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June 27 2016 3:45 PM

Bad News, U.S. Economy: Americans Are Losing Their Appetite for Restaurants

The restaurant industry is providing some ominous insight into how Americans are feeling about the economy.

Restaurant sales are virtually flat, and they’re expected to remain weak for the rest of the year, according to The NPD Group, an industry research firm.

Weak growth in the restaurant industry is a warning sign for the entire economy, Nomura analyst Mark Kalinowski told Business Insider.

People need to eat, and when they pull back on restaurant spending, it’s a clear sign that they aren’t feeling confident about the economy.

June 23 2016 11:52 AM

Palantir Is Offering Workers a Generous Stock Buyback—in Exchange for Their Silence

This post originally appeared on Business Insider.

Palantir, the secretive $20 billion data-mining startup co-founded by Peter Thiel, is buying $225 million of stock back from employees.


The catch, reports BuzzFeed’s William Alden, is that employees and “certain” ex-employees are eligible for the buyback offer only if they agree to a variety of conditions, including:

  1. The renewal of their nondisclosure agreements.
  2. An agreement not to poach Palantir employees for 12 months.
  3. A promise not to sue the company or company executives.
  4. An agreement not to talk to the press—and a promise to forward any emails from reporters to Palantir within three days.

If Palantir employees agree to these terms, then they’re eligible to sell 12.5 percent of their equity, or $500,000 worth, of shares back to the company, whichever is lower. At $7.41 a share, Palantir is offering a higher price than most private brokers, BuzzFeed reports.

It’s a big payout for employees of Palantir, which is backed by the CIA’s venture-capital arm and which has historically capped salaries at lower than competitive rates and made up the gap with stock options.

For the business itself, these rules are a way to ensure its veil of secrecy. That’s especially important now, following a previous report by BuzzFeed about high employee turnover and lost customer deals at Palantir that have been an embarrassment for a company that tries to keep a low profile.

Palantir did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

June 22 2016 4:21 PM

Fiat Chrysler Just Scrapped One of America’s Most Iconic Muscle Cars

While fans have expected the news for quite some time, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles today officially announced the Dodge Viper will cease production in 2017 after 25 years.

Five special editions will commemorate the Viper's exploits and revisit some of its best versions, a much-deserved salute to a car unlike just about anything else in the automotive world.

What made the Viper so special? To answer that, one must first look under its long, many-vented hood.

June 21 2016 1:01 PM

Elon Musk’s A.I. Project Wants to Build a Robot That Will Do Your Housework

Elon Musk has built cars and rockets. Next up: domestic robots.

OpenAI—the artificial-intelligence research nonprofit cochaired by Tesla Motors CEO Musk and Y Combinator President Sam Altman—wants to build a robot for your home.

Building a robot, OpenAI’s leadership explains in a blog entry on Monday, is a good way to test and refine a machine's ability to learn how to perform common tasks. By “build,” the company means taking a current off-the-shelf robot and customizing it to do housework.

June 17 2016 4:22 PM

The Bane of America's Electrical Grid Has a Bushy Tail

This post originally appeared on Business Insider.

If your power has ever gone out on a beautiful day, you may have been the victim of a squirrelly attack.


That's because squirrels are responsible for an impressive number of electrical issues each year.

Although it's tricky to get a real sense of how many outages squirrels manage to cause, the numbers are daunting. One estimate tallies 560 in Montana alone last year. Another blames a whopping 400 outages in Austin, Texas, last year on the sneaky rodents.

Squirrels and their partners in crime cause about 10-20 percent of all power outages, according to the Washington Post.

Squirrel-induced power outages tend to be more localized and more quickly fixed than those caused by storms, since one little rodent can only chew so much. But they're still a real issue. Each one can affect as many as 13,000 people at a time, and in 2015, squirrel blackouts cost Montana alone $11 million.

Stack that up against one of the most talked-about grid security issues: cyberattacks. While there have been a handful of blackouts allegedly caused by cyberattacks, like December's in the Ukraine, some cybersecurity experts argue that only the Stuxnet attack on Iran produced confirmed physical damage.

That's not to say, of course, that we should ignore the risk of cyberattacks. Their potential impact is enormous. But we shouldn't pretend they're the only threat our grid faces, says the anonymous information security specialist who runs Cyber Squirrel, a light-hearted website tracking "unclassified Cyber Squirrel Operations."

There is one small silver lining to this nutty problem. Because of everyday issues like squirrel attacks, there are actually a lot of redundancies built into the US electrical grid that make it more resilient. That means outages don't ripple across huge portions of the country, as happened in Kenya last week when a monkey fell on a transformer.

Electricity companies have a collection of techniques to try to protect their wires from rascally squirrels, like plastic coverings on poles where wires intersect and rotating caps that squirrels can't grip onto long enough to let them do any damage. But they're up against a powerful foe, since squirrels never stop teething.

Other animals, including birds,raccoons, and snakes, also cause power outages on occasion, but squirrels are far and away the most common culprit.

June 17 2016 9:21 AM

Why the Maker of M&M’s Is Telling Consumers to Eat Less of Some of Its Products

This post originally appeared on Business Insider.

Mars is trying to change its junk food image—and it could mean the end of the McFlurry as we know it.


Mars is in talks regarding cutting the company’s sweets from super-sugary products, like the M&M McFlurry and Burger King’s Snickers pie, an industry source told Reuters.

The company is worried that the desserts contain more sugar than the total amount recommended daily by the US government.

The potential change is just part of an increasing focus on health at the Mars Company.

Mars Foods, a subgroup of chocolate giant Mars Company and maker of brands including Uncle Ben’s rice and Dolmio pasta sauce, announced in April that it would provide customers with guidance on which products should be eaten every day and which should only be consumed occasionally.

With the guidance, the company has begun actively discouraging consumers from eating some of its products too often—like pasta sauces that are high in sugar—an idea that, at first, seems to run counterintuitive to any business’ best interests.

Nestlé and Mars Foods both recently announced plans to cut sodium from their foods, in addition to coming out in support of the FDA’s efforts to release new voluntary sodium targets.

While the changes at first seem altruistic, they may be rooted in the cold, hard reality of sales. Many companies known for sugary and high-calorie foods, from Nestlé to Hershey, have struggled as consumers have grown more health-savvy.

“Better-for-you” options have already proven to be bright spots in the portfolios of companies like Hershey and PepsiCo. And, publicly encouraging consumers to eat less of products perceived as unhealthy (something Americans are already doing) allows the company to reclaim the narrative and hopefully win back lost customers.

Mars’ move to take a public stand when it comes to health provides a chance for the company to win consumers trust—and grow sales. 

June 16 2016 4:44 PM

Is the Demand for Avocados Fueling Avocado-Related Crime?

This post originally appeared on Business Insider.

Growing demand for avocados is causing a spike in crimes in New Zealand.


Thieves are targeting avocado orchards, with close to 40 large-scale thefts since January, reports The Guardian.The thefts have taken place in the middle of the night, with as many as 350 avocados being taken to be sold at road-side stalls, grocery stores, or shops in Auckland.

The rash of robberies comes as avocado demand surges, with an additional 96,000 New Zealand households beginning to purchase avocados in 2015, according to the trade organization New Zealand Avocado. Typically, most avocado growers in New Zealand have focused on exporting their goods, making it more difficult to keep up with growing demand.

The stolen food can be dangerous to eat, as they are unripe and may contain toxins from pesticides.

New Zealand isn’t the only country where avocado demand is growing, resulting in consequences that range from delicious to terrifying.

Tasty consequences include an upswing in avocado-centric creations. Avocado toast is going from trendy to a mainstream breakfast requirement, named the No. 1 trend in food in 2015 by Eater based on Google Trends data. Now, avocado roses are blowing up on Instagram, with nearly 5,000 photos of the carefully crafted treat under the hashtag. Then, there are darker consequences.

In Mexico—the country that supplies an estimated 60 percent of the U.S.’ avocados—a violent cartel has taken control of the industry in the southwest state of Michoacán. The cartel earns an estimated $152 million from the avocado business, extorting local farmers and packinghouse operators with “taxes,” paid under the threat of death.

Additionally, avocados take a huge amount of water to produce, taking resources from local communities, such as Chile’s Central Valley.

So, next time you Instagram your avocado toast, remember: There’s more to the fruit than meets the eye.

June 16 2016 11:03 AM

The Next Generation of Biofuel-Powered Cars Will Be Here Sooner Than You Think

This post originally appeared on Business Insider.

Nissan is turning to biofuel to run its next fleet of environmentally friendly cars.


The automaker is aiming to release a fleet of vehicles that will run on bio-ethanol, or fuel that comes from plants like sugar cane or corn, in 2020, Nissan announced in a press release Tuesday. Nissan said the system will give its cars a cruising range topping 370 miles.

For reference, electric vehicles have yet to top a 300-mile range, with the Tesla Model S reaching a max of 253 miles.

Here's how it will work: A reformer takes from a tank of on-board ethanol and transforms it into hydrogen, which is then fed into a fuel stack where power is generated.

Hideyuki Sakamoto, Nissan's executive vice president, said cars that run on biofuel are better than hydrogen-powered cars because they don't require a hydrogen infrastructure, Automotive News reported.

There are several automakers working on hydrogen-powered cars, such as Toyota and Honda. Hydrogen cars boast long ranges exceeding 300 miles, but a lack of infrastructure (you can't exactly fill your fuel cell tank anywhere) could hold back mass adoption.

Nissan actually signed a three-way agreement with Daimler and Ford to develop a hydrogen fuel cell system in 2013. Nissan also is part of a three-way agreement with Honda and Nissan to to partially cover hydrogen station operating expenses. So Nissan is betting on hydrogen cars in some ways.

But the automaker said biofuel, which is widely available in North and South America and Asia, has the added benefit of supporting an existing infrastructure.

June 14 2016 2:55 PM

Why Sweden Is Inching Closer and Closer to Being a Cashless Society

This post originally appeared on Business Insider.

Empty wallets aren't a sign of hard times in Sweden—they're a mark of progress.


With cash making up just 2 percent of the value of all the country's payments, the small Scandinavian country has asserted itself as the world's pioneer in the move to eliminate coins and paper money.

Museums, street vendors, and even churches—though steeped in tradition—have all started relying solely on plastic and electronic payments.

In March, the country's largest radio broadcaster, Swedish Radio, released a report saying all cash could disappear by 2021.

Sweden is no stranger to rethinking basic tenets of society. The country opened its first unmanned convenience store in February, in which customers use their smartphones to both enter the store and purchase food, and has declared it will become the first country in the world to go oil-free.

The constant upgrading and retooling is part of the country's overall mission of becoming more efficient. In global rankings of innovative countries, Sweden consistently ranks in the top five.

In other words, going cashless is more of a small step for Swedes than it is a giant leap.

The trend has its downsides. In addition to burdening people who don't keep up with new technology (like the elderly and some rural citizens), a cashless society is also more vulnerable to electronic fraud. In 2014, the number of fraud cases rose to 140,000—more than double the amount from a decade ago, Sweden's Ministry of Justice reports. Critics of a cashless system fear even greater surges as payments move online.

Those who support the system point to decreased theft in the physical world—in the form of burglaries and pickpocketing—if criminals know a card can get deactivated instantly.

Today, Sweden is miles ahead of many European countries in its use of plastic payment.

In 2015, the average Swede made 207 payments by card. That's three times as many made by people in neighboring countries. Swedish Radio expects the gap to widen even more within the next five years, with that 2 percent figure dropping to 0.5 percent or lower.

"Sometimes you have to learn new things," Krister Colde, of Sweden's Commercial Employees' Union, told The Local. "It's a little awkward for a transitional period, but I think it's going to be so simple that you pretty soon realize that this is a lot easier and better than having cash."

June 9 2016 4:30 PM

McDonald’s Salads Are About to Look a Lot More Like Sweetgreen’s and Panera’s

This post originally appeared on Business Insider

McDonald's is releasing a new salad mix that's a bit different than the one that customers are accustomed to—and that draws inspiration from other restaurant chains. The fast-food chain announced on Tuesday that it will be using a new salad blend, which will now include red leaf lettuce and carrot curls, starting in early June.


"Color in produce is an expression of different nutrients," Jessica Foust, a McDonald's chef, said in a statement. "The new salad blend offers at least 2.5 cups of vegetables." The new blend is part of a wider move at McDonald's to create salads that go beyond the boring, iceberg mix. Last year, McDonald's ditched iceberg lettuce in favor of romaine, along with baby spinach and kale, reports Brand Eating.

McDonald's isn't alone in its tweaks. Chick-fil-A has been one of the most innovative chains in recent years when it comes to salads, launching a superfood side with kale and broccolini in January. The one thing that Chick-fil-A will not put in its salads: the flavorless iceberg lettuce.

"It's at the bottom of the salad food chain," David Farmer, Chick-fil-A vice president of menu strategy and development, told Business Insider in April. "There is no nutritional value in iceberg lettuce." Trendy fast-casuals including Panera and Sweetgreen similarly eschew iceberg lettuce.

Instead, if a chain wants to attract modern health-conscious customers, more is more. Customers want more flavors, more colors, and even more calories—assuming they are packed with nutrients, like avocado, celebrated for its "healthy" fat.

It looks like McDonald's is taking notes from fast-casual competitors and moving in the direction of "more is more." Red lettuce and carrot curls may seem like little touches, but they represent a chain trying to create a salad that is packed with colors and nutrients—not just a low-calorie, iceberg lettuce-filled substitute for a burger.