Friday, June 23, 2017

LAX to Allow Select Passengers to Check-in Using Fingerprints or Iris Scans



In this day and age, partly due to continually advancing technological innovation, the ability to avoid time-wasting activities like waiting in lines has become a necessity for many consumers. People value their free time and want to save as much of it as possible for activities they enjoy. For example, when people fly in an airplane, whether for their job or on their way to a vacation, they don't enjoy how long it takes to make their way through security and check-in lines. Fortunately for many, according to Hugo Martin's L.A. Times article, passengers leaving from Los Angeles International Airport may soon have the option to speed through check-in using iris scans and/or their fingerprints.

Depending on the type of flight and time of year, it can take anywhere from 20 minutes to 2 hours (or sometimes even more) for a passenger to get all the way through check-in and security before they are finally able to get to their boarding gate. For many people, especially the more affluent travelers and people who travel often for business, it can be worthwhile to pay a fee to get through security faster. Well, a company called Clear just installed new kiosks at LAX that allow passengers to use biometric markers to get through security. The service is membership based and costs $179 per year so it would be the best deal for frequent fliers.

Clear already has connections to 22 airports and 6 sports arenas around the country, so LAX is not their first foray into the world of biometrics. Accounts can be easily made at one of the kiosks by scanning a government-issued form of identification, answering some questions, and having one's iris and fingerprints scanned. After the short process to set up the account, check-in becomes faster and much more convenient. When using Clear to check-in, passengers get to interact with Clear employees (LAX has approximately 90 such individuals), bypassing most of the line and moving directly to the X-ray portion of security.

Clear may be one of the biggest presences in the field of biometric security, but other companies are beginning to get in on the industry, as it is likely to keep growing in the years to come. Jet Blue and Delta have begun using facial recognition and fingerprint scanning for the checking in of some of their premium passengers. Not only does scanning someone's fingerprints take much less time and is more convenient than classic methods, it can also be a more secure method. If biometric check-in were to become mainstream, wanted suspects would potentially be unable to get through security without raising an alarm, because their fingerprints and iris scans would be in the system.

However, that can also raise the question of privacy concerns. What will the companies do with all of that biometric information if this practice became mainstream? Would the police be able to get a subpoena for someone's fingerprint scans if they are a suspect in a crime? Many potential issues could arise from the integration of biometrics into security protocol, but many benefits are inherent as well. For now, it is only being used by a subset of passengers as a way to save time and make life more convenient. Everything else is too far in the future to know definitively now.

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Friday, June 16, 2017

LADWP Pauses Planned Work on Natural Gas Power Plants in Favor of Green Alternatives



Energy is one of the most important commodities in this day and age. Whether it comes from fossil fuel, natural gas, or green sources, energy is a necessity in our increasingly technological world. Up until recently, California legislators had plans to build new natural gas power plants and renovate some older ones that run on fossil fuels. According to Ivan Penn's L.A. Times article, they are instead looking at other potential options for energy generation throughout the state.

Before this week, a $2.2 billion plan was in the works to fix up some older natural gas power plants and get them ready to produce electricity. The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power put that plan on pause while they look into green electricity alternatives. Among a few other reasons, this change in trajectory is likely due mainly to recent investigative journalism that found that California has an oversupply of electricity, which drove prices up instead of down as expected.

It is expected that by 2020, the state's power plants will be able to produce over 20% more electricity than is needed, which will lead to Californians being stuck with a $40 billion-per-year bill for energy they're not even using. Even after reducing energy usage and installing more energy-efficient appliances, Californians will still be paying almost $7 billion more for electricity than they did in 2008, the state's record high.

Now that the LADWP sees that generating more power from natural gas is not going to solve the problem, they have to turn to other alternatives. Because so much energy is produced that is not being used, it makes more sense to look at different ways of producing energy rather than methods of producing more energy. For example, many homes are beginning to install personal solar panels and batteries to store excess collected energy. Solar farms or wind turbines could be a potential source of green energy for the state.

No matter how the LADWP ends up generating the proper amount of electricity for the state, it seems clear that natural gas will not be invested in without a fight. It will be difficult to hide oversupply, especially if the excess energy comes from sources that are not environmentally friendly. Legislators hope to have California 100% reliant on renewable energy by 2045. This is just the first step, but with enough work, it could be a feasible goal.

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Friday, June 9, 2017

Latest Fortune 500 List Contains 53 California Companies



The well-known "Fortune 500" is a list of 500 of the nation's top companies, published each year in a list by Fortune Magazine. The companies are those that bring in the most revenue and show the highest profits, which means they are likely to do well in the coming year. Basically, they are the 500 best companies on the market in a given year. Many, especially in recent years, are tech companies, and some have even been on the list for many years, even decades in some cases. According to Makeda Easter's L.A. Times article, of the 500 companies, 53 are based in California.

While California is not the number one state in regard to their number of Fortune 500 companies, California falls in a close second behind New York's 54 companies. The remaining 400 or so companies have headquarters spread throughout the rest of the country. California has two companies ranking in the top 10 of the Fortune 500 list: Apple is in third and McKesson Corp. is fifth. Trends show that California's biggest earners are technology companies and pharmaceutical/biotech companies.

Even with some companies having difficulties with slowing sales or scandals within their board of directors, California companies still improved quite a bit this year. Chevron came in 19th place on the list and Wells Fargo unexpectedly rose to 25th place, even after recent bad publicity. In Los Angeles specifically, construction company Aecom was in 161st place, real estate firm CBRE Group was in 214th, and Reliance Steel & Aluminum Co. placed 320th.

The percentage of companies with women CEOs that make it onto the Fortune 500 list is very small, only about 6.4% of the 500 companies. However, of the 32 companies on the list with women CEOs, 7 of those companies are based in California. Apple Inc., which is based in Cupertino, California, made the largest profit this year, at approximately $46 billion, but Wal-Mart still holds the number one spot on the Fortune 500 list based on revenue alone. Approximately two-thirds of the US's total GDP come from the 500 companies on the list. If trends continue as they have been, California's companies could end up being the most valuable on the list in time.

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Friday, May 26, 2017

Google Aims to use Targeted Advertisements to Boost Both In-Store and Online Shopping



Most people who use the internet, especially for online shopping, have noticed at some point that the advertisements that appear on web pages they visit tend to relate to items they have been looking to buy. It is one of the ways that Google makes revenue, by selling advertising space and targeting the advertisements at those consumers most likely to be swayed by them. By correlating the number of clicks on an advertisement to the actual items purchased online by consumers, Google is able to show online retailers that their advertisements are the right choice.

Similarly, Google seems to be looking to move into the non-digital marketplace. According to an article by the Associated Press of the L.A. Times, Google is looking into a new service that will track how much consumers spend in brick and mortar stores after clicking on advertisements related to those purchases. However, it will only be able to correlate the information to stores, not to specific items purchased at the stores, which may not be enough information for some advertisers.

By determining how ad clicks are connected with actual purchases, Google can help advertisers to determine whether their ads are a waste of money or actually useful. If the data is convincing enough, it could be beneficial to both Google and the advertisers it is contracted by. If advertisers see how well their ads work, they are more likely to increase their advertising budget, thus generating more revenue for the retailer and more income for Google. The main problem, however, seems to be the loss of privacy inherent in this kind of data tracking.

Already, Google has digital dossiers on everyone who uses their online services. They know what people search for, what people shop for, and even the types of videos people watch on social media. Using that information, they can create targeted ads that are directed at the proper demographics. This new system just seems to be an expansion of that concept. There are precautions in place, fortunately. The system is expected to run in a "double-blind" manner, which means Google receives personal information that credit card companies and merchants don't, while the credit card company receives information that Google doesn't. Additionally, it won't be able to gather information on cash transactions and about 30% of credit card transactions. Advertisements have the ability to help all involved parties in that they can point customers toward products they want and provided added demand on products for retailers. The main question: is the loss of privacy worth the added benefits of the ads?

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Friday, May 19, 2017

Memorial Day Weekend Predicted to See Record High Number of Vacationers



National holidays, especially those that fall at the beginning or the end of a weekend, tend to lead to travel plans for a lot of Americans. The three- or four-day weekend is the perfect time for many vacationers to spend some time away from home with their family and friends. While holidays like Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's usually lead to a lot of travel plans, many people prefer the shorter weekend trips over Veteran's Day or President's Day. According to Hugo Martin's L.A. Times article, the upcoming Memorial Day weekend is expected to break records in terms of the number of vacationers. 

According to experts, this phenomenon could be due in large part to falling gas prices. As the cost of gasoline goes down, it becomes cheaper to travel, which is encouraging for people who want to go on vacation. It's expected that the prices will stay low at around $3 per gallon, which is the cheapest they've been over Memorial Day weekend since 2009. Partially due to the low gas prices, most of the vacationers are expected to be driving. In fact, statistics show that around 2.52 million will be driving to their destinations, a 2.9% increase from last year.

Similarly, there is expected to be a 3.4% increase in the total number of vacationers, up to 3.03 million Southern Californians, according to the Auto Club of Southern California. This will be the sixth consecutive year where the number of travelers increased, potentially a sign of a strengthening economy, in which consumers feel secure enough to spend money on travel. Some of the top destinations for travelers include San Francisco, San Diego, and Las Vegas, as well as famous landmarks like the Grand Canyon and some national parks.

The biggest increase of all, however, is among the number of Californians choosing airplanes as their mode of transportation. Over this Memorial Day weekend, over 300,000 Californians are expected to fly on commercial airlines, which is a 6.2% increase from last year's numbers. Even with all of the recent issues with airlines, the growing numbers could indicate that people are traveling further, which means that they are taking more time off of work than just the three-day weekend. That could point to growing comfort with the state of the economy or better financial management on the part of consumers looking to go on vacation. 

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Friday, May 12, 2017

California Tourism Indutry Grows for Seventh Consecutive Year



Tourism can be a huge economic boost for any given state or country. Tourists stay at hotels and motels, they eat at restaurants, and they shop at stores, all of which can help to stimulate the local economy. Big cities like Paris, New York City, and London are popular tourist destinations, but cities throughout California, especially Los Angeles and San Francisco, have been booming over the past several years. In fact, according to Makeda Easter's L.A. Times article, research shows that California's tourism industry has grown every year for the past seven consecutive years.

Data showed that spending on travel in California was up 3.8% last year to $126.3 billion. Over a million jobs in the state are involved in the tourism industry, up 2.5% from the year before. Even tax revenue was up from tourism-related expenditures. Tax revenue was over $10 billion last year and tourism incorporated nearly 3% of the state's GDP (gross domestic product). Not only is California generally a popular tourist destination, economists believe the continuing improvement of its tourism industry could be due to economic growth around the country and the world.

As the global economy improves, people have more money to spend and feel more stable and willing to spend the money. Because of that, they tend to take more vacations and spend more money on travel. Research shows that California is the number 1 tourist destination in the country. Its tourism industry is 2.5 times bigger than that of Florida, which has just as many tourist attractions and theme parks as California. Additionally, of the hundreds of millions of tourists each year throughout California, many of them come from different parts of California itself, rather than from out of the state or from other countries.

California tourism is expected to keep going strong. Some theme parks, such as Disneyland, are undergoing changes and renovations that they hope will bring in more visitors, but only time will tell if the improvements will succeed. People like to visit California for its weather, beaches, and popular social scene, but as the value of the dollar continues to increase, people may look to travel outside of the country for vacation. California can be a very expensive place to live, so people's preferences can change pretty quickly. Maybe next year will be the eighth consecutive year of growth. We'll just have to wait and see.

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Friday, April 28, 2017

Uber Update Lets Users See How They Have Been Rated by Drivers



Especially for people living in densely populated cities like Los Angeles or New York, it can be difficult to justify owning a vehicle. Traffic is usually difficult to deal with, parking can be nearly impossible to find, and unless you're driving a significant distance each day, the combination of gasoline, insurance, and maintenance can make it all too costly. Fortunately, ride-sharing technology gives people a way to get around town without having to own a car of their own.

While there are many ride-sharing smartphone applications, the two most popular and well-known are Uber and Lyft. Each has similar business plans: they take a percentage of every dollar earned by one of their drivers. Both driver and rider have the opportunity to rate each other, and the ratings help other drivers and riders to choose whether they want to use the service. Until recently, riders could see all of the ratings (on a 5-star scale) that other riders had left for their driver, and drivers could see ratings left for riders. According to Tracey Lien's L.A. times article, a recent update to the Uber app will allow riders to view their own ratings.

Uber executives hope that this update will help both drivers and riders to improve the ride-sharing experience. The riders can rate the drivers on safety, friendliness, and cleanliness of the vehicle, while drivers can rate riders on whether they leave a mess in the car or if they slam the doors. Because riders will now be able to see what drivers think of them, it is hoped that they will be more cognizant of their behavior and will, therefore, become better passengers.

Everyone wants to have a high rating on apps like Uber because the app's algorithm matches up riders and drivers based on similar rankings. So, if a rider has close to 5 stars, they will likely get paired up with a driver with a 5-star rating. If they have a lower score, they will, in turn, be paired up with a less-sought-after driver. While this update should be beneficial to everyone, another update aims to help drivers avoid being negatively affected by the behavior of other passengers in an UberPool, in which a rider chooses to share the ride with another user of the app. Lately, Uber has had some bad press, but the changes they are making could help to improve their image, retain their drivers, and win back potential riders.

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Friday, April 21, 2017

LA County to Offer Lower Utilities Rates Through Community Choice Aggregation Programs



In this day and age, as technology continues to advance and resources are stretched thin, energy sources are often on the mind of the common consumer and government entities. Electricity rates have been going up, and even as we search for alternative, green energy options, it can be difficult to make those options affordable. Fortunately, earlier this week, the L.A. County Board of Supervisors approved a public energy program that gives Southern California Edison customers an alternative, government-backed energy source to purchase from. According to Ivan Penn and Nina Agrawal's article in the L.A. Times, the public energy program is expected to lower individual costs by around 5% and is open to residences and businesses alike.

Not only will the energy program be providing power to customers at a lower cost, it will also be focusing on green energy sources. The county will be able to purchase energy from the market and invest in solar energy projects. Because the community choice aggregation (CCA) programs are government entities, they aren't allowed to make a profit on customer rates, which means they will charge the bare minimum to break even. This is very different from companies like Southern California Edison and Pacific Gas & Electric Co., who can charge however much they want.

Hundreds of thousands of homes and businesses in the L.A. County will be able to enroll in the new CCA program, and many people in other counties could be allowed to as well, depending on local regulations. This new energy plan is expected to revamp the entire electricity industry. Private companies will be forced to find ways to lower prices and bring in green energy sources in order to compete with the government entity. Competition tends to drive down prices and drive up demand, so everyone should be happy in the long run. Some private electricity companies worry that the long-term implications of this project remain to be seen and that we should take things slow before rushing into anything.

All in all, CCA programs seem almost too good to be true. A government program that lowers rates and improves the usage of green energy sources seems like a pipe dream. Yet, with proper planning and careful budgeting, it could work out. Technology is redefining various industries, and to survive, the entire country has to change with it. With the new program, new customers can decide exactly what kind of energy they want: wind, solar, or other resources. By giving people options and lowering costs, customers become loyal and are more willing to face the changes that come with dramatic improvements. As long as the CAAs make sure their budgeting is solid, things should work out, at least for the near future.

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Friday, April 14, 2017

Telemarketers Aim to Scam via Social Engineering



Most people have experienced robocalls and telemarketers looking to sell them something. While such calls are annoying, up until recently, they were just annoying. Very few people actually bought the products being sold, but they sold enough to make robocalls economically feasible. Most recently, however, the robocallers have taken a new strategy: known as the "can you hear me" scam. David Lazarus, in his latest L.A. Times article, discusses the popular new telemarketer scam and what you can do to protect yourself from it.

Just as technology is constantly improving to make overall quality of life go up, that same technology can be used to make life more difficult for some. Technology similar to that used by Apple's Siri and Google's Alexa is now being used by computer programmers to make telemarketing calls by a computer seem conversational enough that the recipient doesn't hang up immediately. Because the technology is not perfect yet, the target will quickly catch on and realize that they're speaking to a computer, but in the first few seconds, they may say something that can be used against them.

The "can you hear me" scam is a feat of human engineering, where telemarketing companies demonstrate a thorough understanding of the dynamics of true human conversations. By using that knowledge, the computer is able to get a response they want, in order to scam the responder later. In this scam, the computer asks "can you hear me" with the same inflections as a human, which can usually cause the recipient of the call to respond "yes." Giving an affirmative response is the worst thing you can do in that situation, according to police officials.

When the recipient of the call says "yes," the computer already has what it needs to move forward with the scam. The affirmative response can easily be edited later to make it seem like the target was giving the company approval for a purchase of some kind. There have been several situations over the past months where people have responded to the question "can you hear me" and later found that their credit card had been charged for products they never ordered. A safe rule of thumb when dealing with telemarketers, especially those employing these tactics, seems to be to hang up immediately. If you're not sure if someone is a telemarketer or not, avoid affirmative responses and ask a lot of questions to determine if the answers seem like they are coming from a computer. Machine learning and artificial intelligence are just starting to boom, so be on the lookout for similar scams in the near future.

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Friday, March 31, 2017

Waze's Latest Feature Enables Users to Order Food in the App



Technological innovations in this day and age are often about making day to day tasks easier or more convenient. They help people to save time and money on mundane tasks like ordering food or obtaining transportation. This week, according to an L.A. Times article by the Associated Press, the navigation app Waze has started to team up with fast-food restaurants like Dunkin' Donuts in order to combine the services offered by the two companies and make ordering coffee and other foods on the way to work a seamless process.

Waze is a popular navigation app for smartphones and tablets, which relies mainly on information input by users. It provides turn-by-turn directions and can even tell drivers in real time which route will have the least traffic. While Waze has teamed up with fast-food restaurants like Taco Bell and Dunkin' Donuts in the past, it was mainly an advertising partnership, where the restaurants paid Waze a fee each month to help remind drivers of the different food options on their route. Now, their business strategy has changed, and become more direct.

Instead of just advertising with Waze, and hoping that the ads will make a few drivers visit their restaurant, Waze has now integrated a method for drivers to order from Dunkin' Donuts and pick it up on their route, all without opening up another app. If the trial run with Dunkin' Donuts goes well, Waze could relatively easily update the system to work for any number of merchants and restaurants. One day, people could be able to order food, reserve parking spots, and even get prescriptions filled, all on the way, without the inherent distractions involved with working from several apps at once.

Users of Waze's new system will have to have Dunkin' Donuts' app on their phone, but as long as they are logged in, Waze will be connected and will be able to access their account at the push of a button. Additionally, users of Waze's system have to be registered with Dunkin' Donuts' customer loyalty program, at least until the chain has determined whether the concept works well enough to offer to all of its customers. Waze has been growing in leaps and bounds lately. Recently, they integrated a feature similar to Uber or Lyft where drivers are paid to pick up and drive with other Waze users looking to Carpool. All of these updates seem to be going well for Waze, but it will take a bit of time to see just how well.

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Friday, March 17, 2017

Deter Hackers by Improving Online Security on Social Media Accounts



As time goes on and technology continuously improves, the ability to hack into the new technology improves with it. So, because hackers are getting smarter and finding ways to attack our internet-enabled devices, we too have to develop and work harder to prevent such attacks. Over the past few years, popular social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter have been targets of hacking and phishing schemes. According to Jessica Roy's article in the L.A. Times, one feature on your Twitter account could be making you more vulnerable to hackers.

Lately, there have been several situations in which Twitter accounts have had their security compromised. From celebrities like Justin Bieber to multi-million-dollar businesses like McDonald's, hackers are taking over. Sometimes they just want to "troll" and post something that they think is funny or that might get a reaction. Other times, the messages are designed to trick other people into clicking a link that will allow the hacker to break into other accounts. 

In at least one case, the cyber attacks were due to third-party tools and applications, such as "Twitter Counter." Years ago, when Twitter was still new, third-party applications like Twitter Counter allowed users to keep track of followers, find new followers, and post their Tweets on a schedule. Nowadays, few people use such tools, because Twitter has since updated their system to be able to offer many of the same abilities. However, even though most users stopped using Twitter Counter, many of them forgot to disconnect the tool from their account, leaving them vulnerable to a cyber attack. 

Because the third-party tool is more easily hacked than Twitter itself, criminals often look to use a program like Twitter Counter as a springboard to get into an account. Once they have hacked the app that has permission to access your account, they will have the ability to post from your account. In order to prevent similar issues on your account, make sure to check the options on your account (under "settings and privacy") and revoke access to any third-party applications that you don't use. To make your account even more secure, Twitter has some built-in security features. 

First, two-step authentication can be enabled on your account. While it seems more annoying to have to put in a password and a special code sent to your cell phone by text message or call, overall it can be worth it to avoid data thieves. Additionally, to make your account even more secure, you can choose a complicated password with a variety of letters, numbers, and symbols. Finally, make sure your password doesn't match that on one of your other accounts. If you use the same password for every platform, then if one account is compromised, they all will be. These quick and easy changes to your behavior online can help to protect you and make it much more difficult for hackers to make you their next target.

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Friday, March 10, 2017

NASA and SpaceX Join Forces for Space Travel and Exploration



Even though NASA and SpaceX are both aiming to reach Mars and do more moon exploration in the coming years, they do not see themselves as competitors in the space travel industry. In fact, it is quite the contrary: NASA relies on SpaceX for cargo and astronaut delivery when its budget has been decreased and SpaceX relies on NASA for its technical experience and expertise. Neither one is likely to succeed in their space-based aspirations without the other. In Samantha Masunaga's L.A. Times article, she discusses some of the ways the relatively new company and the government agency work together to make their goals a reality.

NASA's budget today is approximately half of what it was in the 1960s, at the peak of the Space Race. So, in order to make delivery runs to the International Space Station or perform other space exploration, NASA has been working with SpaceX over the past several years to combine funding and experience. In 2006, SpaceX was chosen to help develop the Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon space capsule. About half the funding came from NASA and the other half from SpaceX, but it was the connection to NASA and the ability to work with experienced aerospace experts that helped SpaceX to grow so quickly.

In getting contracts with NASA to deliver equipment and people to the ISS, SpaceX gained massive credibility that would have taken much longer to develop any other way. NASA was able to get a private company's help in filling in their shrinking budget, especially as the space program was closed down, and SpaceX was able to build on their knowledge and become well-known in the industry as the main company in the private sector with such a close association with NASA. Today, SpaceX and Boeing are the two main contractors for shuttling astronauts to and from the ISS. Even if SpaceX is investing some of its own money in such missions, it makes sense, because the company gains popularity through being in the public eye.

Other private companies are getting in on the space exploration industry, but none on the same level as SpaceX. Blue Origin is doing research and development on lunar landers to be able to send deliveries to the moon. Virgin Orbit, a split-off from Virgin Galactic, is working on designing and building satellites. NASA, since the closing of the space program, has taken on the role of "development catalyst," encouraging and helping other companies to be able to break into the space exploration industry. It's a good strategy. By combining with other, newer companies with more funding, they will likely be able to one day succeed in some goals like the landing of humans on Mars, a mission that as of now seems improbable at best. With enough research and technological innovation, as well as teamwork between disciplines and companies, it could be a possibility in the years to come.

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Friday, March 3, 2017

Snap Inc. IPO Jumps 44% on First Day



Snapchat has, since its release in September of 2011, continuously updated and found new ways to attract its expanding base of users. Most recently, the company was planning on adding functionality to help users find their friends and stay updated during emergency situations. From funny videos to reality-distorting filters, Snapchat has stayed technologically in tune enough to keep boosting demand and stay competitive with other social media networks. This week's L.A. Times article by Tracey Lien, Paresh Dave, and Nina Agrawal detail's Snap Inc.'s initial public offering (IPO) and what it means for the company as a whole.

On Wednesday, Snapchat's stock was priced at $17. Within 24 hours, it leaped to a closing price of $24 on Thursday, where it had peaked at $26 for a short time. That 44% gain is the kind of "pop" that can indicate massive success for a new stock offering. It usually means that the stock is in high demand among investors. However, it could also mean that the company purposely "left money on the table," setting the stock at a price lower than it was worth.

Analysts found that Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, and other big investment banks had orders for 10 times the number of shares Snap was willing to sell, so they could easily have charged more than $17 per share in order to make extra money. However, in raising the cost per share, they risk reducing demand. While one or two dollars extra per share would have been unlikely to have any significant impacts on overall demand, if Snap had chosen to open at $22 or $23 per share, the market would probably have shown much less interest, and it's possible that the stock would have busted.

To many investors, it's far more impressive for a company's stock price to rise rapidly than to stay steady at an already-high price. It was a smart plan for Snap Inc. to set their stock price at a lower level, giving it room to grow. There is a possibility that if they had started it high it may have ended even higher, but in all likelihood, people would have shown much less interest in the company and not bought at such high levels. Either way, however, investors are unhappy if prices fluctuate too much from their original levels. Whether they start high and drop or start low and pop, investors become concerned. Therefore, the best way for a company to keep its investors happy is to try to predict a stock price that will stay steady through its IPO.

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Friday, February 17, 2017

California's Wine Exports Reach Record-Breaking Levels



Of the various foods that California produces for export, many have faced hard times over the past couple of years, mainly due to the scarcity of water throughout the state. Almonds, California's largest export, grow on trees that require gallons of water to grow properly. Those almond trees have suffered over the past couple of years, and, even though rainfall has increased, the trees may not recover, at least not any time soon. Fortunately, even though the almond market has hit rough times, other exports from California have reached record levels. In his L.A. Times article, Geoffrey Moan discusses increased exports of American wines in 2016, led by California's brands.

Even with the increased strength of the dollar, a limited water supply, and high tariffs, which all had limiting effects on the wine exports, foreign trade revenue still increased from $1.49 to $1.62 billion in 2016. Of all of the wine exported from the United States, around 90% came from California. Not only did the volume of wine increase, so too did the prices of those wines. Golden State labels have gained higher prestige in foreign markets, and vintners take advantage of that "premiumization" to mark up the wines. It seems to be a good business strategy that hasn't negatively impacted demand while still increasing revenue.

The single country that imported the largest amount of U.S. wine was Canada, accounting for $431 million in table wines. Behind them came Germany and Britain who, along with the rest of the countries in the European Union, imported a total of $685 million in American wines. Behind them came Mexico, Switzerland, and several Asian countries, who collectively accounted for the remaining portions of U.S. wine export revenue. Wine exporters have faced some difficulties with laws in British Columbia and other areas that prevent retailers from carrying foreign wine brands, but exports have still increased despite such restrictions.

Exporters throughout the U.S. expect that the demand will continue increasing, so limits on foreign retailers could pose future issues. While some exporters are working with foreign governments to try to gain equal access to their markets, other exporters make "trade tours" through the countries that import the most product, to renew their relationships and remind importers of their company's commitment to the wine market. While American wines have plenty of domestic demand, which is why the wine industry depends much less on exports than other industries, vintners are focusing on foreign markets mainly because they represent the best opportunity for fast growth. Their work right now will help to define their growth in the industry in years to come.

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Friday, February 10, 2017

Start-Up "Romeo Power" Attempts to Break into Market for Electric Vehicle Batteries



As discussed in a previous post, several electric car companies (Tesla/ Solar City being the most notable example) have been pushing to create the perfect combination of technology for their energy-conscious consumer. The first company to come out with the technology (some combination of electric vehicles, personal solar panels/ wind turbines, and a high-efficiency battery to store the collected energy) to match that growing need is bound to hugely benefit their productivity in the future.  Although Tesla Motors has made itself a household name in the electric vehicle market, Russ Mitchell, in his L.A. Times article, describes a start-up called Romeo Power that may be able to stand in the way of Tesla's dominance of the high-efficiency battery market.

Not only is Romeo Power a new competitor in a market with high barriers to entry, but the people behind the company seem very confident that their product is better than any sold by the competition. The battery packs are innocuous looking, long and thin to fit underneath a car. Inside the battery pack is what stores all the electricity: thousands of battery cell cylinders slightly larger than a AA battery. Those cylinders have the ability to accelerate a car from zero to 60 in just a few seconds and can allow the vehicle to drive for hundreds of miles without stopping, so packing them all together like that can be a tricky endeavor.

Not only do customers want a battery that stores as much energy as possible and charges quickly, they also want to know that they are safe, that their car won't explode when it hits the slightest bump. Those are all the aspects that design teams have to take into account. They need to ensure their customers' safety while still improving the product's performance. While that may seem unrealistic, Romeo has claimed that its battery packs can achieve a 25% higher energy density than any of its competitors, an unbelievable improvement to most analysts. However, if Romeo succeeds in breaking into the industry with such high-efficiency batteries, they could easily find themselves on the path toward leading market share.

While it seems impossible to many that the start-up will ever take significant market share away from the leaders in the industry like Tesla, some analysts are unsurprised by the company's quick growth. The executives of the company all come from backgrounds involving battery production, and most of them worked for a while at SpaceX, Faraday Future, and Tesla, where they learned a lot about their competition. Sure, mid-level electric vehicles won't need their battery packs, because their manufacturers make their own in house. However, if their battery packs truly have an increased efficiency of 25%, then even the high-end companies will want to use their battery packs. It's simple business: if you don't use the best parts in your product, most customers will choose to go with a company that does.

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Friday, February 3, 2017

ElectroMotiveLA Aims to Educate Consumers About Electric Vehicle Options



Most if not all drivers have heard something about the variety of electrical vehicles being marketed throughout the ever-evolving automobile industry. However, most of those people only know the bare bones about electric cars, if even that much. Besides the fact that electric vehicles are better for the environment and can be better for a consumer's wallet in the long run, very few consumers know much about what makes the different brands and models distinct. Fortunately, according to Russ Mitchell's L.A. Times article, a brand new website called ElectroMotiveLA was started to try to help people become more informed.

The website has many setting that allows potential buyers to do the necessary research to fully understand the car that they are looking to buy. It is designed specifically for Los Angeles residents and details the different models of electric vehicle and the kinds of features each version comes with. The website's settings allow a user to search for specific charging capabilities, the distance the car can travel on a single charge, and the type of tax credits the government tends to offer. To get specific information, ElectroMotiveLA meets with the heads of marketing at the companies and dealerships, but according to Mitchell, does not accept any payment from them.

ElectroMotiveLA is funded by a subsidiary of the Schmidt Family Foundation, a non-profit organization with a goal of improving renewable energy. Because the Foundation is looking to cut out fossil fuels and increase the prevalence of green energy sources, the creation fo the website to help consumers understand the technology seems to be the logical first step. Additionally, because ElectroMotiveLA receives its funding completely from the non-profit, it doesn't need to collect money from the car companies that it is reviewing, which gives the website more credibility.

Mainly, the goal is not to inform people about how electrical vehicles can save fuel and help prevent further environmental degradation. Instead, ElectroMotiveLA focuses on the stylish, cool aspects of the new types of electric vehicles, In that way, potential buyers have a good time learning about the technology, and may be more inclined to invest in it in the future. At this point, because gas prices are relatively low, people are not interested in paying double the price to get the electric version of their trusty combustion engine.

If people can be shown that the price difference is not so large, or that the difference in price can be made up over the long-term based on the personal and societal benefits of driving an electric car, then maybe that portion of the automobile industry will be able to grow. Already, California is moving forward, taking the lead in the electric vehicle market. That state boasts about 50% of total sales in the country, of which Los Angeles itself holds about 20% of the state's sales. Improved education on the subject, such as that provided by ElectroMotiveLA, could help the state's record continue to improve, Perhaps California's zero-emission mandate will be met sooner than expected.

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Friday, January 27, 2017

Verizon's Acquisition of Yahoo Slows Down, Pending an Investigation into Data Breaches



A previous post discussed how Yahoo Inc.'s financial difficulties had led the company's management to get more and more creative in trying to turn everything around. The post also mentioned that a sell-off might be Yahoo's only choice and that, if they did sell, Verizon Communications Inc. would be the most likely buyer. In the several months since that post was written, Yahoo had indeed decided to sell to Verizon. Unfortunately, while the deal was meant to close relatively quickly, Yahoo's recent data breaches have slowed down the proceedings and may lead to a withdrawal of Verizon's offer. In the meantime, however, as the Associated Press of the L.A. Times discuss in their recent article, Yahoo's profit margin has been expanding, even as its net revenue slips.

Even while dealing with the huge repercussions of their data breaches, Yahoo succeeded in improving their financial performance during the fourth quarter. In the fourth quarter of last year, losses were high, so it's good for the company that they have been able to cut costs enough to get some stability back. Over the past few years, Yahoo has been rapidly losing the online advertising market to more powerful competitors like Google. More precisely, Yahoo's revenue from ad sales fell by around 4% in the one quarter. While that may seem like a lot, it's better than the double-digit losses seen over the previous four quarters. Because online advertising is a large portion of the company's income, it makes sense that financial considerations are forcing them to close up shop.

Yahoo announced this week that the $4.8 billion sale of its internet operations is expected to be delayed for at least 3 months while Verizon performs more due diligence and Yahoo faces an investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission regarding the security breaches. In not just one, but two attacks, hackers were able to gain access to Yahoo's servers containing email addresses, birthdates, and other personal information of more than a billion users. It wasn't just fact that the breach occurred that triggered federal interest; it was that the breaches happened years ago, in 2013 and 2014.

To investigators in the SEC, Yahoo's delay in releasing information about the breaches makes the company seem guilty. Although the SEC claims that Yahoo is complying with requests that the investigators and governmental agencies have made, there are still worries among customers that the company is hiding something. Because of those suspicions, Verizon seems to be slowing down the purchase, no longer sure whether they want to even buy the company anymore. If more negative information comes out after the sale, then Verizon will suffer the losses caused by people's uncertainty. They made the smart move in pushing off the sale by a few months, in the hopes that all of the bad publicity may die down by then.

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Friday, January 20, 2017

Internet Connectivity is Becoming a Staple on Many Domestic Flights



Internet access is considered a "must-have" by many Americans, especially when on te move. In an increasingly spread-out and mobile world, consumers want constant access to the Internet to keep in touch with family and friends, or just as often, to get their work done. Long bus, train, or airplane trips can either be several hours of stress for a businessperson, or the perfect time for them to get through some of their work. Because of that, Wi-Fi aboard all forms of transportation has become more commonly provided throughout the country. In his L.A. Times article, Hugo Martin discusses Wi-Fi aboard airlines and their increased prevalence in recent years.

When Wi-Fi on airlines was introduced just a few years ago, it seemed like an overpriced gimmick that no one was really using. Eventually, though, as smartphones became more popular, airline passengers had a way to surf the Internet without lugging around a bulky laptop in their bag. So quickly that no one could tell when exactly the trend shifted, in-flight Wi-Fi became a highly-demanded amenity. From businesspeople keeping up with work emails to the average Joe checking their social media accounts, the technology had to quickly catch up to provide high enough speeds for users to feel like the high prices they were being charged were justified.

In-flight Wi-Fi has become so prevalent that a recent study showed that a passenger has an 83% chance of having access to the Internet on a domestic flight, which is up from 74% in 2015. Unfortunately, that same research found that the chance of having internet access on an international flight is only 28%. The three airlines with the most internet connectivity are Emirates, United, and Lufthansa, especially on long-distance flights where the demand would be higher.

While many American companies are trying to keep up with the trend, some are providing Wi-Fi that is good enough to check emails, but not good enough to stream a movie or TV show. Still, there a significant number of companies, including JetBlue and Southwest Airlines that are aiming to outfit all of their planes with high-speed internet connectivity by the end of the year. JetBlue's will be free, while Southwest's is expected to cost about $8 per day, per device. Overall, for most users, a high-speed internet connection while traveling is well worth similar fees. Eventually, it seems, in-flight internet will likely become an included amenity, available on all airlines. Only time will tell how long it will be until that becomes the status quo.

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Friday, January 13, 2017

Snapchat's Planned Updates Expect to Expand User Base



In late 2011, a group of Stanford students came together to develop a new kind of social media platform, which they called Snapchat. Snapchat was unique in that it aimed to allow virtual communication with the same level of emotional range that one might expect from an in-person conversation. To accomplish that goal, Snapchat was designed to be impermanent in that all messages, pictures, and videos sent through the app would be deleted after the recipient had viewed them. The new concept took the social media world by storm and brought in many users, especially among the teenage to early twenties demographic.

Eventually, however, the buzz died down and many users became bored of the concept, turning to standard social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter for their day-to-day use. Snapchat kept updating their software, adding features to make it more interesting to use, but some people didn't see a purpose in sharing 10-second blurbs of their life. It wasn't until late 2015 that the company made a big change that brought in so many more users: filters. Their filters gave users the ability to change their appearance, voice, or background, thereby making photos and videos more of a fun experience to share with friends. Since then, Snapchat has been continuously adding to their supply of filters, getting more and more detailed by the day. Most recently, as Paresh Dave described in his L.A. Times article, Snapchat is making another big change, a search bar that will make the platform that much more similar to competitors like Facebook.

Besides the fact that the new update seems to stray from the company's original plan to be different from other social media platforms, the search bar seems to be a great addition. Not only will users be able to look up friends by name, they will also be able to efficiently find celebrities and companies that they want to follow. Additionally, all users will have the ability to send their Snaps to the company for the chance to be featured publicly, a feature that was once limited to specific locations and events. Perhaps the coolest part of the new update involves the use of artificial intelligence to identify objects or people in public videos. In that way, a user could choose to view any Snap containing a specific product or featuring the image of a politician or some other famous person.

Because Snapchat is now allowing public submissions from anyone around the world, they are making their users happy and are granting themselves access to far more content. If users are willing to send in their own funny or thought-provoking images and videos, then Snapchat doesn't have to invest money into coming up with their own. Their AI will sort the Snaps based on event or location, which could be helpful for real-time coverage by real people in the event of a natural disaster or local emergency. All of these changes to the app seem to be timely and will hopefully be quite effective in both helping the company grow and allowing users to connect easily.

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Friday, January 6, 2017

Universal Studios Hollywood Beginning to See Record-Breaking Attendance in 2017



Since its creation, Disney Parks and Resorts has held the lead based on annual attendance among amusement park corporations, both in California as well as the world. While Universal Studios has come in second place in California and third in the world (behind Merlin Entertainment Group, a UK-based company), it was never a close competition. Disney's parks have regularly seen triple the number of visitors as Universal's, but this year, the gap may be closing. As discussed in Hugo Martin's L.A. Times article, attendance at Universal Studios Hollywood has been growing rapidly, so much so that the park reached its maximum capacity and had to close its gates to incoming guests this week.

It will take much more than a single good week (especially one during winter break, when many people have time off of school and work) for Universal to see greater attendance than Disney. In fact, it is unlikely that Universal will take the lead any time in the near future, mainly due to size and capacity limitations, but the increased demand has shown that Universal's recent investments into new attractions are starting to pay off. after the huge success of "The Wizarding World of Harry Potter" at their Orlando park, Universal finished construction on the smaller Los Angeles version last year, which led to a massive surge in the park's popularity.

Harry Potter World has brought in many more visitors as well as thousands of dollars in spending on souvenirs and food. However, that new portion of the park is not the only thing that has increased the park's popularity. Since 2014, Universal has invested over $1.4 billion in revamping and improving their Hollywood-based theme park. Their new Fast and Furious ride has caused improvement among some demographics, and their Minions/ Despicable Me attractions gathered interest on the other end of the spectrum. One of the biggest attractions to the park, besides The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, has been a haunted maze themed after AMC's popular show, "The Walking Dead." Universal has been making changes throughout the park, targeting all of their demographics, which seems to be a good strategy to help them get an edge on the competition.

New Year's Day at Universal Studios Hollywood saw record-breaking numbers, but those records were broken again and again throughout the week. In 2015, the park had seen an average of 20,000 visitors per day, but the number has been rising in leaps and bounds over the past year. This week, when demand was higher than ever before, wait times ranged anywhere between 30 minutes and 2 hours for their most popular attractions. While those numbers are nowhere near as high as those at Disney's parks, Universal may need to look at addressing the issue if they don't want to upset too many potential customers. However, studies have shown that people prefer waiting in long lines rather than not being allowed in the park at all, so closing the gates (except for reasons of legal capacity) may not be the best solution either.

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