Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Top 10 business stories of 2014

The big business news of 2014 will be felt far into the new year. As a radio producer I wrap up 12 months in 2 minutes. Here, the year's a photo gallery. On social media, expect more animals.

The workforce grows, slowly.
  1. Recovery stealth. The U.S. recovered from a punishing winter to outpace the world economy, entering the fourth quarter at a 5 percent growth clip. Unemployment's fallen from 7 percent to 5.8 percent in a year's time, hitting the benchmark Mitt Romney pledged to reach by 2016 as president. Yet the recovery doesn't seem much like a boom. Wages have barely budged, and unemployment remains stubbornly high in service, construction, production and transportation jobs.

  2. Who's smiling now? President Obama calls the health networks Obamacare, "because I do care."
  3. Obamacare health. Entering their second year, signups in the maligned Affordable Care Act exchanges have passed 7 million. The insurance marketplaces give workers a safety net if they lose their jobs or strike out on their own. And they've been good business, with more insurers entering the system and minimal price changes in benchmark plans.

  4. Wealthy Americans think they're middle class, and vice versa.
  5. Losing bracket. The recovery doesn't share and share alike. gap between middle-class and upper-bracket families is the widest since the Federal Reserve began tracking consumer finances. Middle-income households have yet to recover wealth lost in the economy's 2007-09 meltdown. "The financial crisis and the Great Recession demonstrated in a dramatic and unmistakable manner how extraordinarily vulnerable are the large share of American families," says Janet Yellen, the first woman to control the central bank.

  6. Chicago gas prices average $2.693. They're unaccountably higher at the neighborhood pump.
  7. Oil change. The year's most effective economic stimulus: Gas prices have dropped a dollar a gallon in 2014. AAA's national average for regular gas is $2.297. While the world economy dragged, cartel nations kept pumping and U.S. shale production surged. After years of $100-a-barrel oil, crude slipped to $60. They're likely to stay low through much of 2015.

  8. Walgreen caught an aversion to tax inversion. I managed to avoid using the phrase.
  9. Inversion therapy. Mergers and acquisitions leapt 20 percent in 2014. Cheap money, rising stock prices and offshore tax havens pumped $3.4 trillion into dealmaking. Walgreen stopped short of a "a tax inversion" move to Europe in its $16 billion buyout of Boots drugstores. CEO Greg Wasson predicted it'd bring "almost certain intense, protracted IRS scrutiny." But Burger King will relocate in Canada, at least for tax purposes, in a $11 billion merger with Tim Hortons doughnut shops.

  10. Mary Barra rose in General Motors' engineering ranks, only to face a design scandal as CEO.
  11. Hit with a switch. Carmakers this year recalled 1 out of 4 cars on the road. An ignition switch is linked to 42 deaths: The weight of a key fob could cut the engine and the air bags. Five deaths are linked to Hondas with air bags that explode their casings, flinging metal at passengers. Defects are under investigation, parts are on back order and notices continue to go out in the mail.
  12. Capitalist tools Seth Rogen and James Franco of Sony Pictures' "The Interview."
  13. Corporate hackathon. Target's data breach a year ago was just a preview: This year a Home Depot hack exposed data on 56 million credit and debit cards. JPMorgan Chase left 83 million households and businesses exposed. Kmart, Dairy Queen and Albertsons all fell to cyberattacks. Sony Pictures gave up terabytes of data and pulled wide release of "The Interview." (The plot sounds like warmed-over "South Park," though I'm told Seth Rogen kills.) The withdrawal calculus drew a rebuke from Obama: "Sony as a private company was worried about liability and this and that and the other. I wish they'd spoken to me first." But the threat of cybercrime can make corporate heads explode: Target's loss came to $148 million. Before the Sony hack, Gartner estimated global cybersecurity spending this year at $71 billion. Avoiding a repeat next year will take billions more.

  14. A Jeep Grand Cherokee dashboard monitors SUV performance and streams Internet radio.
  15. Yeah, that's a thing. I've been writing about web appliances since Y2K and wireless "smart home" systems even earlier. Finally the "Internet of things" has gone mainstream. New cars are Wi-Fi hotspots and traffic monitors. Apple's iBeacon broadcasts hyperlocal alerts. Fitness bands are striding into hospitals. On the farm, sensors supplant the weather vane and cowbell. Big data's watching you, but only to check what's in your fridge.
  16. Gamers go off the rails to support "Grand Theft Auto V."
  17. Gaming the system. GamerGate saw consumers rise up and fight for conformity. Social critiques of game violence, sexism and misogyny aren't new, but gamers rebelled at seeing them in the friendly confines of game reviews. Threats of a shooting massacre followed, silencing a critic – a scenario that foreshadows the takedown of "The Interview," if not the Christmas Grinch attack on game-play networks. GamerGate didn't attack Sony and the gaming establishment as much as dictate terms: to keep PlayStation safe for first-person shooters. Beware when consumers seize the controls.
  18. Who's smiling now? A word from Warren Buffett corked Coke's "excessive" pay.
  19. Establishment lifehackers. Proxy season saw shareholders rise up and fight for more money. The Dodd-Frank Act required their votes this year on executive pay. Many corporate boards prepared the way by trimming CEO salaries. Now, more payouts are based on earnings. With a booming stock market, everyone's happy – except activist shareholders chasing even bigger returns. Warren Buffett, one of the moneymen behind the Burger King-Tim Hortons merger, prompted Coca-Cola to scale back a $13 billion executive payout simply by telling CNBC it was "excessive." Legendary corporate raider Carl Icahn rattled cages at Apple, Family Dollar and eBay, and a hedge fund forced out the entire Darden Restaurants board with a plan to cut back on Olive Garden breadsticks. Beware when owners seize the controls.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Hackers, nonprofit workers bridge a digital divide at the Chicago School of Data

Civic hackers plan next steps at the Chicago School of Data conference.

"If you look around the room," says programmer Neil Rest, "it’s pretty clear which are the hackers and which are the nonprofits and which are the suits. There needs to be more communication."

We're in the main hall of Willis Tower's Graham Center, where the Smart Chicago Collaborative has convened about 250 people "using data to improve the lives of regular residents." Rest and I are on the hacker periphery: He's newly retired and looking for a cause, I've built and run websites. "How much geek do you speak?" he asks. We're all asking each other that question.

"I’m suspecting a lot of the people here could use better communication and data exchange," Rest says, "and that’s going to be one of the aspects I’m looking out for." He's talking mostly about how to index and cross-reference data, but I'm looking for exchange too. I'm here to live-blog, photograph and otherwise document the discussion.

But as a neighborhood group's webmaster it disturbs me that so few technologists are on hand when neighbors meet in church basements and library meeting rooms to tackle community issues. Collaboration between community hackers and community activists could close that digital divide.

Affordability gaps

That work starts with the first panel. Association House tech supervisor Stephen Pigozzi walks through how the Humboldt Park agency logs casework. The form's not ideal, and money for the software license takes a significant commitment. A cheaper solution's as close as the next breakout room, where the Chicago Benchmarking Collaborative's discussing open-source software.

"To pay even $2,000 ... is a tremendous financial challenge," says Amy Terpstra, Heartland Alliance research director, speaking from the audience in an exchange not recorded on video. But Terpstra tells me her agency's database managers aren't convinced they could switch to a free alternative.

"I need to figure out a way to educate them about what this stuff can do and how OK it is," Terpstra says. "A lot of people are using this stuff, right?"

Nonprofits must scale more resource barriers. Woodstock Institute vice president Spencer Cowan says his small staff consults with community groups, but has only so much time to crunch the numbers. "You'd be surprised what we can do in four hours," Cowan says. But bigger projects have to be funded first.

The most current, accurate and revealing demographic data can be the most costly. "It's easy to build the cost of data into a contract, but not into funding for direct services," Cowan says.

Off the map

One persistent issue emerges: Resource-starved neighborhoods are not well represented on the data grid.

"We know the data's not accurate from talking to businesses," says Samia Malik of the Chatham Business Association. She tells the panel that younger shoppers travel to other neighborhoods because local merchants without websites don't appear on their cellphone map. That admission prompts audience discussion on whether cheap computers would help, and a "let's talk" offer.

"I'm tired of being convened," says Tom Tresser of CivicLab. "This is like the 90th conference complaining about Internet community bandwidth, and it's still not solved."

The conversation continues at lunch. While the Chatham group wants merchants to promote themselves on the web, the TAG Foundation started its Bronzeville Counts program to promote the community.

"If you googled daycare in Bronzeville, no daycare centers show up. So there’s actually five within my own walking distance," executive director Angela Ford tells me. "I say, 'Hey, why are you not on even Google search and Yahoo?' And they were like, 'We don’t really need to be, because everybody who has children are within a five-block radius and they are not searching for us on the Internet. They’re walking down the street.'"

Yet Ford says even daycare listings figure in economic development. "If you’re looking to relocate to Chicago and want to find a pool of young, able-bodied people that are willing to work and a lot of vacant land, you’d look right past Bronzeville because it isn’t digitally on the books, you see?"

Disruptive technology

Bruce Montgomery of the Urban Innovation Center @ IIT says mobile phones are bridging the gap between rich and poor neighborhoods where past efforts like public Wi-Fi have failed.

"Now the same person walking up and down the street in Bronzeville is twice as likely to have a smartphone and know how to completely use it than their Highland Park, Winnetka, suburban counterparts," Montgomery says. "There’s going to be a whole new set of tools that are going to be picked up and adopted."

A panel on tech on-ramps for youth quickly takes on a bigger question: Now that games and apps have hooked urban teens on technology, do they have the confidence to pursue tech jobs, and the attention of hiring managers?

"There is a shortage of technology workers in our region, in our nation," says Sandee Kastrul of i.c. stars. "And there's a real need for people who can problem-solve, who understand data, who can analyze data and who can really get in there and use technology to solve business problems.

"The challenge is that they're not looking at the inner city in our communities as a solution to that problem. So if our companies are only recruiting from the top five schools in computer science across the nation then we're going to continue to have this problem," she says.

"We don't want to scale up, and find that we're training people who don't have jobs," she says. "When we shift from being the consumer to being the innovator or the maker, that's power."

It's comforting to think that a generation of web natives will bring their fierce analytical skills to intractable civic issues. But the weekend's discussions makes the size of the challenge clear.

"It’s going to take about $6 billion roughly to turn the corner just on the West Side. And that $6 billion is investment in education, business development, workforce development, over a decade or more," Bethel New Life vice president Edward Coleman tells me before the closing remarks. "It’s cheaper than the money we’re currently spending in dealing with the problems that exist on the West Side."

After two days of mingling, a score of hackers and nonprofits and suits cluster in groups to plan next steps. The biggest group brainstorm how to introduce entry-level and enterprise data tools to a wider audience.

Can a devoted group use technology for social change? We're still collecting the data.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

The one sketchy thing about BuzzFeed that would shame a politician. Or at least might.

BuzzFeed serves a pop-culture diet heavy on listicles, but light on originality.

Let's get serious about plagiarism, starting with 7 Miracle Babies To Warm Your Heart Today.

It's an array of neonatal success stories from BuzzFeed, and the first in a list of 41 posts that got writer Benny Johnson fired. Sure, the roundup seems derivative, citing four photo agencies, three TV websites, two newspaper websites, a parenting blog, a hospital and a web link that goes nowhere.

But being derivative's not such a problem on BuzzFeed. The pop-culture website constantly mines the web for 26 Pregnancy Announcement Photos That Must Be Stopped and 11 Dogs Who Learned The Hard Way Not To Eat Bees. Mostly they're just pages crammed with photos and videos from elsewhere, but who can resist a list of 25 things about something? Not me.

The issue with the intensive-care listicle isn't all the secondary sources, just one: It mirrors a photo flipbook on the website Baby Said What. The "corrected" BuzzFeed post removes text lifted from the blog, and an editor's note admits "the structure of the list was also copied." Sure enough, they share the same photos, in the same order, and with the same unanswered questions. (Who's Baby Andrei and when was he born?) It's a ripped-off ripoff.

Legally, the posts share the dimly lit back alley of fair use. They borrow photos freely, credit sketchily and make it hard to track back sources. But BuzzFeed crosses a bright legal line in copying text. So it's skinned back "sentences or phrases copied word for word from other sites." The photos and their fig-leaf source credits are still in place.

Ethically, it's a cut-and-dried transgression. Yet keeping it online treats it as a cut-and-paste error. Why withdraw just the words? I'd keep the apology, scrap the photos and link to the baby blog's full serving of strained, pureed news.

Plagiarism has no gray area. Or does it? The Society of Professional Journalists makes a clear statement: Never plagiarize. Still, its position paper lacks a clear definition. So let's adopt the Merriam-Webster description, "to use the words or ideas of another person as if they were your own." (The full definition includes a vivid metaphor, "literary theft.")

It's a fair description, underlined by a sticky issue: It's much easier to spot stolen words than cribbed concepts. Johnson's anonymous critics provide many examples and a few snarky asides about his politics. One copied source is a political press release — words for the taking but not for theft. At a public relations firm a co-worker of mine saw part of her release in the paper verbatim under a reporter's byline. The coverage was great, the reporter was sleazy.

Plagiarism requires no named accuser, victim or viewpoint. College students learn about it when they're warned against paying someone to write term papers. Buying text is verboten on campus. Buying ideas might be a definition of the college experience, except that an education's wasted if those ideas aren't internalized. So Cliff's Notes haven't been driven from the university bookstore. Study guides are appropriate if they drive actual study.

For another current example of literary theft, I followed the thieves and searched Google. There I found The New York Times report that Sen. John Walsh, the Montana Democrat appointed to fill Max Baucus' seat, appears to have lifted large portions of his Army War College thesis from online sources.

Military honor and journalism ethics both shun plagiarism. In politics, it's fodder for scandal, as Joe Biden learned when he imported rhetorical flourishes from Labour politician Neil Kinnock. Johnson (whose BuzzFeed specialty was "viral politics") admitted his failure with an apology on Twitter.

Walsh on the other hand defends his scholarship. He tells the Times he did not believe he had done anything wrong. Yet the Times says a third of his thesis is similar to other sources but unattributed, and another third is footnoted without paraphrase. The War College handbook warns against both types of academic fraud.

The BuzzFeed and War College cases both suggest the dangers facing web researchers who let down their guard. Inadvertent or intentional theft is a risk for anyone who copies text into a document. Writers fall into a more subtle subversion when they follow the same outlines, chase the same angles, or settle for secondhand sources.

Steve Jobs used to say "Good artists copy; great artists steal." Garson O'Toole's sleuthing on his Quote Investigator site couldn't back up Jobs in tracing that saying to Pablo Picasso. But O'Toole says the aphorism inverts a distinction first drawn by 19th century critic William Henry Davenport Adams. He wrote that "great poets imitate and improve, whereas small ones steal and spoil." Writers need to return to the original sense of artistry.

Beyond being generous in attribution, they must build on their influences and move the story forward. The best way to feed the buzz is with a fresh perspective.

But wait, there's more! The New York Times revised a lede on Italian Renaissance painter Piero di Cosimo that drew without attribution from a Wikipedia entry. The Times says editors "have dealt with" reviewer Carol Vogel. I blog about it at Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Journalism ethics: A Chicago minority report

SPJ's Chicago regional ethics conference, before the the career breakouts.

Midwest journalists met in Chicago to discuss their code of ethics, and immediately got bogged down in the generalities.

Truth to tell, mention ethics on a bright spring afternoon and people start drifting away. Students cleared the room when job-hunting sessions started. But after live-blogging professional sessions at the Society of Professional Journalists regional conference, I caught up on efforts to revise the SPJ ethics code.

The conference produced a Chicago ethics report. Here's my slant. You decide if it's ethical reporting.

Chicagoans have a fascination with ethics, or their public absence. Chicago reporters have elbowed their way into standards-and-practices discussions for years. Casey Bukro was in the room April 12; he drafted the society's 1973 code revisions. For this session, he brought business ethicists from his Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists. (SPJ has its own hotline, staffed by journalists).

Film critic Dann Gire once led Roger Ebert and other opinionated peers to draft a reviewers' code. Gire's charge here was to walk through SPJ's first attempt at ethics revisions since 1996.

My first question; What needs changing? Gire seemed at a loss. The committee issued its draft by noting but not resolving a struggle among its 18 committee members to define the scope: "How much should we change? Shorter? Longer? More specific? More general? Keep, change or add to the guiding principles? What’s missing as we march into 2014 and beyond?"

So many questions, so few answers. Despite the lack of clarity, a subgroup emerged to address standards for digital media, and the committee called for this regional review. Journalists will vote on a final draft at SPJ's September convention in Nashville.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

The turtle on his accomplishments

Mark Sullivan/ NOAA photo

Whatever I do, I like to take a deep dive. What's the point in just keeping your head above water?

Fishing seems to be taking over my life. Sponges and jellyfish aren't enough challenge. What gets me going is the hunt for shrimp and other big game.

Swimming against the current has to be done just right, but once you get into the rhythm it's as natural as digging for worms. And when you're done for the day it's hard to feel lethargic.

I head to a favorite little swale. It's yards and yards from the beach, but I don't mind the trip because it's such a relaxing place to kick back.

I laid eggs in the sand a few months ago. What happened with that? I went back there the other day, and kids have just taken over the beach. It's like you can't have anyplace to yourself these days.

I'm not boring you, am I? I got all day.