked, etc. You ask yourself, "Did I go to the right school or did my possible future employer go to a rival college that we beat consistently in football?" "Am I wearing the right attire?" "Do I have the right hair style?" More importantly, and going back to the resume, does your background experience make you qualified for the position? After all, shouldn't experience count the most? Maybe, not.
There's a new company, Social Intelligence, that will dig through cyber-space, searching for anything they can find on you in the past seven years. It then assembles a dossier with any professional honors and charitable work or, even worse, any negative information that meets specific criteria. This criteria includes racist remarks, references to drugs, sexually explicit photos, text messages or videos, flagrant displays of weapons or bombs and clearly identifiable violent activity. The company says that less than a third of the data uncovered comes from major social platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and MySpace. Most of the digging comes from "deep" web searches on blogs and posts on smaller social sites.
One critic of the service says that while employers are entitled to gather information to make a determination about related expertise, there is a concern that employees will judge what people do in their private lives, away from the workplace. That's a valid point and one to take seriously.
To be fair, the report removes references to a person's religion, race, marital status, sexual orientation, disability and other information protected under federal employment laws, which companies are not supposed to ask about during interviews. Also, job candidates must first consent to the background check, and they are notified of any adverse information found.
I'm in favor of this service, especially for college grads looking for that first job. If you're age 21 or 22 and fresh out of school, going back seven years in your cyber history could be quiet sobering. Some teens show a complete lack of judgment or comprehension of consequence for what they post on the web. Freedom of speech should always be protected, and I would oppose anything that stripped that right from anybody. But as an employer, which I am not (but let's say I was), I would want to know as much as is legally possible about my next hire. The truth is that we express ourselves more and more on the Internet. I would want to know if I'm hiring someone who has blogged anti-Semitic rants or has taken part in pornography. It's not what I would want for my business. You're not going to get that information from a credit check or a call to a prospective employee's references who have been coached as to what to be prepared to say when called (believe me, I've played that card).
If you're denied for a job because you used your blog or Facebook page to take an educated position on a political hot topic that your potential employer disagrees with and holds against you then you may be considering employment with the wrong company for you. And, if you're older, and you used the Internet to talk about how you got naked at Woodstock and burned a Stratocaster once because Jimi Hendrix inspired you- and you're denied for the job, then you may have been looking in the wrong place as well.
The point is, the Internet is a place for opinion, memories and overall sharing- among other things. It's an incredible tool for society today. But just like anything in life, it can work against you. Just remember that some employers are looking now. Consider the Internet part of your resume folks.
July 20, 2011
The Working Home Bodies
By Evan Kravitz at the Nasdaq
There's a new study out by office supply company Staples that shows 86% of telecommuters, in a survey of 140 people, report they are more productive when working from their home office. In fact, these telecommuters said their stress levels were about 25% lower since they started working from home, and they also eat healthier since they aren't tempted by snack machines. Making employers even more enthused about these findings is that respondents said they would be willing to put in extra time on the job since they don't have to make the commute every day.
What a life.
My wife telecommutes. We live in Philadelphia, but her law firm is in Atlanta. She is a commercial real estate paralegal and loves her job. After all, what's not to love? She wakes up in the morning, could care less about her hair, stays in her pajamas and casually strolls into our home office and logs into her work computer by 8:30 a.m. With her fuzzy slippers on and our faithful dog by her side, she is focused like a laser beam on the tasks at hand. She is on countless conference calls and, like the survey indicates, often takes her work into the night with her. That's when she has to commute. She moves from the office to the den to stretch out.
My wife tells me she sometimes misses going out with work colleagues for lunch and listening in on the gossip you overhear in the hallways. But it's not enough to make her want to change her work situation at the moment. As for eating healthy, that part doesn't go for my wife. Since I'll keep this blog from her, I will tell you that she keeps a bar of chocolate by her side and tends toward munching on snacks over making a healthy meal for herself. But, I suppose when you're at work wearing pajamas with an elastic band, you're not necessarily counting calories.
My wife is successful at what she does, and she has been rewarded for it by her firm. It's nice to know that, according to this study, a trust exists between corporate America and their employees, who maintain they can get the job done no matter where they are.
As for me, I need to get out of the house. If I worked at home, my wife would kill me within seconds, and you wouldn't get to read these fascinating blogs. I would be distracted by my dog, who I love dearly and want to play with all the time. I have an extensive movie collection and would always find an excuse to take a "mental break" and sink down into the sofa. And then would come the naps. You have to rest your eyes at some point during the day. Who's going to catch you?
Thankfully, I work in the city, and I have one heck of a commute that keeps me on the run. As a broadcast journalist, I need to be in a newsroom, and it would be a scary sight to see any journalist in pajamas, especially the ones who write and edit the blogs. Nope. There's something about coming to work and coming face to face with the daily grind that allows me to get my job done.
According to Forrester Research, telecommuting is gaining popularity nationally, and about 63 million U.S. workers will count themselves as telecommuters by 2016. I say, good for them.
I think, in the end, it's a matter of discipline. My wife has it. I do too, but my work environment shapes it. I get distracted too easily. For instance, I was supposed to be writing this blog about the debt ceiling debate.
July 19, 2011
Kindle in the Classrooom
By Evan Kravitz at the Nasdaq
There is a war brewing. I have seen it for myself. Maybe you have too. For me, I came face to face with it on the Jersey shore this past weekend. I was lying on the beach with my family and friends, and we were taking in the sun and enjoying the day. I was listening to my iPod and watching the ocean when I noticed an intense discussion taking place between my wife and my uncle. They were talking about the benefits of reading from eReaders, like Amazon's Kindle, versus holding an actual book in your hands. My uncle, let's call him "Old School," said he couldn't imagine not holding an actual book in his hand, feeling the texture of the pages, seeing the crispness of the ink and the luxury of being able to simply dog-ear the pages where you leave off. Plus, depending on the type of book, you can easily make notes in the margins or highlight certain text.
My wife, let's call her "New School," owns an Amazon Kindle and loves it. As an avid reader, she has forsaken the traditional bound text and reads from a screen. She scrolls through the pages of a novel in a device the size of a tablet that has a six-inch screen, is completely wireless, and can download new books in 60 seconds. It will cost you, of course. The Kindle runs roughly $139. And then you have to purchase your books to be downloaded. For instance, "Old School" was reading the new Tom Clancy novel, "Against All Enemies," which sells in hard back for around $15 on Amazon.com. But, you can download the same book on the Kindle for $12.99. If you're an avid book reader, the case could be made that buying the Kindle, or one of its competitors like the Barnes & Noble NOOK, might save you money in the long run. It really just comes down to preference really. We're not talk about saving millions of dollars here on your budget. And can you really put a price tag on reading an enjoyable book?
Speaking of enjoyable books, is there anything less enjoyable than a required textbook for a college class? Amazon has launched a new venture aimed at students. It's called Kindle Textbook Rentals, and the company is promising thousands of textbooks at discounts of as much as 80% less than the purchase price. Students can rent a textbook for as little as 30 days or up to 360 days, with fees differing depending on how long the book is rented. Plus, these downloadable textbooks can be read on several different operating platforms. Pretty cool, huh?
I think a lot of students might actually go for this. My wife, "New School," is not that far removed from her days in college and remembers waiting in line at the book store hoping to find a used, and cheaper, copy of the required text for her class. The only real advantage to buying a used book, according to her, was hoping that the last person who had the book took the subject seriously enough and highlighted all the appropriate sections and made intelligent notations in the margins. If you had to buy new, it was a whole lot of money, and you were starting from scratch. With the Kindle, you drastically cut down on the amount of material you carry with you from class to class, and you're keeping pace with technology.
However, for my uncle, "Old School," who is quite removed from his college days, he maintains that he would still prefer to have the actual textbook in his hand if he were a student on campus now. No need to worry about electronic failures. You can write anything you want in the book. Plus, in most cases, you can sell the book back to the bookstore at the end of the semester. Although, to be honest, you're not going to get as much money back, if it's even returnable to begin with. A new edition might be coming out. In the interest of fairness though, it should be noted that with the eReaders you can also make electronic notations on the digital pages.
So where do I land on this? Technology is a great thing, and I like what Amazon is doing. If I were back in college, I would definitely look into it. But, there's something about holding a used book in your hands, if you can find one for your class that has been handed down from "generation to generation." What you highlight and the notes you make leave a lasting impression on the next student to purchase it. And, even if you had to buy a new book, I am such a "nerd" that I would actually like to lead the way for others to follow my notations.
Having said all this, I would probably just ask my parents for the money to buy a Kindle if I were back in college. Why not? They paid for everything else.
July 18, 2011
By Evan Kravitz at the Nasdaq
It's hard to believe there was a time before 9/11 that you could actually walk with friends or family to the airport departure gate and wait with them until boarding time and get those last hugs and kisses in. Even better was coming off a plane after a long trip and seeing your friends and family waiting right there for you, again, right at the arrival gate. Now, you have to meet up at baggage claim or outside where it can be a mess.
Before 9/11, airport security didn't seem to be much of a hassle. That feels like ages ago. Now, it's hard to remember what security was like before the metal detectors, x-rays, pat downs, removal of shoes, jackets and belts.
I will be the first to admit that I get frustrated at the airport when I have to go through the laborious TSA screenings. Every time I go through security, under my breath, I sarcastically thank the terrorists for turning travel into such an ordeal. Nearly ten years after the tragic events of 9/11, more and more of us are asking ourselves if airport security has gone too far.
Maybe it has, and maybe the TSA is getting the message. According to a CNN report, this fall, the TSA will begin a limited rollout of its "trusted traveler" program to expedite screening at airport checkpoints. Initially, this will only include a small group of travelers on certain airlines at specific airports. The TSA has released few details about the program, but those familiar with it say eligible participants will be able to forgo some of the biggest hassles, like partially undressing to go through security.
Under "trusted traveler" programs, flyers surrender more detailed information about themselves. Congress and critics have stepped up the demand for such a program following two highly publicized incidents. One involved the search of a 6-year-old girl and the other involved a 95-year-old cancer patient in a wheelchair. In both cases, the TSA has said the airport screeners were following established protocols.
You might think that I would fall in favor of a program such as this, but the truth is that after I get through security at the airport and I put my shoes, belt and jacket back on and get my laptop back in its bag I am pretty thankful that we have such security scrutiny at the airports. The fact is, we are a nation still at war and every time I see footage of the chilling scenes from 9/11 it reinforces the notion that there will always be threats, and there have been attempts to take down planes post 9/11. Remember the guy who tried to detonate a bomb hidden in his underwear on a Christmas Day flight to Detroit. What about the shoe bomber?
Pat me down. Make me empty my bag. I'll take off my shoes and anything else you want. I'll answer any question you have. I have nothing to hide. It may be easy to point to a finger at the TSA and say they have gone overboard at times, but the simple truth is that they're doing their job: getting us from point A to point B as safely as they can. I will still complain about the security lines when I'm late for a flight, but I'll be thankful for the security when I arrive safely at my destination. No one should receive special treatment. The threat is all around.
I'll see you at baggage claim.
July 15, 2011
A Day in the Life
By Evan Kravitz
Who would want to be U.S. president in today's world? What a hassle. You would have to deal with a debt crisis that could define your presidency. As commander-in-chief, you would have to navigate your country through the thin ice of war. You would have to endure relentless criticism from the other party, plus the candidates who are on the road touring the country and trying to convince people that they can do your job better. On top of that, when you finish work at the end of the day and you want to relax and watch a little television you are most likely bombarded with a 24-hour news cycle that is analyzing your every word, action and decision. Sure, you get to fly in the world's most famous airplane, live in a mansion and be driven everywhere without ever worrying about red lights. But would you really want to do it?
Well, according to a new survey by job search site Snagajob, being the leader of the free world, for one day, was the top choice among males, snagging 33% of the vote. Snagajob polled more than 3,400 people between May 9 and May 31, 2011. Being president beat out living the (let's be honest) not so complex life of teen star Justin Bieber, or even football's Tom Brady. Nothing against Bieber or Brady, but surely they would be the first to admit that they don't carry the weight of a nation on their shoulders like the president does.
Amanda Richardson, a senior vice president at Snagajob, said that when those polled were given the choice between fame and power, workers dreamed of making a difference rather than basking in the limelight and living as a celebrity in a lavish lifestyle.
This makes me feel good. There are people out there who would want to step up and take on such an enormous challenge instead of just going for the fame and money for a day. I would chose the presidency as well. Even if only for a day, when you think about all of the briefings and decisions that you would be faced with, it is inevitable that one of your actions on that day could affect millions of people. It's the weight of that responsibility alone that makes it a learning lesson above all others, and worth a day in the life of the president.
July 14, 2011
Swan Song for the PC?
By Evan Kravitz
I remember the day when I saw my first personal computer. It was in the '80s when my father, an electrical engineer, was finally able to afford what was then considered to be a luxury item in most homes. He didn't have enough money to buy an IBM, the Cadillac of home PCs at the time. Instead, he purchased a Sanyo, which was a relatively good buy. To my young eyes, it was the coolest thing in the world. It was all metal, no plastic. The monitor was a huge box but the screen itself was small, the size of a modest laptop screen. The base of the computer, or the PC itself, had two floppy disk drives for those big black plastic disks that kids today will never know of. And then there was the keyboard. It was massive and the keys made a thunderous clicking sound when tapped. You had to load MS-DOS to boot the computer. There was no mouse or icons. I remember watching as my father showed me how the computer could make pie charts, crunch data and even allow you to type a document without needing a replacement ribbon like you would for a type writer. This was the future. My, how far we have come.
Right now I'm sitting here writing this on a company-owned PC which is light years ahead of my father's first computer. It's a fairly decent computer. It can do those same pie charts, crunch the same data and word process like my father's first computer, but it can do it faster and better. Everyone should be buying one of these, right? Wrong.
According to a new survey by Gartner, a technology consulting firm, shipments of personal computers in the U.S. fell 5.6% compared to the same three month period a year ago. The trend has shifted to tablets like the iPad and other such products coming onto the market. Apple has sold nearly 20 million iPads in their first year on store shelves. Ironically, that has had a glow effect on Apple Macintosh desktops and laptops, which show an increase in shipments. Good news for Apple. Bad news for PC manufacturers who have been underselling their year-ago totals by about a million devices.
There are still plenty of uses for the PC. You don't have to worry about battery life. You just keep it plugged in. It stays put, like a faithful dog. The monitors are far bigger and better on the eyes than that of a tablet. Plus, for writers, there's nothing like a big keyboard. And, there is a bright spot for the PC in the corporate world. Many companies are stretching the life of their PCs because the economy just won't allow for the more expensive "toys" right now.
So, what's my argument here? I don't really have one. I'm just being nostalgic I suppose. Technology doesn't phase me anymore. I've seen the tablets. They're cool. That's the thing about technology. When it works, it's supposed to be cool and useful. Maybe I'll buy one if my wife lets me. It just amazes me how far we have come from the multi-piece desktop system (monitor, computer, keyboard, mouse and printer) to something the size of a book cover.
Still, there's a part of me pulling for the PC. It's hard to let go of such fond memories.
July 13, 2011 Yankee Doodle Dandy
By Evan Kravitz
This past Saturday, 23-year-old Christian Lopez was enjoying a game at Yankee Stadium and was no doubt waiting to see if Yankee slugger Derek Jeter would nail his 3,000th career hit and become only the 28th player in Major League Baseball to reach such a benchmark. Well, Jeter didn't let his fans down. He found his pitch and rocketed a homer into the left field stands where Lopez was sitting next to his father. The ball bounced off his father's hands and hit the ground where Lopez immediately grabbed it. In what must have been a complete whirlwind for Lopez, security guards ushered him away to a location in the stadium where, according to an account given in the New York Times, he was asked what his intentions were for the ball. Would he sell it and make a nifty profit? Would he keep it as memorabilia and see it handed down from generation to generation? No. All he asked for was a couple of signed balls, jerseys and bats. The Yankees, in turn, gave him much more for his kindness. Lopez received four Champions Suite tickets for their remaining home games (and any postseason games) along with the balls, bats and jerseys all signed by Jeter. Lopez told reporters that he owed thousands in student loans but felt the ball belonged to its rightful owner. What a great story, huh?
Enter the IRS. Now it appears all of those gifts the Yankees showered upon Lopez are taxable. Paul Caron, a tax professor with the University of Cincinnati Law School told the Times that Lopez would most likely have to report- as income- the value of the goods he got in exchange for the ball. All told, Lopez is staring down the barrel of a gun loaded with more than $14,000 dollars in taxes when you add up the value of the seats and the going price for the signed memorabilia. Unless some kind of tax loop hole exists or the Yankees come to the rescue, Lopez says he will pay the taxes. He hopes to borrow the money from his parents instead of selling the memorabilia.
Come on IRS. Come on Yankees. Give this guy a break. He did a good thing. He could have made untold sums of cash selling that ball on Ebay. Instead, he recognized its importance in sports history and gave it to the guy who earned it. Are we going to solve the federal debt crisis by taxing this guy?
July 12, 2011
There's an App for That
By Evan Kravitz
During a recent trip to Atlanta to visit some old friends I actually found myself annoyed with technology for the first time in my life. My father was an engineer. So, I grew up the son of a fan of all things technical. It was passed unto me. This wasn't a problem, until this trip.
Here I was, sitting with my friends at a pizza restaurant, trying to catch up on old times. But all anyone could talk about, or do, was play with their phones and show me that that there is an app for just about every conceivable need in life. They were prompted to show off the wizardry of their toys because apparently I am the last human on earth without an iPhone, Android or Blackberry. Nope. I have a regular cell phone that has a simple key pad. You dial a number and talk. Don't get me wrong, I would love to have one of these new phones, and I will probably get one later this year. But do I really need my friend to show me an app that can tell if the restaurant table is level? Do I really need to point a phone to the stars and have an app tell me what constellation I am looking at? Whatever happened to wonderment? Every time I have a question about anything everyone wants to be the first to whip out their phone, tap the app, and give me the answer. It's like a contest. Enough already! Everyone just take a breath and relax.
Now, there's a new app you can use at Chase Field in Phoenix Arizona, home of the MLB Diamondbacks and this year's All-Star Game. If you have an iPhone you can download a new app that will let you order concessions right from your seat so you don't miss a minute of the game. Pretty neat idea, huh? But when your food is ready you receive a text alert and you have to go to a special line to pick up your food. So, you're still missing the game. And, since it seems like almost everyone has a phone these days with the capability to download apps, it's a fairly safe assumption (something we stray from doing in journalism, but this seems pretty obvious) that a ton of fans are going to take advantage of this thinking they will get their food more quickly. No way. Everyone will be in these special lines that will be reserved for those who ordered their hot dogs and beer with an app. Meanwhile, the line at the other counter, the app-free line, will be the same length. I'll bet my phone on it.
It's a good idea in theory, I'll give the Diamondbacks that. But there will be lines, and you will still have to pick and chose what part of the game you want to miss in order to get your peanuts, unless you can wait between innings. What the stadium really needs is an app that will allow you to order your food from your seat and have it delivered to you. The stadium will need tons of food runners, and there are tons people looking for work. Plus, food runners would most likely get tipped as well. And if you can't figure out how much to tip the runner just take out your phone and use your special app for that.
July 11, 2011
The Cyber Receipt
By Evan Kravitz
There was an interesting story in today's USA Today about retailers and their latest attempt to gain access to our email accounts and flood us with "special" offers and other endless enticements. Now, these retailers, like Gap and Nordstrom, among others, say this isn't so. They claim they are trying to offer us an alternative to a paper receipt. Instead, they say, save a tree.
When I first read this article, I was just plain ticked. I am tired of digging through my personal email account deleting endless advertisements and spam in order to get to important messages. And, according to one analyst from the USA Today article, this has nothing to do with stores cutting their costs. Only 1% of a retailer's total revenue goes toward paper and ink for the printing of receipts.
But then I started thinking about it. Maybe this isn't such a bad idea. Don't get me wrong. I am all for environmentally friendly behavior, but my thought process on this has other, mainly selfish motives. You see, I always lose receipts, especially for big purchase items and clothes. Having an electronic copy, that exists in a cyber wallet, means that I will always be able to hold a store accountable for a return. Furthermore, with the ability to create free email accounts from numerous Internet providers, why not create one specifically for electronic receipts? Let the retailers send all their stuff to that account. You just need the receipt.
I just started working in New York City. Most of my summer clothes I bought no longer fit because this city fattens you up at every corner (soft pretzels, pizza, subs and on and on). It would be nice if I still had some of those receipts to go from snug to comfortable. The question remains, will we be comfortable giving more and more information to retailers during a purchase?
July 8, 2011
I met an astronaut
When you decide to become a journalist, whether it's in front of the camera or behind it, you inevitably meet the most interesting people. Some are famous and some are just like you and I, but even the most die hard journalists will tell you that there is someone on their list who they must interview- or meet- before they leave the newsroom for the last time. I am only 13 years into my career in journalism as a producer, but I have already checked off that name on my list. In fact, as we speak, he is orbiting earth on the 135th and final NASA space shuttle mission. He is Commander Christopher Ferguson, and he is leading the four member crew on NASA's final chapter in this phase of its space exploration program.
This is Ferguson's third mission, second as commander. I first met him in 2006 after his first successful mission to space on, ironically, the shuttle Atlantis, the same shuttle being used in this final mission. He served as pilot. I was working in Philadelphia at television station KYW-TV as a producer responsible for setting up exclusive interviews. Ferguson, a Philadelphia native, was tops on my list. There would be a massive homecoming for him at his high school, Archbishop Ryan High School. I worked tirelessly, day and night, trying to reach out to him before and after the mission to make sure we would have some time for a quality interview. At the time, I was thinking of this in terms of just getting the story and making my news station number one in the ratings. That was my job.
But then came the day when I met him face to face. Everything changed. I was standing with an astronaut, and he knew my name! He had received all of my e-mails and he too was looking forward to meeting me. I couldn't believe it. This was a man who had just returned from space! He had achieved his childhood dream. We talked about the mission, his childhood and his aspirations for his future with NASA. He made me believe that anything was possible.
Soon, our one on one time was over and the students crowded him and gave him a hero's welcome. He deserved every bit of it. Little did I know that five years later, he would command the final shuttle mission. Commander Ferguson no doubt has a million things on his mind right now, and he will most likely never remember our encounter. When he returns home, a new crop of producers will go after him and try to get their interviews. I just hope they really appreciate the fact that they are talking to someone truly extraordinary who has left the bonds of earth and felt things we can only dream of. If you ever have the chance to meet an astronaut, I highly recommend it.
June 29, 2011
Good News for Grads
By Annie Norman
It's that time of year again. The diplomas have been handed out. The parties are over. The speeches are done. The dorms are empty. And this year's class of college graduates is trading in their caps and gowns for corporate attire, and joining the working world.
Well, they're trying to.
The good news is that prospects for folks fresh out of undergraduate school this year are a lot rosier than they've been the last two years. According to research from CollegeGrad.com, the number of new grads able to find work surged 22% this year over last year, and 8% over 2009. That's quite a comeback for first time job seekers, who watched their unemployment rate surge to 8.7% just two years ago.
The job outlook for new graduates is especially important when you consider the daunting student loan debts many of them are facing. It's crucial that they get a foothold in the workplace in order to get out of debt and out on their own as soon as possible. And not just because that will make them happier (although it will). Empowering new grads to be income earners and consumers is good for the whole economy.
The key to getting a job is knowing where to look. CollegeGrad.com's annual survey of 93 major corporations showed that recruiters still rely most heavily on college career fairs to find prospective employees. College career websites are their second favorite route. Third, they post openings to websites like Monster.com.
Recruiters' preference for college career fairs makes sense when you look at what they say are a candidate's key qualities. They most value the graduate's chosen field of study, internship experience, and in-person communication skills. Those three categories are a lot more important to recruiters surveyed by CollegeGrad.com than a student's GPA, computer skills, even choice of school. Based on those findings, current students who hope to be successful job candidates one day should focus on choosing a strong major, doing field work to support their studies, and becoming adept at speaking knowledgeably about the subject.
What's missing from all this? Social media. Everybody thought sites like LinkedIn and Facebook would be the top connectors between tech savvy young grads and potential employers. Back in April, a survey from two workplace service providers, Experience and I Love Rewards, showed nearly a third of college students planned to look for jobs on LinkedIn, an increase of 5% over 2010. The new crop of candidates seemed to expect companies to engage them in an interactive setting. And some companies got that message loud and clear, investing in their online branding and social media presence to attract top candidates. Recruiters said they were working daily to keep their social networks from growing stagnant. Some companies even created mobile sites that allow candidates to apply for positions using their smartphones.
But, it no longer seems like social media has been as big a player at putting the Class of 2011 to work as many thought it would. Sure, some grads found jobs that way. By and large, however, recruiters opted to travel to campuses and meet students face-to-face and give in-person interviews. They preferred to find out what candidates were really like, instead of choosing them based on content posted to an online profile. They decided to meet them, not just "friend" them. Go figure.
By Jeanne Yurman
When you think about infidelity and marriage you might think of one spouse sneaking around and cheating with another person. But there's another kind of infidelity that can threaten a marriage, so-called "financial infidelity." This is basically lying to your significant other about money, whether it's hiding extra money you make, keeping a secret bank account or hiding purchases from the love of your life.
According to a survey conducted by the nonprofit National Endowment for Financial Education, roughly one in three people who share finances with a significant other admit to being deceptive about money. And hiding cash or small purchases from their partner? More than half say they're guilty. And greater than one in three people straight up lied about their level of debt or income.
The net effect of all this deception, according to NEFE, is that 16% of those people surveyed said their financial infidelity eventually resulted in divorce.
Really? Ouch. I'm kind of giggling about how I hide a periodic "discretionary" purchase from my hubby on the credit card, which is in my name only. I can't imagine this would lead to divorce. Though, in the scheme of things, I'm sure my transgression is relatively small and very infrequent. For others I know their transgressions may not be small nor infrequent.
To avoid financial heartbreak -- "If you are getting into an adult relationship, have an adult discussion about money," said Ted Beck, president and CEO of NEFE. "Setting some ground rules will avoid fights down the road."
Just for kicks, if you want to check on how financially compatible you are with your spouse go to the following link: http://money.cnn.com/quizzes/2011/pf/financial_education_life_values/?iid=EL
Tuesday, June 28
By Annie Norman
I'm not sure what makes people decide to commit a crime. But when it comes to theft, I'd assume that perhaps a thief is desperate to own or sell the item he steals. I would venture a guess that life's circumstances have led that person to conclude crime is the only avenue remaining. I consider crime a measure of last resort, perhaps even a survival tactic. As such, it makes sense to me that crime would rise when the economy tanks and jobs are scarce.
Apparently, that's not always the case. Take shoplifting, for example. A survey from the National Retail Federation shows it's on the rise, especially among employees. Retailers reported $37 billion in lost goods in 2010, up from $33.5 billion the year before. Yet analysts at the NRF say the increase in shoplifting is actually a sign the economy is doing better.
It goes back to motivation. Most shoplifting can be attributed to store employees. The thinking is that the more secure a worker feels in his or her position, the more likely that person is to put their job at risk by shoplifting. And they'd have to have a decent sense of optimism about the job market to put their job at risk. When times are really tough, analysts say, shoplifting declines because workers know they may not be able to find another job.
Another reason analysts say workers shoplift is to show they're disgruntled. After years of cutbacks and lay-offs, many employees are doing the work of several people, perhaps without additional compensation. Some workers think shoplifting is a way to let the boss know they're not happy.
Shoplifting is up, but auto theft is down. The National Insurance Crime Bureau reports auto theft is at its lowest level since 1967. Vehicle thefts plummeted more than 7% between 2009 and 2010. Experts say vehicle theft is down due to better law enforcement tactics and anti-theft technology. But maybe it's another sign the economy is recovering. Vehicle theft seems to be a crime of opportunity: A thief spots an unattended, unlocked or idling car and seizes the moment. If the job market feels stable and loans are accessible, it would make sense to me that fewer people would seize that moment and steal the car.
But, as we all know, some among us will always choose the wrong road, regardless of the stakes. We may never know why.
I vividly recall walking into my apartment ten years ago, thinking my roommate was making a ruckus in a back room. Then a large stranger emerged from my bedroom, carrying my television set under one arm and my DVD player under the other. I'd interrupted him, mid-crime, by coming home early on a sunny afternoon. We stared at each other as slowly it dawned on both of us what was happening. I was getting robbed. He was getting caught in the act. Looking back, I see many ways things could have taken a horrible turn from that moment. Instead I hedged on my bets on his cowardice and got lucky. He spent the night in jail, and many after that. I carried my TV back into the bedroom, closed the dresser drawers he'd rifled through, picked up my overturned desk chair. I opened the window, hoping the spring breeze would carry away the strong smell of his cologne, which was making it hard to forget the whole thing. Not knowing his reasons, I still wonder what made him decide to take that risk, how he calculated that it was worth it.
Monday, June 27
Don't Cancel Your Plans Yet
By Annie Norman
If you were on the fence about whether or not to go out of town to celebrate the upcoming Fourth of July weekend, there are some new reasons to pack your bags.
Last week, AAA released its holiday travel forecast, showing the recent spike in gas prices was keeping more Americans at home. The travel industry group predicted a 2.5% decline in travel this year, with one million fewer people opting to drive to their destination.
But, since then, prices have retreated significantly. The Lundberg Survey shows prices at the pump dropped an average of 11 cents in the last 2 weeks. Survey author Trilby Lundberg expects another 15 to 20 cent decline in the next couple weeks. Some analysts are saying we'll see as much as 50 cents shaved off the price of a gallon of gas in the next month. Prices took a downward turn after the U.S. and other countries announced plans to tap 60 million barrels of crude oil from strategic reserves. And demand for crude has dropped off, especially in the U.S market, where unemployment is curtailing driver habits.
When it looked like gas prices were on the rise, airfare for the Fourth started selling quickly. With more people forecast to fly and fewer people willing to drive at that time, demand for plane tickets pushed airfare up. Travelocity was predicting a 10% fare hike by late last week, making it look unlikely that travelers hoping to get a deal would find one. As a result, you probably won't find any great ticket prices now. But if you're willing to drive, you'll get some help staying on budget from both declining gas prices and great hotel deals.
To lure travelers amid high airfare and high gas prices a couple weeks back, the hotel industry started to roll out promotional packages and special deals to kick off the summer vacation season. The experts at Travelocity reported hotels were offering free nights, free room upgrades, free meals and other incentives to help vacationers cut costs without canceling their trips.
That was barely a week ago. Most of those offers are still out there. And suddenly, driving doesn't look so unattractive. Now might be a great time to go online and take advantage of a last minute hotel discount and drive to your destination of choice. Another plus - you won't have to pay any of those pesky airline baggage fees. This could be one of those rare moments in life where waiting until the last minute to make a decision actually works to your advantage.
Friday, June 24
By Annie Norman
One of my biggest pet peeves is people who walk around bent over their smartphones, and don't look where they're going. I guess they're counting on the rest of us to move out of their way. Often, they're wearing headphones, making them oblivious to both the sights and sounds around them. As someone who regularly uses the crowded sidewalks, subway platforms and public transit centers of New York City, I see a lot of this. I admit there are times when I want to clap my hands loudly at offenders, shouting, "Hey, watch where you're going!" I would never have the nerve to actually do that, unless I saw a person wander into harm's way. (But, in my imagination, reprimanding the annoying behavior of strangers is very satisfying.)
Unfortunately for me, this trend of preoccupied pedestrians isn't going anywhere. In fact, it's probably going to get worse. That's thanks to the proliferation of smartphone apps that are incentivizing users to engage while walking around.
Gigwalk is an app for iPhone users that gives out paid assignments for people to complete while walking around their neighborhood. It uses GPS technology to filter users by location in seven major cities. Then, it finds out what its clients need to know and sends Gigwalkers out to scout on their behalf. For example, a website like MenuPages.com always needs updated details about restaurants, including menu content, prices, seating, reservations, etc. A Gigwalker could get paid to gather that info at eateries in their area and submit it through the app. Think of Gigwalk as a temp agency that gives out mini jobs to you through your phone. You are given a set amount of time to finish the task and when it is completed you are paid through PayPal.
The popular location-based app FourSquare, which lets users post check-ins telling their friends where they're hanging out, is now giving users a new reason to check-in. The software maker is partnering with American Express to offer discounts to users for checking in at participating merchants. Now, you might check-in at a retailer and see a promotional code pop up on your smartphone. To get that deal, all you'll have to do is make a purchase at that store while you're there, and use your American Express card to pay for it.
Shopkick offers rewards points to users who use the app to check-in at major retailers from their smartphones. It doesn't require them to make a purchase to get the points, called "kicks," which can be redeemed for deals. The developer is rolling out a hyper-local model of the app in seven mid-sized cities this summer, in an effort to get small businesses on board. Users in participating cities will be able to earn kicks for stopping by locally owned shops in addition to big box chain stores. The goal is to help small businesses increase foot traffic and find new customers among city residents and visitors.
For the savvy shopper, using these apps can add up to savings. With all the discount offers, rewards points and cash being dangled by app developers, there's certainly plenty of motivation out there to keep a person glued to his smartphone screen while out and about. I guess what's good for business isn't always good for those of us negotiating sidewalk traffic.
Thursday, June 23
Battle Homefront: Household Chores
By Annie Norman
Writer and satirist P.J. O'Rourke hit the nail on the head when he said, "Everybody wants to save the earth; nobody wants to help Mom with the dishes."
A new survey from the government's Bureau of Labor Statistics shows women are working more and more, inside and outside the home, and spending less time relaxing than men.
Sure, working men spent 41 more minutes per day on the job than working women. But, that's largely because women are more likely to hold part-time jobs, which throws off the average. But while the amount of time men spent at work dipped slightly from the previous year's survey, it rose by 10 minutes for women. And, men and women were equally likely to take work home from the office. The survey results seem to show there's increasing pressure on women to work longer hours at a job regardless of their role as primary caregiver to a child or their responsibilities at home.
On the homefront, the poll shows that American women are still doing more of the household chores than men. On any given day, 84% of women tackle housework while only 67% of men pitch in. And women spent more time doing housework. Men are more likely to be found in the kitchen than the laundry room. The survey showed 41% of men help with the cooking while only 20% help with the cleaning.
This seems true, at least when I consider my life and the lives of my girlfriends. I called my sister the other night and she sounded about ready to drop dead of exhaustion. She was up late unpacking moving boxes and trying to get the kitchen in her new home up and running. And, being a teacher, she was overwhelmed by an upcoming week jam-packed with end of the year activities and the task of dismantling her classroom for the summer cleaning crew. She grumbled that she had a pile of ironing waiting for her in the other room. I suggested she finish out the school year in casual clothes, given how under slept she sounded. But they weren't her shirts waiting to be ironed. They were her husband's. Where was he? Cruising their new neighborhood on his moped. I suggested he look for a dry cleaners while he was out.
Sorry guys. I know this will sound like stereotyping, but according to the Labor Department, the couch is still your domain. Men spend an average of 5.8 hours per day relaxing, mostly in front of the TV. For women, it's only 5.1 hours. And, guys, you're more likely to play sports on an average day than women are. I have to wonder if the survey participants considered video game playing a sport.
What are the ladies up to? Well, here's a hint: The survey shows they spent more than twice as much time providing care for the kids, like feeding and bathing, as men do. My husband and I are going to be first-time parents any day now. So far, I've considered myself really lucky. I married a guy who is a better cook than I am. He handles all the heavy duty home fix-it projects. He mows the lawn and hauls the trash without having to be asked. He even cleans bathrooms. Once the baby gets here, I wonder if those things will change. I'll be home a lot more, so maybe our roles will shift. Only time will tell. But, maybe I'll hide the Xbox in the attic now, just to be safe.
Wednesday, June 22
Sticker Shock at the Used Car Lot
By Annie Norman
If you're in the market for a used car, you may need to stretch your budget. It seems aftershocks of the Recession have finally made their way into the secondhand vehicle market. The result: higher sticker prices on used vehicles.
Here's what's happened: Back in 2008, credit was tight and lending slowed. The auto industry was in crisis, and financial backing for car leases dried up. In fact, car leasing nearly came to a screeching halt. According to the research firm R.L. Polk & Co., leases were down 58% from June to November of 2008.
The secondhand vehicle market relies on the revolving door of car leases for its supply. Leases expire every 36 months, and a large number of those vehicles land in used car lots after original owners trade them in. So, right about now, cars leased back in the summer of 2008 should be rolling in. But, there aren't enough of them to meet the demand from buyers. And, demand is up. Consumers who've been hit hard by rising gas and grocery prices are looking to save money by shopping for used vehicles instead of new ones this summer. (Due to the supply issues some automakers have had following the earthquake in Japan, there are less new cars on the market as well.)
So, how high will used car prices climb? Well, some analysts say they could approach the cost of a new car. The Manheim used car price index is 30% higher now than it was in December of 2008. Prices may continue to rise or stay high until the supply shortage corrects itself. If you can afford to wait on that used car purchase, you might save some money.
The experts at Consumer Reports offer some strategies for getting the best deal possible on a used vehicle. Keep in mind, you may not beat the current market price, but if you need a ride now, their tips can help. Since it's a seller's market, consider buying on the low end of what you need in terms of size and extras. Once you know what type of vehicle you're looking for, find out its value is by checking out resources like Edmunds.com and Kelley Blue Book. Then, compare prices from several sources, including dealerships, private sales listed in the classified ads, and internet car sources - even eBay. If you can pay cash, do it. If not, research your financing options before you go out for a test drive, and try to land the lowest interest rate. If you have a vehicle to trade-in, factor that into your sale as well. Make sure you know what it will cost you to maintain and insure the vehicle, and ask for repair records and an accident history report to avoid driving home in a lemon. And don't be afraid to haggle over the price. Just because it's a seller's market doesn't mean the seller you're speaking to can afford to keep the vehicle on the market for long.
Finally, it helps to keep your ear to the ground and spread the word. Tell your friends and family what you're looking for. We got a great deal on a three-year-old SUV last year through word of mouth. A friend's company was planning to downscale their corporate car program. They were taking a number of vehicles off the road and offering them at a discount to employees and their friends and families through an online auction. We ended up getting about 30% off the list price of the vehicle. Since the company had covered the costs of regular maintenance and cleaning, we were getting a vehicle with a steady written record of upkeep, which we found reassuring. And the SUV we purchased had been used by a mid-level executive who was single. It had such minimal wear and tear, I don't think anyone had ever even ridden in the backseat before we bought it.
Tuesday, June 21
Beware of Cramming
By Bervette Carree
It's not always easy to spot a bogus charge or a mystery fee on your cell phone bill. You have to read your bill very carefully to make sure fraudulent fees aren't slipped in. The illegal practice of "cramming" happens all the time...and it's been around for decades. I've been a victim of it, and so have thousands of other consumers...especially since more people carry cell phones now. The situation has gotten so bad, the FCC is proposing new rules to stop cramming.
And it's not only happening on cell phones. In a recent survey, the FCC estimates about 15 to 20 million U.S. households received mystery fees on their landline phones. Only five percent of those consumers were aware of the charge. I bundle my landline and cell phone services, so for the most part, my bill is usually around the same amount every month. That's unless I go over my cell phone minutes. When I first started bundling, I hardly ever checked the details and never scrolled through the pages of my online bill. This is a big no-no! Once I decided to research my bill, I noticed I was being charged a small fee for a service I didn't even have. Fortunately, I didn't have to jump through hurdles to reverse the charge and get a refund. This should serve as a reminder... always check your bill...even if it seems long and tedious!
The FCC plans to increase phone bill transparency disclosure for cell and landline phones. And the agency is making an example out of four companies. The FCC is fining them nearly $12 million for cramming. If you suspect you've been "crammed," contact your phone company, or file a complaint with the FCC.
Monday, June 20
Paying for Prom
by Annie Norman
I'm not sure which prom night scenario would be worse: getting jilted on the dance floor, or getting stuck with prom night bills. A survey by Visa shows the high cost of prom isn't just all the broken hearts. For the average high schooler, going to the prom costs a little over $800. That's about 20 times what it costs a teen to see a movie and share a pizza with friends on a normal night out. The rising costs of formal wear, limo rides, salon services, photos, flowers and all the other prom accessories can be tough to save for when you're making minimum or low wages, or if you're already trying to stockpile cash for college expenses like books.
Unless mom, dad, or someone else foots the bill, many teenagers just can't afford this rite of passage. And, as hard as it is for parents to say no to their kids, the survey shows about 25% of parents didn't have the funds - so their teens skipped the dance.
Yes, it's tempting to tune out the whining of teenagers, but this year, it is especially tough for teens to make extra income. The Employment Policies Institute reports about 25% of teens are unemployed, and in some states the rate is much higher. For teens planning to pay off prom in installments, this particular summer presents less than ideal conditions for even finding a job. The country's job market has forced teens to compete with older, more experienced workers for a limited number of positions.
In places like the northeast, the number of weeks a teen has to earn income before returning to school decreased this year. The severe winter weather forced school cancellations, which elongated the school year in a lot of districts. A longer school semester means a shortened summer work season.
There are ways to keep a lid on prom expenses so they don't derail a teen's budget. And prom comes around every spring of every American high school seniors' final year. So, it's not exactly a last minute emergency - it's something kids can plan ahead for, and it's an opportunity for parents to help kids learn about saving money. Working teens with their hearts set on prom should consider putting away a small sum, like $30, every month for the 18 months to a year leading up to the prom. They could also explore cost-cutting measures, like purchasing a secondhand dress, borrowing shoes, or doing their own hair and nails.
Back when it was my turn to go to the prom, my mom took us to a vintage dress shop in a neighboring town. I didn't get it then - that we were saving money - but I loved combing the racks of gorgeous, glamorous dresses that looked like classic movie star garb to me. After four years of wearing an itchy plaid wool skirt with my Catholic school uniform, I was more than willing to step out in a satin gown that pooled around my feet. As I saw it, the benefit of going vintage was that each dress at the shop was unique so there was no chance someone else would be wearing the same dress as me. I chose a dramatic red dress and accessorized it with rhinestone costume jewels I borrowed from my grandmother's impressive collection. (I come from a long line of women unwilling to be wallflowers.) Years later, looking at the pictures, I see another benefit - the dress I wore was timeless. So, if my mom insists on still displaying that old photo in a frame on her piano, well, that's okay with me. I looked pretty good.
Friday, June 17
Father's Day - The Best Gift Ever
By Evan Kravitz
Brand Keys, a New York-based research firm, recently released a study that said spending will reach nearly $11 billion for Father's Day gifts this year. Eleven billion dollars! That begins to narrow the gap between spending on arch rival Mother's Day which, according to the same study, generates $15.7 billion in sales. It's good to know that even when times are tough, economy-wise, we still open our wallets and think about the interests of someone else who is dear to us. The study attributes this financial boost to the purchasing of a slew of new electronic goodies, like the iPad and e-readers for our dads. After all, dads like the technical stuff, right? In another survey, done by the National Retail Federation, it was found that Americans plan to spend $12 more on average for a Father's Day present, or $106.49. About 75 percent of those surveyed planned to celebrate the holiday.
This is all good, especially for our struggling economy. But if you don't have the extra cash this year for a Father's Day gift that needs to be plugged in or downloaded, don't worry. I have the perfect solution for you. Offer up the gift of listening. That's right, just listen. Take your father out for lunch or dinner and catch up on life. My father passed away six years ago, and it was always nearly impossible to find a gift for him on Father's Day that he liked, or more to the point, needed. He always told me, "If there is something that I need or want I will buy it myself. Just be a good person." That was always tough advice to take as a kid because the conventional wisdom was that you had to buy something for Dad.
The best Father's Day I ever celebrated with my dad was shortly before he died in 2005. I took him out for dinner, nothing fancy. I wanted to know about his childhood and what kind of mischief he got into as a kid growing up, you know, the stuff our parents never tell us about. My dad was a baby boomer. I wanted to know what it was like living through the Vietnam era, and when he knew in his heart that he had found the woman he wanted to spend the rest of his life with, my mother. Perhaps the best question I asked regarded his emotions when he became a father, and held me in his arms for the first time. We talked for hours. Perhaps it was the journalist in me, but there was so much I wanted to know about this man. I just kept on with the questions, and I just kept listening to all of these fascinating stories, They were life lessons and little treasures.
I don't think he read as much into the dinner as I did. I don't think he fully understood what I was trying to give him for Father's Day. I was giving him an audience.
So don't worry if you're not one of the folks at Best Buy, Radio Shack or Home Depot this year trying to find the right gift for your dad. Just sit down and have a talk with him. Ask some questions. Get to know each other again. That's the best gift ever.
Wednesday, June 15
Reversed Oil Change Policy
By Bervette Carree
Are you one of those drivers who follow every rule in your car owner's manual when it comes to vehicle maintenance? I must confess...I am! And lately, our owners' manuals have been telling us it's OK to go five thousand miles or even more between oil changes.
Not too many years ago the rule of thumb was three months, or three thousand miles. Actually, my father has been disputing this rule for a long time. He has always said you can go longer than three thousand miles before you get an oil change.
At least one big auto-maker agrees with him. USA Today quotes a spokeswoman for GM, who says, "Oil change intervals are determined by operating conditions and driver habits, not by miles driven."
With so many drivers -- like me -- following the recommendation in their car's owner's manual, the oil-change business has seen sales drop. So now one of the giants in the field -- Jiffy Lube -- has come up with a plan that may have some of us coming back to get our oil changed more often.
Go into a Jiffy Lube location and you'll find a kiosk where you can enter certain information about your driving habits, like whether you drive often in stop-and-go traffic, or on dusty roads, or while pulling heavy loads. Then the kiosk gives your driving habits a ranking, from "normal" to "severe," and suggests an oil change interval that's best for your car. The more severe your driving conditions, the more often you should change your oil, according to Jiffy Lube.
And guess what? Jiffy Lube's sales strategy seems to be working. The firm's CEO Stu Crum told USA Today nearly half its customers find they are in the "severe" category, and opt for getting their oil changed an average of every 3500 miles -- just like in the old days.
My father probably wouldn't agree. I'm not so sure I would, either. After all, father knows best, right?
June 14, 2011
Diplomas and Debt
By Annie Norman
There's nothing more frustrating than working really hard on something for a long time, then ending up in the same place you started. But that's exactly how millions of Americans feel about student loan debt. It can take so many years to pay off that by the time the slate has been wiped clean, it's time to send the kids to college. It feels like a never-ending cycle.
Indeed, student loan debt is getting bigger and tougher to pay down as tuition rises and wages stagnate. The country's total student loan debt is on track to pass the $1 trillion mark. According to Consumer Reports, that's more than Americans owe on their credit cards. And, this year's college grads will have more student loan debt than any previous class, averaging more than $24,000 per student. Even President Obama recently opened up about his and Michelle's struggle to satisfy their $125,000 student loans after law school. He said it took ten years to pay off, even while working as well-compensated attorneys.
One reason for increased student loan debt is that college has gotten a lot more expensive. The College Board reports tuition and fees at public universities have climbed 130% in the past two decades. That estimate doesn't take into account other expenses students face, like room and board, and books. It's becoming increasingly difficult for low and middle class families to afford a college education because tuition is rising so much faster than income. IRS data shows income levels in this country are flat. In fact, if you adjust for inflation, the average middle class American worker actually makes less money now than he did 20 years ago. Add to that the fact that federal financial aid packages haven't increased since 1992, and it's easy to see how young students come up short. A growing number are opting to earn two-year degrees instead of four-year degrees to cut costs.
But there are bigger implications to the disparity between income and student loan debt, which paint a troubling picture of the country's future workforce, and our potential ability to compete in the global marketplace. Just yesterday, President Obama told members of his Council on Jobs and Competitiveness that the federal deficit is getting in the way of private sector job creation and economic growth. He said the nation's debt is making businesses uneasy about expanding and adding employees. He said debt is limiting our ability to compete.
That's also true on a micro level. Recent grads who are saddled with large debts are limited in their ability to take risks and borrow to launch their own businesses. And students who choose shorter, less comprehensive degree programs to limit debt may find they're not as competitive in the job market as candidates with four-year and postgraduate degrees.
There's also the stress of trying to get started in life when you owe so much. It adds pressure to an already charged time in a young person's life. It can limit choices and damage relationships. Newly graduated students hear commencement speakers point them toward a bright future, but it's hard not feeling a little defeated leaving campus with a mountain of unpaid college bills. Multiply that dilemma times the number of new grads trying to get a foothold in a limited job market, and some might say we're headed for a crisis.
Monday, June 13
Shopping for Better Service
By Annie Norman at the NASDAQ
Over Memorial Day weekend, I decided to jump online and take advantage of an appliance sale at a big box retailer. We needed a new window air conditioner if we were going to survive the next heat wave. To save money on shipping the 88-pound unit, I chose the company's in-store pick-up option and selected the nearest location. According to the website, there were two ACs left in stock at that store. Shortly after placing the order, I received a confirmation email telling me that my item was ready for pick up. I printed out the bar coded email, and we drove to the store.
Once we got there, things didn't go so smoothly. At the pick-up gate, a warehouse employee told me the store had been sold out of air conditioners for days. He directed me to the appliance department. An associate there told us the same thing and said we'd have to cancel the order, place a new order, and pay full price for shipping. He also told us it would take at least 10 days to get the money back from our original order.
I was stunned. First, I could not believe that a retailer of this size hadn't synced its online and store inventories to avoid these situations, especially given how much advertising I'd seen about their in-store pick-up service. Second, I was surprised how quickly the store employees shrugged off our dilemma. It was clear we were on our own to solve this one. And, third, when I suggested that the store might offer us free shipping because of the hassle, the associate...laughed.
It's been two weeks, and the air conditioner debacle still irks me. Customer service is usually pretty thankless when handled properly. Seamless transactions don't generate a lot of conversation. But, if a business messes up an encounter with a customer, that shopper may never forget it. But, it seems like more and more companies are dropping the ball on customer service. They're not investing in service like they once did. And, I find this confusing, given the timing - with slumping consumer confidence and renewed concerns about another recession, aren't the stakes higher now than ever before?
A recent survey from the Consumer Reports National Research Center found that 64% of respondents had walked out of a store because of bad customer service. And 65% of respondents said they were "tremendously annoyed" by rude salespeople. (The survey will be part of an in-depth report on the state of customer service in the July issue of Consumer Reports magazine.) There's already another powerful factor at work, pushing potential customers out the door: technology. Customers now have easy access to price comparison tools, competitor promotions and coupons on their smartphones. A survey from GfK Roper earlier this year showed 30% of consumers use their smartphones in stores to look for better deals elsewhere. Good service might incentivize them to stay put.
Marketing guru and bestselling author Seth Godin occasionally tackles customer service on his blog. He once wrote that businesses have an opportunity to improve their service during those moments when they feel like they're pedaling uphill. He wrote, "The best time to do great customer service is when a customer is upset." Godin has also written that the only productive way for a company to respond to a customer complaint is a sentence that starts with the phrase "you're right." He says the first step to a useful dialogue is to acknowledge and validate the customer's opinion.
Godin also writes a lot about setting customer expectations, then meeting them. Was I wrong to expect that the retailer's online inventory count would be accurate? I don't think so. Was I wrong to expect the store employees to apologize, or suggest a solution that wouldn't cost me more time and money for the same product? I don't think so, but some might not agree. I'll let the company know what I thought of its customer service next time I shop for an appliance...by taking my hard-earned money to their competitor.
Friday, June 10
Common Sense from the Commander in Chief
By Annie Norman
President Obama gave the world some insight into the financial path he and First Lady Michelle Obama chose early on that helped position them for success later in life. The President told financial reporters they stuck to some good advice he got from his grandmother: "Don't spend all your money...save a little bit." He touted the power of compound interest. He said it's all right to borrow money for sound investments, like a solid education that will bring more income. But, the President said taking on debt for things you don't need is unwise.
That common sense approach helped the first couple pay off their law school student loans and invest in a modest condo after graduating. They started saving for their daughters' college education early, too. Since then, obviously life has taken them on an extraordinary journey. The president has made millions as a best-selling author. But, way back when, the Obamas played it safe with their money as much as they could - and now, the President is passing that advice along to Americans.
Whether you agree with his policies or not, most people will concede the president is a smart guy. For someone so highly educated to look at personal finance in such a simple, clear-headed way is a sign of intelligence in my book. Too often we hear from economic analysts who overcomplicate the issue. Do the math any way you like, but if you spend more than you make, you'll always end up in debt. If you save more than you spend, you'll have a surplus.
The president's message is in line with the core lessons in the newest financial fitness program from adviser, TV host, and best-selling author Suze Orman. In "The Money Class," Orman challenges her students to live not just within their means, but beneath them. She talks about how important it is for Americans to remove financial stress from their lives while they rebuild from the effects of the Recession. She recommends they take a very conservative approach to spending, and cut back in order to eliminate debt. Orman wants her fans to have some space to repair the personal relationships that may have been strained by job loss, foreclosure, bankruptcy or debt over the past few years. Like President Obama, she's touting a back to basics philosophy that sounds almost quaint, but is time-tested and close to foolproof. Sometimes it helps to turn off all the day-to-day noise about the economy, and return to a simple household balance sheet to put things back into order.
The timing of President Obama's comments on personal finance is noteworthy. Americans still have a long way to go to get back to where we were in 2007. The Federal Reserve reports Americans lost $16.4 trillion in net worth since the Recession began. In the last two years, $8.7 trillion has been recovered through investments, debt payoffs, and savings. But we're only a little more than halfway back to the household wealth we had in 2007. And, since then, we've lost a lot of time. The biggest factor hurting personal wealth is declining real estate values. And, yesterday housing expert Robert Shiller said we could see home prices take another big dip.
The bottom line is there's no way to know for sure when things will get better before they get worse again. So, whether you take it from the Commander in Chief or a finance guru, sticking to your own bottom line is good advice. Start small: If you got paid today, squirrel a little of it away, and maybe you'll rest a little easier tonight.
Thursday, June 9
By Annie Norman
Summer is still a couple weeks away, but you wouldn't know it if you went outside today. At least not in the Northeast. We're having another heat wave. The National Weather Service expects the heat index in New York City to climb as high as 102 degrees today. Much of the country has been under heat advisories the past few days, as temperatures grew uncomfortably hotter from Michigan to Maryland. Officials say several elderly people have died from health issues made worse by the extreme heat. State and local agencies have put out releases warning folks to take it easy, stay cool, and be safe until the heat subsides. In some places, schoolchildren were dismissed early when classrooms became too hot. Other areas opened cooling centers for residents without air conditioned homes.
Not everyone has the luxury of working indoors in an air-conditioned building during a heat wave. For many industries, the warm weather season is when business peaks. From landscapers to home builders and roofers, there are millions of workers whose ability to earn wages depends on whether they can take the heat. OSHA has launched a campaign to raise awareness among outdoor workers about the dangers of working in extreme heat. The agency's goal is to prevent heat-related illnesses and deaths. It's partnered with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to include instructions for outdoor workers in the text of severe weather alerts.
While heat waves can hurt some workers' incomes, they can really scorch a household budget. Turning on the air conditioner means pumping up your electric bill. And independent energy provider MXEnergy says that increased electric use can also send up the price of natural gas, since many electrical plants are powered by natural gas. With summer temps arriving so early this year, there are a lot of weeks ahead when you'll need to keep your air conditioners running. (I'm sure that's the last thing you wanted to hear on the heels of last winter's high heating costs.)
There are a few strategies you can employ to make your AC more efficient. If you have central system, have it checked seasonally to make sure none of your duct work is leaky. If you use room or window air conditioners, make sure you aren't using a unit that's too big or too small for the square footage you're trying to cool. Whichever type of system you rely on, keep your filters clean to maximize efficiency. Good insulation can also keep the cooled air from leaking outdoors. If you use a window unit, make sure to seal around the appliance. At our house, we only cool three rooms, so we're careful to keep doors shut between them and use draft blockers to lock the cool air in each room.
Try not to push your electric system's capacity to the limit while you're relying on air conditioners. Don't use washers, dryers, and ovens during mid-day hours when air conditioners are working their hardest. That's why we had tuna salad sandwiches for dinner at our house last night, with cold fruit and lemonade. I just couldn't bear the idea of firing up the stove. And I've decided the laundry can wait.
If you can, keep your blinds closed and your lights off. Air conditioners use a lot of energy just trying to counteract the heat coming off incandescent light bulbs. And, there are psychological benefits. It will seem cooler in a darker room than a sunny or brightly lit one.
Experts say you should also unplug electronics. Many of them, especially chargers, are drawing off electricity even when they're not in use. If your cell phone charger feels warm to the touch while plugged in, it's sucking up power - unplug it. That will also help your AC work better since it won't have to combat any radiant heat coming off your gadgets.
If your next electric bill is a whopper, talk to your power provider about a flat rate bill plan or a plan that offers lower rates during off-peak hours. (Or maybe move to Chicago for the summer - where today's high is expected to be 64 degrees.)
Yesterday, it was so hot I stayed indoors as much as possible. After supper, we decided to brave the heat to take a walk around the block. About halfway, we were eager to get back inside to the air conditioning. That's when we saw it -- our neighbors were running their lawn sprinkler! We stood on the sidewalk beneath its arc and let the cool hose water rain down on us until we were nearly soaked. Suddenly, the light breeze in the air felt almost chilly on our damp skin. The relief was delicious, but fleeting. Half a block later, we were dry and hot again.
Wednesday, June 8
Counting our Debts, Not Sheep By Annie Norman
Ahhh, the future. At once, it's both a frontier of endless possibilities and a terrifying realm of unknown circumstances. And, it's keeping Americans up at night. More specifically, our financial futures are keeping us up. We can't sleep. We're exhausted. We're eating too much junk food. We feel stressed out and anxious. We're putting on weight. Some of us have reached despair. I'm not being dramatic. There's actually new evidence the country's economic problems are making its citizens physically ill.
A recent survey from First Command Financial Services shows more than a third of middle class Americans are experiencing physical symptoms of illness that are tied to the stress they feel about money. It also shows that more than a quarter of those surveyed are putting off check-up visits to the doctor because they can't afford to pay their co-pay or prescription costs. So, we're stuck in a vicious cycle of feeling bad and not receiving treatment for what ails us - and public health officials are concerned. Kathryn Power, director of the Center for Mental Health Services at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services noted an uptick in the number of calls to the center's suicide hotline at the beginning of the recession. She advised people to use the services of community health clinics in the event that professional health services were not an option because of financial reasons.
If you look at the present economic conditions, it's not surprising they're causing more than a little stomach acid to churn. Just yesterday, Federal Reserve Chair Ben Bernanke said there are still factors at play which are weakening our economic recovery. He described the current job market as "far from normal" - twice. Bernanke expressed hope for the future, but his optimism sounded conditional. He's keeping an eye on inflation as the Fed's quantitative easing program ends this month. And, while the impact of manufacturing disruptions caused by the disaster in Japan seem to be diminishing, Bernanke can't exactly promise another disaster won't occur someplace else. And then there's gas and oil prices. No one can say for sure what they'll do next.
Home values are down, especially among lower-priced homes, which lost more of their value during the Recession than homes in the top tier of pricing, according to a study from Harvard University's Joint Center for Housing Studies. That report also found that those homes were more vulnerable to foreclosure to begin with. And, while 18% of homeowners currently owe more on their houses than they're worth, new data from CoreLogic shows the number of homeowners with second mortgages who are underwater is more than twice that! Close to 40% of homeowners with two mortgages don't have enough equity to cover both loans. That's a serious problem. Most first mortgages are traditional non-recourse loans, but frequently second mortgages are actually home equity lines of credit - which are recourse loans. That means that even if you short sale your home, you'll owe the lender the full balance on the second loan. And, for homeowners waiting out the market to decide whether or not to do a short sale, they'd better hurry up. After 2012, the amount of money the bank "forgives" in a short sale reverts to being taxable income. The Mortgage Debt Relief Act of 2007 contains a provision that lets struggling homeowners (or other borrowers) avoid that additional tax - but that provision expires next year.
It's not a pretty picture. With all the woes of the housing market facing American families, it's hard to reduce or eliminate debt and find solid ground. The Federal Reserve reports consumer borrowing rose more than expected in April. Now, experts say private debt, which is debt held by consumers and businesses, is equal to about 92% of the country's gross domestic product. Yup, we're spending it as fast as we're making it. And, that high number means we have years of recovery ahead of us. That could mean years of sleepless nights, irritable days, and aches and pains, if we don't learn to manage the stress and let go of our worries. It may sound counterproductive, but perhaps the best prescription for hard-working Americans is to relax.
June 7, 2011
The Future of Yearbooks
By Annie Norman
Depending on how things went for you in school, you may have looked forward to, or dreaded, that warm day in June when teachers would finally hand out the yearbook. High school is a world where superlatives reign. Some people manage to be crowned by their young peers. Others go home with an unflattering "most likely" title or an unfortunate nickname. And some work so hard to avoid the teenage limelight, there's little evidence, other than their report card, that they even attended high school. Yearbooks capture all of this. They imprint it all in ink and photos and bind it together, leaving a few pages for signatures and handwritten notes between friends, like the signed testimony of witnesses.
Yearbooks are like time capsules. And, somewhere between what's included in them and what's left out, lies what really happened.
My yearbooks are stacked in a plastic crate in our attic, carefully covered in plastic sheeting to protect them from the elements up there. I have eight of them: four from high school, three from middle school, and a scrapbook from the 5th grade. Together, they weigh a ton. They have thick hard covers and glossy photo stock pages filled with collages and outdated clip art. There are photos of teams and clubs, candid and posed photos from pep rallies, fundraisers and dances, and an alphabetical array of head shots of every student and teacher in the school, sorted by grade level. Some kids manage to appear on page after page. Some hardly at all. In the back, local businesses and parents have bought ads to off-set production costs. Most of the ads bought by parents feature baby pictures.
After high school graduation, I packed my signed yearbook among my belongings and headed for college, where I received a facebook. This was before Facebook. Our facebook with a lower case "f" was a printed brochure of photos of my new classmates. Most of the photos were high school graduation portraits. It was a way for us to begin to get to know one another. I opted not to submit my photo, choosing to leave the high school version of myself at home, 800 miles away, and start fresh. In a moment of boldness, a friend of mine had submitted a modeling headshot. It didn't take long for freshman boys to cross reference her photo with the student directory. Within a couple days, she had to keep her dorm room phone off the hook it rang so much.
Like I said, this was before Facebook. It was before the Digital Age and social media and wireless internet and smartphone apps. It was also before the Recession left state and local education budgets strapped and overdrawn, many stretched too thin to provide a yearbook. Some school systems have outsourced the task to volunteering parents. Some districts have scaled the project way down or put it all online to defray publishing costs. Others have turned to digital solutions like TreeRing, which lets parents make personalized yearbooks for their children to commemorate the school year.
The publishing industry is feeling the effects of these cutbacks. Research from IBISWorld shows yearbook publishing sales to schools have declined by 4.7% a year over the past few years. Last month, Visant, the parent company of Jostens, released a quarterly earnings report that showed net sales in its Memory Book division fell 18% from last year.
The high cost of publishing and producing yearbooks has some people asking if they're necessary anymore. These days, most kids have camera-equipped cell phones for snapping photos throughout the school year. They can post albums with captions and comments to sites like Facebook, share them with friends, and update them as often they like. The main difference is the lack of a final, finished product. There is no permanent record, nothing to store in the attic to mark a milestone passed.
As kids, my sisters and I would wait for my folks to go out. Then, we'd drag a step stool out of the laundry room to reach my dad's college yearbook from the top shelf of the front hall closet. He'd gone to art school in a big city in the 70s. The students there didn't sit for traditional portraits, unless they were feeling ironic. They expressed themselves with avant garde photography and posed for dramatic performance art, sometimes unclothed, always political. Everyone had long shaggy hair, tinted glasses, and elaborate mustaches. These photos, which we were technically forbidden to see, fascinated us. Three quarters of the way through the book was a shot of our dad, leaning over a sound board in bell-bottomed pants, playing rock and roll records on the campus radio station. He is frozen not only in time, but in context in that book. His role in a specific time and place is preserved. He occupies one page of a bigger story. To us, it was proof there had been life, not just time, before we'd arrived.
June 6, 2011
Ice Cream, Everyone?
By Annie Norman
No matter what your budget is, everyone seems to have a few bucks for ice cream. But the affordable frozen delight is actually big business in this country - a $25 billion industry. Not too shabby for a perishable product that brings in about 70% of its annual sales in just one season. And, at last, that season is upon us.
Tomorrow is National Chocolate Ice Cream Day, and thanks to a delicious decree from President Reagan, all of July is National Ice Cream Month. No one eats more ice cream than Americans.
The challenge, then, is to keep the product fresh and interesting for consumers, despite the fact that it has been a staple summer dessert since Dolley Madison served it at the White House 200 years ago. One strategy is to come up with unusual flavors to spark customer curiosity.
USA Today compiled a list of the wackiest flavors coming to the marketplace this season. Cold Stone Creamery is going herbal this year with a new Strawberry Basil ice cream, and a Mojito sorbet made with mint and lime. Breakfast foods are trending in ice cream this summer. Denny's is offering a maple bacon sundae, and Baskin Robbins has a new flavor packed with bits of french toast. Baskin Robbins also has a Creole Cream Cheese variety that promises a kick, and a fiery hot Firehouse 31 flavor made with Atomic Fireball candies. (Remember those?) The power of those offbeat blends is that they get customers into stores for samples. When it's time to order, most people end up sticking with the classics. Vanilla is still the number one flavor.
At my local ice cream parlor, the business owners have teamed up with the elementary school to create a unique fundraising opportunity that teaches kids about entrepreneurship. Each grade level has come up with its own special sundae recipe. For example, I think the third graders made one that mixes rainbow gummy worms with cake batter ice cream and super tart candies. (Okay, so the sundaes are definitely aimed at a kid's palate.) To highlight their sundae creations, the students have made posters promoting them in the store. Each time someone orders one of the school sundaes, half the proceeds go to that grade level's upcoming field trip.
Over at AOL's WalletPop site, the number crunchers tried an experiment to see if you'd save money making your own ice cream. They found that after you've invested in an ice cream-making machine and if you use the simplest ingredients, you can beat the retail prices on popular premium brands, but for my money, what you can't beat about a pint of retail ice cream is the clean-up. Just toss or recycle the container...and no one ever has to know you indulged in a guilty pleasure.
June 2, 2011
Time for a Check-up
By Annie Norman
Now that June is here and the weather is getting nice and the beach is beckoning, I'm sure the last thing you want to think about are your finances. Personally, I've been brewing jugs of lemonade and iced tea, opening all the windows in the house, and dusting off my patio chairs. But, financial experts say June is the ideal month to give your money a mid-year check-up, so you're positioned to meet your end of the year financial goals.
Here's why June is so important: The beginning of July will mark the halfway point for your 2011 income and tax liability. Theoretically, by the start of July, you will have received half your pay and put away half the money you intended to save this year. That makes now the best time to review your budget, correct any missteps, and forecast your earning and spending for the rest of the year, giving you a full six months to right your ship. Remember those New Year's resolutions you scribbled out six months ago? If you want to achieve those goals this year, use the next couple weeks for a check-up in order to stay on track.
The first thing you want to do is make sure you're not going to end the year with an unexpectedly large tax bill. Let's start with your income and assume the simplest scenario - that you earn a regular paycheck that does not fluctuate greatly, or that a majority of your income does not come from irregular commission or bonus checks. You can use the amount of money you've earned halfway through the year to forecast your tax liability for the whole year. Find your year-to-date earnings on your paycheck stub. You may need to look at how much it changes with every pay period and adjust it accordingly to get an accurate figure for your total gross income as of July 1. Then, double it. That's the number you'll start with when you go to file your 2011 income tax return -- your gross annual income.
Next, head to the IRS's website and look up the 2011 federal tax table. Figure out which tax bracket you'll fall into and what you'll owe based on your gross annual income. Now, go back to your paycheck stub and see how much federal income tax is taken out of each paycheck. Forecast how much you'll have paid in taxes by the end of the year and see if it matches your tax liability. If it's way off, or if you know you'll have some major deductions to apply, try out the IRS's tax estimator. It's an online calculator that allows you to factor in all the credits and items like property tax and mortgage interest, that will reduce the gross income your liability is based on. If necessary, fill out a new W-4 form to increase or decrease the amount of taxes withheld from your paycheck so that you won't end up owing at the end of the year.
The goal is to end each year with a zero balance account with the government. I know everyone likes a tax refund check, but the truth is that if you get one it means you let the Feds keep too much of your paycheck during the year. You gave them an interest-free loan!
Now, if you're feeling motivated, repeat that exercise with your state income tax, unless you're lucky enough to live somewhere that doesn't collect state income tax.
While you're researching your tax liability for the year, it's a good time to investigate any special programs you could take advantage of this year. For example, some states are offering tax rebates to residents who replace old appliances with Energy Star appliances. You can find these programs at www.energystar.gov. They may help you decide if this summer is a good time to invest in energy efficient windows or a new refrigerator, and budget accordingly. (Here's a hint - Labor Day sales!) Ask your utility company to come over and do an energy audit on your home. Most companies offer this service for free. They'll take a look at your heating and cooling systems, your insulation, and your appliances and let you know where you're wasting the most energy, and money. That, plus tax incentives, could help you decide if it's time to upgrade something in your home.
Take a good look at your last six months worth of bills. Now's the time to see if there's room to reduce any of them. For example, my husband and I realized we'd somehow ended up with policies at four different insurance companies. Now, we're letting them compete with each other to see which will offer us the best deal to bundle those policies. And, we've asked our utilities companies to estimate our monthly charges if we switched to flat rate billing plans. We also examined our monthly budgets and realized we were spending more than we needed to on dog food by buying it at the last minute from a nearby upscale pet store. The same food is available from a discount website for a lot less money, but it requires some planning ahead to time the shipment so as not to starve the pooch. I found a deal that included free shipping on a bulk order. There's now about 200 pounds of dog food stacked in the basement and I've crossed dog food off the list of our monthly expenses for the rest of the year.
See what you can cross off your list, then add that to your savings. And earmark a little of the money you're putting aside each month for holiday spending. A white Christmas may be the farthest thing from your mind right now, but trust me, you'll be glad to have it when the time comes.
June 1, 2011
An App for That?
By Annie Norman
I'm sure you thought smartphone apps existed only to give you restaurant recommendations, tell you where your friends are hanging out, help you find the best subway route, or let you buy coffee without taking out your wallet. I bet you never knew a smartphone app could also let you join an international crusade against corruption. I'm sure you never expected an app could engage you in a pursuit of justice. And you were right, until now. Now, there's Bribespot.
Bribespot is an app that lets users record incidents of bribery they encounter around the world. It uses the same kind of geographic tracking that Foursquare does to find the user and pinpoint his or her exact location. On Bribespot, a person can post an incident in which a bribe was solicited from them by a person in authority, for how much, and under what circumstances. It's all done anonymously. And, to make sure no one abuses the system, the technology limits the number of posts from a single phone in a day.
Currently, the app is available on Android and the web, but the developers have promised an iPhone version is imminent. You can read the stream of users' bribes on Bribespot's web page. There are also some social media interactions available if you want to comment on someone's run-in with a corrupt figure.
The idea for Bribespot came from a group of developers at a convention in Estonia, which challenges techies to create new software in just 48 hours. One of the team members is a former employee of the United Nations Development Program. On his Bribespot blog, he expresses frustration at the long, arduous process of exposing corrupt officials. He says that's what inspired him to look for a faster solution. Brainstorming with the team resulted in the idea of harnessing crowdsourcing technology in a smartphone app to generate a real-time map of the world revealing corruption hotspots.
From India to South Africa, the posts indicate there are officials in law enforcement, the military, heath care, and education who need to see a little green to be motivated. A quick scan of this morning's bribe stream shows a user encountered a police officer in Lithuania who was willing to forget about a ticket for driving without a seat belt and while talking on a cell phone, in exchange for 100 Lithuathian litas, which is about $40.
Many of the posts about encounters with law enforcement depict unreasonable scenes, such as being detained for hours for not having certain paperwork or being pulled over for a fake traffic violation. In some cases it seems clear the officials are used to wringing some cash out of unsuspecting people, especially tourists. Despite the language barrier, I can see there are multiple posts about bribes in the health care sector in Hungary and the education sector in Romania. In those cases, corruption seems inherent to the system. And that's the kind of thing the developers are hoping to expose. The more people who ping those incidents, the more heavily flagged that part of the map becomes, making the corruption there visible to the world.
The Bribespot app is only a few weeks old, and it's gradually gaining some momentum and attention. If it becomes a huge success, I wonder what other world problems can be highlighted using a similar model. Could we see an app that exposes environmental unfriendliness? How about an app that lets users reveal government waste, bad customer service, or recalled products still on shelves? Just think how satisfying it might be if, when confronted with a societal wrong, you could fire up your smartphone and discover, hey, there's an app for that!