Analyzing the top news stories across the web

Sept. 2 2014 3:32 PM

Here's How Long It Takes to Recoup the Cost of Your College Degree

This article originally appeared in Business Insider.

College starts today for students across the country.

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With tuition costs surging, we can't help but ask, "What are they thinking?"

In a new note, the New York Fed's Jaison R. Abel and Richard Deitz write that, looked at one way, these young people are making a sound investment as it now takes fewer years than ever for graduates to recoup their investment.

While you used to have to work nearly 25 years to earn back what you'd fronted for your degree, only about 10 years on average are now required.  

"Despite the challenges facing today’s college graduates, the value of a college degree has remained near its all-time high, while the time required to recoup the costs of the degree has remained near its all-time low," they write. 

However, that 10-year time-frame has not really budged since the late '90s.

Similarly, the value of a college degree has not increased since 2000, and has actually been decreasing of late.

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New York Fed

"We estimate that the value of a college degree fell from about $120,000 in the early 1970s to about $80,000 in the early 1980s, before more than tripling to nearly $300,000 by the late 1990s, where it has remained, more or less, ever since," they write. 

That value of college has stayed near all-time highs despite rising tuition costs and falling wages for graduates actually has more to do with plummeting wages among high school graduates.

In other words, the opportunity cost of not going to school are climbing. 

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New York Fed

We've written about the debate over the value of a college degree before, and most economists remain adamant that in nearly every scenario, obtaining a college degree (as opposed to merely taking just some college) is worth the investment.

But Abel and Deitz recognize that it still remains difficult to argue one way or the other.

"...It’s possible that some part of what we estimate as the value of a college degree isn’t driven by the skills an individual acquires while in college: people who earn a college degree may simply differ in their innate skills and abilities from those who don’t obtain a degree," they write. "Maybe some college graduates would have earned higher wages even if they had never gone to college. Separating out these two effects in research studies is extremely difficult."

We should keep our eyes on this space as the pair say they have further posts on this subject in the pipe, including one that shows that based on the distribution of wages for college graduates, college actually does not appear to have paid off for a sizable fraction of those who made the investment. 

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Sept. 2 2014 12:12 PM

My Experiment in Texting Using Only Emojis

This article originally appeared in Business Insider.

Emoji are everywhere. The little illustrated characters that are on smartphone keyboards are taking over the world. There are shoes with emoji on them, pants with emoji on them, emoji stickers, emoji yoga, and the list goes on and on with no sign of ending. As emoji spreads into our culture, I’ve actually heard the following question: Is emoji moving to replace communicating with the written word?

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Business Insider

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To find out, I communicated via iMessage using only emoji for five days. That meant every time someone sent me a text or I wanted to send a text, I could only use the popular tiny picture characters to respond to or start a conversation.

I wasn’t allowed to cheat by moving the conversation to Facebook message or Twitter DM, but I could send a phone emoji to indicate to the recipient of my texts that they could call me instead; I could not instigate the phone call myself. If I was trying to text someone and I saw that they were available to talk on Gchat instead, I could not cease the text conversation and pick it back up on Gchat.

I wanted to see if it was easier or harder than I expected it to be, yes, but I also wanted to see if I could influence those I was conversing with to overthrow their use of text and start using emoji while talking to me.

Spoiler Alert: It Was Hard

Communicating with emoji was way more difficult than I expected it to be. First, there was the fact that everyone who contacted me via text, or those I needed to use text to talk to, didn’t know that this was going to be my only way to communicate for five days.

There were people who were annoyed with me. There were people who gave up after a few back-and-forths. There were missed messages, mixed messages, and messed up plans. There were people who immediately just called my phone to get the conversation moving faster. And there was my mother who doesn’t have an iPhone and texts me often. 

The first emoji were created in the late nineties by Shigetaka Kurita, who at the time was working for Japanese carrier NTT Docomo. They became popular when Apple added the emoji keyboard to the iPhone 5 in 2012Every emoji is defined officially in the “emojipedia” (think of it as a dictionary for emoji), but more likely, the definitions become molded by the way they’re integrated into popular culture. For example, take the prayer hands emoji, two hands clasped together and giving off a glowing light. About a month ago, it was reported that this emoji was actually two people high-fiving, sending the internet into a tailspin. It turns out that report was probably wrong. It really is prayer hands.

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High five or prayer hands?

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The first person to text me was my colleague Alyson Shontell. She knew the experiment was happening so made a large effort to stump me with hard questions that, to be fair, no one would ever ask me via text, like “where were you born again?” She was in the room with me when she sent it, so I was able to roll my eyes at her. 

Food Emoji For Survival

Recently, Atlantic writer Kelsey Rexroat embarked on a week of only eating foods immortalized by emoji.

Though her experiment had nothing to do with communication, here’s what Rexroat found by living—quite literally—by emoji:

“Dinner is spaghetti and red wine. It’s not a far stretch from my usual diet, though I have a moment of dismay when I realize there is no cheese emoji, and I must pass up the aged Gruyere I had bought a few days earlier,” Rexroat writes.

Then there was the case of Alex Goldmark and his girlfriend Liza, who, last winter, decided that for 30 days they would only use emoji when communicating via their phones. In an interview with WNYC, the couple spoke about “what went wrong” during their experiment. Goldmark and his girlfriend explained there was an instance where plans had to be changed last minute, but Goldmark misunderstood what Liza was trying to convey to him via emoji.

This happened to me when I was trying to explain to my friend Tom that I had booked both of our tickets for a destination wedding in several months. In turn, Tom thought I got a raise.

It was extremely frustrating but it forced me to pick up the phone and call him at a time when I had a free moment to share information. With my mom, who doesn’t have an iPhone, my only means of communication was using the phone (and maybe an email here or there.)

There were very few glimmers of hope throughout this experiment, and I cherished all of them. It wasn’t always terrible, sometimes (though they were rare instances), people seemed to understand what I was trying to tell them. Take my college friend Rachel, for example, who was taking a bus from Boston to visit me in New York.  We communicated via text briefly—and flawlessly.

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Business Insider

Unsurprisingly, the easiest person to communicate with using emoji was my 18-year-old sister, and I only slipped once: When my editor, Jay Yarow, texted me to tell me I was late for a meeting I responded with a typed out expletive and then quickly followed up with a dozen “poo” emoji. 

My experiment wasn’t as controlled as Goldmark’s experiment with his girlfriend Liza. Instead of just altering one relationship by extensively editing my means of communication with just one person, I spread the idea across my entire social circle, the trade off being that transactions of conversation were much more shallow. One thing I agreed with while listening and reading Goldmark’s findings was that he and Liza felt that emotions were easier to communicate using emoji, whereas logistics—plans, questions—were not. And unlike Rexroat’s awesome “only eating food found in emoji” experiment, I really set out to find if replacing the written word was plausible.

The truth? It’s probably not going to happen. Emoji is better as a form of punctuation. It adds flair to otherwise normal, and boring statements in a way that a period, exclamation point, or question mark never could. 

One of the most charming elements of emoji is that, while every emoji has a technical official definition, people use them to represent different things. Quite simply, it’s a language that’s more subjective than objective. It became very clear early on that it would never replace the written word, unless as a civilization we were able to come together and assign very specific meanings to each picture that could, under no circumstance, be changed.

Aug. 31 2014 8:06 AM

New Documentary Bares Crazy Drama Between the Burt’s Bees Founders

This article originally appeared in Business Insider.

If you’re familiar with the Burt’s Bees brand of lip balms and moisturizing lotions, you may be surprised to learn two things: The bearded man in the brand’s logo is a real guy named Burt (who was born Ingram Berg Shavitz) and despite its small-business image, the company is owned by the Clorox Corp.

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In the documentary Burt’s Buzz, now featured on iTunes, filmmaker Jody Shapiro looks at 79-year-old Shavitz’s unusual life and adds a layer of controversy to the story of Burt’s Bees. The documentary chronicles how Burt’s Bees started as the product of a loving romantic relationship that later fell apart and ended in lasting bitterness as the company grew into a multimillion-dollar business.

These days, Shavitz passes his time with his three golden retrievers and no electricity or water heater in his Parkman, Maine, home. He leaves only to occasionally go on a promotional tour for the brand and no longer has any connection to its co-founder, Roxanne Quimby.

In fact, he says in the film, he wishes to never speak to her again.

Before he met Quimby or even had any bees, Shavitz was an independent thinker from Long Island who never seemed to fit in with everyone else. Shavitz unofficially changed his name from Ingram to Burt after graduating high school and moving to Manhattan, where he eventually became a photographer for Time and Life.

One day in 1970 he realized he was terrified of growing old in a dingy apartment and decided to pack up and head to the country, ending up in Dover-Foxcroft, Maine. He grew out his hair and beard and learned the art of beekeeping.

Shavitz marked his hives with “Burt’s Bees” to keep them from being robbed and developed a reputation among locals for selling gallons of honey out of his truck on the side of the road. He met Quimby, a single mother of two boys, in 1984.

The two didn’t start off as business partners but as a couple. As Shavitz put it to the New Yorker, “She was man-hungry, and she and I, by spells, fed the hunger.”

In the film, Shavitz grows wistful when he speaks of their early days together and admits that she was the only woman he ever truly loved.

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Shavitz agreed to become the face of the company, appearing in print ads and using his engraved portrait as its logo.

Product shot via BurtsBees.com

Shavitz showed Quimby an old beekeeping book filled with beeswax recipes, and the two began selling candles in addition to honey. Locals scooped them up, and the business partners began selling more products and growing distribution. They incorporated the company in 1991.

Shavitz, who was even then more content selling just enough products to keep his simple lifestyle, never shared Quimby’s passion for business growth. But he agreed to become the face of the company, appearing in print ads and using his engraved portrait as its logo.

The film’s narrative suggests Shavitz and Quimby grew further apart as Burt’s Bees became more successful and Quimby’s vision became more ambitious.

Things came to a head in 1994, when Quimby moved the company’s headquarters to Durham, North Carolina, and Shavitz left the company, the details of which remain controversial.

Shapiro tells us he asked Quimby to be in his film, but she declined and referred him to her son, Lucas St. Clair.

In the documentary, St. Clair says his mother has said that Shavitz was not happy working for a large company and that he volunteered to leave. Shavitz agrees with the first part, but not the second.

Telling his mom’s side of the story, St. Clair says there was talk back then that his mother discovered Shavitz was carrying on an affair with one of their young employees and felt it threatened the business.

Shavitz claims that Quimby was upset to learn he had been sleeping with other women, and that she gave him an ultimatum in response: He needed to sign a contract signing over his shares of the company to her or else she would take him to court for sexual harassment.

Regardless of what actually happened, Shavitz remains bitter. “Roxanne Quimby wanted money and power, and I was just a pillar on the way to that success,” he says in the documentary.

Quimby bought out Shavitz in 1999, giving him a house valued at $130,000, according to the New York Times.

Just five years later she sold 80 percent of Burt’s Bees to AEA Investors for $173 million, and then the Clorox Corp. acquired the company for $925 million in 2007. The Associated Press reports that Quimby made more than $300 million in the Clorox deal.

Shavitz may have missed out on hundreds of millions of dollars, but Quimby says she eventually gave Shavitz an additional $4 million. In an email to the AP, she writes: “Everyone associated with the company was treated fairly, and in some cases very generously, upon the sale of the company and my departure as CEO. And that, of course, includes Burt.”

Shavitz clearly shows sadness and anger regarding Quimby in the film, but Shapiro tells us that even after spending all that time with him for the project, he’s unsure of whether Shavitz feels cheated.

“I think he feels hurt, but those might be for personal reasons, not financial,” Shapiro writes in an email. “From hearing his account, I truly believe at the time he wasn’t happy with his role in the company—as he said: He never wanted a 9-5 job, or spending all his time in a factory. I also don’t think at the time when he left the company people really understood how big it was going to get, or how much it was going to be worth.”

We reached out to Shavitz’s personal assistant Trevor Folsom to ask Shavitz what he thought of his portrayal in the film.

“Burt said, ‘Who remembers?’ ” Folsom tells us in an email, sharing a typical carefree response from the founder.

But Folsom says he knows Shavitz likes it. “He has previously answered that question by saying he loved the film and saying every person will always have their own opinion. He really enjoyed the film and never had anything bad to say about it at all. It is just him as he is always himself!” he writes.

We also reached out to Quimby’s son St. Clair, but did not receive a response by the time we published this story.

Shapiro says Shavitz is a man of apparent contradictions: He’s a peacenik who takes target practice with his handgun, a hermit and a businessman.

Shavitz makes it clear in the film that he gets paid by Clorox to make his promotional appearances.

At the film’s premiere last September at the Toronto International Film Festival, someone asked Shavitz in a Q&A following the screening why he still promotes the brand after everything he went through. “Because they pay me,” he said, according to Shapiro.

And though Shavitz seems to be telling the truth when he says he feels uncomfortable about the corporatization of Burt’s Bees, Burt’s Buzz shows us the moments when he enjoys promoting the products with his face and name on them, even if he doesn’t use them too often.

He’ll always be happiest, however, alone on his property in Maine, away from the executives, consumers, and money.

Here’s the trailer for Burt’s Buzz:

Aug. 30 2014 7:18 AM

Scots Are Selling Their Independence Votes on eBay

This article originally appeared in Business Insider.

Police in Scotland are investigating the sale of votes for the country’s Sept. 18 independence referendum on eBay after multiple votes were listed online in recent weeks, Scottish Television reports.

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One seller from Glasgow sold his vote for £1.04 (about $1.72) and promised to vote however the winning bidder wished.

An eBay seller from the Scottish borders listed his vote on eBay with a starting bid of £10.00 (about $16.50). The seller claimed that the sale price of the vote would be donated to charity. It was removed from the site after STV contacted the police and the Electoral Commission.

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Screenshot of eBay via STV

One eBay seller explained why he was selling his vote online, including in the eBay listing, “This is my very own unique piece of British History! It is my personal YES or NO vote for the upcoming Scottish Referendum in September. I for one, do not give a flying monkeys about any of this. This could be the deciding vote. Who knows? I am a hard working Scottish citizen with a house, a gorgeous wife and two beautiful kids who are my world. This vote will not change anything in our lives so I have decided not to vote my opinion but instead..... ONE OF YOURS! Happy Bidding”

In a statement to STV, Police Scotland confirmed that it was investigating the sale of referendum votes on eBay: “Our policing arrangements for the referendum are well in hand and will be appropriate and proportionate. Police Scotland’s priority is to ensure public safety and security. We will respond appropriately to any issues which arise. We are investigating these incidents and therefore cannot comment on the outcome of these incidents until all inquires are concluded. Where other incidents are reported they will be investigated and appropriate action taken.”

On Sept. 18 Scotland will vote on whether to remain part of the United Kingdom. A recent poll showed growing support for Scottish independence, with 47 percent of survey respondents indicating that they would vote yes to independence.

Aug. 27 2014 2:27 PM

How One Publisher Ditched Amazon and Succeeded

This article originally appeared in Business Insider.

Ask Randall White, the 72-year-old CEO of the Educational Development Corporation, an Oklahoma-based book distributor, why he decided pull his company’s 2,000 titles—including the acclaimed potty bestiary, Everyone Poops—from Amazon.com, and the longtime publishing executive makes reference not to a book but to a movie.

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“Remember Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, when they’re on the cliff and getting ready to jump and one guy says, ‘I can’t swim?’” asks the folksy 72-year old, referring to the classic Robert Redford–Paul Newman film. “And the other guy says, ‘What are you worried about? The fall’s going to kill you.’”

That was essentially the situation White found himself in, watching helplessly as EDC’s revenues were steadily eaten away by competition from world’s most successful—and most aggressive—online retailer. “We were selling more to Amazon but our business kept declining,” he says, describing a dip of some 40 percent in one division alone. “I’m thinking, ‘What can I do here? This is crazy.’ You had to fix it, or you’re going to die anyway.”

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Randall White

Nancy Ann Wartman

With no real choice, White took the leap in 2012—becoming one of the only publishers in the country to spurn the “everything store.” Distributors who resell books to Amazon, including Ingram and Baker & Taylor, also soon found their supplies of books like The Gas We Pass and Sticker Dolly Dressing Dream Jobs cut off. For good measure, EDC also ditched other big-box discount stores, including Sam’s Club, Costco and Target.

In a turn of events that might offer some solace to other publishers, White recently announced that EDC has not only survived the leap into the unknown but just had its best year ever in net revenues. July sales were up 28 percent over the same month last year, and first quarter revenues came in 20 percent higher than 2013’s numbers.

This isn’t to say there weren’t some nervous moments around EDC’s Tulsa offices. Indeed, White’s audacious move meant forgoing $2 million in annual sales in one go. “That caused a little pucker in my drawstring, so to speak,” he admits. “It was a gut-wrenching decision. Most people thought I was crazy.”

One concerned observer was Peter Usborne, founder and CEO of Usborne Books, the U.K.-based publisher of children's books, for which EDC has long held U.S. distribution rights (EDC also owns the small California publisher Kane/Miller). “We weren’t involved in the decision,” says Usborne, who continues to do business with Amazon in the UK and elsewhere. “Randall just told me he’d done it. He quite likes a fight, and I think he was looking down the wrong end of a shotgun. It looked pretty grim for awhile, but now it seems he's the wind in his sails.”

EDC’s stockholders also initially found the decision alarming. “They weren’t happy,” White says. Shares had already drifted down from a high of around $12 to something like $2.50. “Fortunately, I own enough that I don’t get fired,” he notes with a laugh. “When someone complains about the price and they own 1,000 shares, I say, ‘Well, I got 800,000. I feel your pain, brother!’” The stock has since notched a partial recovery, recently hitting $4.75.

The success of EDC is a rare piece of good news for book publishers, who have spent most of the last two decades watching helplessly as the Seattle-based behemoth relentlessly came to dominate the industry. Although Amazon now sells more books than every other outlet combined, the entire division represents just 7 percent of the company’s annual revenue, according to an educated guess by the New Yorker. In his 2013 book The Everything Store, Brad Stone reports that Amazon’s aggressive attempts to squeeze small companies like EDC for better terms came to be known internally as “The Gazelle Project,” after Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos suggested his team negotiate with publishers the way a cheetah might negotiate with a vulnerable gazelle.  

At the moment, Amazon is locked in a hard-fought battle with the French-owned Hachette, among others, over the pricing of digital books. Its hardball tactics have included delaying shipments of some print books, shutting down pre-orders, and removing Hachette’s titles from its recommendation algorithms. As a sign of how critical the issue is for both sides, 900 writers, including Stephen King, Nora Roberts, and John Grisham, recently published a letter in the New York Times complaining about Amazon’s policies, prompting the characteristically tight-lipped tech company to publish its own open letter to book buyers, explaining how its goal of making e-books less expensive would mean more sales, benefitting readers, publishers and writers. 

Rallying the Mom & Pops

In the office of Mary Arnold Toys, a beloved local toy store on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, Ezra Ishayik says he was thrilled by White’s decision to dump Amazon. “It’s an admirable position to take,” Ishayik declares. “Fight the beast!”

Mary Arnold Toys is one of 6,000 or 7,000 retail shops that carry EDC’s books, many of which have watched in dismay as sales increasingly migrated online, where rivals like Amazon tend to offer more convenience and lower prices. What they don’t offer, Ezra’s daughter Judy points out, is the old-fashioned experience of shopping in a favorite store.

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Judy and Ezra Ishayik of New York's Mary Arnold Toys

Mary Arnold Toys

The fact that EDC’s books can no longer be purchased on Amazon makes coming into the toy shop even more special, she says. And sales have increased as a result. While the company used to place orders with EDC every two months, it now replenishes the stock every three weeks.

The enthusiastic response of stores like Mary Arnold was critical to EDC’s survival. “They were ecstatic,” White recalls. “They called, they blogged, they rallied. We made up that $2 million loss that first year, and this year set a record.”

Ezra, 75, who immigrated to the U.S. from Iraq in 1965, has spent decades as a neighborhood shopkeeper in New York. He’s not optimistic about the future of small local businesses. “I tell you something: retail in 5, 7 years is a dinosaur,” he says. “There will be Amazon, and that’s it. Either you fight today, or you’re gone. That’s what Bezos is aiming at—he wants to put everyone out of business. And when all the stores are closed in your neighborhood, you will see him raising prices.” 

An Army Of Home Sellers

EDC has a few advantages that publishers like Hachette don’t. For one, the company does not acquire titles or deal with writers—except indirectly through Kane/Miller, the publisher it acquired in 2008. As a result, it does not have to fear a wholesale defection of worried authors to rival publishers the way Hachette does.

Its publishing division sells not only to bookstores but also to museum shops and toy stores like Mary Arnold, which cater to kids—a demographic that is at once less price-sensitive (they're not spending their own money) and considerably more impatient.

Perhaps most important, EDC has Nancy Ann Wartman, a mother of five living in Taylor Mill, Kentucky. Wartman is a stalwart of the distributor’s home business division, known as Usborne Books & More (UBM), an army of some 7,000 sales “consultants” who sell Usborne and Kane/Miller books directly to their friends and neighbors, mostly through book fairs and Tupperware-style home parties (a root-beer float night is one surefire winner).

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Nancy Ann Wartman

Nancy Ann Wartman

The home division is a multi-level marketing organization, in which amateur sales reps around the country not only peddle books but recruit new representatives into the program. Wartman signed on 20 years ago with a goal of providing books for her own children and maybe springing for pizza a few times a month. Gradually, she rose through the ranks, from team leader to senior team leader, executive leader to senior executive leader. She is now one of a handful of directors, with a salesforce of a few thousand in her “downline”—all passionately devoted to EDC and its titles. In a good year, she pulls in a six-figure income, she says, money she and her husband credit with helping them adopt their daughter Adelie, a special needs child from China. (Unlike some MLMs, such as Herbalife, which have drawn criticism for profiting from recruits who never actually manage to sell any goods, “Nobody at EDC gets paid until someone sells a book,” White says.)

EDC’s home reps were among the most enthusiastic about the decision to ditch Amazon, which they considered unfair competition. Many had been burned by spending an afternoon talking up various titles to a school librarian or teacher, for instance, only to have the would-be customer make the order on Amazon to save a few dollars.

After a few such experiences, many of the “ladies,” as White likes to call them, were beginning to lose heart. A number dropped out of the program. Since White stopped doing business with Amazon, however, the division has reversed nine years of decline, posting 13 consecutive months of growth. Recruitment is up.   

Is EDC Unique?

Whether Hachette and other publishers can duplicate EDC’s success is by no means certain. Creating their own MLM divisions would seem to be out of the question (it’s hard to picture buying the latest Malcolm Gladwell over root-beer floats), though experiments with select imprints might be worth a try. The more important lesson may be to align themselves more aggressively the few local bookstores that still remain in business—probably the only entities more threatened by Amazon than publishers are. A strong alliance accompanied by a noisy publicity push might at least put them in a more advantageous negotiating position the next time Amazon comes around looking for better terms.

“Hachette has taken a stand, and other people need to stand with them,” White says.

But the real takeaway, he hastens to add, is something he’s been saying for years. “I’ve been around a long time, and I can tell you, you better be careful before you hand your business over to someone else,” he says. “A few years ago, one publisher told me, ‘You know, we love Amazon.’ And I said, ‘You’re going to rue the day you said that. Amazon is not your friend.’ And now, they’re back at him, just like with Hachette, wanting a bigger piece. They’re not making any money, so they want to take it out of the suppliers.”

Looking back, he says, going his own way was probably his only real option. “It was like when you finally know you have a deadly disease and you have to have major surgery,” White says. “Since we made the decision, it’s been nothing but healing and improving.”

Disclosure: Jeff Bezos is an investor in Business Insider through his personal investment company Bezos Expeditions.

Aug. 27 2014 10:27 AM

Levi’s Wants to Make Jeans More Like Yoga Pants

This article originally appeared in Business Insider.

Levi's is facing its biggest crisis in years: athleisure attire. The denim brand says it has been challenged by the fashion trend of wearing exercise gear instead of jeans. The company's profits fell 76 percent in the second quarter.

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In an attempt to revive popularity, Levi's is trying to make pants feel more like those purchased from Lululemon or Under Armour, writes Kim Bhasin at the Huffington Post. “Today’s consumer is on a quest for casual comfort, whether it's jeans or yoga pants,” James Curleigh, the president of the Levi's brand, told HuffPo

Levi's has looked into using comfortable fibers like Dyneema in its jeans. The brand also released a line of jeans with flexile coatings. It is also advertising the Commuter Jeans, writing on its Facebook page that the pants are built for “mobility, comfort, and durability.”

The rate of growth in athletic apparel is soaring, even as American participation in sports declines, according to the Wall Street Journal.

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Courtesy of Piper Jaffray via Business Insider

Barclays estimates that the market will increase 50 percent to more than $100 billion by 2020. Meanwhile, denim sales fell 6 percent last year, according to NPD Group. The new athleisure trend is the latest chapter in Levi's identity crisis. Levi Strauss reached its peak in the 1980s, but has struggled to reach that level of ubiquity sense. Another trend challenging the brand is men favoring tailored pants over denim, The Economist wrote in July. 

Aug. 27 2014 7:15 AM

Meet the New Yorker Who Makes $1,000 an Hour SAT Tutoring on Skype

This story originally appeared in Business Insider.

Every morning Anthony Green wakes up in his Manhattan apartment and walks around the block to get a cup of coffee and maybe an omelet from the diner that he tells me makes the “best in the East Village, maybe even New York.”

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Then from 7:30 a.m. to 5 or 6 p.m., he's sitting at his kitchen table in front of a computer helping high school kids master the verbal and mathematical skills they'll need if they want a shot at being admitted to the country’s best colleges.

Green is one of the premier SAT and ACT tutors in New York. His company, Test Prep Authority, serves some of the richest kids in America. Using a student's PSAT, the practice exam, as a benchmark, Green promises he can help raise scores an average of 430 points on the SAT (and 7.8 points on the ACT)— “higher than any other tutor, class, or program in the country,” according to his website. 

That promise seems to be enough for his well-heeled clientele. And for this very small but wealthy minority, money is truly no object. Green charges $1,500 for 90 minutes of one-on-one tutoring, and he insists on a minimum of fourteen 90-minute sessions, with very rare exceptions. What's more, the sessions happen exclusively over Skype. Green's pupils have never stepped foot inside of his eclectically decorated townhouse.

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Photo by Caroline Moss/Business Insider

Green, who as a teenager got his own tutor after bombing the PSATs, ultimately scoring in the 99th percentile, got his start in the test-prep industry while a sophomore at Columbia University.

A year later, he started his own business, hiring 50 independent tutors to work for him. “I had no idea what I was doing,” Green acknowledges. “I thought, ‘Hire people who are smart.’ ”

But he soon realized not every genius he hired could effectively impart his or her knowledge to a restless teenager. Green scaled back his business goals and began focusing on perfecting his own technique. “I’m not a manager,” he acknowledges. 

Fast-forward to 2014. Green tutors, quite literally, the spawn of the 1 percent. His students are the offspring of financiers, hedge funders, CEOs, and mostly entrepreneurs. Each student must commit to two weekly sessions and begin three months before the exam. Demand has been so high, he says, that he often has to turn away new clients, leading some to book his services up to four years in advance. Green’s secret, he told me, is using his intuition to quickly identify a client’s weaknesses.

Could Green really be as good as he says? SAT tutoring can be had for a fraction of his rates. Not to mention online institutions, like Khan Academy, which offers step-by-step instructions free. Seeking proof of his talents, I ask Green to teach me how to solve a math problem from an SAT practice book. Full disclosure: I am terrible at math. I am impressively awful at math.

I point to a problem at random. “Find v in terms of w,” it says. I immediately find myself just as bewildered, if not more so, than I was during my last high school math class more than 10 years ago. But Green, who at 26 has been an SAT tutor in various capacities for nearly eight years, doesn’t flinch.

“This is where people tend to freak themselves out,” he says, showing me various ways students tend to work themselves into a panic. He tells me to pick a number to substitute for v and test it out on all of the answers. In five minutes I have a solution and the correct answer. I try a similar problem on my own, get the correct answer in three minutes, and I feel confident I can do it again and again. A big part of my success, he says, is that I actually wanted to learn. 

SATprep2

Photo by Caroline Moss/Business Insider

For comparison’s sake, I then visit Khan Academy online and search for a problem with a similar level of difficulty: simplifying rational expressions. I click around and land on the following problem, with options on the right side for anyone needing hints.

SATprep3

Khan Academy

Flummoxed, I ask for all five hints, which just confuse me more. 

SATprep4

Khan Academy

Khan Academy offers a video, which I watch in earnest. But then my phone rings and I answer it. I check my email. I talk to a co-worker. When I come back to the problem, with no confidence that I am retaining the information being presented to me, it feels as if I'm essentially teaching myself how to do math. The validation from someone who understands is an important component of the learning process, which tends to be lacking when using a service like Khan Academy. 

Clearly, having a one-on-one tutor like Green works better for me. Not that I could afford him. Indeed, neither can most students or parents. By cashing in on the anxieties—and disposable income—of an elite clientele, Green is capitalizing on a system that is clearly skewed in favor of those students who already have a tremendous advantage. Far from helping to foster a meritocracy, as many of us would like to believe, colleges that base their admissions on standardized testing just as easily reinforce the inequality of American society. 

Not that there's much Green can do about the system as a whole, something he readily acknowledges.

The SAT “is a blatant class indicator,” Green tells me. “The entire system of standardized tests and higher education is completely ridiculous and ludicrous. But colleges haven’t found any other way to objectively evaluate the merits of a student. You have thousands of students applying to your school—there has to be a way to compare them to one another in terms of math and language and writing skill.”

Any objective system like this can and will be gamed, he says, and yes, doing so can be expensive. “It's a free market economy,” he says. “These people find me on their own and they want to work with me, and I am happy to work with them. But the system itself is completely broken.”

For those who can't afford Green's hourly rates, he has created software that students can use on their own. Additionally, he works with Young Eisner Scholars, an organization that helps gifted kids in financially disadvantaged communities, by gifting free copies of his software to every child who goes through the YES program. 

I'm still curious about his use of Skype. Isn't it hard to tutor a kid from behind a screen?

Not at all, he insists. Even through Skype, Green says, he has developed a clear sense of whether his students’ full attention is on him or wandering to another open window on their computer, or to their cellphone, or maybe their cat.

If attention is a persistent problem, Green will drop the client.

“I guarantee I can work with you to improve your scores,” he says, “but if you don’t want to be there in the first place and you’re shut down to the idea of really attacking the test, then I can’t help you.”

Green says his favorite students are the ones who have a goal in mind. Unfortunately, that goal is often getting into a specific school. Parents, too, often have their sights set on the Ivy League, preferably Harvard. “I can't promise that,” he said. “I can promise that with improved scores your college options will absolutely open up.”

Green's job will become even harder in 2016, when the SAT returns to a 1600-point test, discarding the essay section that has been part of the College Board’s exam since 2006. “I’ve spent thousands of hours mastering [the 2400 point] test,” he says with a sigh. “But I have time to rework my strategies.”

One strategy that is certain to remain is Green’s pricing policy. After all, students with wealthy parents tend to have had top-notch educations and therefore be the most likely to succeed. As with so many status items, it is impossible to tell whether Green’s services are worth the premium. Does he charge more than his rivals because he's the best? Or is he simply perceived to be the best because he's so expensive?

Anyone who can answer that one probably deserves a shot at Harvard. 

Aug. 26 2014 1:26 PM

Why You Should Always Ask for Advice

This article originally appeared in Business Insider.

People are often afraid to ask for advice, because asking for help “implies incompetence and dependence, and therefore is related to powerlessness.” But a new Harvard Business School–led study suggests that asking for advice makes you look more, not less, capable. “Individuals perceive those who seek advice as more competent than those who do not seek advice,” the authors write. The reason: When you ask someone for advice, you validate his or her intelligence, experience, and expertise. And because you've made a person feel good, he or she feels good about you.  

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Similarly, the easiest way to win people over in conversation is to get them to keep talking about themselves. In other words, flattery—in the form of giving people time in the social spotlight—will get you everywhere. 

To confirm this, the research team led by Alison Wood Brooks did a series of experiments; go here for the whole summary. Let's focus on one revealing experiment. From Time:

[R]esearchers paired participants with an unseen partner that they could only communicate with over instant message.
The participants were then asked to do a brain teaser, before handing the task off to their partner. Once they'd finished the task, they received a message from their "partner" that either read, "I hope it went well. Do you have any advice?" or "I hope it went well." Later, when asked by the researchers, people rated the partners who asked for advice as being more competent than those who had simply wished them well. What's more, the harder the brain teaser, the more competent the advice-seeking "partners" were rated.

The carryover to office life: When you encounter a particularly woolly problem, don't hesitate to grab someone who has dealt with similar cases. There is a good chance they will actually think more of you afterward. “Not only is advice seeking beneficial for the spread of information, but it may also boost perceptions of competence for advice seekers and make advisors feel affirmed,” Brooks and her colleagues write. “By failing to seek advice, individuals and their organizations miss opportunities to share knowledge and improve interpersonal outcomes.” 

There's another bonus: By seeking advice, you expose a little bit of vulnerability, which scholars say is the currency people use to build relationships that predict greater well-being, better health, and better ideas. 

Aug. 26 2014 6:30 AM

Scientists Have Created a New Top Predator—The Coywolf

This article originally appeared in Business Insider.

Humans are not newcomers when it comes to messing around with nature. While we haven't created Frankenstein's monster yet, what we do messes with the natural world. One recent example is the creation of the coywolf—a hybrid of the coyote and the wolf that is also known as the Eastern coyote.

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These animals have a completely new genetic make up: Their genes are about 1/4 wolf DNA and 2/3 coyote DNA, the rest is from domesticated dogs. They were created when previously separate wolf and coyote populations merged in the land north of the Great Lakes.

Here's the coyote, which traditionally maxes out at 75 pounds and has pointier features, and readily populates cities:

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Photo by David McNew/Getty Images

And this is what a wolf looks like. Wolves are usually bigger, weighing in at about 100 pounds, and prefer more wild habitats.

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Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images

While the grey wolf and the coyote are each other's closest living relatives, the two animals separated evolutionarily 1 to 2 million years ago. These hybrids have only really emerged en force during the last few decades, as wolves were hunted and forced north and coyotes moved east from the Great Plains.

According to the New York Times' Moises Velazquez-Manoff: "[The coywolf] can be as much as 40 percent larger than the Western coyote, with powerful wolflike jaws; it has also inherited the wolf's more social nature, which allows for pack hunting."

Specifically, this genetic combination of the two animals seems especially well suited to its northern habitat—better suited than either parent species. The wolf genes allow the coyote to take down bigger prey, while the coyote genes let them adapt to cityscapes and other metropolitan areas.

To study the hybrids better, scientists went ahead and made some 50/50 hybrids in the lab, mating female coyotes with male grey wolves. That's not exactly like the wild coywolves, but it's similar. And gives scientists a better idea of how successful a mating between the two species would be. While two pregnancies didn't result in live offspring, one litter created six puppies.

Here's the result:

coywolf1

Mech, et. al. PLOS One:http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0088861

Generally the hybridization of species gives evolution something to work with to deal with tough times. When food is low because of climate change or your habitat is being destroyed by humans, these animals can turn out to be tougher or more adaptable than their parent species (though many aren't and many turn out to be sterile).

So, how did these hybrids come to be? Well, as Velazquez-Manoff writes in the New York Times Magazine:

The emergence of the Eastern coyote, however, shows how human activity can break down the barriers that separate species. Perhaps the most obvious way in which humanity is altering the natural world is through climate change. The Arctic, where its effects are especially evident, is warming between two and four times as fast as the rest of the planet. Spring thaws now arrive weeks earlier; winter freezes come weeks later. Shrubs are invading once-barren tundra. Animals at high latitudes—where related species tend to have diverged more recently and can therefore interbreed more easily—are shifting their ranges in response to rising temperatures and melting sea ice. As they do, they may encounter cousins and hybridize.

This is what a wild coywolf looks like. This one was spotted in West Virginia.

coywolf2

Wikimedia Commons

Aug. 24 2014 1:27 PM

How McDonald's Conquered France

This article originally appeared in Business Insider.

Fifteen years after farmers infamously ransacked one of its restaurants to protest its "bad beef," McDonald's has conquered France.  

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Le Figaro calls it the "model student": France is the suburban Chicago-based chain's most profitable country outside the U.S. Sales were up 4.8 percent through the first seven months of the year, and CEO Jean-Pierre Petit, who is rounding his 10th year as McDonald's France's CEO, has said 2014 will be its greatest absolute sales year ever. In 2013 sales reached 4.46 billion euros.

The company now hires 3,000 workers a year and employs more than 69,000 workers in the country. Last year it announced it was going to invest 200 million Euros in expanding further. There are now more than 1,200 locations, including ones at the Louvre and Sorbonne, two on the Champs-Elysees, and all up and down the French Riviera. It has the most locations per capita in Europe and the fourth-highest rate in the world. The success has been so exemplary that Wharton students did a study about it

But France is supposed to have an uneasy relationship with American culture at best, and a militant disgust at worse. How did this happen?

Uneasy Beginnings

McDonald's first came to France in 1972, after a French restaurateur convinced Chicago that he could solve the firm's European growth woes. Soon after the first store opened, just outside Paris, a reporter wrote that the American chain would have difficulty catching on as it would have to persuade "the French to eat with their hands." 

That correspondent would end up eating his words as the restaurateur, Raymond Dayan, had opened 14 restaurants by 1978, serving six million meals a year, according to L'Express' Benjamin Neumann. A correspondent for Le Point said the chain seemed to be "prospering," thanks, it seems, to the then-novelty of fast food and the lack of competition—"Quick," a Belgian chain and Francophone Europe's first homegrown one, didn't come to France until 1980.

But sometime between 1978 and 1982, Dayan refused an offer from Chicago to buy out his group, which had licensed his franchises at 1 percent commission instead of the usual minimum of 5 percent. Chicago also began accusing his restaurants of being filthy. Dayan later attempted to sue, but he lost. McDonald's never forgave him, having been forced to shut down its operations throughout the country for 13 months. The company's official history now dates the first McDonald's in France to 1979.

But by 1988, enough interest had returned that they were able to open the country's first drive-thru ("McDrive") in suburban Paris. The New York Times reported that the French officials had realized the key was to go after families and young adults who had spent time in the U.S. or the U.K.  

Rise Of The Sheep Farmer

As the chain slowly expanded into France's breadbasket—and the U.S. and EU negotiated lowering food tariffs—demonstrations picked up.

In 1992, protesters lit a bonfire outside a McDonald's to protest the signing of the Blair House Accord, which made it easier for American agricultural products to enter the continent. 

Things culminated in 1999, when José Bové, a sheep farmer and activist, lead a group of fellow growers in dismantling a location under construction in the south of France.  

Bové was protesting retaliatory sanctions the Clinton administration had imposed on imported Roquefort cheese and foie gras after the EU banned American beef treated with hormones (the mutual good feeling of the Blair House Accord had not lasted). He was sentenced to three months is prison. 

The stunt made Bové a star of the anti-globalization movement and cemented for some the idea that McDonald's remained intolerable to France. Even Prime Minister Lionel Jospin called the demonstration "just."

Yet even as he sat in jail, France was already approaching 1,000 locations.

"The French like to be a little disruptive, provocative," Dennis Hennequin, the former chief of McDonald's France who in 2005 jumped to the head of McDonald's Europe, told the New York Times in 2006. "Yet at the same time they vote with their feet." 

I Sold My Soul To McDonald's

The Bové incident may have actually proved the key to unlocking McDonald's France's stunning decade-long takeoff, as it was now under more pressure than ever to correct national misperceptions as well as address valid criticisms. 

So, Hennequin said, the company began emphasizing that most of its ingredients were locally grown and touting its employment opportunities for young people.

"Without any cynicism, I thank Bové for helping us grow into that role," he said. 

Hennequin spent 20 years with the company and helped guide the firm through the Bové incident, but another man may deserve even more credit for McDonald's recent spectacular growth. In 2004, Jean-Phillipe Petit, the founder of one of France's most successful ad agencies and who served under Hennequin through much of his tenure, took the reins after Hennequin left to run Accor hotels.

Under Petit, McDonald's focused on homegrown products, including doubling down on Charolais beef, locally certified cheese, and potatoes for fries grown by McCain Group's French affiliate. He also expanded the company's product line to include more traditional French items like baguettes and pastries. And he has brought the restaurants into the 21st century: It's possible to order online, or on one's phone, and many now have Wi-Fi.  

"'McDo' has succeeded in synthesizing its American DNA with French culture," he said recently according to Le Figaro.

Last year, Petit published a book, I Sold My Soul to McDonald's, in which he discussed his 20 years in the company's marketing department and 10 as chief, despite not even having eaten his first hamburger until age 30. 

"I came to know McDonald’s system to adapt to our own society, say 'No' to received ideas, and lead the change," he writes. "I couldn’t have done it without McDonald's own guidance and without the confidence always accorded to me by American and French shareholders, as well as franchise owners spread out over 958 French communities." 

Marketing has played a key role in earning back the French psyche. Petit was able to persuade the home office to change the country's logo to green, as well as open McCafés that serve French macaroons.

Finally, he positioned the company as a cornerstone of the lives of young people. The group says it will create 9,000 net jobs between 2012 and 2014, a pace it says it will maintain between 2015 and 2017, although most of the entry-level positions are minimum wage. Petit recently told an audience that besides school, McDonald's was now the most important source of socialization in France. Having never graduated from college, Petit also touts the chain as a stable source of employment for young adults without diplomas. 

Investigation Into Books

McDonald's growth is unquestionable. How it has come up with the money to do so, however, is now an open question.

Earlier this year, L'Express reporter Emmanuel Paquette broke the story that McDonald's had allegedly been using a Luxembourg corporation to avoid paying French taxes. McDonald's has denied any wrongdoing and said the inquiry was routine. It did not respond to numerous requests for comment. 

"There doesn't seem to be any doubt that the American firm has engaged in actions that could link to fiscal evasion, as opposed to an 'optimization of tax planning,'" David Lair, a French attorney who has studied the case, told Business Insider in an online exchange. "But the fiscal authorities will have to prove it."

The Luxembourg entity reported profit of $172 million and taxes of $3.2 million, according to Bloomberg, and it has received more than $1 billion in royalties. Bloomberg also notes the company reported a 4.1 percentage point drop in its 2012 tax rate thanks to “tax benefits related to certain foreign operations.” 

If found guilty, Lair said, France would have to pay back what it is owed plus a 0.4 percent interest rate for each month of liability. 

McDonald's faces other challenges, too. Its share of France's "commercialized dining out" sector, which includes any chain restaurant as well as schools and hospitals, stands at just 12.5 percent and has begun to stagnate, according to Le Figaro. France's dining-out frequency, at one in seven meals, remains far below the U.K.'s one in three and America's one in two. French people average only about 60 fast-food trips a year, compared with 150 for Americans.

And, according to Le Figaro, McDonald's has not released data showing what the average performance per restaurant looks like. 

Facebook Page

For now one can find evidence everywhere that McDonald's has become a highly sophisticated operation whose economic presence is not only immovable but critical to France. Demonstrators recently protested against a local town that had barred the construction of a McDonald's. This November the company became the official partner of Paris Saint-Germain, France's most important soccer team.

Nor has it entirely had to shed its American attributes to achieve its status. The company actually ran a contest called "American Summer," its version of the popular Monopoly giveaway in the U.S. Certain foods came with tearaway sheets that could be redeemed for prizes like a Frisbee, headphones, a GoPro, or a Florida beach towel. 

Flipping through the company's Facebook page, which has 1.3 million likes and more 772,000 visits, one discovers the same amusing combination of English words and "Euro" concepts first poked fun at in "Pulp Fiction."

McDonald's Corp. needs all the help it can get. Shares have fallen sharply in the past two months after suffering its worst monthly sales drop in over a decade, and it is currently fighting through a tainted beef scandal with recalls in China and Russia, two other major markets.

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