Equifax CEO Richard Smith steps down in aftermath of massive breach

Equifax Chairman and CEO Richard Smith stepped down Tuesday in the wake of a massive cybersecurity breach that exposed the birth dates, social security numbers, and other personal information of 143 million Equifax customers, The New York Times reports.

Paulino do Rego Barros Jr. will vacate his post as the company’s president of the Asia-Pacific region to assume the CEO duties in an interim capacity, the Times says. Equifax will consider candidates from both inside and outside the company as permanent replacements.

According to the Times, Mark Feidler will become chairman of the board.

“Speaking for everyone on the board, I sincerely apologize [for failing to protect the seized data],” Feidler said in a statement, per the Times. Feidler said, per the Times, that the board has formed a special committee to handle the breach.

Lawmakers, as well as the general public, have taken issue with Equifax’s failure to secure the data, and some have cast aspersions upon the company’s handling of the fallout that followed the breach.

Equifax set up a special-purpose website to provide information about the attack, and to help customers contain the damage. Among the website’s primary offerings was a tool by which a customer could enter his information and find out whether the breach had affected him. But the tool ran into a number of problems. Moreover, the company struggled to field the myriad calls that flooded its customer support lines.

The Times reports that three Equifax executives sold a combined $1.8 million worth of stock in the company in the days after the breach had been discovered but before it had been disclosed. Equifax said, per the Times, that the executives mentioned were unaware of the breach when they offloaded the shares.

Smith is the third prominent Equifax executive to vacate his post in response to the breach. The company’s chief information officer and chief security officer both stepped down September 14.

“Mr. Smith has been very cooperative and supportive of this approach,” Equifax spokesman Wyatt Jefferies said per the Times.

Smith had served as CEO since 2005. In his 12 years with the company, he more than doubled its annual revenue, the Times notes. He was renowned amongst Wall Street experts for his ability to develop innovative products, and for his sales acumen.

As of now, Equifax has not terminated Mr. Smith, but the terms reached prior to his departure allow the board to retroactively fire him for cause, the Times says. The company will provide neither severance nor accelerated vesting of stock options to Smith, and he will not receive a bonus for 2017 (Equifax awarded him $3-million bonuses in 2015 and 2016).

Smith will retain $18.4 million in pension benefits.

Smith is scheduled to appear at congressional meetings regarding the breach in the coming weeks: one held by the House Energy and Commerce Committee on October 3, the other by the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee the following day.

Senator Brian Schatz of Hawaii, a leading member of the latter committee, issued a statement ordering Smith to appear for the appointment and admonishing the former executive for shirking his responsibility for the breach.

“A CEO walking out the door just days before he is to appear before Congress is an abdication of his responsibility,” Schatz said, according to the Times.

But, Jefferies, the Equifax spokesman, has indicated that Smith intends to comply with Congress’ demands. “If Congress asks him, he will go,” said Jefferies of Smith.

Schatz is one of the several senators who have, in the wake of the Equifax incident, advocated legislation that would give consumers more latitude to protect their credit information.

The FBI is currently leading a criminal investigation into the breach, the Times says, and attorneys general in 30 states have launched their own probes into the matter. On September 19, the Massachusetts Attorney General sued Equifax seeking civil damages and more compensation.

Featured image via Vimeo

Boeing wins $600 million deal to design the next Air Force One

The U.S. Air Force announced Wednesday that on Tuesday it awarded Boeing a $600 million contract to design two new aircraft for the President’s Air Force One fleet. Both planes will be 747-8 models; they will replace a pair of aging VC-25A (747-200B) aircraft. President Obama ordered the replacement during his second term, according to LiveScience.com.

The Air Force expects the new planes to be operational by 2024.

The VC-25As have been in use since 1990, and have carried five different presidents.

The Air Force agreed to purchase the replacement planes from Boeing in early August. The la Times quotes a Boeing spokeswoman as saying at the time that the company sold the planes to the Air Force “at a substantial discount from the company’s existing inventory.”

“Following the award of the contract to purchase two commercial 747-8 aircraft, this [i.e. Tuesday’s] contract award is the next major step forward toward ensuring an overall affordable program,” said Maj. Gen. Duke Richardson, Presidential Airlift Recapitalization program executive officer.

Under the contract, Boeing will “complete the initial design of the future Air Force One,” according to the Air Force’s statement.” The design will need to meet “presidential airlift mission requirements,” and the cost of the contract cannot exceed a ceiling President Trump will define.

According to the Times, Trump said via Twitter in December that the then-$4-billion budget for the design and implementation of the new Air Force One aircraft was “out of control.” In January, Defense Secretary James Mattis ordered a review of the Air Force One budget.

The Air Force has asked Boeing to incorporate the following elements into the design: “a mission communication system, electrical power upgrades, a medical facility, an executive interior, a self-defense system and autonomous ground operations capabilities.”

The current contract covers only the design of the Presidential planes. The Air Force says it is working with Boeing on a follow-up contract, which will govern additional design efforts, as well as the modification, testing and delivery of the aircraft. The military expects to award that contract in Summer 2018.

The 747-8 models feature numerous upgrades over the 747-200Bs the President uses now, Boeing says. The new planes boast a range of 7730 nautical miles (8895.53 miles), meaning they can fly from Washington D.C. to Hong Kong without refueling. The 747-200Bs had a range of 6735 nautical miles (7750.5 miles)—roughly the distance from D.C. to Tokyo.

The new planes also emit 16 tons less CO2 than the current models.

The current planes cruise at a speed of .84 Mach (644.5 mph)—the new ones do so at .855 Mach (656 mph). Mach One, the speed of sound, is 767.269 mph.

The new planes are six yards longer than their predecessors from head-to-tail and almost 29 feet longer in terms of wingspan.

They can support 987,000 pounds at takeoff; 154,000 (18.5 percent) more than their predecessors.

That last attribute is important given that today’s Air Force One includes a conference/dining room, two offices (one of which converts into a medical facility), and two galleys (kitchens) that can accommodate 100 guests.

The new Air Force One will be the seventh Boeing has designed since 1942.

The company routinely partners with the U.S. military to develop weapons and other defense implements. In late August, the Air Force announced that it had awarded Boeing, as well as Northrop Grumman, contracts to design new, land-based, nuclear ICBMs. The Air Force will likely choose the better of the two designs, or take elements from both.

Boeing’s defense operations represent a significant portion of its revenue. In 2016, the company generated over $12.5 billion through the sale of military aircraft. In 2015, the figure was $13.4 billion.

By comparison, Boeing generated over $65 billion through the sale of commercial planes in 2016 and more than $66 billion a year earlier.

So, in 2016, 16 percent of the revenue Boeing generated through the sale of commercial and military aircraft came from sales of the latter. In 2015, that figure was marginally higher.

At the market’s close Thursday, Boeing stock was up more than 3 percent since Wednesday morning.

Featured image via Wikimedia Commons

Harvey will rank among most expensive storms ever to hit U.S.

A number of organizations have released estimates of the costs of Harvey’s destruction, The Washington Post reports. If the figures are accurate, Harvey will rank among the costliest storms ever to have hit the U.S.

A report released Wednesday by risk modeling agency RMS puts the total cost of Harvey’s devastation between $70 billion and $90 billion. The organization notes that these figures are not official estimates and that the costs will continue to rise as flooding persists.

“…with the rain still falling heavily and the waters rising, the situation is too fast-moving to be stating with certainty what the losses in Texas could be,” said Michael Young of RMS.

Flooding accounts for the lion’s share of Harvey’s damage. RMS estimates that just 10 percent of Harvey-induced economic losses are attributable to wind and storm surge damage. The remaining 90 percent is due to flooding.

Other reports support RMS’s findings. CoreLogic, another firm that gathers data on natural disasters, estimates that between $1 billion and $2 billion worth of Harvey’s damage to residential and commercial properties results from wind and storm surge damage. A third firm, S&P Global, estimated wind- and storm surge- related losses at $6 billion.

Most of the rest of the costs are, again, the result of flooding.

A standard home insurance policy, the Post notes, does not cover flood damages. Most people who elect to purchase flood coverage do so through the federal government’s National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP). But, per the Post, Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) data indicates that just 17 percent of those who own property in the areas where Harvey struck hardest carry flood insurance through NFIP.

Reuters says CoreLogic’s report indicated that 70 percent of the flood damage Harvey wreaked and continues to wreak will be uninsured.

“The majority of [the financial] losses [Harvey causes] will be uninsured,” Young, of RMS, said.

Still, NFIP reports that 500,000 people who own property in Harvey’s path do carry flood insurance policies, and expects the storm to cost as much as or more than any similar disaster to date. CoreLogic estimates that between $6.5 billion and $9.5 billion worth of the flood damage Harvey wreaked on residential properties is insured.

Harvey has caused 51 inches worth of “observed cumulative” rainfall, according to RMS. No other U.S. storm has induced so much rain. Tropical Storm Allison, which hit the Gulf Coast in 2001, produced upwards of 30 inches of rain, according to AccuWeather. Hurricane Katrina produced between five and ten inches.

Like Harvey, though, Katrina caused catastrophic flooding. But, the latter storm wreaked most of its damage by virtue of a 28-foot storm surge, which smashed levees.

Katrina left $108 billion worth of damage in its wake after it ravaged Louisiana in 2009, according to a report by theBalance.com. Half of the costs were attributable to flooding in and around New Orleans.

In addition to wreaking financial devastation on property owners in its path, Harvey will likely take a toll on the larger U.S. economy. The storm has forced a shutdown of almost a third of the country’s oil and gas refinery capacity, according to CBS News, and has crippled pipelines that carry oil from the Gulf to the rest of the nation.

The Colonial Pipeline, which runs from Houston to the Northeast and provides 40 percent of the gasoline across the American South, is currently non-operational.

Gas prices are soaring in Houston and around the country. Since Harvey made landfall Friday. the average per-gallon price of gas jumped more than $0.20 in Texas and just under $0.17 across the nation, per AAA.

Former Shell Oil president John Hofmeister said oil production in the Gulf Coast is crucial to the industry.

“Without it we’d be in gas lines all the time. We need that Gulf Coast,” Hofmeister said.

He added that the refineries will not be operational until mid-September at the earliest, Thanksgiving at the latest.

Hurricanes Katrina and Rita demonstrated how damage to oil and gas production can hurt the US economy. They damaged 19 percent of U.S. oil production, shutting down 113 “offshore oil and gas platforms” and damaging 457 pipelines.

In the quarter following Katrina, U.S. economic growth fell 65 percent. But, in the subsequent quarter, the growth rate increased 270 percent and came in 26 percent higher than it had been in the quarter prior to the storms.

Granted, the deceleration of economic growth after was due only in part to oil industry slowdowns.

Featured Image via Wikimedia Commons

Lyft nearly triples its coverage across the U.S. 

As Uber takes steps to recover from a string of allegations that called its corporate ethics into question, competing ride-share service Lyft is anxious to establish itself as a viable Uber rival, CNBC reports.

Thursday, Lyft nearly tripled its coverage across the U.S., adding 160 cities—for a total of 350—and 32 states for a total of 40. 94 percent of Americans, the company says, can now hail a Lyft ride in minutes.

The company claims to cover more of the US than any other ride-share service, including Uber.

Uber offers service in about 150 US cities. There are holes in Uber’s coverage across the Southeast—the company offers no service in Arkansas, Mississippi, or West Virginia—and the Northeast—Uber rides are not available in Delaware, Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, New Jersey, or Washington, D.C. Uber does not operate in Alaska.

Lyft, by comparison, now serves nine cities in New Jersey, four in New Hampshire, one in Delaware (the state’s capital of Dover), five in Maine, six in West Virginia, and six in Alaska.

Unlike Uber, Lyft lacks service in South Dakota. Neither company serves Arkansas or Mississippi.

Lyft remains well behind Uber in terms of capital, ridership, and breadth of service, CNBC notes. Uber gives 10 million rides per day across more than 80 countries around the globe. Lyft, which operates in the US exclusively, reached one million rides per day in early July.

Since it began in 2009, Uber has raised $14 billion in capital. Lyft, which launched in 2012, has accrued $2.6 billion worth of capital.

But, the gulf between the two companies is narrowing, CNBC notes. Lyft gave more rides in the first half of 2017 than in all of 2016. The company’s share of the US ride-hailing market has jumped from 12 percent to 30 percent over the past two years.

CNBC says Uber continues to grow its ridership, but Business Insider reported in June that Uber’s growth—in revenue as well as in ridership—slowed in the first quarter of this year. Uber, privately held, rarely publishes ridership statistics or financial data.

“We’ve always been the underdog in the race against Uber. We’ve taken a lot of ground. We still are,” Green told CNBC.

Amidst Uber’s many scandals, Lyft is making an effort to double down on its friendly, wholesome public image.

“As we get service levels to parity and pickup times are equal, people prefer using Lyft,” said Green, per CNBC. ”They like that we treat our drivers better. They like that we treat our customers better. And they like that we have a brand that sort of stands for taking care of people, where Uber has done a lot to build the opposite type of brand.”

CNBC spoke to two drivers who each work for both Uber and Lyft in New York City: Syed Manzar and Karim Guernah. Both noticed a change in customers’ attitudes after news broke of Uber’s various scandals.

Nick Raif, who uses Uber and Lyft to hail rides in the Chicago area, told CNBC the unflattering news concerning Uber sometimes prompted him to use Lyft instead. The two companies provide comparable coverage around Chicago, he said.

Raef said he found himself willing to pay an extra dollar or two for Lyft on days when the news surrounding Uber particularly disturbed him.

But, Jan Dawson of Jackdaw Research contends per CNBC that moral considerations are of secondary importance to most customers.

“It is so tempting to think Lyft is gaining because people are taking a stand against Uber, but convenience usually trumps morality,” he said.

Uber is making an effort to repair its public image, as well as its relationship with its drivers. In July, the company launched an initiative dubbed “180 days of change.” As part of the effort, Uber aims to increase driver compensation, to offer drivers more flexibility, and to offer better support for drivers in the event of emergencies like accidents or passenger violence

The company, according to CNBC, has hired thousands of drivers to help ease each individual’s work load and has for the first time allowed customers to tip drivers using the app. (Lyft’s app has long afforded customers that ability).

Uber is also regaining stability in its corporate leadership. Tuesday, the company announced that it had at last hired a permanent CEO: Dara Khosrowshahi, who had served as Expedia’s CEO since 2005.

Featured Image via Flickr/Alfredo Mendez

 

Harley-Davidson rolls out new models as sales decline

Harley-Davidson, Inc. is set to revamp its Softail lineup with a slew of new 2018 models, Charles Fleming of The LA Times reports. The company told Fleming the new models are “already on their way to dealerships.”

The new bikes will weigh less than their predecessors and will feature new engines with more torque. Many will have improved lean angles so that they steer and corner better.

The company has announced eight new Softails, according to Fleming: the Fat Boy, the Heritage Classic (formerly the Heritable Softail Classic), the Low Rider, the Softail Slim, the Deluxe, the Breakout, the Fat Bob and the Street Bob.

The Softail line has absorbed the Dyna line, leading to the discontinuation of the Sportster 1200T, the Del VROD Muscle and Night Rod Special, and the Wide Glide.

Milwaukee-Eight 107 V-twin engines will come standard on each of the new models. Those engines measure 107 cubic inches and boast 147 Nm of torque.

The larger Milwaukee-Eight 114 will be available as an upgrade on the Heritage Classic, the Breakout and the Fat Boy. That engine will pack 161 Nm of torque.

Harley has taken steps to reduce the vibration in both engines, Fleming says, thereby reducing RPMs during idling and limiting engine noise when the bikes are at rest.

Harley told Fleming the two engines are “the most powerful…ever offered” in its Big Twin cruiser category.

Each of the new models will also be equipped with a new chassis and new suspension.

Harley has seen sales drop as the core of its customer base continues to age, and the company is struggling to attract a younger generation of bikers. Many among the new generation prefer other bikes over Harleys, and the company’s dominance in the market is waning.

So, prior to rolling out its new offerings, Harley launched what it calls, per the Times, “the most extensive research and development program” in its history, which dates back to 1903. The company asked current as well as prospective riders to suggest improvements, and many of those surveyed asked for lighter bikes with better handling.

Harley delivered, but doubt remains as to whether the new bikes will precipitate a rise in sales.

“This model year lineup may not be enough to reverse Harley’s US retail sales declines, now in their third consecutive year,” said USB analyst Robin Farley, per the Times.

Harley sold 54,786 units domestically in quarter two of last year, and 49,668 in this most recent quarter. That’s a decline of 5,118 units (9.3%) year-over-year.

The company has made other changes in an effort to drag its hogs into the modern age. LED headlights and a USB port will come standard on all new models. Cruise control will come standard on the Heritage Classic and will be available as an add-on on all other models. Anti-lock breaks will come pre-installed on the Fat Boy, the Deluxe, the Heritage Classic and the Breakout, and will be optional on the other models.

Some die-hard Harley riders, Fleming says, have resisted such changes as electric starters and anti-lock breaking systems.

Perhaps in an effort to appease such customers, Harley has given the Heritage Classic, along with some of the other new models, a vintage look, featuring, per Fleming, “spoked wheels, blacked-out rims and period-correct headlight bezels,” among other “details.”

Like all Harleys, the new models will benefit from the company’s parts and accessories catalog. Riders will be able to modify seat and handlebar configurations and make other changes.

Fleming, who test-rode the Heritage Classic and the Fat Boy, says both of those bikes sit low, making them suitable for smaller riders.

The Low Rider and the Street Bob, each of which costs $14,999, are the most budget-friendly of the new models. The Heritage Classic and the Fat Boy are the most expensive of the new bikes; with the 114 engine, each of those bikes will cost $20,299.

Featured Image via Wikimedia Commons

Icelandic airline WOW brings cheap transatlantic flights to four midwestern US cities

Icelandic budget airline WOW Air announced Wednesday that it will expand its service to four Midwestern US cities—St. Louis, Cleveland, Cincinnati, and Detroit—beginning in Spring 2018, USA Today reports.

WOW will run four flights a week between each city and the airline’s hub, Keflavik International Airport near Reykjavik, Iceland. One-way tickets will start at $99.99. Passengers will have the option of scheduling connecting flights from Reykjavik to any of 12 other cities in Europe, including Paris, Amsterdam, London, Berlin, Frankfurt, Copenhagen, and more. Connection itineraries originating in the US will start at $149.99

“Our unique opportunity is to use Iceland as a hub. We can then distribute the traffic to our main destinations in Europe,” said WOW Air founder and CEO Skúli Mogensen, per USA Today. “…That’s really the key. Instead of having a single point-to-point flight, we actually give you a very affordable flight to multiple destinations in Europe via Iceland.”

WOW already serves seven other cities in the US. In 2015, the airline began serving Boston and Baltimore/Washington (BWI). Later, it expanded its service on the east coast, adding flights in and out of Newark, NJ and Miami, FL, and made inroads on the west coast in LA and San Francisco.

Now, WOW is looking to establish a presence in the Midwest. Earlier this year, it announced plans to serve Pittsburgh and Chicago.

Some doubt whether there exists an adequate market for trans-Atlantic travel in WOW’s four newest cities. Morgensen, who says his company is “very excited about these cities,” expects low fares to spur demand.

“With those kind of prices, we have seen in other markets that we enter that we have stimulated the market significantly,” he said, adding: “We like the region. We think there’s opportunity there. We think it’s under-served.”

Indeed, competition is sparse. Though trans-Atlantic service in and out of Detroit is common, WOW will be the only airline to fly between St. Louis and Europe, according to USA Today. Moreover, only Delta flies between Cincinnati and Europe.

WOW will battle for the Cleveland market with fellow Icelandic airline Icelandair, which announced Cleveland-Reykjavik service Tuesday. According to USA Today, no commercial airplane has flown across the Atlantic from Cleveland Hopkins International Airport since 2009, when United, which was based out of CHIA until 2014, discontinued a flight from Cleveland to London Heathrow.

Like WOW, Icelandair will run four flights a week between Cleveland and Reykjavik, with connections available from Reykjavik to other destinations throughout Europe. Icelandair, though, will serve more than twice as many European destinations as WOW.

But, Mogensen is confident WOW’s low fares will give the company an edge over Icelandair and other competitors.

“We welcome competition from all airlines,” he said. “No other airline has offered as low fares as we have done over the Atlantic.”

For comparison, a one-way Icelandair ticket from Denver to Reykjavik costs upwards of $250. WOW’s one-ways to Iceland from the Midwest, as mentioned, will cost less than $100.

Icelandair plans to fly Boeing 757s in and out of Cleveland, while WOW intends to use the single-aisle Airbus A321.

Tickets for WOW flights out of its four new US service cities went on sale Wednesday. Detroit service will begin April 26, 2018; Cleveland flights will start on May 4, 2018; Cincinnati service will commence May 10, 2018, and St. Louis service will begin May 17, 2018.

Icelandair says its Cleveland service will begin May 2018, but has yet to provide specific dates.

Mogensen says WOW will make more announcements regarding expanded US service in the near future.

“We will continue to add destinations in the U.S. in the next weeks and as always offer the lowest fares.”

Featured image via Wikimedia Commons

Boeing, Northrop to compete to design new land-based nukes for US

The US Air Force announced Monday that it has awarded two defense companies—Boeing and Northrop Grumman—each a $359 million contract to design new, land-based, nuclear Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs), CNBC reports. The companies will compete in what the Pentagon calls the “technology maturation and risk reduction” phase of development, which CNBC describes as the “preliminary design” phase.

The development of the new missiles is part of the US Military’s Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD) intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) weapon system program.

A third potential contractor, Lockheed Martin, has dropped out of the running. The narrowing of the design-competition field marks a step forward for the GBSD program, notes Jefferies analyst Howard Rubel, per CNBC.

Said Rubel: ”You went from three competitors to two. You went from what I call broad concepts to now, two competing designers, who will come up with an industrialization concept that will…probably have some testing done to prove certain points along the way.”

The contract also represents a “win” for the Boeing’s defense operation, Rubel says, pointing out that Boeing lost a long-range strike bomber contract to Northrop, and has faced setbacks on an aerial tanker project.

Boeing hasn’t selected subcontractors yet, and Northrop has released just a partial list. Rubel told CNBC he expects Orbital ATK and Aerojet Rocketdyne, two manufacturers of rocket motors, to “split the propulsion work in some fashion.”

The new missiles, which the military expects to begin producing and deploying in the late 2020s, may replace the United States’ current nuclear ICBM, dubbed Minuteman III, the development of which Boeing led in the 1970s.

“Things just wear out, and it becomes more expensive to maintain them than to replace them,” Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson said of the aging missiles in a statement. “We need to cost-effectively modernize.”

China and Russia are both modernizing their nuclear fleets, and North Korea is becoming a credible nuclear threat to the US and others.

Still, some experts debate whether the GBSD project is cost-effective and whether modernization of the country’s land-based missiles is an effective defense strategy.

The Air Force originally estimated the cost of “acquiring” the new missiles at $62 billion, but now expects costs between $85 billion and $140 billion. Per CNBC, Reif Kingston, director of disarmament and threat reduction policy for the ACA, called the pricing information on which the Air Force and the Pentagon have based the fiscal projections “old and incomplete.”

“We [i.e. the US] haven’t built a new intercontinental ballistic missile in decades. As the program proceeds, they will have start to get a better sense of the costs. But at this point, there’s a lot of uncertainty, and the Air Force’s [first] estimate [of $62 billion] by all accounts is unrealistically low,” Kingston told CNBC.

Kingston also disputes Wilson’s claim that the development of new missiles would be cheaper than the continued maintenance of Minuteman III. At least in the short term, he says, there is an economic reason to delay GBSD.

“Sustaining the Minuteman III for a period of time (say 10-15 years) beyond 2030 would be cheaper than GBSD over that period,” he said. “The case for deferring a decision on GBSD and pursuing another life extension of the Minuteman III is strong.”

Were the Pentagon to defer the development of Minuteman III replacements, Kingston concedes, the nation’s supply of land-based ICBMs would indeed diminish. “A smaller force,” however, “would not diminish the overall strength and credibility of the U.S. nuclear deterrent,” said Kingston.

The US currently deploys a “nuclear triad”: a combination of land, sea, and air weapons.

Some critics of the GBSD project say nuclear land missiles are not as effective in a defense capacity as nuclear bombs and torpedoes. Air and sea weapons, such critics argue, are more suited to dispersion and avoidance of detection than land weapons.

As part of what CNBC calls a “nuclear posturing review,” the Trump administration will examine whether the triad remains an efficient strategy.

Featured image via Wikimedia Commons

Monday’s total solar eclipse cost US employers almost $700 million

On Monday, many Americans saw a total solar eclipse for the first time in their lives. The last time United States denizens had a clear line of sight for a total solar eclipse was in 1979, according to a report by Challenger, Gray, and Christmas, Inc. So, American workers were more than willing to interrupt their banal daily routines to catch a glimpse of the historical event.

And financial experts were busy calculating the losses. According to the aforementioned report, the solar eclipse cost companies throughout the nation almost $700 million in lost time. Challenger, Gray, and Christmas estimated that 87,307,940 Americans would be at work during the eclipse and that each worker would take 20 minutes, on average, to gather his/her viewing supplies, travel to an appropriate viewing site, watch the two-and-a-half minute eclipse, and return to work.

The average hourly wage is $23.86, so if each worker takes a third of an hour to view the eclipse, he/she will cost his/her company $7.95. Multiply that figure by the estimated number of Americans at work during the eclipse and you find that U.S. employers lost approximately $694,098,123 as a result of the event.

Employers in areas which lie on the eclipse’s “path of totality” lost a combined $200 million, the report estimates. In Chicago, which lies just off of the totality path, employees “stole” $28 million worth of time.

However, the report notes that, in most cities, the eclipse occurred around lunch time, when workers are already taking breaks. “Since this is happening over the lunch hours, the financial impact is minimal,” said Andrew Challenger, Vice President of Challenger, Gray & Christmas, in the report.

Moreover, preventing employees from viewing the eclipse would likely do more damage to morale than allowing viewing would do to the bottom line.

So, Challenger advised employers not to “board their windows and keep employees locked up in conference room meetings until the eclipse ends.”

“Rather,” he says, “looking for how to turn this lack of productivity into a way to increase morale and strengthen the team is a much better use of the eclipse.”

Challenger adds that the eclipse, in fact, “offers a great opportunity to boost morale. Employers could offer lunch to their staff, give instructions on how to make viewing devices, and watch together as a team.”

The eclipse’s “path of totality,” which encompasses the locations from which viewers could see the eclipse in all its fullness, travelled from the Pacific Northwest—those in Newport, Oregon, saw the eclipse at 10:15 a.m. local time—through the midwest—Troy, Kansas residents saw the eclipse at 1:05 pm local time—and into the Southeast—the eclipse hit Clayton, GA at 2:35 pm Eastern. Click here for a full list of locales within the “path of totality.”

Many people traveled to such locales to view the event. According to US News, AAA Mid-Atlantic issued an advisory preparing travelers for “huge crowds of eclipse watchers, long lines and roadside delays caused by the influx of travelers from other states into prime eclipse-viewing destinations.”

GreatAmericanEclipse.com says most American’s live within a day’s drive of some location within the eclipse’s path of totality. Further, because August is a popular vacationing time, the site points out, many people presumably planned getaways around the eclipse.

The event’s effect on auto traffic, the site says, was akin to that of “20 Woodstock festivals occurring simultaneously across the nation.”

Whatever toll the eclipse took on the average American employer, it likely provided a proportionate boost to the country’s travel industry. Lodging enterprises benefited from an influx of eclipse-seekers, and towns not ordinarily considered tourist destinations became the epicenters of eclipse-viewing.

The next total solar eclipse visible on American soil will occur on April 8, 2024, per greatamericaneclipse.com. The path of totality will stretch from Mexico through central Texas, Arkansas, Ohio, Indiana, New York, and Montreal, Canada.

After 2024, North America will not see another total eclipse until 2045. So, get your gear and make your travel arrangements.

And tell your boss you’re taking a long lunch on April 8, 2024.

Featured image via Twitter/V3ctor

 

Wisconsin State Assembly approves bill to incentivize proposed in-state Foxconn factory

Thursday, by a vote of 59-30, Wisconsin’s Republican-controlled State Assembly approved legislation that would provide $3 billion worth of incentives—mostly cash—to technology manufacturer Foxconn over 15 years, Reuters reports.

Foxconn, based in Taiwan, has proposed to build a 20 million square-foot liquid-crystal display (LCD) plant on a 1,000-acre plot in the southeastern sector of the state. The company’s initial investment in the plant, which would be operational by 2020 will be $10 billion.

The bill still awaits approval by the state senate and a joint finance committee, both of which Republicans control. Republicans generally support the bill, while Democrats oppose it, but the Assembly’s vote Thursday did not strictly follow party lines; two Republicans voted against, and three Democrats in favor, according to Reuters.

Proponents point out that the plant would bring tens of thousands of jobs to the area, and “transform Wisconsin’s economy,” as Foxconn said in a statement. The facility would create 10,000 construction jobs and 22,000 ancillary jobs, according to Reuters. Initially, it would employ 3,000, but could ultimately employ 13,000.

“We are ready to take advantage of this historic opportunity … and build a long-lasting relationship with Foxconn,” Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, a Republican who was instrumental in the orchestration of the deal, said in a statement, per Reuters.

“We look forward to continuing to work with them [i.e. legislators] to transform Wisconsin’s economy and make it a center of worldwide high-tech manufacturing,” Foxconn said in a statement.

President Donald Trump, who made the domestication of jobs a primary platform of his campaign, has played a large part in negotiating with the company for the plant. Trump met with Foxconn’s founder and chairman, Terry Gou, three times to discuss the plan, according to Fortune.

“I would see Terry, and I would say, ‘Terry, you have to give us one of these massive places you do great work with,’” Trump said, per The Washington Post. The president says he also told Gou, “The American worker will not let you down.”

In a testament to the importance of the deal for the Trump Administration’s economic agenda, Gou, Trump, Walker and others announced the completion of the negotiations in the East Room of the White House, the Post reports,

“The construction of this facility,” said Trump late last month, “represents the return of LCD electronics—and electronic manufacturing—to the United States.”

The bill’s detractors point out that the incentives would put Wisconsin’s government in considerable debt. The government would not break even on the deal for almost 25 years, according to a legislative analysis released last week, Reuters says.

Critics have called the incentives a “corporate welfare” project (Reuters’ words), and believe policymakers are rushing the bill.

“I think we need more time,” Democratic Representative Jill Billings said. “I want a better deal and more guarantees for my taxpayers.”

Early in the debate, Reuters says, the legislative body nixed a motion by Democrats to allow the finance committee to review the bill prior to the vote. The Assembly also shot down three amendments proposed by Democrats.

Many worry about the impact the making of LCDs has on the environment. According to a 2008 CNET article, the “chemical vapor deposition” process that produces LCDs, semi-conductors and synthetic diamond relies on a “missing greenhouse gas” known as nitrogen trifluoride, the globe-warming effect of which could be as much as 17,000 times stronger than that of CO2, according to an independent report cited by CNET.

Foxconn builds electronics for Apple, Google, Amazon, and a host of other tech giants.

The Washington Post points out that the move to build a factory on American soil is unprecedented for Foxconn, which stations most of its production operations in underdeveloped countries, where the cost of labor is cheaper.

The Post further notes that the company has a reputation for overworking employees and for dangerous work environments. In 2011, an explosion at a Foxconn factory in China killed three workers and injured 16. Some Foxconn workers report working seven days a week, living in cramped dorms, and standing so long that their legs would swell.

Featured image via Wikimedia Commons

Cannabis Company Purchases an Entire Town in Eastern CA

According to an Associated Press report published by Business Insider, cannabis company American Green, Inc. announced Thursday that it is in the process of purchasing the entire town of Nipton, CA, which spans 80 acres and is home to less than two dozen residents, with the intention of turning it into “an energy-independent, cannabis-friendly hospitality destination.”

Nipton’s current owner, Roxanne Lang, said per the AP that the sale was still in escrow, but confirmed that American Green was the buyer. She did not disclose the price but did mention that the town was listed at $5 million when she and her husband, Gerald Freeman, put it on the market a year ago.

According to the AP, Nipton consists of an “Old West-style” hotel, a few houses, an RV park, and a coffee shop. Located just three miles west of the California-Nevada border, the town generates much of its revenue by selling California lottery tickets to Nevada residents, whose home state is one of six without a state-sponsored lottery.

American Green aims to turn Nipton into the epicenter of the cannabis tourism industry, creating an economy driven almost entirely by marijuana. The company will invite edibles manufacturers and other major players in the cannabis industry to relocate to Nipton, bringing jobs. American Green will also sell cannabis-infused water drawn from the town’s aquifer.

“We are excited to lead the charge for a true Green Rush,” David Gwyther, American Green’s president and CEO, said in a statement, per AP. “The cannabis revolution that’s going on here in the US has the power to completely revitalize communities in the same way gold did during the 19th century.”

A gold rush put Nipton on the map in the early 1900s, but by the time Freeman came upon the town in the 1950s, Nipton was all but deserted. Freeman bought it in 1985 and set to work revitalizing the hotel and creating a solar farm.

As part of its energy-independence initiative, American Green plans to expand the solar farm Freeman built. In fact, Lang told the AP after a laugh, Freeman would likely have supported American Green’s purchase of Nipton. Freeman, a libertarian, defended people’s right to smoke pot and would have been all for American Green’s efforts toward energy independence.

Lang has an interesting tagline to describe her town’s location: “I like to say it’s conveniently located in the middle of nowhere,” Lang said, per the AP. The town sits 60 miles south of Las Vegas and about 10 miles east of I-15, which connects Vegas and LA.

The remoteness of Nipton is exactly what Carl Caveness, a handyman at the town’s hotel, likes about the town. “We [Caveness and his wife] like the quiet and solitude,” the 53-year-old told the AP.

American Green’s announcement surprised Caveness, who worries that the town’s new owners may push him out of Nipton.

Today, most of the guests at the Hotel Nipton are “desert aficionados” and Old West fanatics, according to the AP. If American Green’s vision takes off, the hotel could become an unparalleled tourist destination.

American Green revolutionized the market with its ZaZZZ vending machines, which use “military grade biometrics” to verify consumers’ ages, thereby allowing the legal sale of age-restricted products like beer, cigarettes, and marijuana.  With its purchase of Nipton, the company is poised to see the cannabis industry through another revolutionary leap.

With 50,000 individual shareholders, American Green possesses “the largest shareholder base of any cannabis-related public company in the US,” according to its website. Shares increased 131% to $.0037—that’s 37/10,000 of a dollar or 37/100 of a cent—apiece on news of the Nipton acquisition. If the venture takes off, that decimal point may move quite a few places to the right.

Featured image via Wikimedia Commons

Toyota & Mazda Will Join Forces to Build Manufacturing Plant in US

Toyota announced Thursday that it will join forces with Mazda to build a $1.6 billion assembly plant in the U.S., The New York Times reports.

The plant will be operational by 2021 and will create 4000 jobs and produce 300,000 vehicles a year, according to The Wall Street Journal. Half of the vehicles would be Toyota Corollas, and the other half would be “an unspecified Mazda model, according to the Wall Street Journal.

A source told the Journal the two automakers would also “co-develop electric vehicles, safety features and connected-car technologies.”

Mazda and Toyota have shared technology before. In May 2015, they partnered in an effort to defray the cost of producing fuel-efficient vehicles. Toyota shared its plug-in hybrid and fuel cell technologies, while Mazda offered technology to optimize the fuel-economy of gas and diesel engines. Toyota mentioned the 2015 agreement in its statement, indicating that the assembly plant endeavor was the latest fruit of prolonged “[exploration of] various areas of collaboration” with Mazda.

As part of the deal, Toyota will purchase a 5% stake in Mazda.

A source told the Wall Street Journal in May that “Toyota President Akio Toyoda is concerned that [his company] tends to be too inward-oriented, and feels it needs to open up more to work with and learn from other companies.”

Toyota partnered with Subaru’s parent company, Fuji, in 2011, and has worked with Tesla.

Mazda, for its part, held a partnership with Ford from 1974 until 2015. From 1996 until late 2008, Ford owned a third of Mazda. The two companies worked together at an assembly plant in Flat Rock, Michigan. The new plant will be Mazda’s first manufacturing venture in the US since the automaker abandoned Flat Rock in 2012.

Toyota already has a host of factories throughout the southern and midwestern US, in states including Indiana, Kentucky, Mississippi, and Texas.

As Japanese brands capture an increasing share of the US market, many have migrated production to the U.S. so as to “be closer to the U.S. market and reduce exposure to currency fluctuations,” says Adrienne Roberts of The Wall Street Journal. According to a June 2016 report by Dan Eaton of bizjournals.com, 75% of Japanese vehicles sold in the USA are also produced here. In 2015, the three largest Japanese automakers built 3.48 million cars on American soil. The three biggest American manufacturers at the time—Chrysler, Ford, and GM—built 6.44 million vehicles on their home turf.

In other words, Japanese manufacturers had about half as much production presence in the US as native companies. But, if we isolate car production—that is, remove trucks, SUVs, crossovers, etc. from the picture—Japan outproduced America by a tally of 1.75 million to 1.53 million in 2015.

To frame the data another way, half of the vehicles made in America by Japanese companies were cars (i.e. sedans, etc.), while less than a quarter of American vehicles produced domestically were cars.

Companies like Toyota and Mazda are looking to shift their focus toward trucks, SUVs, and crossovers as demand for sedans falls in the US market, partly as a result of low gas prices.

Japanese car brands have only increased their production operations to the States in the years since 2015, and the White House is encouraging them to do so. Toyota originally planned to shift its Corolla production to a $1 billion facility in Mexico but canceled those plans when President Trump threatened an import tax. 

Following Trump’s objection, Toyota released a statement (per WSJ) saying, “Toyota looks forward to collaborating with the Trump Administration to serve in the best interests of consumers and the automotive industry.” The newly announced plant may be their compromise.

Construction of Two Nuclear Reactors in South Carolina Comes to a Halt

Two utilities companies announced Monday that they will abandon construction of a pair of nuclear reactors in South Carolina, Brad Plumer of The New York Times reports. The project has been beset by construction difficulties, regulative hindrances, and financial struggles resulting from decreasing demand for electricity amidst improvements in energy efficiency.

The reactors are 40% complete and have already cost a combined $9 billion.

The V.C. Summer project, as the effort to build the reactors is known, was proposed in 2007 with a view toward reviving the United States’ nuclear power program. At that time, the country had not built a new nuclear reactor since the 1970s.

Originally, the project was scheduled to be complete by 2018, but earlier this year, officials said they did not expect the reactors to be functional until 2021. Moreover, project administrators revised their cost estimates to $25 billion; the initial figure was $11.5 billion.

“This was a first-of-a-kind project, so it was always going to be hard,” said Rich Powell, executive director of the ClearPath Foundation, a clean-energy group in Washington, per The New York Times. “But you can also see this as a symptom of a broader problem. We’ve let our nuclear industry atrophy for 30 years, and we’ve lost the robust supply chains and expertise needed” to build reactors.

Customers of the two utilities companies spearheading the project, SC Electric & Gas and Santee Cooper, were funding it. Before the abandonment plans, the project accounted for 18% of the bills of the former company’s customers. The latter company, which is state-owned, had raised rates five times to cover the ballooning costs.

The reactors were AP1000 models designed by Westinghouse Electric Company, a subsidiary of Toshiba. The Westinghouse website touts the AP1000 as “the safest and most economical nuclear power plant available in the worldwide commercial marketplace.”

But, officials broke ground on the VC Summit project before the AP1000 model was finalized, and as a result, costly safety modifications had to be made during the construction process.

In 2015, Westinghouse bought out its partners and became the leading contractor on the South Carolina project, but according to Plumer, “analysts say the company did not have sufficient expertise in handling large construction projects.”

In March, buried under the costs of its nuclear development programs and reeling in a market in which demand for electricity was stifled by a glut of natural gas, Westinghouse filed for bankruptcy. Parent company Toshiba paid $2.2 billion to be “released from the project” (Plumer’s words), but SCEG and Santee cited “the [insufficient] amount of anticipated guaranty settlement payments from Toshiba” as a principal factor in their decision to abort the project.

Westinghouse was also spearheading construction of the two other nuclear reactors being built on US soil, a pair of AP1000s at the Vogtle nuclear power plant in Georgia. Southern Company has agreed to take the lead on those projects in the wake of the Westinghouse bankruptcy, but the nuclear efforts in Georgia face their own obstacles.

According to Plumer, “the [Vogtle] reactors will have to come online before 2021 to qualify for federal tax credits, although Congress is working on a bill to extend that deadline.”

President Obama’s Clean Power Plan would have provided incentives to finish the nuclear projects, Plumer says, but the Trump administration is “dismantling” the CPP initiative.

Nuclear power is a leading contender as an environmentally-friendly fossil-fuel alternative, but the potential hazards, the inconvenient size, and the high costs of today’s nuclear power plants make wind energy and solar energy more attractive to utility companies. Nuclear power has been further pushed to the back burner by the affordability of natural gas.

However, companies like Oregon-based NusScale Power are working to make reactors smaller and safer. NuScale submitted plans for the first ever small modular reactor to the US Nuclear Registry Commission (NRC).

Still, the abandonment of VC Summit, which comes as over a dozen nuclear plants across the USA are being retired, is widely regarded as a major setback to the nation’s nuclear power efforts.

Seattle City Council Passes Measure to Tax the Wealthy

By a 9-0 vote this week, Seattle’s city council passed a measure that would require residents to pay a 2.5% tax on income over $250,000. Couples who file jointly would be taxed on household income over $500,000, Rick Anderson of the LA Times reports. Though conservative activists have already taken legal action against the tax, it is scheduled to be implemented in 2019.

As the Trump administration reduces federal funding to cities, Seattle’s local government is seeking alternative revenue sources, so as to continue its climate change, affordable housing, transit, and education programs.

Mayor Ed Murray wants to “ensure Seattle stands up to President Trump’s austere budget,” he said. The Mayor has called the new tax a “formula for fairness.”

Proponents of the new tax say it will combat gentrification—housing prices and rents are “soaring” in Seattle, according to Mr. Anderson—and counter the strain the current tax system places on those with low-income.

“We have an increasing affordability gap between the have and have-nots. The middle class is being squeezed as well,” said city councilwoman Lisa Herbold, who co-sponsored the new tax. “And one of the reasons is our outdated, regressive and unfair tax structure.”

According to John Burbank of the pro-tax Economic Opportunity Institute, “households with incomes below $21,000 are paying, on average, 16.8% of their income in state and local taxes, while those with incomes above $500,000 pay just 2.4%.”

Moreover, Burbank says the new tax will have little effect on most high-income taxpayers. It only taxes income above $250,000. So, those who make, say, $275,000, will pay the 2.5% tax on just $25,000; that’s $625 annually.

Many of Seattle’s mega-rich, including Jeff Bezos, CEO of Seattle-based Amazon; Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft; Steve Ballmer, owner of the LA Clippers and former Microsoft CEO, do not live within city limits, and so would not be subject to the tax.

Opponents of the tax initiative, such as the aforementioned Mr. Ballmer, say it “drive up wages” will incentivize local businesses to move out of Seattle. Moreover, a local income tax in the largest city in a state with no income tax is a tough pill for many to swallow.

“We’re known across the world as a place that doesn’t have an income tax,” says Paul Guppy of the Washington Policy Center think tank in Seattle. “[But an income tax in Seattle would send] a certain signal to people planning to make a life here.”

Of course, the implication is that said “signal” would prompt potential Seattle denizens to move elsewhere.

Expected legal pushback against the measure began just hours after it was passed when a lawsuit was filed by the Freedom Foundation, a conservative activist group, on the grounds that the tax would “violate state law.” According to the LA Times’ Anderson, “[Washington] state law… bars cities from taxing net income and requires state approval for enactment of any new municipal taxes.”

The foundation’s CEO, Tom McCabe, worries the tax will eventually extend beyond the $250,000+ income bracket, and perhaps be applied across the whole state of Washington.

“No matter who starts out paying it, everyone will eventually suffer,” he said in a statement.

Other cities are considering taxing the wealthy to compensate for the decrease in federal funding. San Francisco, for instance, is considering raising the income tax rate by 0.5% for residents who make over $1 million.

Polls provide varying indications of Seattle residents’ attitudes toward the new tax. 62% of 700 voters polled recently by King-5 TV disapproved of the measure, but other studies have shown widespread support for the tax.

New York Fashion Week: Reclaiming American Culture One Stitch at a Time

The American fashion industry is struggling. In the past year, a number of formerly iconic American clothing retailers have shut their doors. True Religion Apparel, Inc. became the latest casualty earlier this month.

Such brands are being pushed out of the market by foreign enterprises like H&M of Sweden and Spain’s Zara, which employ a “fast fashion” business model in which clothes move as quickly as possible from runways to store shelves so that companies can keep up with ever-changing consumer tastes.

But New York Fashion Week: Men’s, which kicked off Monday, may provide a much-needed spotlight that will reestablish US designers as major players in the global fashion scene. Over 65 fashion shows will take place throughout New York this week, showcasing the work of many young American designers eager to carve out space for themselves among fashion’s elite.

Many of the outfits showcased will be available on a “see now, buy now” basis, meaning viewers will be able to purchase them immediately. It is the ultimate in fast fashion: before a product even hits the shelves, a trend-setting consumer can have it in his/her hands.

Many designers are using New York Fashion Week as a platform by which to reclaim each of their unique American identities amidst a political climate they feel threatens to compromise those identities.

Julian Woodhouse, a renowned clothing designer who also happens to be a gay, African-American Army veteran, says much of the inspiration for his “Field Day” collection is born out of uneasiness with the political state of affairs in the USA.

“I called the collection ‘Field Day’,” he told Guy Trebay of the New York Times, “because I was feeling so heavy about political shifts.”

Said collection juxtaposes elements of traditional, conservative American culture against backdrops of chaos and disarray. In one outfit, a pair of suspenders is appended to a pair of cargo shorts and left hanging off of the model’s shoulder. Another outfit features “overalls with pegged ankles and bibs cut low for efficiency of escape,” Trebay reports.

The overalls could be taken as a symbol of outdated aspects of American culture, from which Woodhouse is inviting the viewer to escape. At the same time, Woodhouse’s African-American ancestors would have had far more pressing and concrete motivations for escaping from actual pairs of overalls.

Taofeek Abijako, an American of Nigerian descent, orchestrated a show that, in his words, demonstrates how “the African natives adopted European styles and made them their own.”

Abijako’s collection featured brightly colored, oversized clothing that Trebay says “[looked] as though borrowed from an older brother or else…pulled from the bottom of a prop trunk.”

Of course, African “natives” were forced to, in a sense, “borrow” European culture, but they also transformed it, made it fit them. So it’s not surprising that the baggy, belted trousers, are “tailored close to the leg” (Trebay’s words), for instance: they fit, even though they don’t.

Events like New York Fashion Week take place throughout the year in New York, London, Milan, Paris and Miami. Trebay admits that, from one perspective, the New York event is merely “continuation of a seemingly unending loop of clothes” going on tour throughout the world.

But in terms of the impact it could have on the American fashion industry and the American political situation, New York Fashion Week is uniquely American, just like the designers it showcases.

Hopefully, struggling American apparel companies are keeping an eye on the proceedings at New York Fashion Week, looking for cutting-edge designers who can launch their brands back to relevance. If not, maybe some of America’s political figures are keeping an ear tuned to the subtle undercurrents of social protest that run beneath each outfit.

Kapensky Labs Hands Source Code Over to US Government, Alarming Trend Continues

Eugene Kapersky, CEO of security company Kapersky Labs, has agreed to share his company’s source code with the US Government in order to “prove that we don’t behave maliciously.”

Kapersky Labs, which operates out of Russia and has mediated interactions between the US and Russian governments for years, has apparently become a casualty of the United States’ mounting suspicion of Russia. In the wake of rumors that Russia hacked the 2016 US presidential election and suspicions of Russian connections to President Trump’s campaign, a proposal to sever all relationships between the Department of Defense and any US government agency employing the services of Kapersky Labs has been brought before the Senate.

Jeanne Shaheen, a Democratic senator from New Hampshire, says there is “a consensus in Congress and among administration officials that Kaspersky Labs cannot be trusted to protect critical infrastructure.”

Kapersky Labs’ official statement maintains the company’s political impartiality. “As a private company,” the statement reads, “Kaspersky Labs has no ties to any government, and the company has never helped, nor will help, any government in the world with its cyberespionage efforts.”

The Russian government employs American companies to protect its own national security, and Russian Communications Minister Nikolay Nikiforov has pledged to retaliate should the US impose any “unilateral political sanctions” requiring Kapensky Labs or other companies to surrender source code. But Russia has demanded and been granted access to the source code for firewalls, anti-virus applications, and other encrypted software created by American companies like IBM, McAfee, and HP.

Symentac, the American software company behind Norton Antivirus and other popular products, broke the mold last week, denying Russia access to its products’ source code. The requests of the Russian government, a Symentac spokesperson said, “pose a risk to the integrity of the products.

One risk is that governments could probe the source code for weaknesses, and exploit those weaknesses to launch cyberattacks. Though governments seize source code under the pretense of ensuring ethical business practices, there is nothing to prevent those governments from using that source code unethically.

According to an article by Rhett Jones of gizidmo.com, the NSA harbored documents exposing security vulnerabilities. Among those vulnerabilities was a weakness in the Windows operating system which the kept as a potential cyber-weapon rather than sharing it with Microsoft.

When information regarding the Windows security flaw leaked, opportunistic hackers created WannaCry, a piece of “ransomware”—that is, malicious software which prohibits access to a computer system until some ransom is paid—which held victims’ data hostage until a sum between $300 and $600 dollars was paid.

Many suspect Russia’s government of having carried out a number of its own cyberattacks. In March of this year, two Russian intelligence agents were indicted in connection with a widespread hacking operation which uncovered data from over a half billion Yahoo accounts. One hacker offered to share the birthdates, email addresses, usernames, and passwords of over 200 million Yahoo users in exchange for just $2,000.

Luckily for Yahoo and victims of the scam, payment information and in many cases passwords were sufficiently encrypted as to remain protected from the hackers.

Neither government trusts the other, and private companies like Kapensky Labs are caught in the middle. In the name of protecting themselves, governments are seizing information from companies. Yet the governments themselves have proven time and again that, whether because of ineptitude, moral corruption, or some combination of both, they cannot be trusted with such information.

Still, the companies are complying with the governments’ demands for the source code. In so doing, they are setting a precedent that empowers corrupt governments and forces ethical private companies to put themselves in danger. There is an intricate web of fear that cannot be untangled: the governments fear each other and the private companies from whom they are seizing information. The companies fear—or at least should fear—the governments, so they hand over the source code. When other companies see their competitors complying with the government, they are forced to do the same.

It is a complicated matrix of forces which seems to propel itself. And Kapensky Labs is the latest domino to fall.

Canada and the United States Argue Over Lumber and NAFTA

The softwood lumber dispute between the United States and Canada is just one trade argument that seems like it’s going to take a few years to sort out.

President Donald Trump announced this Monday that there will be countervailing duties of up to 24 percent on any of the softwood lumber brought from Canada. In response to this, Cana threatened legal action. The last time the United States and Canada had a spat over softwood lumber it lasted from 2001 to 2006.

Yet many say that this won’t be easily solved for either side. Duties aren’t able to be appealed until they are finalized. While that is taking place, it will cost an extra C$500,000 ($370,000) a month for just one Canadian mill, and that number could be more.

The next thing the U.S. will most likely do is take anti-dumping duties. A decision on that will take place sometime around June 23rd whereas the finalization of the duties won’t happen until January of next year.

The Canadian Foreign Minister, Chrystia Freeland, made a statement on Wednesday saying that Canada believes the next logical step would be toward a settlement. Yet it seems she the first minister to actually make a step toward legal action against the lumber issue. Freeland told Bloomberg, “I would say to my American friends: Be nice to your clients.”

She also seemed pretty confident that any legal action taken would swing their way. She said that, “as has been the case every single time in the past, we’re going to win.”

It was just last week that Trump vowed to fight Canada’s dairy tax. This furthered the tension between countries as the U.S. announces a 90-day notice to begin the discussion about the North American Free Trade Agreement. That negotiation looks like it will run into Mexico’s presidential election in 2018, along with the U.S. midterm election soon after, and the Canadian election due a year later.

Yet it seems that our northern neighbors are at a loss as to what to do. It would seem that Canada is thinking of proceeding with some type of aid package. Navdeep Bains, who is Innovation Minister told a source that “There’s a range of options that are being discussed right now.”

Not all of the provinces agree, however. Ontario announced it has new funding for logging road construction and needed the federal government to offer it a loan. There’s also British Columbia Premier, Christy Clark, who warned that making any type of hasty response was not a good idea. Clark said that “Unfair subsidies to the B.C. industry could really jeopardize our position in court.”

Quebec, which has over 60,000 people working in the forest-product industry, is starting loan programs and guarantees. The aid package would allow as much as C$300 million for a short term.

All this has been a long time coming. It isn’t something that has just recently happened between Donald Trump and the Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. When it came to Canada and the industry, U.S. ambassador to Canada Bruce Heyman says that “The Obama administration was essentially acting as a go-between.”

The Canadian government held its tongue in regards to what its next steps would be. Former U.S. ambassador, James Blanchard, however, says that “Canada always wins these.”

It doesn’t seem that any sort of deal will be happening in the next year though. During a call with Trump, Canadian Prime Minister Trudeau “refuted the baseless allegations” that had been brought on by the U.S.

This measure won’t favor the United States at all. In fact, it could raise the cost of homes in the United States and even get rid of over 8,241 full-time jobs in the United States.

Trump Butts Heads With Canada Over Dairy Tax

Some might be worried about the fights being started overseas but what about the one right in our own back yard? On Tuesday, President Trump attacked Canada about their tax on ultra-filtered milk. It wasn’t long until Trump took to Twitter.

It was just last week that Trump made comments on the dairy issue. He called it a “disgrace” and even went as far as to blame the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Trump stood up for dairy farmers saying, “What they’ve done to our dairy farm workers is a disgrace. It’s a disgrace.”

Yet this issue about milk tax is just one of many issues that Trump has with the free trade agreement. He made his feelings about the free trade agreement known when he rallied against it during his campaign.

So, what is his plan? The president said on Monday that Canada can expect new tariffs. Trump and his administration say that they plan on placing new tariffs on softwood lumber that goes from the United States into Canada.

Which his reaction isn’t really all that surprising. Yet how much is this tariff going to be? Well, the Department of Commerce says that a “countervailing duty” of 3 to 24 percent would be imposed on Canadian lumber exporters.

Wilbur Ross is the Commerce Secretary and says that there could be at least $1 billion duties on softwood lumber. He says that with that large of an amount it would be a “bad week for U.S.-Canada trade relations.” Of course, Canada’s dairy tax is to blame for this harsh move.

What does Canada think about all this? Well, the country made a statement on the issue Monday, and it doesn’t seem like they are going to take things lying down. The spokesperson said that Canada will “vigorously defend the interests of the Canadian softwood lumber industry, including through litigation.”

Owing Student Loans Can Cost You Your Tax Refund

The cost of college has gone up exponentially in the last few years. The only way some can afford to get the education they want is to take out student loans. However, it can be quite difficult to take care of a home, children, and other expenses as well as pay back your loans. So, if you stopped paying them, you might be in for quite a shock when you do your taxes. Not paying your federal student loans could prevent you from getting a tax refund.

Due to what is known as a tax refund “offset,” the government is given the ability to withhold any refunds from student borrowers who have fallen behind on their payments. The question is, what happens to the money that you don’t get back in your taxes? Simple, the government applies the refund to your loan balance. 

This isn’t something that the government will suddenly spring on borrowers. Borrowers will be notified beforehand that they won’t be receiving their refunds or other government payments. But in some cases, like for instance if a borrower has moved, then they won’t be notified right away that their refunds will be withheld. There’s always the chance that someone might be so in over their head in finances that they just toss their mail aside.

While the government will send a letter in the mail, most of the time letters that come from the Treasury Offset Program are riddled with bureaucratic language that can make it a bit difficult for people to understand. Plain and simple, even if you are notified you still might have no clue what’s going on.

The Internal Revenue Service says that the average federal tax refund can get up to $2,800 for most. That’s quite a chunk of money to be missing and can have a big impact on a borrower’s financial situation.

One thing that people can do is to decrease the number of withholdings from their paychecks. This will cut down on the size of possible refunds. Yet Persis Yu, who is the director of the Student Loan Borrower Assistance Project, says that this might not help some people since they’ll be receiving refunds from income tax credit.

At the end of last near there were over 8 million federal student loan borrowers who were in default, according to Department of Education’s statistics. Loans enter the default stage after there has been a lack of payment for over 270 days which is roughly nine months.

Are people able to prevent the offset of their tax refund? After receiving the letter of notification, borrowers are usually given at least 65 days to appeal a referral to the offset program. There is the option of requesting a file on your loan which, if done quick enough, can buy borrowers some time. After that, borrowers can still appeal but refunds will still be withheld while a decision is made.

If the borrower happens to be married and filing jointly, the spouse of the borrower has the option to file a claim with the I.R.S. and get the portion of the refund that belongs to them.

But how do borrowers stop continued withholdings of their tax refunds? If the federal student loans of the borrower are in default, the government can withhold any refunds ad apply them to the loans. Repaying the loan in full is an option that majority of borrowers don’t have. To get out of the default status, a borrower should go for loan rehabilitation or loan consolidation.

Loan rehabilitation gives the borrower a chance to make an agreement with their lender. This agreement will give the borrower nine affordable payments to make. The payments must be on time to return the loan to good standing. After that, the borrower might be eligible for flexible programs that provide lower monthly income-based payments.

On the other hand, loan consolidation allows the borrower to refinance the defaulted loans into a new loan. Both options have their ups and downs. Consolidation is by far the fastest way to get loans out of default. Rehabilitation, however, provides a better outcome from the borrower’s credit report.

Finally, many borrowers might be under the misconception that tax refunds withheld while their loans are in default may count toward the nine payments during loan rehabilitation. But that’s not the case at all. When in loan rehabilitation, borrowers must make all their payments voluntarily for them to count toward the agreement.

Nintendo Sells Over 1 Million Switch Units in the U.S.

It’s safe to assume that Nintendo is beaming with pride. The Nintendo Switch sold over 906,000 units in the United States this past month. That’s just the United States, so the number of units sold in Canada, Japan (who’s numbers are estimated at half a million), and the United Kingdom could significantly add to that massive amount.

Nintendo bragged in a press release just recently that the Switch is the fastest selling video game unit in the history of the company. It’s being compared by many to the Wii U which only sold over 890,000 units in the United States its first six weeks out on the market. When the Wii U came out, it was also during holiday season which added to its numbers. That’s one of the reasons that the Switch numbers are rather impressive since its launch was well after the holiday had passed. 

Aside from the nearly one million Switch units that have been sold, the game Zelda: Breath of the Wild has sold a rising 1.3 million copies in the U.S. Nine hundred and twenty-five thousand of those games were for the Nintendo Switch and the other 460,000 were for Wii U. It’s also interesting that many people are buying more Switch games then they are units. Gamers are given an attach rate of over 100 percent which, in itself, is quite a percentage number.

The Nintendo Switch first became available for pre-order back in January. Nintendo hosted a presentation of the Switch which not only explored the Zelda game but gave a release date of March 3rd for countries like Japan, the U.S., Canada, and the United Kingdom.

After its official release in March the numbers rose significantly as gamers lined up at stores to get their hands on the long-awaited unit. In fact, most stores sold out of the units faster than gamers could buy them.

In the press release  Nintendo, the company made a statement saying, “While Nintendo Switch sales are off to a record-breaking start, shipments have not yet been able to keep up with such high demand.  Nintendo is working to make sure everyone who wants a system is able to buy one, and more systems are continually being shipped.”

As the Nintendo Switch’s success continues to soar, it’s safe to say that if you haven’t gotten one you should. It might not be long before they’re gone for good.

Burger King Ad Sparks Old Debate About Voice Devices

A new Burger Kind ad was created to be able to trigger Googles voice-activated Home smart speaker. This ad was put in place to help advertise the Whopper but unfortunately doesn’t seem to be working anymore.

The ad came out Wednesday and has an actor playing a Burger King worker say, “OK Google: What is the Whopper burger?” Saying that line was supposed to trigger your Google app to read off the definition of the Whopper per it’s Wikipedia page.

It was just three short hours after the ad was launched that it stopped working. Google would simply light up and stay silent. If you prompted it to read you the definition of the “Whopper burger”, however, it would give you the Wikipedia articles first line but wasn’t responding to the commercial’s prompt.

Burger King made a statement confirming that the ad no longer recognizes the speaker and that the trigger doesn’t seem to be working anymore. The fast food giant did say that they expect the ad to start working again soon. A spokesperson for Burger King Brooke Scher Mogan said that consumers will have to “tune in tonight to see if the commercials triggers the Whopper sandwich definition response.”

Google, on the other hand, didn’t give any response to the matter. In fact, a source from the company says that Google was not informed about the ad by the fast food chain before the commercials shooting.

In the past, many commercials have accidentally triggered voice assistant apps in people’s homes. This, however is the first time a food chain has tried to do it intentionally. While it might seem like a clever idea and a great way to sell burgers for Burger King, some consumers in the YouTube comments section weren’t too pleased with the idea.

In fact, one comment read, “When you take over someone’s phone or tablet and have it do your own remote commands intentionally, you are HACKING.”

Yet despite many people thinking that Burger King is trying to hack them, it might be good that the trigger doesn’t work. Not long after the ad aired, many people took to the internet and started changing the first line of the Wikipedia article. Wikipedia users altered the definition to say things like the Whopper was “cancer-causing.” Users even added ingredients like “cyanide” to the burger definition.

It would also seem that after the ad backfired and Wikipedia users began changing things up, Burger King decided to backpedal. They took things into their own hands and soon wonderful descriptions of the Whopper began showing up on the article site. In fact, one description was changed by “Fermachado123.”

It could only be coincidence that the user name noted above sounds suspiciously like Burger King’s senior vice president for global brand management’s Fernando Machado. Burger King, however, didn’t confirm or deny that Machado made any edits to the Wikipedia site.

Yet it isn’t just the idea of being hacked that slightly frightens consumers. Privacy concerns revolving around voice-activated speakers has steadily began to increase. It’s gotten higher since more companies have made attempts to bring this technology to their products. This in turn puts even more pressure on voice-operated security systems and even door locks who are trying to make sure that user devices won’t be trigger by unwanted voices.

The use of advertisement on Google Home has been questioned by a large number of consumers. Many of them simply don’t want to be spammed by what they consider to be personal assistants. Google received a good deal of criticism after an advertisement for “Beauty and the Beast” appeared around the time of the films first showings.

In order to make amends to users, Google issued a statement saying that what users saw wasn’t an ad. The company said that bringing up the film was a way to get users to know about what was timely that day. A Google spokesperson went on to say, “We’re continuing to experiment with new ways to surface unique content for users, and we could have done better in this case.”

As for Burger King, it’s safe to estimate that this epic advertising fail won’t have any bearing on Whopper sales. With fast food still being one of the largest and quickest meal choices, there are over billions of Whoppers sold worldwide. Burger King is probably already back at the drawing board with new advertising ideas.