Friday, August 18, 2017

Long Beach to Propose Stricter Enforcement of Noise Curfew Ordinance



Finding a great place to live can be a balancing act. It can be next to impossible to find a good building with affordable rent in a popular area. People often have to commute to work in order to find their dream home or sacrifice some of the items on their wish list and settle for something less than ideal. Living near an airport, for example, has both positive and negative aspects. Prices for homes in the area tend to be much lower than those further away, but residents have to deal with increased traffic and greater noise issues. Even with noise curfew rules, some airlines find ways to get around it. However, according to Hugo Martin's L.A. Times article, the Long Beach Airport has proposed a crackdown on noise violators in order to address some of the more blatant rule-breakers.

In response to excessive noise issues over the years, the City of Long Beach has a Community Noise Ordinance that makes it illegal for people to make loud noises that affect residents or visitors during certain time periods. Some examples include leaf blowers, construction equipment, and amplified music. Mainly, the ordinance addresses repeat offenders with disruptive behavior above certain limited standards. One such standard is that for the airlines operating out of the Long Beach airport. The airlines have a limited "noise budget" that they have to stay under or they will be fined.

While many of the airlines have followed the rules of the Noise Ordinance, some of the busier airlines have chosen to prioritize their business over the wants of the community. JetBlue has been the most flagrant offender this year, with over 94 violations in the five-month period at the beginning of 2017. Delta AirLines and SkyWest, next in line, have a combined total of only 3 violations. JetBlue claims that its disruption of the noise levels between 10 PM and 7 AM throughout the year was due to delays at busier airports on the East Coast and in Northern California. They claim that the noise was unintentional and are working with the city to solve the problem.

When the ordinance was enacted in 1995, it set the fines for first-time offenders at $100 and set the fine at $300 for any airline breaking the rules more than three times. While these fines may have once been a deterrent to some airlines, it makes more financial sense for JetBlue to operate as many flights as possible, and just pay any fines they may incur. In response to that, city officials are looking into updating the fines on the ordinance to thousands of dollars per transgression, with the option to terminate an airline's ability to operate out of the airport if the airline accumulates more than 20 citations in a two-year period. It will still take some time to get the proposal before the city council, but it is expected that they will vote on it in the early months of 2018.

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Friday, August 11, 2017

Scam Uses Stolen Credit Card Data to Illegally Resell Gasoline



Improvements in technology are great in many ways. They save money, make life more convenient, and help people to do good in the world. However, technological advancement can often have drawbacks as well. One of the main issues in recent years is the average criminal's increasing ability to get away with financial crimes. The more technologically advanced something is, the more opportunities there are for criminals to hack in or scam people. According to an article by the Associated Press of the Los Angeles Times, one of the latest scams involves using stolen credit card information to resell gasoline on the black market.

The first part of the scam involves attaching 3D-printed credit card "skimmers" to ATMs or other credit card readers, such as those at gas stations. When someone swipes their card through the skimmer without realizing that it's not actually part of the machine, it records the credit card's data for the scammer's use. Then, the scammer is able to transfer the information to a fake card later, which they can use to make purchases. As devices get more advanced and criminals become more tech-savvy, the crimes continue to increase.

Once they have the counterfeit cards with someone else's data on it, the thieves go to gas stations with specially-designed trucks with hidden fuel tanks that can hundreds of gallons of gasoline. Then, they go off and empty the fuel from the trucks into 4,500-gallon industrial tankers. Finally, the tankers turn around and sell the gasoline back to the gas stations or to people on construction sites or to truckers looking to get a discount. Even the smallest gangs of criminals can steal thousands of dollars per day in gasoline, which can be more profitable with fewer risks than other money-making scams.

These types of crimes started sometime around 2006 when the skimmer technology was first developed. Since then, thieves have been using the strategy more and more, mainly in populous states with many busy interstates, such as California, Florida, and Texas. At first, law enforcement did little to combat these crimes, since they were only targeting a couple hundred dollars per transaction. It was seen as a "victimless crime," because the targets could dispute the charges on their credit card statements and generally get the money back. Because of the "slap-on-the-wrist" view of this type of crime, more and more thieves joined up, to the extent that some gangs are making up to $20 million per year off of stolen gasoline.

Because this is a financial crime, the US Secret Service is  involved and is investigating various gangs of criminals, shutting down these groups when they can, and are working on instituting tougher laws to dissuade other criminals from going after the "low-hanging fruit." Gas stations are also looking into installing devices on their pumps that shut the machine down if it is tampered with. Generally, everyone should just be on alert and do what they can to avoid being targeted by a similar scam. Be careful when using your credit card somewhere you don't trust, and if something looks suspicious, you should report it to the authorities.

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Friday, August 4, 2017

New System to Alert Passengers via Mobile App if Luggage is Lost in Transit



Many people often need to travel often in this day and age. Technology has helped people to become more connected and some businesses even operate out of multiple countries at once. Therefore, people conducting business and people looking to visit friends and family will usually need to resort to flying to their destination. Because flying has become so mainstream and efficient, it's not unheard of for some individuals to board multiple flights per month. However, with all that popularity comes mistakes. Flights get overbooked, luggage gets lost, and the whole trip can be a frustrating experience. According to Hugo Martin's L.A. Times article, American Airlines is addressing one common issue: lost luggage, in the hopes of making the experience a little bit better for everyone.

Airports, especially those located in major cities, host many flights per day, with planes from dozens of different airlines. It's no surprise that luggage gets misplaced among so many thousands of travelers. The more frustrating part for many passengers is that they have to wait by baggage claim for every piece of luggage to exit the plane before they can definitively determine that their luggage is gone. Then, they have to go through the whole process and fill out paperwork so that when their belongings are found, they can be returned. People nowadays value efficiency and look to save time in every situation, so a big time-waster like that is not appreciated.

American Airlines is beginning to use a new system of scanning luggage at multiple checkpoints along the boarding and transport process, which keeps better track of everything. Additionally, all of the data is being uploaded to their system, and an alert gets sent out to a passenger if the system finds that their luggage was lost along the way. Because the passengers are getting a text message or app alert, they are able to immediately go to fill out the paperwork instead of first waiting for baggage claim, which can make an inherently stressful situation a little bit easier. In the coming years, lost luggage may be a thing of the past. New technology has been driving down the number of bags misplaced each year, and some research shows that use of RFIDs and other similar technology could lead to a 99% success rate on tracking bags, which could save millions of dollars in the long-run.

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Friday, July 28, 2017

Upcoming Eclipse Expected to Raise Thousands in Revenue for Small Towns Throughout America



Eclipses are one of the only astronomical phenomena that can be seen from Earth without the aid of a telescope or other viewing device. Because of that, an eclipse can be an exciting event for locals and tourists alike. They are so uncommon that people travel from miles around to be able to see one. This year especially has been a big deal, because the so-named "Great Solar Eclipse," happening next month, is the first total solar eclipse to be seen in America in nearly 100 years. According to Rachel Spacek's L.A. Times article, the eclipse is expected to raise thousands of dollars in revenue for individuals and businesses alike across the country.

An eclipse is any obscuring of the light of one celestial body by another. Lunar eclipses can happen when the moon is on the opposite side of the Earth as the Sun, in which case, the Earth's shadow passes over the moon and blocks its light. In the case of the upcoming Great American Eclipse, however, the moon will be passing directly in between the Earth and the Sun, which will block all but a corona of the Sun's light from reaching the Earth. Because of the relative sizes of the celestial bodies, lunar eclipses are far more common than solar eclipses, which makes the Great American Eclipse all the more exciting for viewers.

Although over 12 million Americans live somewhere in the "path of the totality," which is the area where people will be able to view the total solar eclipse in its entirety, millions more are going to be coming into town for the day, just to watch the phenomenon occur. The increased tourism, even just for a day or two, is expected to provide huge boosts to the economies of many small towns along the path. In states like Idaho, where the cost of living is usually very low, residents are taking advantage of the supply-and-demand aspect of the upcoming event and aiming to make a lot of money off of out-of-towners. Some are using sites like Airbnb to list a bedroom for over $1,000 on the night before the eclipse. Hotels have been sold out for months, if not years, and some people are even spending hundreds of dollars to camp out in people's backyards.

Souvenir companies are also making a killing off of the upcoming eclipse. From glow-in-the-dark T-shirts to temporary tattoos and luggage tags, people are selling anything and everything related to the eclipse. People are traveling for miles and paying thousands of dollars to see the eclipse, so it makes sense that they also want souvenirs to help remember the experience. Not only are online businesses getting a boost, but local businesses in towns along the path are expected to face a rush of new customers during the week of the eclipse. Restaurants are stocking up on menu items and are planning to truck in their employees to increase the number of available parking spots. Even Porta-Potty rentals are doing well in expectation of the increased number of people.

Supply-and-demand really is the name of the game. Tourists are looking for a place to stay and are willing to pay the money for a once-in-a-lifetime experience, so why shouldn't the small town residents make money off of it. No one is forcing people to go out and view the eclipse. It seems comparable to an amusement park charging high prices for patrons to get in. If people want to ride the roller coasters, they need to pay whatever price was set. And, for these small towns along the path of the totality, this chance to boost their local economy is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, as another total solar eclipse won't happen for several decades.

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Friday, July 21, 2017

Best Buy's Pivoting has Helped the Company Survive Amazon's Expansion



As more consumers look to online sources for many of their purchases, brick-and-mortar retailers have had to work on quickly adjusting their business model to stay in the game. Many such retail outlets have failed and filed for bankruptcy in recent years, including Radio Shack, once one of Best Buy's biggest competitors. Somehow, Best Buy was able to avoid a similar fate and has in fact made great strides since 2012, when most analysts thought they were doomed to fail. A recent L.A. Times article by James F. Peltz and Jack Flemming describes some of the methods Best Buy's CEO used to get the company back on track.

One of the biggest factors hurting the electronics chain's profits was a practice among shoppers called "showrooming." Consumers like to be able to see the products in person before purchasing them, which is one factor that makes people hesitant about making purchases on Amazon. However, they also want to make sure they're getting the best deal and spending the least amount of money. So, what they would do is go into stores like Best Buy, look at the variety of products, figure out which specific model they wanted to buy, then simply order it on Amazon for a cheaper price. To combat this practice, Best Buy invested more into expanding its market to the online sector instead of just focusing on its stores. Additionally, they have cut their profits on individual items in order to match Amazon's prices. In the short run, they may be losing money on an item-by-item basis, but overall, getting back some of their market share on electronics has been beneficial.

Even though Best Buy has been developing the online sales portion of their business model much more in recent years, the CEO of the company still considers the physical stores to be a huge asset. Although "same-store sales," which is a measure of the number of sales within a lasting store as opposed to new locations, was on a decline for 4 years, revenue at the older stores has been steadily increasing over the past 3 years. Online sales rose 21% this year and now account for 12% of Best Buy's overall sales. According to analysts, Best Buy's overall sales have remained flat because the electronics industry has been growing very slowly. The economy may be improving, but people are not buying as many "big-ticket" items anymore. Slower innovation and the vast range of retailers has led to a decrease in prices and less interest among consumers who might otherwise be interested in personal computers or televisions.

By offering the same prices as Amazon and speeding up their shipping times, Best Buy has been able to reel in some customers who want to get their product immediately, rather than waiting a while for it to be delivered. They also integrated a way for online shoppers to pick up the ordered product at their local store, which cuts down on shipping costs for both parties. Finally, Best Buy has invested heavily in education for their employees. By making sure that their employees are tech-savvy enough to explain products to shoppers, they are more likely to make a sale. Additionally, customers are more likely to shop at the store where the product is explained to them than on Amazon, where all they have is a description and some pictures. Improving customer service and lowering prices have helped, but it's still quite a while until we can determine whether Best Buy and other similar retailers will survive Amazon's spread throughout the industry.

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Friday, July 14, 2017

Over 50% of U.S. Households Expected to Have Prime Membership by Year's End



Amazon Prime is a popular service that allows subscribers to pay a yearly fee in order to get expedited shipping on everything they order. Two years ago, on July 15, 2015, which was the anniversary of the company's founding, CEO Jeff Bezos started something new to further incentivize Prime users: Amazon Prime Day. On Prime Day, subscribers get special deals on select Amazon products. According to the L.A. Times article written by Angel Gonzalez and Ethan Varian, this year's Prime Day (on July 10th), attracted over 60% more shoppers than last year.

Prime Day, which has been compared to Cyber Monday or Black Friday, was designed by Amazon founder and CEO Bezos to be a "holiday" of deals. Not only was it intended to reward current Prime members, but it was also meant to attract new users. Although Amazon has only released the numbers of users that made purchases on Prime Day, it's likely that they gained many more Prime users in the weeks or months leading up to Prime Day. Tens of millions of users made purchases on Prime Day, over 50% more than last year, which brought in over $1 billion in revenue for Amazon over a single 30-hour period.

Analysts have calculated that the number of households in the US with a Prime account has increased 7% over the past year, and they predict that over half of the households in America will have Prime membership by the end of the year. Free shipping and various deals led people to buy some of their favorite new gadgets this year. Over the 30 hour period in 13 countries, Amazon's biggest sellers were their Amazon Echo speaker, Amazon Fire tablets, and Instant Pot programmable pressure cooker. Many other items sold well, but users were really after the deals on personal electronics.

Other retailers tried similar promotions to either compete with or ride the hype of Prime Day. Fry's Electronics offered free same-day delivery on select items and Best Buy had a "Big Deals Day." In the years to come, it is likely that many other businesses will follow suit, offering free shipping at the very least. Some day in the near future, Prime Day may become a holiday in its own right, similar in scope to Cyber Monday or Black Friday. As long as the deals keep coming, customers will keep shopping, so we'll just have to wait and see.

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Friday, July 7, 2017

Grocery Delivery: Niche or Mainstream?



Going shopping can be both inconvenient and time-consuming for the average person. People like to save time and money so you might think that a technological innovation to make grocery shopping more convenient might attract a lot of interest. According to David Pierson's L.A. Times article, that might not be the case after all.

Amazon recently put in a $13.7 billion bid to acquire Whole Foods Inc., including all of its stores, warehouses, and distribution centers. Although Amazon already has a service called AmazonFresh, which allows customers to order fruits, vegetables, and other perishable food products to be delivered on the same day, this acquisition seems to show that Amazon is looking to gain greater traction in the grocery-delivery market. But, the question still remains: will grocery delivery be a successful venture in the years to come?

During the dot-com boom of the 1990s. a company called Webvan had a goal of making grocery shopping a thing of the past. They planned to do what Amazon is attempting to do: make grocery delivery mainstream. Unfortunately for Webvan, even after $800 million in funding, they were ultimately forced to declare bankruptcy nearly 20 years ago. They realized too late that, at the time, grocery delivery was both incredibly costly and extremely risky because it takes a certain kind of customer to let someone else pick out their groceries for them.

Research has shown that people have some innate preference for picking out their groceries themselves. They want to be able to look at each and every piece of fruit before purchasing it, making sure that it's unbruised or the right level of ripeness. Consumers don't trust that an employee of AmazonFresh or another similar company will be able to do as good a job as them when picking out their groceries. Especially if they end up paying the same amount for the delivered groceries as for those purchased in the store, customers will not sacrifice quality for a little bit of convenience.

However, if the convenience factor was there and the prices were reduced, studies show that the combination might be enough to convince some customers to try out grocery delivery. People care about the price more than anything else. That's why discount grocery stores like Aldi have been expanding so quickly in recent years. Even if the quality of the food is not phenomenal, the lower prices bring customers in faster than at any other chain. So, although many people in this day and age want organic fruits and vegetables, few of them purchase their organic foods at Whole Foods, because the chain is known to have high prices. If Amazon somehow found a way to reduce the prices and deliver the food, all while still making a profit, their goal might be achieved in the near future.

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Friday, June 30, 2017

Uber to Make Improvements to App After CEO Resignation



Uber has been going through issues lately with maintaining a positive public image. Various scandals, especially regarding its CEO, have been hurting the company's public relations, which can hurt its bottom line. Ever since the CEO, Travis Kalanick, recently resigned, the company has been working to regain customer loyalty and get back a portion of their market share that had been lost to Lyft and other competitors. Tracey Lien's L.A. Times article outlines some of Uber's planned changes to make the rides better for riders and drivers alike.

Uber's first planned change is to enable a feature that Lyft has had for a while: passengers will be able to tip a driver through the app. By adding this capability, Uber hopes to show its users that the company cares about improving relationships between drivers and passengers. Additionally, in an effort to make the relationship less one-sided, Uber's policies on ride cancellations is changing. Previously, riders had 5 minutes to cancel a request after summoning a driver, which often left drivers sitting around for a while, waiting for passengers that might cancel at the last second.

The changes make it so that a customer has only two minutes to cancel without paying a $5 penalty, and riders will be charged per minute for keeping their driver waiting for them. In this manner, riders have fewer opportunities to take advantage of their position, in much the same way that enabling both parties to see their own ratings could help both rider and driver modify their behavior in the relationship, which makes for a more pleasant overall experience.

Many of Uber's changes are intended to improve driver-rider relationships, to show that the company cares about its users and to improve customer loyalty. However, one change seems to both address a concern raised by users as well as expand Uber's user base. There are many potential users out in the world who don't own a smartphone or don't have access to mobile internet. To address this problem, Uber's latest update will allow a customer to book a ride for someone else. The driver will receive the passenger's contact information, and the passenger will receive a text message with the driver's description and a link to track their route. This feature is especially useful for seniors and other users who may not be as tech-savvy.

Some of the features designed to benefit the senior demographic were already made available through services run through third parties. For example, Uber has a partnership with 24Hr HomeCare that allows customers to book rides via a phone call rather than through the smartphone app. Additionally, there are other services called GoGoGrandparent, Instacart, Munchery, and Postmates, that all utilize telephone calls to allow users to book rides or have food or groceries delivered. So, it seems that Uber is getting into that portion of the market a bit late. Hopefully, all of the proposed changes will do enough to overpower the negative influence that months of scandals formed.

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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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