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These Professionals Are Excited About the Rise of Workplace Robots

How to Scale From a Small Business to a Billion-Dollar Empire

7 Signs Your Employees Are Unhappy and What to Do About It

Trust and the Unbalanced Employee Experience

Entrepreneurship vs. Freelancing: What's the Difference?

10 Instagram Strategies for Creative Marketers

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These Professionals Are Excited About the Rise of Workplace Robots

Entrepreneur — 12/5/2016 2:00:00 PM

While many people fear that the rise of robots will impact their jobs, HR professionals think advances in robotics and automation technology will actually be beneficial to employees and companies.

A recent study, “Workplace of the Future,” conducted by research firm Future Workplace and tech company Konica Minolta, surveyed 619 human resource professionals. Most agreed that automation technologies will increase employee productivity, engagement and collaboration.

Related: 3 Reasons HR Needs to Be Involved in Planning a Business's Strategy

Not only that, but these professionals believe that smart tech will improv HR processes and provide for better communication around the office. Whether at a large corporation or a small startup, HR professionals say there are a number of benefits for companies creating “smart offices.”

Increased productivity

Over three-quarters of human resource respondents agreed that work is not where you are, but rather what you get done. To boost productivity and help employees get more done, HR professionals believe installing automation and smart technology can help. In fact, 41 percent consider that outcome to be the most worthy of investing in new technology.

Streamlined HR processes

Over a third of surveyed HR professionals say that custom mobile apps will help them develop more efficient HR practices, and one-third have already started using them.

Often in small businesses, a human resource department is not a priority. Being able to incorporate mobile tools can strengthen a small business’s human resources to make up for any shortcomings in that area.

A way to attract talent and improve operations

From creating a state-of-the-art office to seeking tools that support growth, a company’s reason for investing in smart technology varies. Overall, 39 percent of surveyed HR professionals say their motivation to invest in high-tech is to attract top talent and improve business operations.

Related: 9 Business Tools for Working Smarter Instead of Harder

Small businesses that employ smart technology will not only make themselves more attractive to prospective recruits, but will help to assist their human resources and business processes. These technologies let them compete at the same level of bigger companies in the industry when it comes to appealing to top talent.

Better communication

Although a majority of HR professionals say their companies already employ video conferencing and conference room booking software, 22 percent of respondents admit that more advanced video conferencing tools would be beneficial both internally and externally. They also admit that tools for wireless streaming (23 percent) would also have a positive potential impact on the productivity of employees.

Reduced costs

Although upfront costs on new smart technologies can often be high, they reap many benefits. Forty-two percent of HR professionals find that automation will result in at least a 10 percent reduction in required headcount over the next three years. In turn, that means a lot less work for human resources and hiring departments.

Rose Leadem

Rose Leadem is an online editorial assistant at Entrepreneur Media Inc.

Copyright 2016 Entrepreneur.com Inc., All rights reserved

How to Scale From a Small Business to a Billion-Dollar Empire

Entrepreneur — 12/5/2016 1:30:00 PM

You may not know John Dickey by name, but you may have heard of the company he and his brother started in the '90s: Cumulus Media. The duo bought a radio station in Atlanta then continued acquiring stations until their business, which has an estimated net worth of $2 billion, became the nation’s second largest radio company.

The brothers' journey began after college, when they founded a media buying consulting company. Dickey has seen the media industry turn upside down, and continues to stay on the cutting edge with digital video. He was recently named the new CEO of Ora TV, a digital broadcast network co-founded by billionaire Carlos Slim and broadcasting legend Larry King.

Related: 10 Ways to Build Trust and Credibility With Your Customers

I sat down with Dickey to learn how he navigated the ups and downs of a changing landscape and ended up on top.

1. Find and fill a need.

It's worth noting that the Dickey brothers majored in English and history -- not business, entrepreneurship or broadcasting. They did have a knack for business and statistics, and after college they decided they wanted to start consulting businesses, so they searched for a need and discovered that most small businesses didn’t have access to market research data and were making misguided media buys. They formed Stratford Research going door to door to small businesses with a great hook that spoke to the pain point of the potential customer.

“When you said, 'Would you like to know which half of your marketing dollars are wasted?' They found a way to give you 10 minutes.” Dickey says.

2. Look at both sides.

The Dickeys achieved massive success later in part because as consultants, the brothers realized they could serve not just media buyers but also media properties selling ad space. Their knowledge of how to invest marketing dollars into television, radio, print ads and direct mail put them in a unique position to advise media companies on programming decisions. This addition led to continued growth of Stratford research for 15 years. Dickey realizes they entered the industry at an opportune time, but timing is only part of the equation.

“We got lucky and we were pretty good,” he says.

3. Don’t give in to marketing FOMO.

Dickey says it’s common for busy owners to just buy into what’s hot or trendy, or even simply what’s being pitched to them by a “marketing expert.” Don’t let the fear of missing out rule your marketing dollars. Trust your instincts, Dickey advises. When you see a marketing opportunity, ask tons of questions and make a strategy and avoid jumping on every new platform.

“To use a military metaphor, there’s nothing wrong with standing still if you don’t know," he says. "Where you blow a leg off in a minefield is if you keep walking when you don’t know what you’re doing.”

4. Start small and replicate what works.

After advising for almost two decades, the brothers decided they wanted to get in the game themselves. They decided to buy a radio station in Atlanta, then two, then a few stations in Nashville.

“We basically just applied what we were doing for other people to stations we’d placed our own bet on," he says. "Lo and behold, it worked.”

Related: A 3-Step Startup Guide to Connecting With Consumers

They continued buying stations in different markets, until the Communications Act of 1934 was altered in 1996, allowing them to expand rapidly. The brothers knew their competitor Clear Channel, now iHeartMedia, were focusing on large markets, so they decided to buy stations in small and mid-range markets.

5. Know your media business model.

Dickey pointed out that a strong media strategy is key, and that strategy will be different for a media company vs. a media personality. If you’re trying to grow your personality brand, a la the Kardashians, Dickey recommends you view each platform as a tool for that goal, not as goals within themselves.

“Get around as many people as you can that have experience in building multi-platform brands or even people that have experience in one type of platform, and pick their brain non-stop until they’re tired of talking to you,” he says.

He also advises to focus on engagement, creating unique, compelling content and building a believable brand, even it’s a persona. Trying to build a podcast or YouTube network of channels? Dickey says you’re in for a rough road because there is so much more supply than demand, a problem that will only get worse with the low cost of entry into today’s media platforms.

6. Look at the whole picture.

A new media platform seems to pop up every day, but change does not mean Snapchat vs. YouTube vs. broadcast television. Instead, Dickey says, media entrepreneurs today must ask, "How can they all work together?" He also pointed out that brands no longer progress from legacy media, radio and television to mobile apps and podcasts. The sequence can now be vice versa or simultaneous and, once you start achieving success in one area, the bridge between platforms shortens.

“You have to be willing to think about the media landscape in a way that’s never been thought of before,” he says. “The giant media companies of tomorrow are going to look very different from anything we have thought of thus far.”

One key point for the future is mobile, he explains. If you have a mobile strategy, you’re behind, because they world has moved to a mobile culture.

7. Always focus on quality.

Again noting the low cost of entry, Dickey explains that producing large quantities of sub-par content is not going to cut it. On the other hand, amazing content at exorbitant production prices won’t work for much longer either. Dickey is excited about the possibilities for Ora TV because it marries the quality and integrity of the Larry King brand with a mobile-first and digital-first strategy.

“That level of quality is always going to be in demand," he says.

The demands and changes of the industry can be overwhelming, but Dickey reminds media entrepreneurs to stick with the basics.

“Creativity, hard work, understanding an audience, being able to go out and bring a technology perspective into your craft and not being afraid of it, embrace it.”

Watch more videos from "The Pursuit" on the show's YouTube channel.

Related: The World-Changing Power of Sharing Your Story

Entrepreneur Network is a premium video network providing entertainment, education and inspiration from successful entrepreneurs and thought leaders. We provide expertise and opportunities to accelerate brand growth and effectively monetize video and audio content distributed across all digital platforms for the business genre.

EN is partnered with hundreds of top YouTube channels in the business vertical and provides partners with distribution on Entrepreneur.com as well as our apps on Amazon Fire, Roku and Apple TV.

Click here to become a part of this growing video network.

Kelsey Humphreys

Kelsey Humphreys is a media entrepreneur, journalist and author on a mission to break down "success for the rest of us." She is the author of the Amazon bestseller Go Solo. Catch interviews with today's leaders...

Copyright 2016 Entrepreneur.com Inc., All rights reserved

7 Signs Your Employees Are Unhappy and What to Do About It

Entrepreneur — 12/5/2016 1:00:00 PM

As an entrepreneur, you have a lot of responsibilities. You have to come up with new ideas, lay the foundation for the business, make executive decisions and set an example as the leader of the organization (not to mention attend to your regular responsibilities, like sales and marketing).

Related: Unhappy Workers Cost the U.S. Up to $550 Billion a Year (Infographic)

So you may not think of keeping your employees happy as a core concern. However, that happiness is actually critical to the survival of your business, and you need to recognize when employees are exhibiting signs of dissatisfaction.

Happy employees are productive employees.

Employee happiness is about more than just making your people feel good. When workers are more satisfied, they’re more productive, which means you’ll be able to do more as an organization. On top of that, satisfied workers are less likely to leave your organization, which means retention will increase and you’ll spend less time recruiting and training new candidates to replace them.

Beyond the obvious

If an employee openly complains about being unhappy, there’s no ambiguity to hash out; you know what he or she is feeling because you've been told. But, unfortunately, things aren't always this clear. Instead, you’ll need to watch out for the following more subtle signs that your employees are unhappy:

1. Reaching for only the minimum

If you want to succeed as a business, you need to exceed expectations -- not just meet them -- and your employees should strive for that mentality as well. If you notice them starting to meet only the bare minimum goals, that could be a sign that they no longer care about their work. If they’re genuinely struggling, they even may fall behind these “minimum” goals, at which point you can intervene with different options.

But meeting exactly the minimum is a sign of disinterest, and maybe even apathy.

2. Clock-watching

No matter how cool your job is, almost everyone gets excited for lunch breaks and quitting time at the end of the day. That’s not a problem, nor is it a sign of employee unhappiness. Instead, the sign of unhappiness to watch for here is “clock-watching,” or obsessing over the time in a bid to get done with work as soon as possible.

When employees start counting down the minutes at 3 p.m., that's a sign they’re unhappy with their work.

Related Book: No B.S. Ruthless Management of People and Profits by Dan S. Kennedy

3. Limited personal engagement

As an entrepreneur, you’ll likely feel somewhat isolated, but if your workers start closing themselves off, that's a sign that something is wrong. Ideally, your team will be tight-knit and connected with one another on an almost personal level. That isn’t always possible, but light chatter and humor are signs that things are running smoothly.

If your office is eerily quiet, or if you never see your workers talking to one another, they could signal dissatisfaction.

4. A lack of new ideas or feedback

Engaged, happy employees are passionate about their work, and they go out of their way to make their work even better. They freely come up with new ideas for their own roles, and sometimes for the entire organization, and they aren’t afraid to take or receive feedback. If you don’t hear anything from your workers along these lines, it could be a sign of disengagement and unhappiness.

5. Secrecy or lack of transparency

One of the best ways to build trust in a team is to showcase transparency and not keep secrets; do this as a leader, and your employees will likely follow suit. If you notice your employees talking behind your back, or refusing to tell you about problems they’re facing, however, that could mean that they are unsatisfied in their work environment.

6. Reluctance to cooperate

When you ask an employee to do something, you expect that person to do it. He or she may question or request clarification, but that feedback should come from a place of genuine desire to help. If you notice an employee consistently unhappy or unwilling to contribute, consider that a clear sign of unhappiness.

7. Visual cues

Visual cues are some of the hardest to pick up on, but they’re important to note, as many workers intentionally disguise their unhappiness to avoid conflict. Visual cues vary based on the individual but can often clue you into a person’s internal monologue. Do you notice your workers sighing, or showing signs of stress like fidgeting?

Do they smile less often? Is their posture frequently closed off? These could all be indications of unhappiness -- but they aren’t the only ones, so look closely for behavioral changes.

Related: Unhappy Employees Are Costing You: 4 Lessons From Denmark

When your workers are happy, they’ll work harder for you, and stay committed to you longer. They won’t be happy 100 percent of the time, but if you can learn to recognize these signs of dissatisfaction and unrest, you’ll be able to nip the problem in the bud and restore your employees’ satisfaction in no time.

Jayson DeMers

Jayson DeMers is founder and CEO of AudienceBloom, a Seattle-based SEO agency. He's the author of the ebook, “The Definitive Guide to Marketing Your Business Online.”

Copyright 2016 Entrepreneur.com Inc., All rights reserved

Trust and the Unbalanced Employee Experience

Entrepreneur — 12/5/2016 12:30:00 PM

In 2001, George A. Akerlof, A. Michael Spence and Joseph E. Stiglitz were awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics for their theory on how markets operate when transactions involve asymmetrical information. Asymmetrical information occurs when one party to a transaction knows something the other party does not. Akerlof and his associates demonstrate how asymmetry leads to breakdowns and inefficiency within isolated transactions and within various markets at large. Their theory is useful to anyone who either wants to buy or sell a good used car, or possibly, as is our case, by leaders and managers who are interested in improving their team or organization.

Akerlof uses the used car market to illustrate the problems associated with asymmetric information. While it’s easy to find and list used cars for sale, Akerlof notes how it is difficult for the market to provide accurate pricing for above average and average automobiles. This market difficulty is attributable to the fact that most of the information about quality is held internally by only one party, the seller. Thus, information as to quality is asymmetrical.

Related: Crafting the Employee Experience: How to Improve Work Culture at Your Office

The upshot is that since buyers have a hard time distinguishing good cars from bad cars, buyers are reticent to trust higher prices and tend to focus on cars with lower prices. Why? Well, when someone offers to sell you a car at a low price, you trust their asking price because you believe they are telling the truth. If the car were more reliable they would be trying to get a better price. It’s a safe assumption that most sellers do not underprice their automobiles just to be nice.

Since most of us agree that low price means low quality, both the buyer and the seller have equal information, or they have at least enough information to move forward with some degree of confidence. The same does not hold true when dealing with better cars and higher prices. We are sure the seller might be hiding something.

The market consequence is that we are willing to engage in transactions that involve low prices, but we are slow to consider cars with higher prices. The market becomes inefficient, and the eventual outcome is that a surplus of low quality cars drives the good quality cars out of the market (pun intended). How many times have we all heard the phrase, “That car is worth more to me than what I can sell it for?” The owner would like to sell her car if the market could do a better job of establishing the right price for above-average used cars so that she could receive fair value in the exchange.

In building an organization’s employee experience, you we need to consider the lessons that can be learned from Akerlof and his associates. Asymmetrical information is the enemy of trust. Unsurprisingly, trust is eroded when we believe others are withholding information or where we do not have enough information on our end to move forward with conviction. We hesitate, just like the used-car buyer who frets over whether he is getting the deal of a lifetime or a bucket of bolts and a set of blown valves, worn rings and a barely-working water pump.

Related: What Employees Are Saying When They Say They Don't Trust Leaders

In modern workplaces, hesitation and mistrust is problematic as it decreases focus and slows positive momentum and progress while employees sort out which information is reliable. I can tell you from experience that organizations where trust is missing are brutal places to work. It often takes a herculean effort by management to turn things around.

The better course is to nurture trust before things get out of hand. Nurturing and growing trust should be a fundamental component of your employee experience. Leaders need to look for ways to create a working environment that rewards trust and penalizes deception.

In our view, trust is best fortified and grown through expectation alignment. We all have some experience trying to manage unrealistic expectations. Usually, in those instances, no one ends up happy. But, I am not talking about a scenario where you try and keep everyone satisfied by negotiating compromises. Instead, we recommend you do the following:

  • Determine those expectations and requirements that are important to your organization considering its mission, objectives, and short-term goals.
  • Communicate often and clearly what the organization’s expectations are and why they are important to the organization’s success.
  • Listen and consider the employees’ expectations.
  • Accommodate employee expectations that are reasonable and will either promote the organization’s purposes, or, at the very least, not detract from key objectives.
  • Explain and demonstrate how expectations are now aligned.
  • Continually listen and monitor to see if expectations are becoming misaligned or whether circumstances have caused new expectations to form.
  • Repeat the process when significant expectation gaps arise.

Interestingly, my firm has found that the nature of a person’s expectations is less important than whether there is alignment between the parties. Again, the used car market illustrates this point all too well. If we buy a low-priced car and it breaks down, we become less upset because “we got what we paid for.” On the other side, nothing is more frustrating that than paying top price for a late model Honda Accord, only to find yourself stuck with a costly repair bill. Just like we don’t relish surprises with our used cars, employees do not thrive when there are too many surprises at work. They prefer consistency and predictability.

Consider the case of the “tyrant-manager.” This is the person who drives her team hard. If the “tyrant” is consistent, eventually equilibrium is found. Her subordinates learn to cope and adapt, because they trust that the tyrant will behave the same on Tuesdays as she does on Thursdays. Transactional efficiency between the team is obtained, even though working conditions could be better.

Related: 3 Ways to Create a Great Place to Work

On the other side of the coin is the manager that is wildly inconsistent, but is more likable. Even though this manager may be personable and approachable, his constant swings ensure that equilibrium is never reached. His team becomes bogged down by second guessing, a lack of trust and the inefficiency caused by asymmetrical information (only the manager knows what will happen next).

To combat the problems associated with asymmetrical information, we recommend leaders focus on building an employee experience where expectations gaps are constantly being bridged and where trust is encouraged and valued. If you put some effort into this aspect of your leadership and your employee experience, the benefits will be improved team dynamics and an increase in efficiency, which, after all, is the Holy Grail of economic professors worldwide.

Matthew Wride

Matt Wride is the COO for DecisionWise, a leadership and management consulting firm. While he claims to be entrepreneur at heart, he can’t quite muster the courage to leave everything and start a cattle ranch in Montana. Ins...

Copyright 2016 Entrepreneur.com Inc., All rights reserved

Entrepreneurship vs. Freelancing: What's the Difference?

Entrepreneur — 12/5/2016 12:00:00 PM

A few years ago, I was watching an interview with Seth Godin, who is one of my heroes of the business world. He was explaining the core differences between entrepreneurship and freelancing. I was getting heated just listening to him.

Here’s how Seth explains it:

Freelancers get paid for their work. If you're a freelance copywriter, you get paid when you work. Entrepreneurs use other people's money to build a business bigger than themselves so that they can get paid when they sleep.

Related: Why Millennials Have Their Priorities Screwed Up

When I saw this interview I was busting my ass (and making very good money) as a freelancer -- but I always considered myself an entrepreneur because I had an “entrepreneurial mindset.”

He doesn’t know what he’s talking about! I am TOO an entrepreneur!” I grumbled.

I thought of an entrepreneur (and myself) as a free thinker. Someone who created his or her own destiny and didn’t just take what the world handed to him. To think of myself as anything but an entrepreneur, while I was working so freakin’ hard to make money on my own, totally messed with my self-identity.

But Seth did have a point.

Freelancing is an essential step in the entrepreneur’s journey. You have to learn how to find clients, talk to them and get them to pay you. You have to learn how to develop skills and ideas and test them in the marketplace. And freelancing is great, because for all intents and purposes, you can get started immediately.

The truth is that almost anything can make money. But first, you have to change your mindset. You must start viewing your skills and experiences as bankable, valuable resources with paying for. You (yes, you) can help someone with skills and knowledge that you already have. The easiest way to do this is by freelancing.

Related: 25 Best Habits to Have in Life

Freelancing changed my life (and I recommend anyone looking to leave the 9-5 first find work for themselves as a freelancer on the side), but freelancing is only halfway there. It’s a necessary bridge to get you away from your day job and into independent living. On the other side of that bridge is full-fledged entrepreneurship.

The difference between entrepreneurship and freelancing comes down to TIME:

  • Freelancers exchange time for money (albeit much more money than a traditional job).
  • Entrepreneurs depend on systems, automation and, eventually, employees that work without their direct involvement.

The key question is: “If I take myself out of the equation, does the business still work?

If the answer is “Yes,” you are an entrepreneur.

If you can create enough momentum in your business that you’ll still make money, regardless of what you do on a day-to-day basis, you are an entrepreneur. And a badass.

This is the Holy Grail. This is where you want to end up. Here’s the simple blueprint for making money with an online business.

Related: 5 Lessons for Success From YouTube Star Casey Neistat

1. Choose a great business idea, then start to build a website that attracts visitors.

Here’s a quick tip to come up with a great business idea: Combine one of your ideas/hobbies/skills to find something that you care about and figure out how that can be used to solve another person’s problem.

2. Turn those website visitors into loyal subscribers by offering them something free in exchange for their email address.

Create free, helpful content and ask visitors for an email address in exchange.

3. Turn those subscribers into customers by asking them to buy from you via email.

You can sell whatever you want -- a physical or digital product, a course, a service or even coaching. It’s all based on what’s interesting to you, and what you think you can help your subscribers with the most. After a while of delivering a ton of awesome content for free (emailing your blog posts, YouTube videos, or whatever else you create), now you have the "right" to sell.

This is huge.

4. Automate

Once you do this for some time, you can automate the sales process. With email marketing software and a basic funnel, your business can generate thousands of dollars per month without your involvement. Pretty amazing.

Welcome to Narnia! We’re happy to have you!

Daniel DiPiazza

Daniel DiPiazza is the founder of Rich20Something, where he teaches young people how to start businesses that they care about and live happier lives. Grab his Startup Series -- a free "mini-course" designed to jumpstart your...

Copyright 2016 Entrepreneur.com Inc., All rights reserved

10 Instagram Strategies for Creative Marketers

Entrepreneur — 12/4/2016 7:00:00 PM

Instagram has seen incredible growth since it was acquired by Facebook in 2012 -- in fact it’s grown by 400 percent! That's why for marketers, it can be an extremely helpful tool.

Why Instagram?

First, Instagram is easy to use, which is a big plus. Also, it’s not (yet) as ad-driven as Facebook, making it a friendlier option for those who prefer to spend marketing funds elsewhere. Since Instagram is visual, capturing someone’s attention on Instagram is much easier than on Facebook. Plus, the meaty part of this, is that it drives 58 times more engagement per follower than Facebook, and 120 times more than Twitter. That’s significant to anyone who likes numbers!

Creative Instagram strategies

By its very nature, Instagram leaves lots of room for creativity. But, if you’re planning to use the network as a marketing channel, it’s best to put some strategy in place before leaping into the fray. Beyond the obvious items like having a solid bio with your URL, a great profile photo and connecting your account to Facebook, I’ve pulled together several ideas worth considering.

  • Choose a theme for your posts
  • -- That is, develop a plan for what kinds of things you’ll post. By implementing this type of strategy, you’ll have a more targeted account rather than one that’s all over the place. Stick with your theme, which may be based around your core message, or related to a topic that you’re promoting. It also might have a color. Whatever you choose, let your followers (and potential followers) know right up front what they can expect.
  • Your Instagram bio
  • -- While it’s obvious that you have to have one, it’s a good idea to steer clear of your standard out-of-the-box bio. Choose messaging that sets yourself up as an expert and drives attention to whatever you’re promoting, and that ultimately can help drive traffic back to your site.
  • Your website
  • -- Make sure your site is optimized for mobile browsing since the large majority of Instagram users are on mobile devices. And, your URL should be in your bio, but it should also appear on every post, both as a watermark and either in the description or comments!
  • Simple, meaningful images
  • -- The average person gets distracted in 8 seconds, so it’s important to grab your audience quickly with clear, meaningful images that don’t require a lot of thought. They should be interesting, inviting and simple. Since most users are mobile, there are some screen limitations, so text-heavy images are not ideal.
  • Posting frequency
  • -- The more you post, the faster you’ll grow. Some of the biggest accounts post 4 to 10 times every day. That may be out of reach for you, but, at minimum aim for once a day.
  • Hashtags
  • -- While hashtags are recommended on Twitter, they’re practically a hard requirement of Instagram. And the more the better. 11 hashtags per post seems to be the magic number, although you can have as many as 30! And not all of them have to be included in the photo description, but work well in the comments section too!
  • @Mentions
  • -- Tagging another Instagram user who is authentically connected to your post is the perfect way to use this feature. (Simply use @ + their username to tag them in your post.) Don’t use this to tag random people or Instagram will flag and/or deactivate your account, but if the person is truly connected, it’s a great feature!
  • Location sharing
  • --
  • Just like @mentions, turning on your location is a great way to boost engagement.
  • Great photos
  • -- Having great photos is so integral to Instagram that it’s almost an afterthought to mention. Your own photos may work for some components, but if you’re sticking with a theme, consider using stock images, whether from a paid subscription-based site or royalty-free Creative Commons Zero licensed images -- like those from
  • Librestock.com
  • .
  • Customized images
  • -- After you’ve found images that work for you, you’ll want to customize them with something to make the image your own. Perhaps a product title, a quote from someone famous, a simple product review or even a teaser/promo for an announcement. Regardless of how you customize it, be sure to include your logo and/or URL so that, should your image find its way out of Instagram and into the wilds of the internet, your fans can find you easily.

Instagram is a great place to be for anyone looking to market anything. It’s a spectacular tool for reaching new audiences and new demographics. Plus, there is room for so much creative thinking, that it’s almost certainly worth your while to give Instagram a shot. With a little strategy and some great photos, you’ll see what it can do to boost your marketing efforts.

Follow Entrepreneur on Instagram for inspirational visual stories.

Copyright 2016 Entrepreneur.com Inc., All rights reserved

10 Ways to Celebrate the Holidays and Minimize Legal Risk

Entrepreneur — 12/4/2016 4:00:00 PM

The rapidly-approaching holiday season can be the most wonderful time of the year, but it also poses legal and employee relations challenges to entrepreneurs of all sizes. But most of these challenges can be mitigated with some thoughtful planning. So here’s a checklist of issues to minimize the risk that your December celebrations will result in January claims.

1. Don’t eliminate Christmas.

Don’t eliminate Christmas from the holiday season, says this Jewish guy. It’s a beautiful holiday that should be celebrated. And a Christmas tree is just fine, too. But what about those who don’t celebrate Christmas? Read on.

2. Include other holidays.

General rule for the holiday season: it’s about inclusion, not exclusion. Rather than excluding Christmas, recognize other holidays, such as Hanukkah and Kwanza. Consider a menorah and Kwanza basket along with the Christmas tree.

Related: 9 Ways to Be Certain You Won't Embarrass Yourself at the Holiday Party

3. What holiday did you forget?

You don’t know what you don’t know. Profound. So, ask. Ask employees if there is a holiday that they would like to see included in the celebration (and that includes decorations).

4. What should you call your party?

“Holiday party” is the most inclusive term. Make your party more inclusive by having decorations and the music reflect diverse holidays.

Think also about your choice of decorations and songs. Those that are religious are more appropriate for religious celebrations (or for religious employers).

What if someone is offended by Bruce Springsteen’s "Santa Claus is Coming to Town"? May that be your biggest problem.

5. Should you serve alcohol?

Never serve it to minors. Make clear adults who get it for them will be fired. As for adults, take steps to minimize abuse, such as limiting drinks, providing lots of food or even making employees pay for alcohol and then donating the money to charity.

Related: Turn Holiday Parties Into Networking Goldmines With These 10 Tips

Even with restrictions, assume some people will abuse the alcohol you serve. Consider having cab vouchers ready for them without management knowing who the users are. This increases the likelihood that those who need vouchers will use them.

6. What about harassment?

December parties inevitably bring January claims about wandering hands, loose lips and... I’ll stop there. Remember, Jack Daniels is no defense.

This year, the EEOC has called out that alcohol is a risk factor when it comes to harassment, so focus proactively on this risk. Remind your employees that your harassment policy applies to the party. And make sure to name “designated watchers.”

Finally, if you are in management and you see or hear unacceptable comments or conduct, you must intervene. To see and ignore is to condone and increases your legal exposure.

7. What about the after-party?

To be blunt: no good comes from after-parties. Unless, you consider claims arising out of the after-party good. Make clear you are not sponsoring any after-party and do not allow employer money to be used for it. And never attend if you are in management. Attending is about as safe as walking on railroad tracks

8. How about gifts?

Here, too, anticipate the inappropriate. Remind employees that your harassment policy applies here, also. Stay away from the sexual or suggestive, such as gifts from Victoria’s Secret. Rule of thumb: if the gift is appropriate primarily for someone with whom you are intimate, don’t give it to an employee.

9. What about greetings?

It’s best to be general with your holiday greetings unless you know otherwise. The default should be “Happy Holidays.” But if you know someone is Christian, by all means wish that person a Merry Christmas. I know I do.

Related: To Host the Best Holiday Party Hand Out Bonuses and Go Home

And I like when people wish me a “Happy Hanukkah” because they know I am Jewish. I am less thrilled if they are making assumptions. Make sure your employees don’t guess or assume anyone’s faith. Stereotypical assumptions here can cause myriad problems, including with customers.

10. Don’t forget the FLSA.

The Fair Labor Standards Act applies all year long, even during the holidays. So, don’t require or strongly suggest that employees attend parties outside of working hours. If you do, you may have to pay them to be miserable. Plus, if people don’t want to come, do you really want their misery there?

With all the difficulties that can accompany the holidays in the workplace, it’s a time to remember how lucky we are to be alive, and to love and to be loved. May peace be with you. Shalom.

Jonathan Segal

Jonathan A. Segal is a partner in the employment practice group of Duane Morris LLP in Philadelphia and principal at the Duane Morris Institute, an educational organization.

Copyright 2016 Entrepreneur.com Inc., All rights reserved

The Most Popular Toys During the Holidays Since 1983 (Infographic)

Entrepreneur — 12/4/2016 12:00:00 PM

It’s the holidays, and you know what that means: shopping.

Every year, there’s always that one must-have item -- especially when it comes to kids' toys. People are known to wait in line for hours so they can score the season’s hit item for their child, niece or nephew. From the once-popular Nintendo Game Boy to the creepy furry friend “Furby,” the past three decades have been loaded with random, inventive and even frightening holiday products.

Related: The 7 Most Stunning Holiday Windows in New York City -- and What You Can Learn From Them

This year, Nintendo’s NES has made a comeback in mini form. But before you go Googling where you can get your hands on the hot toy of the season, we hate to inform you: It’s sold out. In fact, the console sold out within minutes of its release. Nintendo has promised to release more units throughout winter.

While you wait for it to make its return to the market, check out Ebates’ infographic of the most popular toys of the past three decades.

Rose Leadem

Rose Leadem is an online editorial assistant at Entrepreneur Media Inc.

Copyright 2016 Entrepreneur.com Inc., All rights reserved

Job Hunting Through The Holidays

Entrepreneur — 12/3/2016 7:00:00 PM

Can I tell you a little secret? Smart people keep job hunting through the holidays.

Smart people realize a few things about job hunting through the holidays:

  • There is less competition
  • Hiring managers are still looking
  • HR professionals get to pick from a very smart and select group

Family will understand

Your friends and family will understand and appreciate that you are actively on the job hunt. If you need to jump out of a family gathering to make a phone call or perhaps even make a quick trip to a job site or a city you’re interested in. Trust me, they’ll understand.

Related: 6 Ways to Use the Holiday Season to Your Advantage

Just keep swimming

Of course this is a famous line from Dory in Finding Nemo. Her philosophy works well for job hunting too. Sometimes even though the waters might be getting deep and dark and a little scary you need to… just keep swimming.

Keep your energy up

While it may seem like everyone else is out having fun and enjoying the holidays your current job is to find a job. While you continue that hunt you need to make sure you keep your energy up. Eat right, exercise and get some sleep. You’ll be ready to dive right in when that hiring manager calls.

Keep your effort up

Without a doubt people will be taking vacations and breaks at this time of the year. However, by being diligent and smart about your job hunt you can stay top of mind and ready to hit the ground running when someone realizes you are still looking and available.

Related: Job Search Tactics That Work

Keeping these points in mind will help you stand out in your career. Even though you might be kickstarting or expanding your career you will be in a select group of people that realize the benefits of continuing the job search through the holidays. These efforts will help you now and in the future to stand out in your career.

Jeff Shuey

Jeff is an expert in the Enterprise Content Management industry. He brings over 20 years of Channel Sales, Partner Marketing and Alliance expertise to audiences around the world in speaking engagements and via his writing. He has worked for...

Copyright 2016 Entrepreneur.com Inc., All rights reserved

What, Exactly, Is Influencing Our Holiday Gift Choices? (Infographic)

Entrepreneur — 12/3/2016 4:00:00 PM

It’s the most wonderful time of the year, but because there's a lot of money being spent to create that wonder, we at 451 Marketing were curious to learn just how 2016's savvy consumers planned to tackle their holiday shopping.

After all, the proliferation of technology and paths to purchase are having a massive ripple effect on brands and retailers, requiring more nuanced strategies than ever before across PR, social media, SEO, email marketing and design.

Related: Ecommerce Is Growing, But Customers Still Prefer Shopping in Stores

What better way to unravel the complex web of influences on today’s holiday shopper than to go directly to the source? So, now, after surveying 500 consumers nationwide, from millennials, to Gen-Xers, to baby boomers, we believe our results shed some light on the season’s most updated level of complexity.

Some of our findings?

  • 76 percent of shoppers surveyed indicated that free shipping would influence them to move forward with a purchase
  • 46 of shoppers said they'd consulted online reviews before making a purchase, beating out any exploration of brand and retailer sites, use of price-comparison sites and research into products in-store
  • 75 percent of shoppers aged 18-24 (millennials) said they spend less than $500 on holiday gifts

AJ Gerritson

AJ Gerritson is a founding partner at 451 Marketing, a fully integrated marketing, advertising, and communications agency headquartered in Boston. He co-founded the agency in 2004, and oversees the agency’s strategic direction as well...

Copyright 2016 Entrepreneur.com Inc., All rights reserved

How Much You Should Be Charging for Your Freelancing Gigs (Infographic)

Entrepreneur — 12/3/2016 12:00:00 PM

One of the hardest things about being a freelancer is figuring out how much you’re going to charge your clients. And with 35 percent of the U.S. workforce being self-employed today, it’s become a growing concern for nearly 55 million Americans.

Whether you’re in finance, technology or even law, every industry has its own unique elements for concocting an hourly rate. But if you don’t know your industry’s going rate -- don’t worry. Accounting software Freshbooks surveyed 2,000 of its customers to come up with median rates for six industries.

Check out the company’s infographic below to make sure you’re charging what you’re worth.

Rose Leadem

Rose Leadem is an online editorial assistant at Entrepreneur Media Inc.

Copyright 2016 Entrepreneur.com Inc., All rights reserved

Here's Why Entrepreneurs Ought to Value Mainstream Media

Entrepreneur — 12/2/2016 10:00:00 PM

This election was an ugly beast, with the Wikipidiots in full bluster on social networks, keeping the folks at Snopes working long hours sifting through the dross, seeking the flotsam of truth amid a sea of lies. Social media has devolved into an atavism. It unintentionally recreates 18th-century political machines, replete with virtual thugs deliberately trying to lie, cheat and steal for their candidates. Many of us have weighed in on the donnybrook, throwing figurative hooks and jabs at one candidate or another, acting for all parts the hormone-addled, hyper-emotional pubescent children who first populated the anti-social networks to begin with.

One common cry of foul was that mainstream media (MSM) wasn’t covering the true story. Let me set you straight: The reason MSM doesn’t report the stories so many people cherish is that actual, so-called mainstream media outlets are bound by these pesky things called "facts". You may have heard of facts. They used to be the deciding factors, the trump card that ended arguments.

Related: Speak Your Mind, But Know Your Facts

But here in what I’ve heard called the “post fact” age, a spoilt manchild (or womanchild, if you prefer) can present an opinion as a fact. For the first time in modern history, if one dislikes an inconvenient fact, one can simply howl, “I disagree!” and generally find a website that supports your stupid position. So let’s say, you assert that 9 x 7 = 63, someone can scream: “I disagree! I happen to know that 9 x 7 = Swan. And here’s a link that proves it, www.SchizophrenicsSpewNonsense.org. Boom. Case closed!"

A guide to the MSM.

So, despite no one asking me to, please allow me to help: Mainstream media includes published newspapers, magazines, radio and television news outlets. Journalistic ethics and the law bind these news sources; if they deliberately and knowingly say something that is untrue, they can be sued for libel. Reporters have been fired and even had to return Pulitzer prizes for fabricating stories. A reporter can even be fired for something a layman may see as fairly innocent offense like embellishing a quote. Are these media biased? Of course, but not nearly to the extent that people believe.

When I worked as a reporter at a weekly news magazine covering small town politics I was routinely left hanging by politicians who didn’t return my phone calls requesting a quote on an article I had written. I could accurately write that a politician “refused to quote,” “did not answer (repeated) phone calls,” “could not reached for comment” or “did not answer a request for quote by press time,” depending on my mood or how I felt about him or her. Personally, I didn’t care one way or another about politicians but -- mainly out of self-interest, after all I had to work with these people week after week -- I generally tried not to get them angry. I would generally use the innocuous “could not be reached for comment.”

Related: Here Is How to Impress the Press

The vetting process (a procedure used to ensure that what is printed or broadcast is, in fact, true) can be extensive, even at a small news outlet. A story is submitted and is edited, which involves a lot more than looking for typos and deviations from the publication’s style guide. Facts are not only checked but challenged; language that is hyperbolic or inflammatory is routinely softened and made lame (I would have said lamified, but that wouldn’t have made it to print so why torment my already beleaguered editors?). This first process is an important step in ensuring that the story is true and not clouded with the author’s emotions or personal biases. The process is repeated several times depending on the size and reputation of the publication (and previous infractions of the author). There is such a thing as editorial position, and some outlets tend to be more left or right leaning, but truly mainstream media try their best to remain committed to the truth.

And now, the other guys.

The advent of the World Wide Web (and yes, that's the www prefix on a web address, for those of you who have been living in the Unabomber’s shack for the last 40 years) has brought a lot of quasi-news outlets: blogs, podcasts, YouTube videos, memes, click-bait and out-and-out lies. These pseudo-news outlets are not vetted or peer-reviewed and almost always have an overt agenda. I myself am proprietor of a self-important crap factory (a blog) where I pontificate on the state of worker safety. I can write whatever I want there because it’s my opinion and as a sweaty classmate from my high school days used to say, “You can’t argue with opinions.” (The only smart thing he every said.) Despite many of the sort-of-news sites’ best efforts to look like legitimate and impartial media outlets, they are not vetted. So, effectively, they are one person’s opinion, and you know what they say about opinions they are like belly buttons (okay, okay, I know), everyone has one.

Related: It's Election Day: Is Facebook Influencing Your Voting Decision?

The danger I have seen in Facebook and other social networks in this election is that people, good people, smart people can no longer tell the difference between real news outlets and opinion outlets. Opinion outlets, especially ones that proffer opinions that align with our point of view, are seductive because we want to believe them, even if that wish is hidden deep in our hearts, buried below our cognitive thought and well out of the reach of our reason.

Phil La Duke

Phil LaDuke is is a Safety Transformation Architect at Environmental Resources Management. An author, he writes about business, worker safety and organizational change topics on his blog. An avid user of social media for business...

Copyright 2016 Entrepreneur.com Inc., All rights reserved

5 Steps to Bring Users Back to Your App

Entrepreneur — 12/2/2016 9:30:00 PM

Are push notifications getting too pushy? Or are they the perfect ingredient to spice-up app engagement -- when used sparingly?

Related: Grow Your Business by Using Push Notifications Effectively

According to a recent study by Blueshift, personalized mobile push notifications receive a 2,770 percent increase in engagement compared to generic push notifications. Users today demand more than mobile outreach: In the face of endless advertisements and alerts, they want information relevant to their personal situation, location and habits.

That's why, with big players such as Facebook getting deeper into the personalized push race, entrepreneurs are scrambling to figure out how to make users feel that personal connection and continue to engage with their apps. Successful launch days are just the first battle in the war to win repeat users, and too often, companies see their engagement flat-line about a month after release.

Considering that each user has dozens -- if not hundreds -- of apps on his or her device, strategic notification campaigns can make the difference between long-term success and the fast lane to obscurity. The question is, what's the best way to create such a campaign?

Keep it personal to keep users engaged.

Repeat users are at the core of any mobile product. They drive revenue and demonstrate value to investors. Even more importantly, frequent users usually turn into brand advocates, preaching an app’s benefits to friends and helping to build a far-reaching, long-lasting user base.

When user engagement starts to flag, the following steps can bring them back to the table -- offering customers the chance to rediscover why they downloaded the app in the first place:

Understand the user process. Every company knows what its app does, but what does the typical user flow look like after the initial exploration is through? After people set up their accounts and spend some time navigating the software, how do they take advantage of the app to make their lives better? Considering that 23 percent of users abandon an app after a single use, understanding what the remaining 77 percent want from it on a regular basis is critical to continued success.

Identify touchpoints. Where and when do users interact with the app or the device, and where are the best opportunities to remind them to engage? Shopping apps should have wish lists and credit card storage, which will create opportunities for reminders and sales. Social apps should notify users of friends’ activity. Games can offer bonuses, challenges and special events. Taking advantage of information that users volunteer is one of the easiest ways to understand what those users want and provide relevant notifications.

Related: Push Notifications - Finally a Non-Annoying way to promote your app

Think beyond the phone. Standard OS push notifications are important, but multiple avenues exist to reach users. Smartwatch notifications and emails can also play integral roles in reminding users to engage. Saturating users with notifications from all sides comes off as annoying, but with a delicate touch, multichannel reminders make a tremendous difference in retention numbers.

Find the sweet spot of notification frequency. Like any marketing diet, push notifications require balance. Too few pushes and people forget the app, but when there are too many, they will disable or delete it. The number of acceptable notifications depends on the app, but users seem to respond best to weekly notifications rather than daily or monthly ones. An iterative approach often works best to achieve this balance, so many companies start small after their launch and slowly ramp up to keep users coming back.

Keep notifications smart. A person with 500 friends on a social app probably doesn’t want a push notification every time someone else signs on. Notifications that adapt to individual user circumstances, such as recent activity or a lack thereof, are more effective at retaining interest without becoming overbearing. Companies that track better mobile metrics regarding user activity are more likely to provide smarter notifications and keep users coming back.

Related: 3 Ways to Put More Nudge Into Your Push Notifications

Smartphone users do have short attention spans, but with the right reminders in the right place, they don’t have to stay gone forever. By spending more time understanding the user experience and providing relevant, timely notifications, companies can keep their apps relevant longer and bring back the users that might have otherwise stopped paying attention.

Q Manning

Q Manning is CEO of Rocksauce Studios, which crafts custom mobile apps for all platforms. Rocksauce Studios’ goal is to create an amazing user experience that can succeed in the marketplace when coupled with powerful, eye-catchin...

Copyright 2016 Entrepreneur.com Inc., All rights reserved

Here's Why Solar Entrepreneurs Don't Go Off the Grid

Entrepreneur — 12/2/2016 9:00:00 PM

Having a huge budget opens up a lot of options and one of them is the opportunity to produce your own energy, yet ambitious business owners still stay connected to the grid when they have the means to install enough renewable capacities to become independent.

In my quest for answers, I spoke with several entrepreneurs, each of them with their own ideas on green living and the future of the grid. The answers they gave me were not the ones I expected, but these kinds of answers usually make the best story.

Buying solar and saving on energy are trending.

It is undeniable that buying solar and saving on energy are trending both in the residential and commercial sector. Low prices and government incentives make buying easier than ever, not to mention that the benefits are greatest when you own a system.

Vikram Aggarwal, the CEO and founder of EnergySage said "over 90 percent of EnergySage users chose to buy their solar panel system outright, rather than sign a lease or PPA (power purchase agreement."

EnergySage, a startup with funding from the U.S. Department of Energy, is an online marketplace for purchasing and installing solar panels. Its marketplace allows property owners to comparison-shop across several competing offers and financing options for solar, yet its users almost always choose to buy outright, either with cash or a solar loan. This is a clear indicator that people are interested in generating their own electricity and saving in the process.

Hundreds of dollars in savings in the residential sector translates to thousands of dollars in the commercial sector, which begs the question "Why buy any quantity of energy from the grid when you can produce it?"

It turns out that it's not as simple as it may seem.

Related: Solar Energy Has Big Apple Potential But New York Real Estate Entrepreneurs Haven't Seen the Light

Entrepreneurs take steps toward sustainability.

Entrepreneurs are more focused on increasing sustainability and the motives behind their efforts were well portrayed by Tom Paladino, founder of Paladino and Company. In our brief interview he stated "You don’t have to care about sustainability to understand that wasting energy is a terrible business strategy. Businesses can make low-cost investments in smarter energy management in the short-term, and benefit for the long-term."

Strategies such as "A dollar saved is a dollar earned" seem to work equally well, if not better than producing electricity. Making sustainability improvements and building with sustainability in mind will save businesses a lot over the years.

Upgrades that generate energy.

Renovating your existing property is an opportunity to both save and produce energy. During my search for answers I had the chance to interview Harmel Rayat, founder of Kalen Capital and Talia Jevan Properties, Inc. Aside from being a prolific serial entrepreneur, business owner and successful commercial real estate investor, it turned out that he's also a major shareholder in the clean energy company, SolarWindow.

So, how does that fit into this story? SolarWindow produces see-through window solar panels that can be installed to all building sides and produce electricity even when they are not exposed to direct sunlight. For a commercial property owner, that's probably a dream come true. A see-through panel that works in shaded areas and makes use of artificial light sounds like the future at our doorsteps.

Harmel also added that SolarWindow "achieves the industry’s fastest published financial payback of less than one year, as validated by a team of independent engineers and at the University of North Carolina Charlotte Energy Production and Infrastructure Center (UNCC-EPIC)."

So again, Harmel knows of a product that's easy to implement, works in less than ideal circumstances and offers a fast ROI, but he still wouldn't recommend leaving the grid. Why?

Related: Apple Creates a New Company to Sell Solar Energy

Why are we still tied to the grid?

Even with all of these incentives and sustainability improvements available today, none of the entrepreneurs recommended cutting ties with the grid. All of them gave a good reason why they won't leave the grid, but probably my favorite answer was the one provided by Dirk van Ouwerkerk, lead partner for Microgrids at Anbaric.

In his interview, he stressed that "even in remote grids there will almost always be a net benefit to connecting customers and resources across a locality or region. And in most cases, it will remain efficient to connect those local areas and regions for trading and reliability purposes. The reason is that electric power always automatically looks for the path of least resistance: it’s a near-perfect, automated arbiter of what’s the best resource to serve each load."

When we produce our own energy from renewable sources, we cannot predict the excess we generate or when a deficiency will occur. Staying connected to the grid for support and producing energy from renewables is and will be the best option for many years to come.

Related: Elon Musk Adds Solar Roofs to His Clean Energy Vision

What of those who can't produce energy?

Trading energy through the grid rather than subscribing to a supplier is something that we can expect to happen in the future. Kiran Bhatraju, CEO of Arcadia Power, said his company uses the grid as a trade model, offering solar generated electricity from community solar farms to those who cannot generate it on their property. His community solar program is focused on residential customers.

"We absolutely believe that the commercial sector will adopt community solar,'' he said. "There is an enormous market for businesses who lease office, retail or industrial space and don’t have control of their rooftop. Community solar would allow these businesses to benefit economically and help achieve their sustainability goals."

Considering everything I heard, being part of the grid does not sound like such a bad thing after all.

Jacob Bayer

Jacob Bayer is an entrepreneur, startup enthusiast and father. He is founder and CEO of the energy consultancy Luminext Incorporated. Jacob is best known for his consultancy work in New York's residential and business sector. He has hel...

Copyright 2016 Entrepreneur.com Inc., All rights reserved

You Get the Talent That You Pay For

Entrepreneur — 12/2/2016 8:30:00 PM

I get it. Most startups operate on fumes, in terms of available cash resources. So, the natural instinct of most entrepreneurs is to pay as little as they can for most of the expenses in their business. And, I agree with that for most all expense categories, except one: human talent. Building the right team for your startup is the single most important thing you will do in terms of putting your business on a path toward success or failure. You try to cut corners with your talent decisions and you are toast.

When hiring employees.

There are many ways startups try to save payroll costs. Sometimes they find the candidate willing to do the job for less money. Sometimes they downgrade the position (e.g., from a VP of Marketing to a Marketing Manager). Sometimes they try to avoid paying expensive benefits or giving out dilutive stock options in their business. Each of these examples are filled with opportunities to fall on your sword.

Related: How to Hire Like a Pro

You have to ask yourself these key questions before going down one of these routes. Why is that person willing to work for less money than their peers; maybe they are desperate, hopping from one job to the next? Who has the most experience to help you achieve your desired goals; the first timer experimenting with your business, or the proven veteran that can shorten the learning curve making fewer costly mistakes? Do you really think you are going to be competitive to attract the best talent up against other high-flying startups when others are offering meaningful benefits and upside incentives and you are not? As you can see, hiring talent has much higher potential costs, than just their line item in the budget, if you make the short-sighted, cash-saving decision.

When engaging professionals.

The same holds true when you are engaging professionals (e.g., accountants, lawyers, consultants). If one professional is saying they will do the work for $100 per hour and another is quoting you $200 per hour, your instinct shouldn’t immediately jump to the one offering the lowest price.

As an example, maybe the higher-priced solution has the learnings from a 20 year career vs. a five year career, to help you avoid more known pitfalls that you don’t even see coming. Or, they have helped 20 clients succeed in similar situations, vs. two clients who succeeded (the ones they tell you about) and 10 clients who did not succeed (the ones they don’t tell you about)? Or, the higher priced consultant can afford to charge those rates, because their time is limited and everyone is fighting to get his or her involvement with their business because they are simply the best? Again, not all professionals are created equal, and you need to peel back the layers of the onion far deeper than just jumping to the lowest-priced solution.

When seeking mentors.

As a mentor myself, I am very selective with my time. There are only so many hours in the day, and I have to prioritize with whom I invest my limited time. In any given year, there may be hundreds of startups looking for free help and less than 10 percent of them have any chance for long term scalable success. And, from those dozens that have a fighting chance, the best mentors typically only have time to work with a couple. So, to the extent you can offer them a good reason to pick your business (e.g., stock options, advisor fees), you want to make sure you break through the clutter, to ensure they work with you.

Related: The Key to Hiring the Best Employees

Equally important, make sure the mentor is qualified to be advising you on that specific topic at hand. Getting free mentorship on marketing ideas from your lawyer, is probably not as effective as getting professional marketing advice from a proven marketer, even if you have to incentivize that mentor to get it. So, don’t go down the cheapest route looking for advice, go down the best route.

When raising capital.

I have often said that venture capitalists would rather invest in an A+ team with a B+ idea, than a B+ team with an A+ idea. First of all, that is not a lot of margin for error in your hiring decisions, so it is critical you get it right in order to get investors excited about your business. And, secondly, when doing your budgeting work, you can’t only look at the talent as an expense line in your payroll; you have to think about if that talent can help you open up additional investment resources that otherwise would not be available to you. Said another way, you need to invest money in experienced talent that investors are looking for, to help you raise money, that will help take your business to new heights. So, stop thinking about talent as simply line items in your budgets, as their value can help you many other ways than simply doing their job.

Payroll mistakes are the most costly.

Hopefully, what you have seen in this post is: (i) decisions around human talent will be the most important ones you will make; (ii) going down the cheapest route, is often times a recipe for disaster; and (iii) the costs of making a talent mistake can often end up being materially more expensive than the originally monies you were trying to save in the first place. To pound home this last point, you hire the wrong enterprise sales guy, trying to save a short term buck, and you lose precious months of selling time and revenues, and potentially just put yourself out of business.

Related: The Case for Blind Hiring

So, long story short: don’t think cheap with your talent decisions; think the best, even if it comes at a higher cost. What you are losing in short term cash, you are more than going to make up for in long term success. As the old adage says -- you get what you pay for.

George Deeb

George Deeb is the managing partner at Chicago-based Red Rocket Ventures, a startup consulting, financial advisory and executive staffing firm, and author of 101 Startup Lessons -- An Entrepreneur's Handbook. Red Rocket is also a f...

Copyright 2016 Entrepreneur.com Inc., All rights reserved

5 Reasons Why It's a Bad Idea for Startups to Outsource Software Development

Entrepreneur — 12/2/2016 8:00:00 PM

Entrepreneurs always look for hacks to do things in a cheaper, faster and more efficient manner. Sometimes, though, the perceived savings aren't worth the ultimate cost.

I'm a serial entrepreneur. Over the past several years, I've successfully built and scaled both on-site and remote teams for my startups. I've also burned my fingers trying to outsource software development.

I'd intended to contract with a few developers to code certain sections of the codebase so the larger team could hit our release deadlines. We were in the bootstrapping phase and thought it seemed like a good idea. It turned out to be a disaster. Here are the key reasons why.

1. Different mindsets lead to misaligned goals.

The venture was my baby, and I was fully committed. But to the software developer, we were just another client -- and a very small one, at that. When a large client increased its requirement, a resource crunch meant our project suffered delays.

Moreover, our hired experts always were trying to convince us to build more features. The company benefited from scope creep while we became distracted from our minimum viable product (MVP) approach. Our two companies had different incentives, and this often led to working at cross-purposes.

Related: How to Know When to Bring Software Development In-House

2. Contract negotiations can be complex and time-consuming.

I spent a great deal of time finalizing the contract with the software company, and my startup simply hadn't expected this loss of productive hours. We wanted to get off and running quickly. Instead, it took us between three and four weeks to define, negotiate and execute the contract.

To be fair, there are some valid reasons for budgeting several weeks to fine-tune a contract. There's no easy way around defining the scope of work, identifying each party's responsibilities and putting in place a service-level agreement (SLA). If the contract isn't well-thought-out, you'll have even bigger problems down the road. Entrepreneurs are wise to plan for this necessary time lag, not rush through and trust everything will work itself out later.

Related: 9 Ways to Negotiate a Contract Like a Boss

3. The quality might be hit-and-miss.

The quality of developers at outsourcing companies tends to be mixed. In my experience, the quality typically has been below average. Several developers assigned to my startup project didn't deliver what we needed. We had to haggle with the company to replace them, enduring a painful process that cost us more time and energy. To make matters worse, the code itself wasn't up to our quality standards and our codebase became fragmented.

Related: These 25 Successful Startups Were Built With Outsourced Development

4. In-house talent isn't proficient at managing outsourced project work.

Many startups ignore the fact that managing outsourced teams requires expertise and a special skill set. Outsourcing is a fundamentally different process from in-house development.

Few startups have a team member who has done it before, and this also increases the chances of failure. Outsourcing firms can gauge your inexperience. Unscrupulous companies might even exploit this weakness to hike their upfront time and cost estimates. To be effective, you'll need to master a host of challenging and complex tasks:

  • Clearly define your requirements.
  • Assign which modules will be developed in-house and which will be created by the outsourcing vendor.
  • Plan smooth integration of codes in your master codebase.
  • Plan and execute agreed-upon quality-assurance measures and procedures.
  • Monitor timelines.
  • Provide regular feedback.

Related: 5 Ways to Manage an Outsourced Team on a Startup Budget

Our startup felt confident going into our outsourcing adventure because our team included someone with prior experience managing external work. He still found it tough to oversee the project. Trust me: It’s not a simple proposition. I strongly advise against outsourcing software development unless a company has its own, in-house expert.

5. External issues have a domino effect on your organization.

When you run with a small team, issues don't remain siloed. If your outsourced project isn't going well, the stress tends to impact other areas of your business. At the very least, it will be a huge distraction to your overall operations.

Delays and quality issues are normal and expected with outsourced projects. Yet startups aren't often aware of this fact and don't plan for how they'll mitigate the fallout. When issues started surfacing with our outsourced project, it had a ripple effect. Our CTO was directly involved with the outsourced project and spent a disproportionate amount of his time on project management. As a result, internal employees didn't get adequate time from him, and they started missing their deadlines.

Morale suffered, and workers started slacking off. The tech team's delays, in turn, caused setbacks in our product and sales divisions. This was particularly frustrating because we'd promised additional functionality to our early clients and risked losing them if we did not deliver. The outsourced project went over budget -- something we later realized is a very frequent occurrence. Funding concerns put extra pressure on us as an early-stage startup.

Related: 4 Ways to Build Trust and Help Manage Your Team

Here's the takeaway: We spent much more time, money and effort than we'd expected, and we ended up either not using or rewriting most of the code created by the outsourcing company. In hindsight, it was a mistake. Every business' situation is unique, and it might work for some organizations. But the chances of thing going wrong are higher when you control fewer elements of the whole, and that's especially true for startups and smaller organizations.

The next time you consider outsourcing your company's software development, think again. Or at least think about these lessons learned. They'll help you go in with open eyes and a more realistic picture of what you can achieve.

Karan Chaudhry

Karan Chaudhry is a serial entrepreneur based out of Palo Alto, Ca. He is currently the co-founder, chief product officer and global head for Comnplus, where his team is building advanced machine learning based personalization and...

Copyright 2016 Entrepreneur.com Inc., All rights reserved

The Best Gifts for Busy Entrepreneurs

Entrepreneur — 12/2/2016 7:30:00 PM

What should you get that busy entrepreneur in your life? Yroom.com's Trae Bodge shares some recommendations in this video.

Watch more videos from Jessica Abo on her YouTube channel here.

Related: 5 Tips to Save Money This Holiday Season

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Click here to become a part of this growing video network.

Jessica Abo

Jessica Abo is a journalist by day and social entrepreneur by choice. Through her production company, JaboTV, Jessica creates inspirational videos for her YouTube channel as well as branded content for companies.&nb...

Copyright 2016 Entrepreneur.com Inc., All rights reserved

Here Is What Small Business Needs From the Trump Administration

Entrepreneur — 12/2/2016 7:30:00 PM

As President-Elect Trump is busy at work filling his Cabinet positions, the one area that may be among the most important, but is among the least talked about, pertains to small business.

Small business and entrepreneurship are at the center of creating jobs and growing the economy, which are key pieces of Trump’s stated focus. While previous presidents, including President Obama, have raised the Administrator of the Small Business Administration to a Cabinet-level position, Trump should continue his out-of-the-box thinking and make a small business Cabinet position even more front and center in his own administration.

As a leading small business advocate for the greater part of the past decade, I’ve identified several key areas that Trump’s appointee should be able to navigate in order to add full value to the administration, as well as the 28 million small businesses (and tens of millions of freelancers) currently at the center of our economic engine.

Knowledge of the small business universe and ecosystem.

Because there are so many different types of small businesses, the small business universe has been a conundrum for government and private entities to target, reach and assist them. Around 22 million small businesses in the US have no employees. Approximately 6 million do have employees. Traditional “Main Street” businesses, typically financed by the entrepreneurs themselves, are in the majority. Venture capital funds a fraction of a percent of all start-up and small businesses, but those are the ones with the most growth potential.

Knowing this variability amongst the different types of businesses and their different needs is critical to advocating for all of them, as is the ability to network on Main Street, K Street and in Silicon Valley alike.

Related: 5 Surprising Reasons to Love the Small Business Administration

A true understanding of how regulation impacts the different types of small businesses.

Just about every piece of key legislation that is likely to be revamped or introduced under Trump and the Republican-majority Congress affects small businesses. And the nuances of the above different types of small business make representing the needs of all small businesses a bit more complicated.

Tax reform will need to be structured to account for those who use corporate legal structures like C-corps, as well as the majority of entrepreneurs who use pass-through entities like single-member LLCs. It should also take into account definitions, like that of a 1099 employee (especially given the growth in freelancing) and whether a franchisee of a major corporation should be considered a small business (my take: it should).

The Affordable Care Act has obviously put enormous strains on some small businesses, so their needs need to be evaluated in any restructuring, while also still making sure that healthcare is widely available to all entrepreneurs and their employees.

Immigration policy, from potential burdens of reporting and verification to visa needs for highly skilled positions, are also critical to small business owners, as is Dodd-Frank’s impact on lending to small business. Even repatriation of cash from big businesses oversees could be tied into small business benefits if the right person ensures a focus on it.

Related: 3 Benefits of the Affordable Care Act Every Business Leader Needs to Know About

A desire to embrace technology.

An entrepreneurial bent needs to be given to the work done for small business by the government and other entities that it partners. From creating a single interface for small business owners to easily navigate and find the resources that they need, to making events available via broadcast or replay video for viewing if you can’t attend in person (or didn’t get the memo until a week later), a tech overhaul in the name of small business is desperately needed.

Related: 4 Tips for Pursuing Government Contracts

A willingness to embrace collaboration.

Small business as an issue shouldn’t be kept in a silo. The reality is that there are many public, quasi-public and private groups all producing resources to try to help entrepreneurs and many of these are all rowing in different directions that need to be brought together to collaborate, instead of doing things individually.

The same goes for the various other governmental departments that all impact small business, and vice versa. Not understanding the symbiosis between economic and policy efforts of other departments and small business will be a roadblock in giving small businesses the representation and resources that they need to succeed.

Related: How to Trump-Proof Your Small Business

A commitment to progress, not politics.

At the end of the day, most of the rhetoric and some of the efforts around small business owners seem more about administrative game-playing instead of providing help and assistance to small business owners to make their lives easier and their businesses more successful. National Small Business Week is more about administrative self-congratulating and less about providing resources to those who need it. A renewed, entrepreneurial focus on doing more with less will truly help make small business the priority that it should be.

Carol Roth

Carol Roth is an on-air contributor for CNBC, a “recovering” investment banker, entrepreneur and best-selling author. She makes people think, makes them laugh and makes them money. Her accomplishments have ranged ...

Copyright 2016 Entrepreneur.com Inc., All rights reserved

Will VR Technology Change Marketing Forever?

Entrepreneur — 12/2/2016 7:00:00 PM

Virtual reality (VR) technology has been discussed and hinted at for years, but we’ve finally seen some significant progress made this year. And while there’s still a lot of ground to be made before it can be considered a mainstream technology, now’s the perfect time to take a look at the role of VR in business and how it will impact marketing, specifically.

What is VR?

“Virtual reality is the term used to describe a three-dimensional, computer generated environment which can be explored and interacted with by a person,” explains Virtual Reality Society. “That person becomes part of this virtual world or is immersed within this environment and whilst there, is able to manipulate objects or perform a series of actions.”

Related: Why Virtual Reality Is Vital

Thanks to consumer interest and new developments, the technology behind VR is becoming cheaper and more cost-effective. This is leading to enormous buzz and demand in the marketplace, as well as interest among businesses that want in on the action.

Why is VR so effective?

If you don’t have any experience with VR, then you’re probably wondering what all the fuss is about. If we had to break it down into four concise bullet points, it would go as follows:

  • Novelty.
  • For starters, VR has the “hip” factor. Its’ new, it’s cool and it’s something that’s never been seen before. That, in and of itself, creates an allure in the marketplace.
  • Immersive.
  • Over the years, media has become more and more immersive. From television and video games to social media and mobile devices, the more visually stimulating and engaging a technology is, the more effective it is.
  • Memorable.
  • Did you know that the human brain processes images an astounding
  • 60,000-times faster
  • than text? It would stand to reason, then, that VR experiences are even more memorable than images, which keeps people coming back for more.
  • Story-based.
  • Finally, VR is often rooted in storytelling. Anytime you have a visual medium that can be used for storytelling, you have a recipe for success.

VR technology is here to stay. From personal use to business applications, it’ll be exciting to see the advancements made in the coming months.

Related: Virtual Reality Is Proving a Powerful Vehicle for Disaster Relief, Social Causes

How is it being used?

As mentioned, the potential for leveraging VR technology in marketing is (pardon the pun) virtually unlimited. Let’s take a look at some of the uses:

  • Incredible experiences.
  • With VR, you can suddenly transport your customers to any scene in the world (or even your imagination). Marriott recently did this by partnering with Framestore VR Studio and Relevant to take customers on virtual tours of vacation destinations like Hawaii and London.
  • It was a smashing success
  • and shows just how powerful VR can be.
  • Customer education.
  • What better way to teach customers about a certain topic than by actually involving them? This is what the Hacienda Patron tequila distillery
  • recently did by giving customers
  • a behind-the-scenes look at what goes on during the production process. As a result, customers felt a closer connection to the brand.
  • Fresh innovation.
  • While newspapers are quickly dying off, leading companies are looking for ways to stay relevant. The New York Times has done this by
  • releasing a series of VR films
  • to its subscribers this year.

Related: How This Couple Is Amalgamating Virtual Reality with Architectural Visualization

The possibilities are endless and marketers are anticipating even more advancements in VR technology so that they can further utilize this powerful storytelling medium.

Putting it all together.

VR technology is exciting and promising, especially in the marketing industry. It has the potential to totally and utterly revolutionize the way in which markers engage customers, which will have a lasting impact on businesses everywhere. What do you think?

Samuel Edwards

In his four years as a digital marketing strategist, Edwards has worked with countless local businesses as well as enterprise Fortune 500 companies and organizations including NASDAQ OMX, eBay, Duncan Hines, Drew Barrymore, Washington, DC b...

Copyright 2016 Entrepreneur.com Inc., All rights reserved

10 Ways to Build Trust and Credibility With Your Customers

Entrepreneur — 12/2/2016 6:00:00 PM

When deciding on your business, the first step is to identify a need or ongoing concern of your target market and provide a solution for it. In the case of China, the concern was the worsening levels of air pollution. The quality of air in China had been deteriorating that it opened the doors to a new industry called “Air Farming.”

Say what?

In 2012, a Chinese millionaire named Chen Guangbiao started selling “fresh” canned air in China for $0.80 a pop. According to Chen, the air is collected in the mountain tops of Xinjiang and is “available in different flavors such as 'Pristine Tibet’ and ‘Post-Industrial Taiwan.’” Chen sold 100,000 cans in his first day of business.

In 2015, a startup company called Vitality Air began selling bottled “fresh Canadian air” to China for $14 to $20 each and sold out 500 bottles in the first two weeks. Not to be outdone, a British man named Leo De Watts started selling bottled “fresh British country air” to China for $115 per bottle.

Related: 3 Ways to Increase Customer Loyalty

You may be scratching your head why such an obvious scam would become a profitable venture. It has drawn less attention to the critical levels of air pollution in China and instead has become a commentary on the lack of trust and credibility by a select number of entrepreneurs.

There is a difference between opportunity and being opportunistic.

Since the Internet became accessible to the world in 2000, it has blown open the doors of opportunity for entrepreneurs to take their business to the global stage. Powered by evolving digital technology and influenced by online channels such as social media, an Internet-based business made it possible to bridge markets once separated by oceans.

But it also unwittingly created opportunities for scammers.

With more than 1 Billion websites operating on the Internet servicing the needs of more than 3.4 Billion users online every day, the values of trust and credibility have become sought after qualities for online business. Believe it or not, it is easy to build trust and credibility in a generally skeptical online world:

1. Invest in your website.

It’s not enough that you have a website. You have to ensure your website will enhance User Experience or UX. Your website must have the following qualities

  • Fast download time
  • Accessible by multi-browsers
  • Fully functional features
  • Navigability
  • Simple but effective design

2. Be yourself.

Psychiatrist and Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman theorized that consumers are more intuitive than rational. They will patronize a business if they align with its purpose. Speak to your market; do not lecture or try to impress them with fancy terminologies. Your message should be short and simple: “I can help you.”

An effective way is to embed videos on your Home and About Us pages. You can tell people who you are; what your business is all about and how you can help them within 2 minutes.

3. Host webinars.

Another effective way to gain trust and credibility with your customers is to host webinars. Here are a few of the benefits you gain by hosting webinars:

  • Develops authority and trust
  • Builds relationships
  • Highlight your expertise
  • Help you understand your target audience
  • Raise brand awareness

You can invite experts in their respective fields. By so doing, your guests may reciprocate and link your webinar to their websites and expand your market reach.

4. Blog regularly.

Blogging gives you a platform to address the needs and concerns of your customers. It allows you to share actionable ideas on a host of various topics your customers are regularly searching information on.

Here are tips on how to use a blog to enhance your trust and credibility to customers:

  • Use analytics, keyword research and audience engagement to see which types of content interest your customers the most.
  • Publish three to four blogs a week and have these distributed through multiple online channels.
  • Your blog should at least be 1,600 words long.
  • Do not use technical jargon in your blog.
  • Write your blog as if you are conversing with your customer.

If you don’t have the time to write a blog, hire a freelance writer but make sure you read the content before you have them published.

5. Add testimonials.

Testimonials are a powerful tool in earning trust and credibility with customers. It is your customer telling others how acquiring your products or services benefited his or her business.

Related: The 5 Emotions That Drive Customer Loyalty

This is why testimonies are so effective; it is organic, natural and very real. It is the most sincere way of validating your trustworthiness and credibility. Having a testimonials page in your website will greatly influence the decision of site visitors to patronize your business.

6. Be truthful about reviews.

What is the difference between a testimonial and a review? With a testimonial, you get to choose who gives the statement. A review is more objective and impartial because you are dealing with the opinions of a collective.

Of course, if you own the website you have the ability to be selective on which reviews are posted. But remember, website visitors are skeptical by nature. If all the reviews are “5 Stars” or “Excellent”, the process becomes self-serving.

For example, ShopInsuranceCanada, included a rating system for customers to use when giving their review. It’s an effective approach because it humanizes the business. After all, you can’t please everyone all the time.

If a customer posts negative reviews or gives you “1 Star” it should inspire you to make your product or service better. Reach out to the customer, get more details and secure inputs on how to improve your business.

7. Include case studies.

How do you make a testimonial more powerful? When you include a case study which details how acquiring your product or service helped the customer achieve his or her goals or turned around the business to become a verified success.

It’s not enough to state you can help businesses achieve a 400 percent ROI in one year. Show website visitors how you did if for your customers. Remember, some customers do extensive research before buying a product or service.

8. Get certified.

Part of the research customers do is due diligence. They want to eliminate all the possibilities of dealing with a fraudulent business. One of the ways they do this is to check with regulating agencies.

As a registered business, have a copy of your SEC or trade certificate accessible for viewing in the Home Page. You could also go through the process of being accredited by the Better Business Bureau.

It will entail some expense but it would put you ahead of other businesses that are not certified or verified as legitimate.

9. Be active in social media.

Social media is a great way to bring your business closer to people. The idea is to get more involved with your customers. If you have a Facebook page, engage your followers once they post a comment. Do not be disheartened or get annoyed with negative comments. Give your response in a respectful and highly respectful manner.

Related: Customer Loyalty Is Spelled N-P-S

Again it is about humanizing your business; giving it a personality that people can relate to and not just an enterprise out for profit. And don’t just talk about business. If you want to foster trust and credibility, show your customers who you are. Share your thoughts and ideas on other issues other than business.

10. Attend to concerns right away.

Trust is a quality that is earned over time. You cannot earn it in one day or one week. It may take months or years. The key is consistency. If a customer calls your attention on a defect or a problem with your product or service, attend to it right away.

Here are a few tips to keep in mind:

  • Be a listener 80 percent of the time.
  • Avoid clichés like “I know where you’re coming from” or “I’m sorry to hear about that”; have a conversation with the customer. That’s how relationships are built.
  • Do not be defensive or argue with a customer.
  • If it’s your mistake, own up to it and assure an immediate resolution to the problem.
  • If you have to replace the product, do it.
  • If a customer requests for a refund, give it.
  • If it’s the customer’s mistake, see what you can do to make the situation easier.
  • Be proactive; if resolution will take time, keep the customer updated of the status.

Strangely, we live at a time where digital technology has created a dichotomy. In an age where automation, efficiency and mobility are essential components for success, the conditions have lent greater importance for business to humanize its organization.

Customers have ready access to information and they have many platforms to voice out their concerns. Technology has tilted the balance of power toward the consumer.

In order to succeed, it is not enough to create new customers. You must also focus on establishing strong relationships with existing customers. They will help you build trust and compatibility in your industry.

Felix Tarcomnicu

Felix Tarcomnicu is an entrepreneur and online marketer. He blogs at ProOptimization.com.

Copyright 2016 Entrepreneur.com Inc., All rights reserved

Customers on Vacation? Here Are 4 Strategies Top-Performing Salespeople Follow.

Entrepreneur — 12/2/2016 5:30:00 PM

When customers go on vacation, as many will do this holiday season, many sales reps clock out, too. And at first glance, if you're a sales rep, clocking out probably seems fine -- just one less person you need to reach out to or worry about until he or she is back in the office.

Related: 6 Infallible Sales Strategies for Beating Even the Toughest Competition

However, that’s the wrong attitude to take. A customer's vacation, like many other events, is actually great opportunity to build your relationship and keep your company front of mind for him or her. You just need to know the right approach.

Here are four strategies the best salespeople follow when their best customers go on vacation:

1. Send reading material.

Long-form content is an extremely valuable sales tool. It solidifies your position as an industry leader, and it tends to perform much better than short-form content. So, when you know a customer is headed off to vacation, consider it the perfect time to send tangible reading material the customer may enjoy, whether it be an ebook or a printed version of your brand’s magazine.

You can also recommend this content as interesting reading during the traveler's flight, or something he or she can bring to the beach and flip though. Your prospects are going to have lots of down time, after all, so they’ll have a better chance of getting to the literature you provide, as long as it’s relevant and interesting.

Just avoid going over the top and delivering content that’s aggressively sales-driven. Your goal should be to inform or entertain, not convince this prospect to make a purchase while he or she is away and relaxing.

Related: 4 Sales Strategies to Increase Your Average B2B Deal Sizes

2. Dig further into the company.

While your main contact is on vacation, you have the ideal opportunity to find new contacts and network within their organization. A mid-size company of between 100 and 500 employees, for example, has an average seven decision-makers for any single purchase. If you have only a single contact, you may be limiting your revenue-generating potential.

This is your chance to fix that. Simply ask your contact who’s going to be covering during his or her absence, in case you need to reach out. When you find out the name, follow up and say, “While we’re at it, is there anybody else in your company I should get in touch with, for this week, or for any other concerns in the future?”

3. Reach out (but not immediately).

Make a note of where your customer is headed on vacation and, most importantly, his or her date for coming back. You’ll want to reconnect quickly, but not push too hard. If the return date is a Monday, which is normally one of the most effective days for emails, consider holding off until Wednesday or Thursday unless the issue is pressing.

Your customer will most likely have a huge pile of work to come back to, and your message will only be an unwelcome annoyance and most likely ignored or forgotten. If you wait a couple of days until the customer is caught up and settled in again, you’ll have a much better chance of getting through.

4. Schedule a meeting.

Knowing when to reach out to your customer is good, but the only way you can truly make sure you stay connected with someone going on vacation is to get the customer to lock in a meeting date for shortly after he or she returns. This ensures that no matter how busy this person is after vacation, you’ll have a guaranteed opportunity to talk.

The key is making sure that you have a valid reason for the meeting up, so schedule a demo or promise important information at that time. You can simply say: “I don’t want to bother you before your big trip, so let’s plan to talk sometime after you get back.” Again, it’s prudent to schedule a meeting later in the week so you don’t get lost among the piles of catch-up work.

Overall, customers going on vacation do not need to be viewed as a lost opportunity. Instead, vacation is a really opportune time to build the relationship. By sending valuable content, taking the time to make additional connections and reaching out and scheduling a meeting at the appropriate time, you’ll strengthen your rapport with your prospect before and after the vacation period.

Related: 7 Psychological Strategies for Mastering Sales Negotiations

Using these strategies, you may see a nice increase in future commission checks to fund your own next holiday.

Danny Wong

Danny Wong is an entrepreneur, marketer and writer. He is the co-founder of Blank Label, an award-winning luxury menswear company, and leads marketing for Receiptful, a platform to supercharge all customer interactions for eCommerce stores,...

Copyright 2016 Entrepreneur.com Inc., All rights reserved

How to Flatten Your Organizational Hierarchy Now

Entrepreneur — 12/2/2016 5:00:00 PM

Startups are inherently small, which means a few team members work together in a tiny space. The result is that pitching ideas is as simple as turning to the person next to you and saying, “Hey, let’s try this approach!”

Related: The Secret Behind a Company That Gets Wildly High Internal Message Open Rates

But as startups grow, from one tiny office to a sea of cubicles, this expansion limits access. Preserving this flatness and openness can be a struggle. Before you know it, your small business has morphed into a larger company with a rigid management structure.

Holocracy -- the flat management structure followed by Zappos -- doesn’t make sense for every business. But if you want to preserve a startup ethos at your business (or create one), then adopting a less extreme version of a flatter organizational hierarchy can help.

What's more, you don’t have to throw out the entire organizatioin chart in order to achieve this goal. By simply bringing a new focus to internal communications, you can uncover institutional blockages hindering innovations you may never have realized even existed.

Here are two approaches to follow, depending on whether you’re scaling a startup or working backward to adopt a startup ethos at your larger business:

Scaling up? Preserve open communication structures.

The problem: Nearly half of all employees say that they’re disengaged do to a lack of communication between staff and management. Preserving an open communication structure as your business scales up is essential to supporting a continued sense of ownership in company success and engagement.

However, as your company grows, it’s not practical for your founder or even the executive team to follow an “open-door policy” throughout the workday. Constant interruptions mean that nothing gets accomplished. So, how can you protect this free flow of ideas without hindering productivity?

The solution: Start by protecting project ownership. As your company scales in size, contributions can range from huge changes to microscopic details. But employees may lose their drive to innovate because there’s no urgency. A dangerous workplace ethos can set in, then, that says, “Nothing I do is any different from everyone else, so why try?”

Related: The 4 Signs That Anemic Communications Is Sapping Your Company's Vitality

Beat this disconnection by fostering a strong sense of ownership, through transparency and an “anything is possible” mentality. Information is power, and individuals with limited information can feel powerless and disconnected. Don’t keep your employees in the dark this way: They can’t connect the dots if they lack access to all the dots!

To connect them, consider technology solutions not dependent on email. Email inherently cuts people out of the conversation; project-management tools like Asana (and a few others I’ll mention later) bring everyone in. Inclusivity drives fluid communication, ownership and innovation.

Flattening a larger company? Identify and remove blockages.

The problem: Creating a startup mentality at a larger company can be tricky. Startup culture is about more than just a “hip” millennial-friendly workspace complete with a foosball table, beanbag chairs and a permanent “casual Friday” dress code. A better approach is to identify blocked communication channels and remove these blockages.

At smaller companies, employees can feel that they’re making a difference. Ideas are incorporated overnight into developing products or services. At larger companies, ideas have to travel up and down the chain of command, getting watered down or just flat-out lost in translation. Rigid management structures kill innovation potential.

The solution: Start with a detailed organization chart of how your company is currently structured (I’m a fan of Creately for sketching out quick charts online) and then map out locations along the chart where communications break down. Are the marketing team’s ideas getting stuck at the VP level because the ideas got lost in a sea of email? Did IT have a great idea for sales but no clear pathway for sharing this idea?

Next, consider how you can better facilitate internal dialogue. Pat Sullivan recommends detoxing from email addiction, and I definitely agree. In a fast-moving business environment, email slows down project management and innovation every time. Consider a radical structure reorganization that creates “teams of teams” (e.g., a project team with a two members each from marketing, sales and IT, plus a project leader), rather than siloed teams stuck in a single department. I’m a fan of Asana, Wrike and Zoho Projects for streamlined collaboration and open communication.

Bottom line: Remember, good communication flows two ways. If you want to encourage sharing, input and dialogue, then the folks at the top need to reward these behaviors. Re-think the organization chart by identifying and removing communication blockages. Get employee buy-in. Foster transparency by making objectives and goals public for the entire company.

Related: Size Doesn't Matter: Internal Marketing Starts With Transparency

And don’t be afraid to completely rethink your team structure of project-management platforms. You don’t have to be as extreme as Zappos, but if you want to preserve a startup ethos at your business (or create one), you have to be willing to experiment.

Brian Hughes

Brian Hughes is the founder and CEO of Integrity Marketing & Consulting, where he helps his clients build powerful brands through content marketing, social-media marketing, search-engine optimization, email marketing, pay-per-click...

Copyright 2016 Entrepreneur.com Inc., All rights reserved

10 Tools to Keep Creatives Happy and Productive

Entrepreneur — 12/2/2016 4:59:02 PM

Keeping creatives -- designers, writers, art directors and other artsy types -- inspired and motivated within the confines of their cubicles should be one of your top priorities for 2017. This band of rebels is a breed unto themselves with a blend of desirable skills that ensure your brand not only stays intact, but one step ahead of the competition.

It’s easy to see why marketing departments continue to experience a spike in the number of creatives joining their teams, and they are showing a heightened interest in keeping those growing teams content. Seventy percent of B2B marketers who responded to a study by the Content Marketing Institute said they are creating more content than they did one year ago, and 55 percent of them will increase their marketing spending in the coming year.

Mega corporations are on this trend as well.

Related: How to Inspire Innovation Within Your Business

Apple and Microsoft (and others) have retooled their machines (and packed them full of apps) designed specifically to court the creative market. With its October 2016 release of the new MacBook Pro, Apple continues to cater to creatives, with one tag line proclaiming, “for creativity on an epic scale.” Not to be outdone, Microsoft released Surface Studio, “a new tool for the creative process.”

But with talent, comes a set of unique needs.

“Tapping into one’s creativity within the confines of a corporate environment can have its challenges,” notes Hillary Hope, founder and creative director at The Unlimited Hope. “A brilliant idea can hit while on the treadmill at the gym, in line at the grocery store or in the middle of the night. Being flexible with one’s creative team is one of the best ways to support and inspire them.”

To ensure you can equip your team with smart apps for idea-making, brainstorming and productive daydreaming, I’ve short-listed 10 top tools working creatives use to stay motivated, curious and responsive as well as organized and on task.

“In order to ensure your team has the space to tap into their creative juices while tending to the left-brain, you must not only give them the tools they need but flexibility as well,” Hope adds. “This way, they are more apt to deliver new and interesting solutions for projects in a timely manner.”

1. Designinspiration

Designinspiration is the hub for discovering great art, design, architecture, photography, typography and web creativity. Creatives can browse content submitted by its users as well as share their own great designs.

“When I’m stuck, or need a spark of inspiration, I browse the amazing work on Designinspiration,” says Tamara Weaver, creative director at Patient Pop. “The quality and diversity really opens your mind and erases borders -- it’s like brainstorming with an entire global team.”

2. ONTRApages

ONTRApages fosters the entrepreneurial spirit among creatives by offering easy-to-build, attractive web pages (a plethora of template, fonts, and colors) that can boost conversions and help grow businesses. And it’s free for everyone.

3. Adobe Photoshop LightRoom

Adobe Photoshop LightRoom helps photographers and designers manage and edit their photographs -- from importing to sorting to sharing on the web.

Related: 5 Lessons for Success From YouTube Star Casey Neistat

4. Clique University

While Clique Studios is first and foremost a full-service agency, the company is also making a name for itself with its “Clique University” classes. On its website, let your creatives explore the history and necessities of typography or dive deep into Clique’s insights.

If you’re located in or will be in Chicago, invite Clique University to give personalized sessions to your creative team or attend one of Clique U’s in-person training sessions.

5. The Noun Project

This global library of free, downloadable icons representing symbols and concepts lets designers create, share and celebrate the world’s visual language. Today, millions use The Noun Project to simplify communication around the world.

6. Sketch

With Sketch, designers and art directors can create stunning landing pages and working prototypes to help complete their own projects. Sketch’s lightweight, flexible and fast interface makes sure the focus remains on what matters: the design.

“Sketch is my go-to when I start a new web project,” says Leslie Casanova, founder and creative director at Spell Work. “It helps translate a complex design into a final product, which makes it easy to present to clients.”

7. Hemingway Editor

Hemingway himself probably would have used this simple text editor. And why not? Its proofreading tools create bold and clear prose. The Hemingway Editor highlights common problems that can get in the way of clear writing, including complex words or phrases, extra long sentences, too many adverbs and too many instances of passive voice.

8. Lynda

This is a one-stop-shop for productively burning an hour at work while learning a new skill. Get your entire team a Lynda subscription to take full advantage of the unlimited courses in design software, web building, video and still photography, animation, illustration and writing. You name it, Lynda most likely has a course for it.

9. Grammarly

No matter your writing needs, Grammarly gives you the confidence of mistake-free writing every time you put pen to paper, so to speak. Grammarly's online proofreading tool checks text for grammar, punctuation and style and features a contextual spelling checker and plagiarism detector.

Related: 'Metal Gear Solid' Creator on How He Remains Creative Amid Hardships

10. Headspace

Getting your creatives in the right frame of mind is what Headspace does best. Research shows practicing meditation and mindfulness can have a positive impact on stress, anxiety, focus and creativity. Headspace bills itself as “a gym membership for the mind,” with a monthly subscription program that teaches meditation in short, office-friendly time slots.

I'm always looking for new creative tools. Tweet me your favorites that I didn't include on this list @andrewmedal.

Andrew Medal

Andrew Medal is a street geek and entrepreneur. He is the founder of web and mobile development shop, Agent Beta, amongst a handful of other startups. Recently, he's been helping the California Education Department solve...

Copyright 2016 Entrepreneur.com Inc., All rights reserved

Why I Refuse to Own a Car

Entrepreneur — 12/2/2016 4:30:00 PM

This is my friend, Mike.

Mike owns a Lamborghini.

This is me.

I do not own this Ferrari. In fact, I don’t own a car at all.

So, here's the connection: I used to fly in to the San Diego airport when I was returning from business trips; Mike would pick me up in his Lambo, turning heads. (Women would actually run up to the car to give Mike their phone numbers.)

But, as for me, I didn’t like his car! My suitcase didn’t fit in the trunk! I had to cradle my luggage in my lap on the way home, and I couldn’t see out the window!

That's why I’d rather Mike pick me up in his Mazda. Don't misread what I'm saying: There’s nothing wrong with nice cars. I know a lot of successful people who have really nice cars. For me, however, owning a nice car would keep me from being a successful entrepreneur.

So I’ve made the decision not to own a car. Let me explain why.

Cars are overrated.

There’s something ridiculously awesome about driving around in a Ferrari or a McLaren. You will absolutely turn heads. These cars are flashy, loud and powerful. You’ve “made it,” and have the goods to prove it. You’re sexy, and you know it. But that’s about it.

Fancy car ownership is all about the feeling you get. The feeling of novelty. Of importance.

I’ve driven a Ferrari before. I've even made some nice money by creating publicity for an exotic car dealership. But that’s not my real passion or interest in life.

Sure, some people are true car hobbyists or collectors. But far too many people just want to experience the feeling. Eventually, they realize that it wears off after a while and they're stuck with a depreciating asset they can’t put too many miles on.

So, what is the car actually for? From a functional or practical perspective, not a whole lot.

I choose to eliminate distractions.

I’ve engineered my life to be incredibly minimalist. I don’t own a home. I don’t own a car. I don’t have any major recurring expenses. I wear the same thing every day. I eat the same thing. My life is extremely simple. That’s the way I’ve designed it.

The more things I add into my life -- possessions, stuff, variety, etc. -- the more distracted I become. I can’t focus on the most important things, which for me are my businesses and my relationships.

A personal vehicle falls into the category of “distracting.” I don’t want the extra payments, hassle, repairs, maintenance, upkeep and worry of owning it. And most of all, I don’t want the distraction of wanting to speed around the racetrack instead of working. Besides, I don’t need it, because I have Uber or other options for transportation.

Car ownership is one more thing I got rid of in order to give me greater energy and focus on what truly fulfills me.

Plus, I’ve done the math. I spend roughly 8.2 hours a week in a car. That’s around 426 hours per year. Some people spend more time in their cars each week. I don’t really have to drive to work, but I have to go to meetings.

Assuming that the average person spends 40 hours a week working, I am gaining 10.5 work weeks more than my competition. In essence, I am able to work more hours each year than my competition can, because I don’t drive, while they do.

As an entrepreneur, time is money. There isn’t enough time in the day. The company that executes the fastest tends to win. By using Uber and not driving, I gain 10.5 weeks a year on my competition.

A car doesn’t make business sense.

Okay, so not everything in life needs to make “business sense,” but I always think about cars in that category. I used to drive around on the cheap. I just borrowed my parents' car. First, that meant an '89 Toyota Camry. A few years later, I upgraded to their '98 Honda Civic.

When I started making more money, I decided to buy my own car -- a Nissan Versa. I needed something to drive up to Seattle where I was moving. The Versa did the job.

I soon realized, though, that my car was a distraction. I had to fill it with gas, get oil changes, figure out where to park it and try to drive in the crazy downtown Seattle traffic. What a waste of time! So, I gave the car to a friend. He had to pay for gas and insurance, of course, but the car was his. My only condition? He had to give me a ride when I needed it. Basically, I had Uber before there was Uber.

For me, the agreement made perfect business sense. Purchase a car. Give it away. Don’t worry about the hassle, and get unlimited free rides in return.

My friend Mike, the Lambo owner, loves his cars. He rents out his Lamborghini and Range Rover, making more money than he’s spending on them. Besides, he’s made some great business deals because of it! For Mike, owning nice vehicles makes business sense.

Another friend of mine, Tim Sykes, buys nice cars.

Why does he do it? He could care less about driving fast. He buys them for their business value. He’ll write a few blog posts about them and get some pictures up on Instagram. Boom! He makes a few million more bucks. (His reputation as a successful millionaire helps him sell more information products.) His strategy makes total business sense.

Me? I don’t own a car anymore, and that too is a strategic business decision. If I need to get somewhere, I get an Uber; it’s incredibly convenient. A 20-minute ride lets me produce 30 emails and conduct five phone conversations. That, in turn, makes me money.

To drive myself those 20 minutes would be a net loss. You see what I mean by “business sense"?


I have a friend named Barry. Barry is a successful businessperson who had a thriving publicly traded company in the '80s.

When Barry gives me advice, I listen. He told me one time, “When you get older, you realize what’s really important -- it’s family, relationships . . . it’s not about being 'cool.' Your car is going to get dinged up. It’s just a car. It’s a headache. Get something cheap! I used to drive a Ferrari when I was young, and now I drive a Toyota Camry. If I had to do it all over again, I would have never bought the Ferrari. It’s a waste!”

So, let me say again: For some people, cars are important. And that’s fine.

For me, the reason I don’t own a car is simple: I choose to focus my energy, passion and money on things that truly matter to me. For me, that’s family and friends. Using Uber helps me optimize my time, which allows me to spend those extra 426 hours a year on what's important to me the most.

Neil Patel

Neil Patel is co-founder of Crazy Egg, Hello Bar and KISSmetrics. He helps companies like Amazon, NBC, GM, HP and Viacom grow their revenue.

Copyright 2016 Entrepreneur.com Inc., All rights reserved

Students Can Use Snapchat to See If They've Been Accepted to This College

Entrepreneur — 12/2/2016 4:27:00 PM

It may be time to say goodbye to getting college letters in the mail -- or even those sluggish online portals that require you to hit refresh several times before you get the answer.

In a first, high school seniors who applied to the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay will receive acceptances via Snapchat.

Related: Here's Why Smart Marketers Are Already Mastering Snapchat Geofilters

The prospective students will then either screenshot the message -- some people frame their letters, so why not -- or send a selfie back to the admissions team to let them know they received it.

Of course, the admitted students will still receive the requisite giant packet and an email, but if they are one of Snapchat's more than 150 million daily active users, it's likely that the app is the first place they will see the good news.

Nina Zipkin

Nina Zipkin is a staff writer at Entrepreneur.com. She frequently covers media, tech, startups, culture and workplace trends.

Copyright 2016 Entrepreneur.com Inc., All rights reserved

Final Fantasy 15 review: A curio, not a classic

Ars Technica » Features — 12/5/2016 1:57:41 PM

Ars Cardboard’s 2016 board game gift guide

Ars Technica » Features — 12/3/2016 2:00:25 PM

The frenzied holiday gift-shopping season is now in full swing, and board gamers across the globe are dusting off their Kallax shelves in preparation for the cardboard bounty that surely awaits them. It’s left to you, Friend of the Gamer, to make those dreams come true.

Whether your giftee is a longtime gamer or a brand new convert, Ars Cardboard is here with a list of games to please players of every stripe. We've broken your friends and family into tidy little categories and provided a main pick and some alternatives for each demographic. Our main picks focus on titles released in the last year or two, but we dug into some older titles for our expanded picks. To boot, most games on this list are friendly to tabletop newbies.

Where available, we’ve provided links to purchase the games on Amazon, and we've also included links to Boardgameprices.com, a site that lets you check stock and compare prices at a number of online stores. (Cool Stuff Inc. and Miniature Market are the two big ones, and we can vouch for them both.) Those online game stores generally have lower prices than Amazon, but you may end up with a better deal from Amazon if you’re a Prime member (true last-minute shoppers will want to go the Amazon route for the speedy shipping). If you’re able to get together a big enough order, both Cool Stuff Inc. and Miniature Market offer free shipping for orders totaling over $100.

Of course, if you’re lucky enough to have a real-life game store nearby, give them a visit. You might pay a bit more, but you’ll also get personalized recommendations and the warm feeling that comes from supporting a local business.

For the kids

Our pick: Loony Quest

2-5 players, 20-30 min, age 8+

$30 on Amazon, other options

Good kids' games can be enjoyed by adults playing alongside youngsters, while the very best pull double duty as great drunk-adult games. Loony Quest hits both marks. The game tasks players with drawing lines and circles and dots on video game-like mazes, avoiding obstacles and running over power ups on the way to the goal. The hitch is that you have to draw your line on a sheet of plastic sitting in front of you; only after you’re done do you place the sheet atop the obstacle course to see how well you did.

It’s a snap to teach, and it comes with seven full "worlds" of multiple levels each. A full game plays in about 20 minutes, and it’s a surprisingly raucous good time. Some of the power-ups let you mess with your opponents—one forces you to draw with your non-dominant hand—so make sure your kids won't get their feelings hurt if a little nastiness comes their way.

Other options: Karuba (age 8+, $30 on Amazon, other options) is a tile-laying puzzle game that's fun for the whole family. Camel Up (age 8+, $28 on Amazon, other options) is a crazy camel-racing betting game that supports up to eight players. Dr. Eureka (age 4+, $16 on Amazon, other options) shines as a crazy speed game about mixing chemicals in plastic test tubes. Older kids will be thrilled by the new Harry Potter Hogwarts Battle (age 7+, $45 on Amazon, other options), a deckbuilder that start super-simple and gets progressively more difficult and complex across the seven years featured in the book.

For the noob

Our pick: Potion Explosion

2-4 players, 30-60 minutes, age 8+

$36 on Amazon, other options

Sure, we could recommend stalwart "gateway games" like Catan, Ticket to Ride, or Carcassonne. But where's the fun in that? This year, we're recommending a newer game for board game neophytes—the excellent Potion Explosion. Potion Explosion is in some ways a board game version of those Bejeweled-style puzzle games that are all the rage on mobile devices, and it uses a component that's criminally underused in modern board gaming: the humble marble.

Players take on the role of novice alchemists plucking ingredients from a shelf in order to brew up fantastical potions. The "ingredients" here are colored marbles, and the "shelf" is a cardboard rack with five tracks where the marbles descend. Remove a single marble and the stack above rolls down; if your removal causes two marbles of the same color to collide, you get to take all contiguous marbles of that color as well. You fill up potion bottles that require certain combinations of colors, and when they're completed, you can drink the potions for special effects.

It's blaringly colorful and incredibly easy to teach, and the chain reaction combos you can set up are instantly familiar to anyone who has played a puzzle game on their phone. This is anything but a dumb match-3 knockoff brought to the physical space, though—it's a surprisingly thinky and satisfying experience that pretty much anyone can enjoy.

Other options: We'll take any opportunity to recommend the 2014 hit Splendor ($30 on Amazon, other options), a game where players collect chunky poker-chip gems in a race to buy cards. New York 1901 ($27 on Amazon, other options) is a gorgeous, family-friendly tile-laying game where players compete to build up the lower Manhattan skyline. Kingdom Builder ($20 on Amazon, other options), which won Germany's prestigious Spiel des Jahres award in 2012, can be taught in less than five minutes and gives player just one card per turn—but it also offers a modular board, different scoring cards for each game, and unique bonus tiles that add up to surprisingly deep strategy.

For the budding gamer

Our pick: Viticulture Essential Edition

1-6 players, 90 minutes, age 13+

$55 on Amazon, other options

Your friend has graduated from the University of Gateway Games and is now asking what comes next. Of the many options spread before the growing gamer, we recommend a lovely trip to wine country with Viticulture: Essential Edition.

Viticulture tasks players with running a successful vineyard; each player will construct buildings, entertain guests, plant vines, crush grapes, and fulfill wine orders, all in a race to make money and score victory points. The worker placement gameplay is a light step in complexity above beginner games like Lords of Waterdeep and Stone Age—which are also terrific in their own rightbut it's simple enough that newer gamers should pick up the rules quickly.

The Essential Edition packs in several modules from the original release's excellent expansion Tuscany, and the newly released Tuscany: Essential Edition ($20 from several stores) brings most of the remaining modules over to the game. In particular, Tuscany's extended board ramps up the complexity and elevates the game to a whole new level. You can add and subtract the modules as you please, making the game perfect for someone who wants to slowly dive deeper into strategy games.

Other options: Isle of Skye ($28 on Amazon, other options) is probably somewhere between the "noob" and "growing gamer" categories, but however you categorize it, it's a terrific game. Marry the pastoral tile-laying of Carcassonne with a cool auction system and you have a good idea of what the game is all about. Roll for the Galaxy ($40 on Amazon, other options) is the absurdly addictive dice game version of the card game classic Race for the Galaxy, and we can't recommend it more highly. Five Tribes ($50 on Amazon, other options) is a fun, colorful game that kicks Mancala-style play into overdrive.

Android’s market share grows because it can fit any niche, big or small

Ars Technica » Features — 12/1/2016 1:00:51 PM

The Android software platform lets smartphone builders everywhere create devices for every niche. If Apple's iPhone is the gold standard against which all other phones must be measured, it's also a one-size-fits-all strategy with just a handful of models on the market at any given time.

As a direct result of Android's open architecture, the platform is sweeping world markets. According to the latest IDC report, 87.6 percent of the 344.7 million smartphones that shipped in the second quarter of 2016 were equipped with Android software. Another 11.7 percent came with Apple's iOS, leaving less than 1 percent of the pie to share among Windows Phone and other challengers.

So how did Android become such a success? Let's have a look in the rear-view mirror.

Further Reading

Android started out as an advanced platform for digital cameras with network connections. When Android, Inc. founders Andy Rubin and Matias Duarte realized that the camera market was too small to carry a whole new business structure, the company ported its software over to the more promising smartphone sector.

"The exact same platform, the exact same operating system we built for cameras, that became Android for cellphones," Rubin later told PC World.

This was the fall of 2004. One year later, Google bought Android, Inc. for an undisclosed sum—likely about $50 million.

From its inception, Android was never intended to drive massive profits. It was designed to promote sales of digital cameras and related services, so the software was wrapped around the free Linux-libre kernel and tagged with the open source Apache 2.0 license right from the start. That attitude stayed in place as Android, Inc. moved over to phones, and again when Google took over.

"We wanted as many cellphones to use Android as possible," said Rubin. "So instead of charging $99 or $59 or $69 to Android, we gave it away for free, because we knew the industry was price sensitive."

With profit motivations out of the way, it was easy to take the next logical step and provide the open source community with a properly maintained developer hub for Android. And so the Android Open Source Project was born. That announcement arrived in October 2008, right alongside the first commercially available Android handsets.

Enlarge / Remember the Moto Droid from late 2009? DROID DOES.

Further Reading

Google’s iron grip on Android: Controlling open source by any means necessary

Less than 30 months later, an army of Androids had settled into enough niches to reach a 33.3-percent global market share. As the worldwide leader in smartphone software, Android held on to its open source philosophy at heart, though Google later broke away some key pieces of the Android puzzle under a proprietary license. These days, you can modify and build almost all of Android from freely available code, but the remaining Google-specific bits are almost compulsory in order to provide a high-quality user experience. These non-open software tools include Gmail, Google Maps, and the entire Google Play package. That includes the Play Store, where most Android users get their apps from. More on this in a bit.

Opening up the source code to all comers brings many benefits to the platform, as well as to Google itself:

  • New ideas pour in from community developers, often along with a first crack at addressing whatever problem or opportunity the developer found.
  • Google's software development efforts get extra help at no cost, apart from running new code through the company's security and integration paces before folding it into the commercial code base.
  • Peer-reviewed software tends to be more reliable, thanks to many additional sets of eyes scanning the code for problems. According to a 2014 report from code quality analyst firm Coverity, open source projects boast a defect density of just 0.61 defects per 1,000 lines of code while commercial developers stop at a defect density of 0.76. Like any open source project worth its salt, Android has a rigid workflow for adding new code that includes many rounds of testing by separate parts of the core team. Device vendors like Samsung and Xiaomi tend to add their own software on top of proprietary changes to the core Android platform. Despite the best efforts of these industrial giants to provide clean code, they don't have the benefit of an army of curious volunteers to vet that extra code. Hence, vendor-specific Android builds can be both slower and less reliable, driving purists to look for cleaner OS implementations such as Google's own Nexus and Pixel projects.
  • And of course, the open source strategy helps prospective device builders tune Android to their particular needs. Code forks in the Android community are both common and helpful for exploring new market niches. Technically, every time a vendor adds code that's specific to its own hardware or places proprietary apps on your phone or tablet, that's another code fork. The same goes for enthusiast and third-party Android builds such as the Cyanogenmod and CopperheadOS firmware builds.

Treadmills to endless hallways, tech has some sick solutions for VR nausea

Ars Technica » Features — 11/30/2016 12:00:16 PM

OXFORD, England—I first met Dr. Charles King at his ‘graduation’ from Richard Branson’s Virgin Media Techstars accelerator. The pitch he delivered to a packed audience in London described how ROVR—the company he started in 2012 with co-founder Julian Williams—was addressing a fundamental problem with the much-touted Virtual Reality boom: No matter how fun your content is, if it makes people throw up, it’s probably an experience they can do without.

According to King, two-thirds of us experience some degree of discomfort in VR even if we don’t quite “sell the Buick” as he so colorfully puts it. But Simulator Sickness (SS) is no laughing matter. A handful of experts say that exposure to some forms of VR can be as disorientating as getting drunk, and they call for headsets such as the Oculus and HTC Vive to be banned until more research is done on the long-term effects this has on our eyes and brain.

The safety of VR is a subject very close to my heart. I love VR, and writing about it is not something I can do without actually experiencing it first-hand. Yet I was always one of those annoying kids who had to sit at the front of the bus, and I started getting woozy in the car after about 15 minutes. To this day, I find it difficult to read on the train and usually resort to motion sickness tablets to get me through long-haul flights. Boats? Don’t even go there.

Further Reading

Major game publishers express concern about VR’s motion sickness problem

Susceptibility to VR sickness varies quite a lot from person to person, but research indicates that there is a general correlation between a propensity toward motion sickness and susceptibility to SS. While I certainly fit that description, simulator sickness is different from normal motion sickness. SS is not caused by actual motion but by the visual information from a simulated environment. In the absence of motion, an uncomfortable conflict is created between the visual, vestibular (balance), and proprioceptive (bodily position) senses.

So when, following his Techstars demo, King invited me to try out the Wizdish—a VR treadmill that claims to solve this illness problem by providing a more natural interface between the users and their virtual environment—I arranged to meet them in Oxford, where the company is currently based.

Here, ROVR shows the Wizdish in action with Minecraft and a Samsung Gear VR.

From "VR treadmill" to saving your subconscious

ROVR’s home locale is no coincidence; this is not some happy-go-lucky startup, but a rigorously researched venture grounded on quite a lot of hard science. Neither founder exactly fits the stereotype most people would associate with tech entrepreneurs (it is safe to say that King was by far the oldest presenter at the demo day), and both come from solid professional backgrounds. Williams worked as an engineer for the BBC for more than 30 years, while King has decades of experience as a consultant in the corporate sector and a doctorate in Physics, Metallurgy, and Science of Materials.

How did the two meet? “Serendipity is often the path to invention,” King tells me as we drive from the train station to the lab at Oxford Brookes University where they tested their current prototype. Williams had been interested in Virtual Reality technology since 2001, and he filed the patent for the “VR Treadmill” concept in 2008. The concept worked by simulating walking movements through sliding your feet backward and forward on the device surface using roller skates.

This turned out to be far from ideal, however, as the level of friction was simply too low. Wearing the skates ended up changing people’s perception of height, thus interfering with their experience. “We hold a body map in our brain, and this is extraordinarily important,” King explains. “If you become taller for any reason, all of a sudden your center of mass goes up, your center of balance changes, and the body has to do a lot more work to keep you stable.”

So Williams put the word out that he needed to find a low-friction alternative that would allow people to freely move their legs on a surface without wheels, and a mutual acquaintance introduced him to King. By this point, King had a well-earned reputation as a materials expert. And what Williams didn’t realize at the time, King says, was that his design was tapping into an overarching neurological truth.

“You’ve walked a lot today, but if you actually wracked your brain about how you did it, there are no memories,” he says. It turns out it’s a process we all do unconsciously by the time of adulthood:

If we were to process all of the individual actions required to walk on our active conscious, our RAM couldn’t handle it. Once you get past toddler stage and you’ve fallen over and stumbled and done all the things that are necessary in order to learn to walk, it becomes an autonomous action. You’ve only got to look at someone who loses consciousness while standing to see how quickly they hit the deck. It takes a lot of work just to stand up, and walking is not something we’re inherently stable at. The way that Julian had arranged for the user’s legs to move turned out to mimic that familiar instability of walking, and thus tapped into one of our subconscious natural processes. Because we do not carry memories of how we move our legs when we walk, run, or climb stairs, how we move on a ROVR quickly becomes, as in real life, pushed to non-conscious action, leaving the conscious mind free to experience the content.

Forgotten audio formats: Wire recording

Ars Technica » Features — 11/29/2016 12:00:45 PM

It’s bizarre but true: wire recording is the longest-lasting capture format in audio history, one that paved the way for reel-to-reel tapes and a host of others—even though most people today, and some techies included, have barely heard of it.

Invented way back in 1898 and patented two years later, wire recording was somehow still getting some limited use as late as the early 1970s, while rockets took man to the moon on an annual basis. In its wake, vinyl, with its 67 years, and CD with a mere 33, look like footling youngsters. In its none-too-brief life, "the wire" also found use in Hollywood, provided a broadcast aid to spying, helped launch digital data capture, and pioneered the new art of bootlegging—sorry, "home recording."

Wire was longer-lasting in other ways too—whereas shellac and vinyl records would only last a few minutes per side, and the first commercial tape decks weren’t that much better, the wire recorder could get down over 60 minutes of audio.

Hanging on the telegraphone

Of course, it didn’t start that way. The earliest wire device was cooked up at the end of the 19th century by one Valdemar Poulsen, a Danish-American inventor who, five years later, developed the first continuous-wave radio transmitter. This first "telegraphone," as Poulsen dubbed it, was somewhat crude but it did have the key conceptual elements: a metal wire was pulled between spools across a recording head, which magnetised the wire in accordance with the sound signal it was receiving at that moment. In other words it recorded recognisable sound.

The American Telegraphone Company then cranked out various dictation machines which, in terms of quality, beat the hell out of their wax cylinder rivals. And, unlike the cylinders, wire reels could be used and reused time and time again, and were capable of recording for far longer. Wire recorder sales were steady but not spectacular; it was not a machine most small businesses could afford. Quality-wise, too, neither wire nor wax cylinder could come anywhere near capturing the wide dynamic range that music requires. So as 78rpm shellac records slowly but surely improved, the musical applications of wire were increasingly neglected, although they did, strangely enough, make a late comeback.

But later on, during the 1930s and again in World War II, the secret services of several nations would use wire recordings, massively sped up, to broadcast on shortwave radio to their agents in the field. The agents would be standing by, ready to "wire tape" these broadcasts, already aware of the exact tempo to play them back at. Of course, the enemy could sometimes decipher these broadcasts if they had enough experts and wire recorders with which to try speed experiments, but they were difficult enough to translate to give the receiving operatives at least a day or two head-start. For anything urgent, it was for years the simplest way of broadcasting something your agents could swiftly understand that the opposition couldn’t.

And then, after World War II, the wire—by now middle-aged—finally entered its golden age, a decade of near-dominance because wax cylinders were long gone and the new, early, tape decks were far too expensive for anyone except the rich, or top sound studios. So American manufacturers Armour and Brush licensed dozens of improved wire machines across North America, Europe, Australia, and Japan. They became the kings of dictation and, later, family recordings.

One mile per hour

Most of these post-war wire machines used a speed of two feet, or 24 inches, per second (610mm/s), so an average hour-long recording would use up a spool of wire that was 7,200 feet in length (2,200m). That's well over a mile long, roughly 1.35 miles in fact, but this huge length could easily be squeezed onto a reel less than three inches (76 mm) wide, as the wire—by then made of stainless steel—was incredibly fine, with a diameter of just 0.005 inches (about 0.12mm), or slightly less than the average human hair.

Tens of thousands of wire recorders were produced and sold in the late 1940s and early ‘50s, along with almost a million miles of wire. Such mass production, and the increasing availability of second-hand devices, swiftly brought the price down to a point where it became no longer purely a dictation machine for expensive offices, but a home-recording medium that people could, and did, use to record their own voices, as well as their own music and songs off the radio—thus giving the world its first example of illegal home recording.

Easter eggs evolved: Why gamers spent 3-years-plus studying GTAV’s Mount Chiliad

Ars Technica » Features — 11/27/2016 2:00:41 PM

Just below the peak of Mount Chiliad, a huge mountain in the far north of San Andreas, a mysterious mural sits high atop a cliff face. It looks like a map of the mountain's interior—a network of tunnels that connect five small chambers and three large ones with what appear to be a UFO, an egg, and a jetpack within them. Whether it's actually a map isn't clear. Nearby, painted on the bottom edge of a lookout platform, are the words "come back when your journey is complete." And beneath that, painted on the ground, there's a red eye.

It's a strange and alluring set of odd, possibly related mysteries. And for most people who see them, that's all they are—a curiosity in a world full of curiosities that Rockstar made to give Grand Theft Auto V's setting a sense of being lived in.

Further Reading

Grand Theft Auto V: A crime- and sun-filled tourist destinationBut for a diehard group of mystery hunters, and for the hundreds of thousands of intrigued onlookers who keep tabs on their work, these phenomena hold the key to something big. Possibly huge. It's a secret that may be of monumental significance, or that at the very least must involve something really cool: a hidden jetpack, maybe a UFO you can fly, or a super-awesome weapon. Whatever it is, these sleuthing gamers want it. And they won't stop until they either find it or prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that the whole thing is one enormous wild goose chase.

These Truth Seekers have spent the past three years trading theories, studying strange signs around San Andreas, investigating paranormal phenomena, and poring over Grand Theft Auto V's data, resource, and script files in a relentless quest to solve the so-called Chiliad Mystery. It has been a tough journey, beset with more red herrings and dead-end leads than actual discoveries. But every day the community of secret hunters edges closer to cracking the code—if indeed there is a code to crack.

  • The Mount Chiliad mural and glyphs.
  • holyhyan
  • The mural at the center of the mystery.
  • http://gta-myths.wikia.com/wiki/File:MountChiliadMystery-GTAV-WallMarking.jpg

What's in the shed?

This epic three-years-and-counting odyssey began with a shed. Perched somewhere near the top of the mountain and visible in the background of that July 9, 2013, pre-release gameplay trailer, the shed was spotted by Reddit user Bertojones—who shared a screenshot on Imgur and r/gaming. "That damn shed" went viral. Everybody wanted to know what was in the shed. Theories ranged from the practical to the extraordinary. Some suggested it housed a safe or a jetpack, a parachute, or some other treasured object. The top commenter wryly speculated that the shed may turn out to be just a box with a door texture slapped on one side of it.

Fans spent the following three months arguing about the shed's contents and speculating on the presence of as many as three UFOs in an earlier GTA V trailer. When the game came out on September 17, they all hurried to the mountain and rode an aerial tramway to the top—whereupon they'd see a glyph of what looks like either an eye or a UFO above a mountain. With a bit of poking around, players soon discovered the mural, eye, and message.

This triggered more wild speculation, primarily clustered in two threads—one on GTAForums, the other on the GTA V subreddit. Within days, four more glyphs were discovered along with four UFOs. (User SuperMaruoBrassiere wrote a helpful timeline of early publicly recorded discoveries on GTAForums, for those curious about the details.) But amid widespread speculation and theorizing, nobody had a definitive answer to either what the mural meant or whether they had more to discover.

Much of the broader player base moved on within a month or so. They'd lost interest in trying to separate genuine discoveries from fake ones, and they were bored of searching. "This sh*t is getting old," one player wrote on October 25, capturing the mood. "I'm pretty sure there's nothing more to the mural, because it would've been solved by now."

But enough people disagreed that a vibrant mystery hunting community was able to survive three years and counting. These mystery hunters investigate anything and everything with the slightest possibility of being related to the mural, often then reinvestigating with a different character, or at a different time of day, or when it's raining (or not), or with a five-star wanted rating—because you never know what might trigger something. This attitude is borne out by actual conditions for some of the game's found Easter eggs, such as a UFO that only appears above Mount Chiliad at 3am in the rain.

  • One of the earliest discovered Easter eggs—an alien in the ice.
  • marcelvn
  • A UFO sighting at the top of Mount Chiliad in the rain at 3 am.
  • jiggabig

Perhaps the most interesting discovery came when, in September 2015, Rockstar added an achievement called Cryptozoologist that had the following flavor text: "You unlocked all animals for use in Director Mode… or did you?" In Director Mode, you can control other "actors" in the game world, including birds and land-based animals, but you have to ingest a different peyote—a hallucinogenic plant—in order to unlock each animal.

Users StipularPenguin and Supakim1 dug through the game files and pulled out audio cues, peyote graphics, and scripts that might help find a hidden animal. Then, it was rkRusty who managed to put all the pieces together and actually discover the golden peyote. This gamer believed, from studying the scripts and vetting them in-game, this golden peyote spawned only on Tuesday between 5:30am and 8am when the weather was foggy and the player had collected all other peyotes and completed the mission The Last One, which involves helping a Bigfoot hunter.

However, it eventually came to light that there were actually seven golden peyotes—one for each day of the week—but nothing happened when players consumed them. In December 2015, Rockstar added the line, "He was wrong to start his hunt on Tuesday" to the script that had allowed rkRusty to identify the weather and time conditions. Nobody determined what this clue meant until this past June, when NIC779 ate the peyotes in the right order and found the Sasquatch hunter dead. Further investigation revealed more clues, but no answer, until Rockstar changed its message in the code to "his quarry seemed familiar." With help from the "codewalkers" decompiling some of the game's scripts, the community ultimately found their Easter egg this summer: a homage to Michael J. Fox's character in 1985 werewolf movie Teen Wolf.

System76 Oryx Pro review: Linux in a laptop has never been better

Ars Technica » Features — 11/23/2016 2:00:05 AM

Laptops preloaded with Linux aren't as rare as they used to be. In fact, big name hardware companies like Dell have whole lines of laptops that ship with Ubuntu installed, and if you want to stretch things a bit you could argue that a Chromebook is a kind of Linux machine (though it takes a bit of tinkering to get actual Linux installed). Still, there's no question the Linux user of today has a wealth of options compared with the dark ages of just a few years ago when "I use Linux" was code for "I spend all my time looking for hardware drivers."

Further Reading

The XPS 13 DE: Dell continues to build a reliable Linux lineage

Today, what remains unusual even in the midst of this growing interest in PCs shipping with Linux is a company that sells nothing else. There are a handful of organization that do just this, however, and they have done so for some time. These entities range from longtime Linux supporters like System76 to newer efforts from the likes of Purism, which began life with an impressive crowdfunding campaign that raised more than a $1 million to create a line of sleek, Apple-inspired but completely free-software laptops.

If Purism is any indicator, the Linux-based hardware businesses might have an actual future in a world increasingly dissatisfied with the proprietary OSes being offered. After all, if you're a developer looking to get a laptop with more than 16GB of RAM, Apple's no longer an option. That company recently updated its Macbook Pro line but still caps RAM at 16GB. So, you can either get a PC and live with Windows 10 or you can try installing Linux and hope it works.

Alternately, you can now invest in some hardware that has been well tested and known to work with, if not every Linux distro, at least Ubuntu (and by extension, Mint and every other Ubuntu derivative). System76 is perhaps the best known of these Linux-loving hardware vendors and for good reason. They offer incredibly powerful Linux machines with more customization options than most manufacturers offer for any system, no matter what OS it ships with.

System76 has a decent range of laptops, from the small, lightweight, battery-sipping Lemur to the top-end beast-like Oryx Pro. And after recently reviewing the svelte, but not necessarily top-end-specced Dell XPS 13, I got curious about this Oryx Pro. On paper, it sounds like a desktop machine somehow packed into a laptop form factor. If money were not an object and you wanted the most of everything you could pack into an Oryx system, you'd end up with a 6th Generation Intel i7-6820HK CPU, a GTX 1070 GPU, 64GB of RAM, a ridiculous 9TB worth of hard drive, and either an 15.6 or 17.3 IPS. That's seemingly a desktop machine packed into a dark brushed aluminum alloy shell that still manages to fit in your backpack. It would set you back almost $7,000, but hey, with massive power comes a massive price tag.

If you wanted a portable video editing workstation or a gaming machine you can take with you wherever you go, you'd be hard pressed to find more impressive specs from any manufacturer, let alone one that ships with Linux-compatible hardware like System76. So I mentioned to System76 that I wanted to test the Oryx Pro and compare it to the Dell XPS as a "developer" laptop. Frankly, the company was a little hesitant, pointing out that the two aren't really—aside from both shipping with Ubuntu installed—at all alike. And soon after the Oryx Pro arrived, I really understood just how different these machines are.

  • It's no Model M, but this is about as close as I've seen a laptop get to the kind of old-school, clacky keyboards some of us still remember fondly.
  • Scott Gilbertson
  • Wait, is that an Ethernet port
  • and
  • an SD card slot? What year is this? (Right side pictured.)
  • Scott Gilbertson
  • In total, this laptop offers an Ethernet port, an SD card slot, 2 Mini DisplayPorts, an HDMI port, 2 USB 3.1 Type-C ports, 3 USB 3.0 Type-A ports, and both headphone and mic jacks. The GTX 1070 models even include a headphone amplifier.
  • Scott Gilbertson

The hardware

The Oryx Pro that System76 sent for me to test was not the fully maxed out model, but it did have a GTX 1060 GPU, 32GB of RAM, and a 256GB SSD. It also had the 1080p matte IPS display. As configured, it would set you back $1,864.

Even without the max hard drive space and nowhere near the max RAM, the Oryx Pro was incredibly powerful. However, that's not the first thing that jumps out at you when the Oryx Pro arrives. Once you get past the very clever, minimalist packaging, the most striking thing about the Oryx Pro is... holy crap this thing is massive.

Like most computer users these days, I've been programmed to think a laptop should be slightly thicker than my phone, weigh about the same as my paper notebook, and be no larger than an 8"x11" sheet of paper. There is, of course, no reason to expect this beyond the fact that this is the expectation marketing campaigns have created. If you chuck those expectations out the window, you end up with a much larger laptop. But it's also a much more capable laptop.

While the size of the Oryx Pro is initially shocking (especially if you pull out the Dell XPS 13 and put them next to each other), it's really not that big. Nor is it that heavy considering what you get. Weighing in at 5.5lbs for the 15.6" version, the Oryx Pro is heavy, but not back-breakingly so. It does do better in a backpack than a shoulder bag, but if that's the biggest compromise I have to make to get a portable video editing workstation, I'll take it.

So yes, the System76 folks were right—the Oryx Pro doesn't stack up all that well next to the Dell XPS 13 when it comes to size, weight, and svelteness. If those are your criteria, the Dell XPS is what you want. If you want power, though, the Oryx Pro blows the Dell out of the water. That's especially true when you start looking at RAM capacity, which tops out at 16GB for the XPS 13.

At just over an inch thick, the Oryx Pro makes it clear that if you want to pack in some serious hardware, you're going to have to forgo skinniness. This means the Oryx Pro has room for quite a few things becoming increasingly rare in laptops, like an Ethernet port and an SD card slot. There's also 2 Mini DisplayPorts, an HDMI port, 2 USB 3.1 Type-C ports, 3 USB 3.0 Type-A ports, and both headphone and mic jacks. The GTX 1070 models even include a headphone amplifier.

The Oryx Pro also offers a very nice keyboard, with some much thicker keys than you'll find on most laptops these days. It's no Model M, but it's about as close as I've seen a laptop get to the kind of old-school, clacky keyboards some of us still remember fondly (minus the clacking part, which your fellow coffee shop denizens will appreciate). The keys have a nice springiness to them, and the backlight supports multicolor back lighting.

The Oryx Pro is not, despite its size and heft, ungainly. It actually looks quite svelte, and the brushed aluminum top gives it a nicely understated design. The bottom of the Oryx Pro is plastic, but the build quality of the laptop is good enough that I didn't notice much flex even lifting it one-handed. Another bonus to having a slightly thicker body is that you can have real speakers rather than some muffled, tinny speakers stuck underneath. Accordingly, the Oryx Pro's speakers are impressively good. They're even angled toward you and manage to deliver a surprising amount of bass for their size.

Again, the Oryx itself is not quite like the bricks Lenovo used to churn out, but there is one downright ungainly thing about the Oryx Pro: its power brick. The power brick is ridiculously huge, about double the size of any power brick I've ever seen. It's also worth noting that it adds nearly 2lbs to the total weight of the Oryx Pro. With all the computing power, you're going to want that power brick with you if you plan to work for more than a couple of hours. With great power comes great power consumption.

Exactly how much battery life you get out of the Oryx Pro will obviously vary according to what you're doing with it. I happened to have a video editing job that coincided with testing the Oryx Pro, so I loaded up both KDenlive and Lightworks regularly. When crunching video, as you'd expect, battery life suffers. I still managed to get about 1.5 hours out of the battery even when running a video editor, though that dropped more when actually exporting the edit to the final MP4 file.

The other things you may notice if you push the Oryx Pro at all is that it has a good old fashioned fan, and it uses it. It's not particularly loud as far as fans go—my EeePC's fan is far louder—but it is noticeable. If you frequently work in very quiet spaces like a school library, you'll notice the fan. Anyone working around you will, too.

I will admit upfront that I am not a gamer, but I did test Grand Theft Auto V and a couple of other more graphics-intensive games out of curiosity. I quickly discovered just how impressive top-end Nvidia hardware is. Suffice to say, if you're looking for a portable gaming machine, the Oryx Pro delivers.

I gave the Nvidia card a workout editing 4K video as well, and it was similarly impressive, especially with 32GB of RAM at its disposal.

The graphics card in the Oryx Pro is powering a 1920×1080 matte, optionally IPS display that has nice rich colors, renders pretty close to true black, and isn't so HiDPI that it has problems on Linux desktops. Did I mention it's matte? A good matte display, especially a good matte IPS display, is frankly the number one selling point of the Oryx Pro for me. I could comfortably stare at this screen all day with very little eye strain.

That said, if I have a complaint about the Oryx Pro, it's the lack of a 4K option. A screen this good at 1080p is just begging to be that much better in 4K. I am apparently not the only one who thinks that. Just before this review was finished, System76 let me know that a 4K screen option would soon be available.

I came in 35th in a professional (e-)race and you can, too

Ars Technica » Features — 11/21/2016 12:30:43 PM

Regular readers will know that racing games and motorsports are two of my favorite things. With the exception of some time in Elite: Dangerous, all of my gaming these days is done with pedals and a steering wheel. While I haven't been able to do the real thing as often as I'd like, my team and I had a relatively good showing during a snowy weekend at Mid Ohio with the World Racing League earlier this year. But when it comes to the burgeoning sport of e-racing, I—like much of the motorsports fraternity—may be guilty of neglect.

Further Reading

Can you really learn to race by playing racing games? Ars takes to the trackWhen the likes of NPR and ESPN are routinely dissecting the topic, there's no doubt that e-sports at large have officially become a thing. Today anyone can recognize the big names like League of Legends and Dota 2, with their huge prize purses and millions of online spectators. If you're only a casual observer, however, racing and e-sports don't seem to mesh in the same way.

All that's beginning to change. Today, there are highly competitive e-racing series for a number of different games, contested by individuals as well as professional teams. And for added credence, e-racing is increasingly becoming a legitimate entry route into real-life motorsports, injecting some new life into a sport that's popularity is on the wane.

Personally, racing games absolutely helped teach me to race for real. So could real-world racing put me in good stead in an e-race? To find out, I spent the summer obsessively lapping the same track in the same car in Forza over and over again, and I spent even more hours poring over The Online Racing Association (TORA)'s regulations. TORA is the sanctioning body for the inaugural CJ Wilson Racing Cayman Cup championship, a new virtual racing competition created by a real racing team. While my calendar didn't lend itself to competing in the full 10-round series, I could put this track to touchpad Thrustmaster experiment to the test during a single event at Watkins Glen.

Finding new fans IRL

If there's a godfather of e-racing, it's probably Darren Cox. Cox was working in Nissan's marketing department in the UK when a co-promotion with Sony caused a lightbulb to go off. The promotion was a competition to win a new Nissan 350Z with competitors facing off against each other in Gran Turismo as well as on a real track.

Cox told Ars:

After the event, one of the instructors mentioned to me that some of the guys were actually pretty good [at track driving]. Comparing their lap-times in real life versus the game showed a pretty good correlation between the two, and we started working on the idea of trying to take a good gamer and make them a racer.

By 2008, this idea matured into the Nissan Playstation GT Academy, a program which has since turned a number of gamers into professional racing drivers. Most recently, Mexican driver Johnny Guindi Hamui was crowned the 2016 GT Academy International Champion at the end of October.

Cox left Nissan in 2015. Earlier this year, he launched the first professional e-racing team, eSPORTS+CARS. That e-racing seed planted by GT Academy is bearing more and more fruit. iRacing, a PC sim with tens of thousands of subscribers, now runs several cash-paying championship series. Forza's first official online racing championship took place over the summer in partnership with Ford and gave away a new Focus RS to the winner; it's now in its second season. Project CARS has its own official online leagues. Formula E has an official e-racing series (using rFactor 2) that will conclude at next year's CES in a final race that pits 10 e-racers against all 20 Formula E drivers—with a $1 million prize purse. The upcoming installment in the Gran Turismo franchise will include online racing that's officially sanctioned by the FIA (the governing body for world motorsports).

For car companies and racing series that back these events, the hope is these efforts will reach out to a new, younger audience that, by most accounts, is uninterested in the real sport. While series like Formula Drift and rallycross are making successful inroads into the always key youth demographic, the same can't be said for most other forms of racing (Formula 1, IndyCar, NASCAR, and endurance racing included). This was certainly the idea for CJ Wilson Racing with the Cayman Cup. The team's strategic branding & PR director Declan Brennan told me as much earlier this year:

Motorsport's problem is that it's struggling to develop the next generation of fans," he said. "Ultimately we have a huge number of people out there who are of car-buying age who are fans of racing games but not racing. This is about creating a connection.

Cox feels similarly:

It's about using a medium and set of content that people engage with to bring them back to the real world. Whether you look at F1 or NASCAR, fans are greying out, and they're not being replaced at the back end. If you talk about the TV, that audience is declining as well.

Neither racing professional is wrong; despite billion-dollar broadcasting deals, ratings for NASCAR have been on the slide in recent years. Formula 1's global audience is now two-thirds the size it was less than a decade ago. Here in the US, IndyCar's past few seasons have been some of the best racing on the planet, but almost no-one knows that. Its ratings may be improved on years-passed, but they're still a rounding error compared to when the sport was in its heyday. (Worth noting, this pattern is not isolated to racing. Even the NFL is struggling to hold on to viewers these days.)

Thus far, the evidence suggests this interest-building approach will work. To coincide with this year's 24 Hours of Le Mans, Audi of America held the "Audi 24 Hours of Le Forza" in San Francisco. Twelve teams of drivers competed against each other for 24 hours, and people were decidedly interested: the race's Twitch.tv stream got 950,000 views—three times as many as watched the start of the actual race and almost 20 times the number who watched that heartbreaking finish. (We know you can also watch the race—like we did—via the official FIAWEC streaming app; although no official ratings have been released by FIAWEC we believe it's unlikely that it would top 100,000.)

Ultimately sports, like plants, only grow when they have healthy roots. Fortunately, there is plenty of grassroots e-racing out there on top of these corporate efforts, presumably aided by the lower overhead of e-sports versus real-world racing. TORA is merely one example. The organization started back in 2008, and by 2010 it was officially recognized by the UK's Motor Sport Association (the body which oversees racing in that country). Now, TORA has held competitions using a number of different racing platforms, including Forza Motorsport 6, iRacing, and Project CARS.

Xiaomi Mi Mix review—This is what the future of smartphones looks like

Ars Technica » Features — 11/17/2016 12:30:58 PM

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Xiaomi elegantly solves a lot of problems to create a more screen-centric smartphone.

Ron Amadeo - Nov 17, 2016 12:30 pm UTC

Andrew Cunningham on the New MacBook Pros With Touch Bar

Ars Technica » Features — 11/14/2016 1:00:06 PM

Further Reading

Review: The $1,499 2016 MacBook Pro is an expensive MacBook Air on the inside

The new design of the MacBook Pros is nice, and Apple’s decision to put in nothing but Thunderbolt 3 ports has prompted a fresh wave of dongle talk, but the signature feature of the new MacBook Pros was always going to be the Touch Bar.

This little touch-enabled strip represents a bunch of things. It’s a melding of Apple’s traditional Intel-driven software platform and the company’s own homegrown chips and its touch-driven iOS platform. It’s Apple’s answer to the touchscreen, a model that Apple steadfastly resists in its computers even as Microsoft and its partners embrace it. And it's the biggest thing about these Macs that’s truly new—Macs in the last half-decade have gotten thinner and lighter and have better battery life than before, but, Touch Bar aside, they all still run basically the same software in basically the same way.

So, yes, these new laptops have new CPUs and GPUs, new designs, new ports, and new screens. We’ll spend plenty of time with all of those things. But the biggest question for buyers is whether the Touch Bar is worth it and what it adds to the experience that you can’t already get if you keep the latest version of macOS installed on your laptop.

Differences between all three MacBook Pros

We've been over this a few times, but let's list the differences between the $1,499 MacBook Pro and the Touch Bar model. There are a couple of new details I can confirm now that I’ve actually been able to use both models.

  • The low-end Pro uses a 15W
  • Core i5-6360U CPU
  • with an Intel Iris 540 GPU; the high-end model uses a 28W
  • Core i5-6267U CPU
  • with an Intel Iris 550 GPU. The difference, aside from small boosts to CPU and GPU clock speeds, is that the 28W model can run faster for longer and throttle less frequently. The 15W model can also consume less power.
  • The low-end Pro uses a single “Alpine Ridge” Thunderbolt 3 controller from Intel, while the high-end Pro uses two Thunderbolt controllers. The two ports on the right side of the MacBook Pro have "reduced PCI Express bandwidth," which Apple says means they have two PCIe 3.0 lanes’ worth of bandwidth at their disposal instead of the four lanes dedicated to the ports on the left side (Intel’s mobile Skylake chipsets include a total of 10 PCIe lanes, four of which are already being used by the SSD). You can connect all the same things to both ports—displays, storage, power adapters—but especially high-performance storage arrays should be plugged in on the left side to maximize the available bandwidth.
  • The low-end Pro uses 1866MHz LPDDR3 RAM while the high-end Pro uses 2133MHz LPDDR3. Apple
  • has said
  • it’s using LPDDR3 to save power, but
  • it’s also the reason the systems max out at 16GB
  • .
  • The low-end Pro actually has a larger battery than the high-end one: 54.5Whr compared to 49.2Whr. Apple says both laptops have 10 hours of battery life, but the lower-power processor, the larger battery, and the lack of a little second screen above the keyboard all mean that the low-end model actually lasts a bit longer than the Touch Bar model.
  • The low-end model includes two integrated mics, while the high-end model includes three.
  • The low-end Pro’s 802.11ac Wi-Fi tops out at 867Mbps, while both the Touch Bar MacBook Pros can do a maximum of 1.3Gbps just like last year’s models.

And here are a few further differences between both 13-inch models and the 15-inch models, all of which include Touch Bars.

  • 15-inch Pros have enough thermal headroom to fit in quad-core Skylake processors. The base model includes a 2.6GHz (3.5GHz Turbo)
  • Core i7-6700HQ
  • , while our review unit uses a 2.7GHz (3.6GHz Turbo)
  • Core i7-6820HQ
  • . Either model can be configured with a 2.9GHz (3.8GHz Turbo)
  • Core i7-6920HQ
  • .
  • All models use their processors’ Intel HD 530 integrated graphics when possible to save power, but they also include dedicated AMD Radeon GPUs. The Radeon Pro 450, 455, and 460 are all based on AMD’s latest Polaris architecture—we’ll go into more detail about each component later in the review.
  • The trackpad in the 15-inch model is larger than in the 13-inch models.
  • All four Thunderbolt 3 ports in the 15-inch Pros offer the same amount of PCIe bandwidth, since Intel’s quad-core CPUs add more PCIe 3.0 lanes to the amount that the chipset includes (in total, Apple is using four lanes for the SSD, eight lanes across all four Thunderbolt 3 ports, and another eight lanes for the dedicated GPUs).

Using the 15-inch model

The reduced size and weight of the 15-inch Pro are both really nice when you’re carrying the machine around. At just four pounds, it actually weighs less than the 4.5 pound 13-inch MacBook Pros did before the jump to Retina, and it’s a pound-and-a-half lighter than the pre-Retina 15-inch models (there’s a less consequential but still nice half-pound reduction compared to the older Retina models).

When you're using it, though, it’s still very much a 15-inch laptop. I use 13-inch laptops almost exclusively these days, and the more cumbersome size and larger palmrest make the 15-inch models just a little unwieldy compared to what I’m used to. In other words, even with the size and weight decreases, the 15-inch model isn't small enough to be a good replacement for a 13-inch notebook.

I will say that my minor palm rejection problems with the 13-inch Pro’s larger trackpad aren’t really problems here. It may be because the trackpad is larger, so the corners of my hands are always firmly placed on the trackpad as I type rather than hitting it intermittently. Beyond this, the experience of typing and of using the trackpad is identical.

The 2880×1800 screen has the same resolution as the older Retina models, albeit with the added brightness and contrast and the wide color support. But like the MacBook and the 13-inch Pros, the screen’s default resolution is 1680×1050 mode. As with the previous models, you can also select 1024×600, 1280×800, 1440×900, and 1900×1200 modes depending on what’s the most comfortable for you.

Finally, the speakers here are much larger than the ones in the 13-inch model, and they sound pretty good for laptop speakers. They have respectable bass and dynamic range. While they aren’t as good as the speakers in a desktop like an iMac or some good dedicated speakers, they’re good enough for movies and TV, and they aren’t bad if you need to fill a room with music for a small party.

Copyright © 2016, John Gruber

Star Trek: Ascendancy: Three hours of tabletop empire-building

Ars Technica » Features — 11/12/2016 6:00:03 PM

Did you like the Star Trek episodes that focused on local problems, such as annoying space amoeba threatening Potemkin IV? Or those episodes featuring a broader "clash of civilizations" between the Federation, the Klingons, and/or the Romulans?

Star Trek: Ascendancy is the new $100 board game from Gale Force Nine, and it's all about Big Conflicts. In the game, you build an empire—then bump into others. Conflict will result. Planets will be conquered. Homeworlds will be threatened.

One of the hot games of this year's huge Gen Con gaming convention in Indianapolis, Ascendancy has built buzz by producing a solid civ-building board game set in the Star Trek universe. And now that we've had a chance to put its starships through their paces, we agree. This is a terrific title—though it's not a "board game" at all. Ascendancy's unusual galaxy-building mechanism makes this one of the few games we've played that offer players true control over the exploration and development of their empires, and that leads to a unique—and long—experience.

So grab your bat'leth; let's venture out into uncharted space together.

Exploring the galaxy

A galactic civilization-building game should bake in some element of true exploration, the feeling that you're discovering "new worlds and new civilizations" and "boldly going," etc. But this can be difficult in board games. Pre-printed boards may allow for the randomization of planetary effects, but they generally provide fixed star maps (see the massive board in Star Wars: Rebellion for a good example).

Game details

Not Ascendancy. In their desire to provide supreme exploratory flexibility, the game's designers have produced a "board game" without a board. Instead, each player starts with a homeworld—Kronos, Earth, or Romulus—and builds out from there into the empty table. As ships explore, they travel along space lanes of varying lengths and then discover new planets at the end of them (the planets are chosen randomly from a face-down stack). Each planet is different; some house dangerous "hazards," while others are lush spots with plenty of space to build a civilization. Cards determine each system's level of existing civilization, which can vary from "none" to "pre-warp" to advanced "warp-capable" civilizations that are difficult to subdue.

In each game, then, your particular empire begins independently and grows organically. That growth is shaped by each player, since space lanes can extend out in any direction from existing planets—and can eventually connect to the web of planets explored by one of your opponents. It may feel wise to keep your empire insular, as contact with others opens the way to invasion and conquest. But empires that make contact also gain the huge advantage of trade with one another, providing more resources to both on every turn. This risk/reward dynamic shapes gameplay calculations throughout, offering rewards both for domination and for trade but preventing them from being earned at the same time. (Aggressive action automatically breaks trade deals.)

The result is a unique experience that truly feels exploratory—especially over the first 45 minutes to an hour, when empires may not yet be in contact. Not only do the planets change from game to game, but the very shape of the galaxy's layout and connections differs every time out.

In addition, while each civilization has identical actions (build ships, invade planets, etc), each one also has bonuses that alter the strategic calculus. The Federation, for instance, is banned from invading planets or from colonizing primitive planets; instead, it uses the "soft power" of its cultural hegemony to convince planets to join up willingly. The Klingons, by contrast, have attack bonuses and are forbidden from retreating in battle.

Ascendancy truly is a game about empires; individuals don't exist. The game's manual prominently displays Captains Janeway, Sisko, Kirk, and Picard on its cover, but they don't appear in the game. Starships aren't helmed by particular captains, nor are research advancements, fleets, or starbases linked to people. That stands in sharp contrast to games like Star Wars: Rebellion, which is full of plastic ships but makes specific heroes and villains into central game elements. That's not necessarily a problem, just be aware that Ascendancy is about empire building at its highest, most institutional level.

PlayStation 4 Pro review: You’re gonna want a 4K TV

Ars Technica » Features — 11/10/2016 2:53:49 PM

A new video game console is usually a chance to envision an entirely new future for popular gaming. After years of developers and players exploring the old console inside and out, a new console cleanly breaks with the past. Typically, it introduces new features, new exclusive franchises, and a clear, new high-water mark in what's possible as far as graphics and processing power (in a non-PC living room console, at least).

The PlayStation 4 Pro is different. As you might already know from our coverage, the Pro represents more of a split in the current era of the PS4 rather than a clean break from what came before. Sony has taken pains to point out that every console game it creates or licenses for the foreseeable future will run on both the PS4 and the PS4 Pro, making them essentially one "platform" from a software perspective. The promise, according to Sony, is that those games will look and perform better on the Pro hardware—sporting higher resolution, better frame rates, or more detailed in-game character models for instance.

Thus, reviewing the PS4 Pro is more like reviewing a new PC graphics card than reviewing a new console (though, yes, the Pro does also slightly upgrade the RAM and CPU from the standard PS4). Unlike a modular PC, however, upgrading the graphics on the PS4 requires throwing out the entire console that you may have bought just three years ago (or less) and starting from scratch with a new $400 box. It also means dealing with a scattered and inconsistent software update system from Sony and its partners that means performance can vary widely by game.

With every splashdown, NASA embraces the legacy of Gus Grissom

Ars Technica » Features — 11/8/2016 6:45:03 PM

Gus Grissom had just entered the history books. A mere 10 weeks after Alan Shepard made America’s first human flight into space, Grissom followed with the second one, a 15-minute suborbital hop that took him to an altitude of 189km above the blue planet. After the small Mercury capsule’s parachutes deployed, Grissom splashed down in the Atlantic Ocean, seemingly bringing a flawless mission to a close.

Only it wasn't flawless, nor was it closed. At that moment, Gus Grissom almost drowned.

Further Reading

It was July 21, 1961, toward the end of the second Mercury mission, and the hatch to Grissom's spacecraft blew early. The ocean flooded in. The astronaut responded by jumping free of the Liberty Bell 7 capsule. He struggled for five minutes to remain above the churning waves even as his spacesuit, already 22 pounds when dry, filled with water.

This incident has gone down in history amid controversy. Some renditions of it, including the famous The Right Stuff novel and movie from Tom Wolfe, portray Grissom as “screwing the pooch.” Such accounts argue that the astronaut panicked and fired his hatch before it was time, essentially inviting the water in.

But a new book by author George Leopold about Grissom’s life—Calculated Risk: The Supersonic Life and Times of Gus Grissom—and a recent interview with the head of NASA’s recovery options for the Mercury program, Bob Thompson, dispels that fiction. From these measured accounts, Grissom emerges as a quick-thinking hero. He reacted decisively in an uncertain situation when otherwise this mission would have ended in death. Such an accident early in NASA's space program could have given President Kennedy pause over the country’s nascent Moon-landing ambitions at a time when the US lagged badly behind the Soviet Union.

More than half a century later, Grissom’s name has faded from memory. Shepard has the honor of the first US spaceflight, John Glenn made the first orbital flight, and Neil Armstrong stepped on the Moon. Yet after an all-too-brief career that ended tragically in the 1967 Apollo 1 fire, Grissom deserves recognition not as an unlucky footnote but as a genuine hero. And for today’s astronauts, Grissom's near-death experience in the Atlantic Ocean has renewed importance, offering a sobering reminder of the sea's peril as NASA plans to return its Orion capsule from deep space again by way of the ocean.

“Water is a great place to land in, but it’s a hell of a place post-landing,” Thompson told Ars. “Let me tell you, you can hurt yourself in the ocean.”

“This I did not do”

Virgil Ivan "Gus" Grissom was the second youngest of the Mercury Seven astronauts NASA announced to the world on April 9, 1959. They were all hotshot test pilots, determined to become the first human to fly in space. Among the group, Grissom distinguished himself by working hard (and partying hard). By early 1961 he, Shepard, and Glenn had emerged as the frontrunners for the coveted first flight. Ultimately all of the Americans lost out to Yuri Gagarin, but Shepard claimed the US honor. Grissom served as the back-up pilot.

The second US mission to space went to Grissom, however. He would largely repeat the first Mercury flight with two key modifications—the Liberty Bell 7 capsule would have a trapezoid-shaped window, and a new explosive hatch would allow Grissom to exit the spacecraft on his own. To blow the hatch, Grissom had to remove a cap from the detonator, pull out a safety pin, and push down on a plunger.

The flight itself was splendid. As Grissom became the first American to directly view the Earth from space, he marveled at his home planet. “The view through the window became quite spectacular as the horizon came into view,” he said in his flight report. “The sight was truly breathtaking. The Earth was very bright, the sky was black, and the curvature of the Earth was quite prominent.”

After landing in the water with a “mild jolt,” Grissom was ready to press ahead with the final stage of his mission. “I felt that I was in good condition at this point and started to prepare myself for egress,” he said. Before firing the hatch, Grissom was supposed to wait for a rescue helicopter to fly over, hook into the lifting loop on top of the capsule, and raise it out of the water. Once clear, he was to remove the cap from the detonator, pull the safety pin, and activate the firing mechanism. Then he could step onto the sill of the hatch, climb into a horse collar lowered from the helicopter, and be pulled to safety without ever getting wet.

  • A US Navy helicopter attempts to pull the Liberty Bell spacecraft from the water. This gallery takes you inside the nearly fatal mission.
  • NASA
  • Grissom dons a spacesuit in preparation for America's second human spaceflight.
  • A view of Grissom suited up and ready to go.
  • Grissom, suited up and ready to climb into the Liberty Bell 7 spacecraft, talks with backup astronaut John Glenn. The spacecraft was the first US human-rated vehicle with a window.
  • NASA
  • Astronaut Gus Grissom climbs into the Liberty Bell 7 spacecraft before launch on the morning of July 21, 1961. This is the hatch he would make an emergency egress from.
  • NASA
  • On Jul 21, 1961, Mercury-Redstone 4 launched from Cape Canaveral, carrying Astronaut Gus Grissom and making him the second American to venture into outer space.
  • NASA
  • The Hunt Club 1 co-pilot, John Reinhard, observes the Liberty Bell 7 below.
  • NASA
  • Once hooked, pilot Jim Lewis struggles to lift the capsule.
  • NASA
  • After the capsule sank, Grissom is hoisted in a horse collar, facing backwards.
  • NASA
  • Is Gus Grissom angry after the Liberty Bell 7 nearly took him to the bottom of the ocean? Weary? Thoroughly shaken? It's hard to know for sure.
  • NASA
  • Retrieved from the ocean floor three miles deep, the Liberty Bell 7 Project Mercury capsule is revealed to photographers and the media in Port Canaveral, Florida.
  • After 38 years on the bottom of the ocean, Liberty Bell 7 had seen better days.
  • NASA

Grissom didn’t wait for the helicopter to arrive and hook the capsule, however. As the spacecraft bobbed in four-foot seas, he removed the cap from the detonator and pulled the safety pin. He did not push the plunger, which required five pounds of force to depress, but a few moments later, the hatch blew anyway. In the book We Seven (based on firsthand accounts of the Mercury program from the astronauts), Grissom wrote, “The plunger that detonates the bolts is so far out of the way that I would have to reach for it on purpose to hit it. This I did not do.”

Saving throw: Securing democracy with stats, spreadsheets, and 10-sided dice

Ars Technica » Features — 11/8/2016 6:40:58 PM

NAPA, CALIFORNIA—Armed with a set of 10-sided dice (we’ll get to those in a moment), an online Web tool, and a stack of hundreds of ballots, University of California-Berkeley statistics professor Philip Stark spent last Friday unleashing both science and technology upon a recent California election. He wanted to answer a very simple question—had the vote counting produced the proper result?—and he had developed a stats-based system to find out.

On June 2, 6,573 citizens went to the polls in Napa County and cast primary ballots for supervisor of the 2nd District in one of California’s most famous wine-producing regions, on the northern edge of the San Francisco Bay Area. The three candidates—Juliana Inman, Mark van Gorder, and Mark Luce—would all have liked to come in first, but they really didn't want to be third. That's because only the two top vote-getters in the primary would proceed to the runoff election in November; number three was out.

Napa County officials announced the official results a few days later: Luce, the incumbent, took in 2,806 votes, van Gorder got 1,911 votes, and Inman received 1,856 votes—a difference between second and third place of just 55 votes. Given the close result, even a small number of counting errors could have swung the election.

Vote counting can go wrong in any number of ways, and even the auditing processes designed to ensure the integrity of close races can be a mess (did someone say "hanging, dimpled, or pregnant chads"?). Measuring human intent at the ballot box can be tricky. To take just one example, in California, many ballots are cast by completing an arrow, which is then optically read. While voters are instructed to fully complete the thickness of the arrow, in practice some only draw a line. The vote tabulation system used by counties sometimes do not always count those as votes.

So Napa County invited Philip Stark to look more closely at their results. Stark has been on a four-year mission to encourage more elections officials to use statistical tools to ensure that the announced victor is indeed correct. He first described his method back in 2008, in a paper called “Conservative statistical post-election audits,” but he generally uses a catchier name for the process: “risk-limiting auditing.”

Napa County had no reason to believe that the results in this particular election were wrong, explained John Tuteur, the County Assessor, when I showed up to watch. But, anticipating that the election would be close, Tuteur had asked that Napa County be the latest participant in a state-sponsored pilot project to audit various elections across the Golden State.

While American public policy, particularly since the 2000 Bush v. Gore debacle, has focused on voting technology, not as much attention has been paid to vote audits. If things continue to move forward, Stark could have an outsized effect on how election audits are conducted in California, and perhaps the country, for years to come.

“What this new auditing method does is count enough to have high confidence that [a full recount] wouldn't change the answer,” Stark explained to me. “You can think of this as an intelligent recount. It stops as soon as it becomes clear that it's pointless to continue. It gives stronger evidence that the outcome is right.”

The process has been endorsed by numerous academics and voting officials, and by the American Statistical Association (PDF), the League of Women Voters (PDF), the Brennan Center for Justice (PDF) and many others in recent years.

And it begins with those 10-sided dice.

Audit day

To kick off the process, all 6,573 votes tallied in the 2nd District supervisor contest were re-scanned by county elections officials in the City of Napa. They sent the scans to a separate computer science team at Berkeley, led by Professor David Wagner. Along with a group of graduate students, Wagner has developed software meant to read voter intent from ballots. His system, for instance, will flag even ballots where the arrow was not filled in according to the instructions, and it takes a different approach to filtering out stray marks. The Wagner team created a spreadsheet containing each ballot (they also created a numbering system to identify and locate individual ballots) and how that person cast his or her vote.

One problem that cropped up early on was the discrepancy between the number of ballots cast and the number of ballots scanned. While 6,573 total votes were recorded in this particular contest, the Wagner team scanned a total of 6,809 ballots, while Napa County recorded 7,116 votes cast in the election as whole. (Not every voter in the election chose to vote in this particular contest.) In short, there were over 300 ballots missing. While that seems problematic, the margins stayed more or less the same.

"If both systems say 'Abraham Lincoln won' then if the unofficial system is right, so is the official system, even if their total votes differ and even if they interpreted every vote differently," wrote Stark in an e-mail on Tuesday. "That's the transitive idea. A transitive audit is really only checking who won, not checking whether the official voting system counted any particular ballot correctly. That said, we do compare the precinct totals for the two systems to make sure they (approximately) agree, which they did here."

He added that to deal with the missing ballots, to confirm the winner, he treated them as if they were votes for the runner-up—so even with 300 additional votes, Luce still was the victor.

"To confirm the runner-up, we could not do that; instead, I treated them two different ways, neither completely rigorous," he added. "In other audits, I've been able to deal with any mismatches between the ballot counts completely rigorously, so that the chance of a full hand count if the reported result was wrong remained over 90 percent."

With that out of the way, the first step in the actual audit was to randomly select a seed number that would be used to feed a pseudo-random number generator found on a website that Stark created. For this, Stark had some high-level help in the form of Ron Rivest, one of America’s foremost experts on cryptography and voting systems, a professor of computer science at MIT who had also helped create the RSA crypto algorithm. Using 20 store-bought ten-sided dice, Rivest and Stark rolled out a 20-digit number. (73567556725160627585, for those keeping score at home.)

Risk-limiting auditing relies on a published statistical formula, based on an accepted risk limit, and on the margin of victory to determine how many randomly selected ballots should be manually checked.

“The risk limit is not the chance that the outcome (after auditing) is wrong,” Stark wrote in a paper (PDF) published in March 2012. “A risk-limiting audit amends the outcome if and only if it leads to a full hand tally that disagrees with the original outcome. Hence, a risk-limiting audit cannot harm correct outcomes. But if the original outcome is wrong, there is a chance the audit will not correct it. The risk limit is the largest such chance. If the risk limit is 10 percent and the outcome is wrong, there is at most a 10 percent chance (and typically much less) that the audit will not correct the outcome—at least a 90 percent chance (and typically much more) that the audit will correct the outcome.”

To decide how many ballots should be sampled in the Napa County audit, Stark used his own online tools and calculated that it should be 559. With that number in hand, Napa County's John Tuteur supervised a team of temporary ballot counters in another room. They sorted through stacks of ballots in numbered boxes, affixing a sticky note to the individual ballots in question, preserving the order in which all ballots were kept.

After locating the individual ballots, the team delivered the boxes containing them back to Stark, Rivest, and a few observers (including me). Each marked ballot was then pulled from its box and displayed to the room. Once everyone agreed that the ballot showed a vote for a particular candidate, an undervote (e.g., no vote at all), or an overvote (an uncounted and unauthorized vote for multiple candidates), the result was tallied on Wagner's spreadsheet. After a given set of ballots, those results were then compared to what the Wagner image-scanning team had recorded.

"You want cast as intended, and counted as cast, and verified,” Stark said.

Clinton v. Trump on copyrights and patents: Reading the platform and the tea leaves

Ars Technica » Features — 11/6/2016 1:00:08 PM

Campaign 2016

The hot-button issues this election can be counted on one's fingers—and for most voters, things like copyright and patent policy don't make the list. Assigned to a wonkish zone far from the Sunday morning talk shows, intellectual property issues aren't near the heart of our deeply polarized political discourse.

Of the two major party candidates in 2016, only the Democratic candidate has a platform that even addresses copyright and patent policies. So today, let's look at what we know about Hillary Clinton's plan, and make some informed speculation about what could happen to these areas under a Donald Trump presidency.

Given that the campaign is focused (as always) on a relatively small group of issues, tech policy watchers who spoke to Ars were surprised to see a presidential platform that mentions IP issues at all. Clinton's briefing paper on technology and innovation addresses both copyright and patent issues directly, and that in itself is something of a surprise. Trump's website has no such information, so the best clues to his approach lie in his public statements and the people he has surrounded himself with.

Clinton on copyright: The no-SOPA promise

Hillary Clinton's intentions with copyright represent something of a snapshot of where the debate stands in 2016. Copyright policy (and one could say this for patents as well) seems like an area where the nation should be able to overcome its wide partisan gap. Yet, no legislative change of any real significance took place during the Obama Administration. Roughly speaking, two huge sectors of the economy—technology and Hollywood—were sharply at odds about what should be done. That standoff made it easy for an already do-nothing Congress to, well, do nothing.

Despite the lack of legislation, there was a big change during the Obama Administration in how US lawmakers viewed copyright. Members of Congress from both parties were deluged with calls and e-mails in 2012 as the citizenry absorbed what the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) would mean for the functioning of the Internet. The draconian proposal included methods for quickly blocking websites deemed piratical, demands that ISPs use "graduated response" to disconnect users accused as pirates, and instructions for search engines to be forcibly rearranged with a list of websites more to the liking of the RIAA and MPAA.

At that time, the proposed anti-piracy law seemed destined for passage, with advocates of a more balanced copyright system hoping, at best, to whittle away at some of its worst changes. But SOPA caused a public outcry unlike anything seen before; an Internet blackout prompted millions of calls and e-mails to Congress. Institutional memory of the anti-SOPA uprising is still strong in Congress, where politicians now approach copyright issues tentatively and reluctantly, speaking about not wanting to get "SOPA'd" on a complex topic.

Speaking generally, most of the tech sector, and especially Internet companies, want a more balanced copyright system. And they certainly don't want any kind of SOPA, or SOPA-lite proposal, whether it comes in the Congressional front door, through courts, or by lobbying state law enforcement.

In that climate, Clinton's most important copyright position is her promise of what she won't be doing—and the Democratic candidate explicitly promises she won't be supporting a new version of SOPA. As her position paper states, Clinton "maintains her opposition to policies that unnecessarily restrict the free flow of data online—such as the high profile fight over the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA)." (For reasons that aren't clear, this important sentence is oddly placed in the "net neutrality" section.)

Later, Clinton has a paragraph dedicated to her positions on copyright. It isn't too long, so it's worth considering in whole, jargon and all:

Effective Copyright Policy: Copyrights encourage creativity and incentivize innovators to invest knowledge, time, and money into the generation of myriad forms of content. However, the copyright system has languished for many decades, and is in need of administrative reform to maximize its benefits in the digital age. Hillary believes the federal government should modernize the copyright system by unlocking—and facilitating access to—orphan works that languished unutilized, benefiting neither their creators nor the public. She will also promote open-licensing arrangements for copyrighted material and data supported by federal grant funding, including in education, science, and other fields. She will seek to develop technological infrastructure to support digitization, search, and repositories of such content, to facilitate its discoverability and use. And she will encourage stakeholders to work together on creative solutions that remove barriers to the seamless and efficient licensing of content in the U.S. and abroad.

Reading between the lines, what should the interested parties make of this?

"There's flowery language, and it's hard to tell what it really means, but its heart is in the right place," said Joshua Lamel, who represents tech companies in Washington as VP of BGR Group, and serves as executive director of Re:Create, a group that pushes for more balanced copyright. "I don't know anyone in the Internet world who didn't like that paper."

The most important Internet copyright law is the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which was created and passed under Bill Clinton's tenure as president. "If you see the Internet as a success story, part of that is how [Bill] Clinton approached it in the 90s," Lamel told Ars. There are problems with the DMCA and things that could be made better, but on the whole, the DMCA has done more good than harm.

Of course, Hillary Clinton isn't her husband. But her own record at the State Department, in Lamel's view, looks pretty good. Internet freedom was a major issue while Clinton ran State given the Arab Spring and related turmoil broke out on her watch. The department voiced concern over Internet access and free speech during those events.

The Clinton policy paper even cites a few points that are on the "wish list" of tech activists, like dealing with the mess around "orphan works," older copyrighted works where the owners can't be found, and ensuring open access to more federally funded content.

While Clinton surprised some by citing a problem like orphan works, her platform is vague or silent on issues that are arguably more pressing. One burning issue for copyright reformers that she has no public position on is the deformed DMCA "exemption" process, in which people who want to bypass digital locks for non-piratical purposes have to ask permission from the Librarian of Congress every three years. That's hamstrung companies, tinkerers, and activists who want to use copyrighted content for purposes that seem obviously good for society—whether it's ripping a DVD for educational slides or a documentary, or letting drivers tinker with their car software.

In the view of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, that exemption process, detailed in Section 1201 of the DMCA, is "fundamentally flawed." Seeing no progress on a legislative solution, EFF filed a lawsuit in July challenging Section 1201 as unconstitutional. Is reform of this critical area something that could get Clinton's support? The platform leaves us few clues.

Further Reading

4 out of 5 Democratic candidates agree—Snowden should face the courtsFinally, while Clinton was clear about speaking up for Internet access rights in other countries, she's been more heavy-handed when US national security is at issue. Internet privacy isn't the focus of this article, but Clinton's public statements suggest that she will be at least as supportive of massive Internet surveillance as Obama was, if not more. When asked about Edward Snowden in the debates, she followed Obama's line—that he should come back to the US and face a trial, full stop. It was her primary opponents, Bernie Sanders and Martin O'Malley, who showed more sympathy towards Snowden.

Other matters on the wish-list of copyright reformers, such as reforming the massive statutory damages available to copyright owners, are likely to face further stalemate in Congress regardless of who is president.

"Statutory damages are in desperate need of change, and the damage to innovation is really high," says Ernesto Falcon, an EFF attorney who focuses on IP issues. "VC's look at litigation risk, and it's copyright is super-risky because of six-figure artificial damages. But it's hard to get Congress to have the courage to take it up."

Studying marijuana remains a drag

Ars Technica » Features — 11/5/2016 1:00:07 PM

Whatever happens November 8, marijuana won. It’s hit an all time high in popularity—60 percent of Americans now support legalization. That handily beats both major-party candidates in favorability. Twenty-five states and Washington, DC have already legalized it for medical use. And come election day, nine states will decide whether to loosen laws further (five voting on legalization, four more on medical use).

The psychoactive plant is no longer the gateway drug of deadbeats and loafers; it’s becoming acceptable socially and politically. And with the public opinion that it’s largely harmless, users have stoked hopes that it can safely and effectively treat a range of medical ailments, from chronic pain and migraines to epilepsy and autism

Marijuana advocates are delighted by these shifts, of course. But as voters, lawmakers, patients, and doctors look to make informed decisions on legislation and usage, they’re coming up with questions—and some are pretty simple. Are there long term effects? What diseases or symptoms can it really treat? In which patients? And how? What strains and products are best? Is it OK to mix it with prescription meds? What all does marijuana’s 60 or so active cannabinoids do in our brains exactly?

Despite decades of federally-funded research, researchers still don’t have a lot of clear or detailed answers. Stigma has been one of the most obvious barriers to getting them. Much of the early research burnt in the idea that marijuana is simply an addictive drug that saps intelligence and boosts laziness—a characterization that’s been hard to shake in the medical community. But inconspicuous bureaucratic barriers may have played a larger role.

“We knew that there were going to be hurdles, but we didn’t think that there’d be quite this many,” said Jacci Bainbridge, a clinical pharmacist specializing in neurology at the University of Colorado. This month she and her team are starting a clinical trial using marijuana to treat chronic back pain—something many of her patients are already doing on their own. In Colorado, a state that legalized marijuana, her patients can simply stroll into dispensaries and sample a variety of cannabis products. But Bainbridge, a federally funded researcher, is bound by federal laws.

There’s extra paperwork, committees, planning, and inspections, she said—some hurdles researchers studying heroin don’t even face. By the time she and her team got the final go ahead for their trial, they had renovated the campus’ clinical trial center to contain a room with a specialized ventilation system. They shuffled their study design to comply with federal laws on dispensing marijuana. They installed digital passcodes on the entry doors to their trial area. And they now have a designated freezer for pot storage, set to -70°C and fitted with a giant coil lock that snuggly wraps around the frozen box to clench it closed—a contraption Bainbridge describes as “craziness.”

In some ways, the loosened pot laws and public favor has exacerbated the research hurdles and data shortage, Bainbridge said. More patients are now experimenting with the vast variety of marijuana-based products offered on unbridled markets. Patients mix those products with different treatment strategies and prescription medications with unknown interactions and effects. In many cases, researchers aren’t even sure what’s in the dried plant material, resins, liquids, and oils that their patients are smoking, vaporizing, or eating. These real life experiments raise swathes of new research and medical questions.

“You kinda need that data so that you can really tell patients ‘do this’ or ‘don’t do this’,” Bainbridge said.

On the other hand, the soaring support for weed has fired up some researchers like Bainbridge to finally get those answers. And the federal government recently made a rather dramatic shift in its stance. In August, the US Drug Enforcement Agency reaffirmed that marijuana should be a Schedule I controlled substance. That designation is the same one used for LSD, heroin, and ecstasy, meaning that marijuana has no accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse. But also in its announcement, the agency made the stunning move to open the door to more marijuana research. Proponents are optimistic that it will usher in the clinical data needed to reverse the government’s Schedule I listing and get answers to patients.

“It’s a really great moment to be talking about this,” said Brad Burge, Director of Communications and Marketing at the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), a California-based nonprofit that has fought for for decades to get more clinical research on marijuana.

Research cravings

Right now, MAPs is finally kicking off its own marijuana clinical trial, run by researchers at Johns Hopkins University and independent researchers in Arizona. Their triple-blind, randomized controlled trial will examine whether smoking marijuana can help 76 U.S. veterans suffering with treatment-resistant posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The trial has been in the works for about 17 years, Burge said, dragged down by paperwork and government approval among other things. But on August 25, the MAPS-backed researchers got their first batch of government-grown pot—sent with the blessing of the National Institute of Drug Abuse or NIDA.

Of the 27 institutes and centers in the National Institutes of Health, NIDA may not be the first to springs to mind. But NIDA looms large in the medical marijuana field; it is the gatekeeper of all of the federal government’s marijuana for research.

Since 1968, six years before NIDA was even established, the DEA struck up a deal to let the University of Mississippi have the only license to grow marijuana for research purposes. The deal started informally, said Steven Gust, Special Assistant to the Director at NIDA. Some researchers were looking to study marijuana, he explained, and a scientist at Ole Miss just happened to offer to grow it for them. That scientific favor turned into a decades-long monopoly.

A few years later, as research interest grew, the NIH decided to make things more formal. NIDA contracted with the University of Mississippi to fund the DEA-approved pot production and use the University as a supplier for any government-funded marijuana research. The contract only lasts for five year increments, after which other institutions can compete to take over marijuana production. But in the decades since, no institution has ever beat out Ole Miss for the gig.

Currently, the NIDA-funded researchers there have a 12.5-acre plot of land for growing government pot—although they usually only use about one and a half acres of it—plus an indoor growing room that is in use all year round. Production is based on requests and can fluctuate. In 2014, the facility cranked out about 600 kilograms in total, Gust said. That includes marijuana of various strengths, containing tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the main psychoactive component of marijuana, at concentrations of one percent to more than 10 percent. Researchers at Ole Miss are now working on offering high-concentration extracts of THC as well as ones of cannabidiol (CBD), the marijuana component thought to be most promising for medical treatments.

Getting access to that government weed isn’t as easy as it was in 1968, however. Instead of asking nicely, researchers interested in conducting clinical research with marijuana must first register with the DEA and prove they have a secure location for storage and use. Then they have to get approval from the Food and Drug Administration to test out a marijuana treatment on patients as an “investigational new drug” or IND. And last, they must be able to demonstrate that the project is legit and worth doing, such as by winning an NIH grant, often through NIDA. Until last year, a special committee high up in the Department of Health and Human Services would also need to sign off on the worthiness of the research project—a hurdle researchers using other Schedule I drugs didn’t have to do. However, the Obama administration scrapped the requirement, saying it was redundant with the FDA’s sign-off.

In 2015, NIDA funded 281 marijuana-based research projects, shelling out more than $111 million. Forty-nine of those projects were looking at therapeutic uses of marijuana or cannabinoids.

“There’s a lot of complaining out there that we’ve gotten wind of,” Gust said of the approval process. “But to be honest with you, I don’t think it’s any more difficult to do research on marijuana than it is on any other Schedule I drug.” Noting the decades of NIDA-funded marijuana research, he added: “While it may be a hassle, it’s obviously doable.”

'Europe hands Putin a win, Trump a headache'

CNN.com - Top Stories — 12/5/2016 1:36:58 PM

David A. Andelman, editor emeritus of World Policy Journal and member of the board of contributors of USA Today, is the author of "A Shattered Peace: Versailles 1919 and the Price We Pay Today." Follow him on Twitter @DavidAndelman.

(CNN)It was a split decision for moderation in Europe on Sunday, but the balance seemed to tip toward a new fragility for an already endangered European Union -- not to mention a further victory for Vladimir Putin.

Sweeping populism?


  • Related: Fillon wins France's Republican primary


Merkel's challenge

Without question, the populist movements in each European country are subtly and often bizarrely different.

David A. Andelman

A headache for Trump?


  • Related: 'Mr. Brexit' on Trump's anti-globalism


Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion

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Young mom struggles with Parkinson's

CNN.com - Top Stories — 12/5/2016 1:27:30 PM

(CNN)Sometimes, you don't know the exact moment when your life has changed.

The cause of Parkinson's

Dopamine in the brain



See the latest news and share your comments with CNN Health on Facebook and Twitter.

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What's next for Italy?

CNN.com - Top Stories — 12/5/2016 1:04:31 PM

(CNN)Prime Minister Matteo Renzi has announced his intention to resign following a resounding loss at the polls for his constitutional reforms package on Sunday.

Who's in charge?

Who benefits?

Itexit, Quitaly, Italexit... Is it on the cards?

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Italian PM to quit after resounding loss

CNN.com - Top Stories — 12/5/2016 12:49:01 PM

(CNN)Matteo Renzi will offer his resignation as Italian Prime Minister in Rome Monday after suffering a crushing referendum defeat which could transform the country's political and economic landscape.

Next steps

Europe reacts

'A lost opportunity'


  • High turnout for crucial vote in Italy


I believe this was a lost opportunity for our country

Lino Settola

Hada Messia in Rome and Mark Thompson in London contributed to this report.

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Federer, Sharapova, Murray: Year of tennis firsts

CNN.com - Top Stories — 12/5/2016 12:30:37 PM

(CNN)Roger Federer, Maria Sharapova, Andy Murray and Angelique Kerber -- among others -- all played their part in a tennis season of firsts. It won't soon be forgotten -- or duplicated, and here's why...

Federer's struggles

Djokovic makes history


  • Novak Djokovic wins French Open


Murray emulates trio


  • Andy Murray reflects on No. 1 ranking


Kerber's slam breakthrough


  • Angelique Kerber: The view from the top


Team title for Argentina

🏆🇦🇷❤🎉 pic.twitter.com/8Ai07Z6uoy

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Brexit: Supreme Court hears appeal

CNN.com - Top Stories — 12/5/2016 12:22:26 PM

London (CNN)The UK's Supreme Court has begun hearing an appeal over whether members of parliament must approve the decision to trigger Article 50, sparking Britain's withdrawal from the European Union.

Brexit trigger

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Bayern Munich locker room secrets revealed

CNN.com - Top Stories — 12/5/2016 12:12:55 PM

Munich, Germany (CNN)From a small Dutch town to the very top of European football, Arjen Robben has been there, done it and got the trophies.


  • El Clasico: '100,000 people whistling'



  • Born to Follow: Bayern Munich



  • Bolt vs. Aubameyang: who wins in a 30m race?



  • Jerome Boateng's quick-fire questions


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First Japanese leader to visit Pearl Harbor

CNN.com - Top Stories — 12/5/2016 12:01:13 PM

(CNN)Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced on Monday he would visit Pearl Harbor in late December with US President Barack Obama, just over 75 years after Japan's attack in 1941.

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Trump picks Ben Carson for his cabinet

CNN.com - Top Stories — 12/5/2016 11:49:17 AM

(CNN)Dr. Ben Carson will be nominated as the next secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Trump transition team announced Monday.

I am seriously considering Dr. Ben Carson as the head of HUD. I've gotten to know him well--he's a greatly talented person who loves people!

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Rooftop yoga: New way to see the city sights

CNN.com - Top Stories — 12/5/2016 11:00:18 AM

(CNN)From L.A. to Paris, there's no shortage of rooftop yoga classes. But some are more spectacular than others.


  • Staying healthy on the road


Gap in the market


  • Healthy hotels for the future


Guru with a view


  • Healthy hotels for the future


Lotus with a soundtrack

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New reality TV show denounces corruption

CNN.com - Top Stories — 12/5/2016 10:52:18 AM

(CNN)A new reality TV craze is sweeping Liberia, with tens of thousands voting for their heroes and an intense debate surrounding their merits.

Local heroes

Building momentum

#IntegrityIdolLiberia top five films out and voting opens this week! Stay tuned! pic.twitter.com/koRBStmnDB

Fighting corruption

Next episodes

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Trump attacks China but misses mark

CNN.com - Top Stories — 12/5/2016 10:39:01 AM

President-elect Donald Trump has revived some of his China-bashing from the campaign trail -- but the misleading claims still puzzle economists.

Trump accused China late Sunday of gaining an unfair advantage over American companies by devaluing its currency and slapping heavy taxes on U.S. products. The attack via Twitter came after a controversial phone call with Taiwan's president on Friday that had already ruffled feathers in Beijing.

Blasting China over its currency, the yuan, was a recurring theme of Trump's presidential campaign as he appealed to voters disillusioned with the effects of globalization. He labeled Beijing "a big abuser," arguing it has given Chinese exports a boost -- and cost America jobs -- by keeping the yuan artificially low.

Economists say that was probably true in the past, but China is now battling to stop its currency from falling too much.

Did China ask us if it was OK to devalue their currency (making it hard for our companies to compete), heavily tax our products going into..

their country (the U.S. doesn't tax them) or to build a massive military complex in the middle of the South China Sea? I don't think so!

Beijing has been trying to give markets a greater role in determining the value of its currency. Between mid-2005 and early 2014, the yuan rose about 30% against the dollar. But as the Chinese economy has slowed in recent years, the yuan has fallen back.

"The irony of it is they're actually giving the market more say, but the market wants it to be weaker," said Julian Evans-Pritchard, a China expert at Capital Economics.

Related: China just let its currency hit lows not seen since the financial crisis

Chinese leaders want to avoid a repeat of the sharp drops that freaked out investors in August 2015 and January 2016. Beijing has burned through hundreds of billions of dollars since last year in efforts to prop up the yuan as huge sums of money have flowed out of the country.

Its foreign currency war chest, while still substantial, has dwindled to its lowest level in five years.

Trump attacking China for manipulating the yuan is unlikely to improve matters, economists say.

"I think in practical terms, it wouldn't do his voters any favors if he does actually try to get China to stop intervening in its currency," Evans-Pritchard said. "If anything, it's just going to make its exports cheaper because the currency will start falling even faster."

Trump's victory has also helped push the yuan to its lowest levels in about eight years. The U.S. dollar has surged against other currencies on expectations of a rate hike by the U.S. Federal Reserve this month and the potential for higher growth and inflation under Trump policies.

And since the U.S. election, the yuan has actually fallen less sharply against the dollar than many other emerging market currencies. And it has strengthened against the currencies of other major trading partners, like the euro and the Japanese yen.

Related: 3 ways Trump can slap tariffs on China and Mexico

During his campaign, Trump said he would label China a "currency manipulator," which would require the U.S. Treasury Secretary to hold talks with Beijing on the issue.

"I think it's just a good way for Trump to show he's being tough on China -- the symbolism is important -- without doing anything that would affect the trade relationship," Evans-Pritchard said. "It's an easy win."

Of much greater concern is Trump's threat to slap tariffs of as much as 45% on Chinese goods. If he follows through with that, the result could be a trade war that damages both economies.

Related: 8 reasons why starting a trade war with China is a bad idea

The yuan wasn't Trump's only beef on Sunday. He also claimed that Beijing "heavily" taxes U.S. products but that the U.S. doesn't tax Chinese goods.

Economists say it's unclear what he meant. A spokeswoman for Trump didn't respond to a request for more information late Sunday.

In March, fact-checking website Politifact looked into similar comments Trump made to The New York Times about a "tremendous tax" imposed by China. It rated the claim "mostly false."

Trump might be referring to the sales tax that China and many other countries charge but the U.S. doesn't. That tax isn't specific to U.S. products, though. It applies to all goods, whether they're made in China or overseas.

Related: TPP's death hurts America and helps China + Russia

Another possibility is that Trump is talking about import tariffs, which are generally higher in China than in the U.S. But the U.S. nonetheless imposes some degree of charges on goods from Chinese companies.

"It seems to me a lot of the issues he's focusing on now are either outdated or don't hold true," said Evans-Pritchard.

"Maybe he should focus on other grievances," he said, like China's restrictions on foreign investment or subsidies for state-run companies.

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Trump's 'brilliant' move on Taiwan may make Asia safer

CNN.com - Top Stories — 12/5/2016 10:37:23 AM

(CNN)Donald Trump's call with Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen upended 40 years of US foreign policy. Ever since 1979, America has acknowledged a One-China policy and terminated formal diplomatic relations with Taiwan.

Brilliant move with little downside


  • 'One China,' explained


Paper tiger?


  • 5 things to know about Taiwan's first female President


Status quo no more?

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Why did Indian family declare $29 billion?

CNN.com - Top Stories — 12/5/2016 10:34:44 AM

India's fight against tax evasion has turned up a surprising and suspicious declaration -- $29 billion from a family of four.

The Finance Ministry said Sunday that the family from Mumbai claimed to owe the staggering amount -- two trillion rupees in local currency -- during a government tax amnesty program that ended in September.

That's three times the combined $9.8 billion that nearly 72,000 other people declared under the entire program. It's also higher than the estimated net worth of India's richest man, Mukesh Ambani, which currently stands at $22.7 billion.

Related: India's tax dodgers still hiding hundreds of billions

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has made it his mission to stamp out corruption and tax evasion in India, where less than 2% of the population pays any income tax at all. The government loses out on hundreds of billions of dollars in revenue every year.

It is not yet clear why the family of Abdul Razzaque Mohammed Sayed -- including his wife, sister and son -- submitted the multibillion-dollar sum for the tax amnesty.

The government has rejected their declaration, saying it's suspicious for a family of "small means," and is investigating.

That means the Sayed family can't keep 55% of the money, a concession offered to others who voluntarily declared illicit income.

The Mumbai tax investigations department declined to comment on the case. CNNMoney wasn't immediately able to contact the Sayeds for comment.

Related: India's boom continues but for how much longer?

A $2 billion declaration from a businessman named Mahesh Shah in the western state of Gujarat raised similar red flags, the Finance Ministry said.

In an interview Saturday on local news channel ETV Gujarati, Shah admitted to taking "black money" -- another term for untaxed income -- from other people in exchange for a commission. He declined to give details on who it came from.

Meghdoot Sharon, a journalist who was present at the ETV studio, told CNNMoney that income tax officials arrived while the interview was in progress and took Shah away.

CNNMoney wasn't immediately able to contact Shah directly for comment on Monday.

Related: Mobile payments firms are cashing in on India's rupee crisis

The big tax amnesty that ended in September isn't Modi's only effort to clean things up.

He shocked the citizens last month by suddenly banning all 500 rupee and 1,000 rupee notes, the two highest denominations that accounted for 86% of India's currency in circulation.

The move has plunged the cash-dependent country into chaos, with millions still lining up almost a month later to deposit now useless notes at banks.

The government has also given Indians with untaxed income yet another chance to come clean, with parliament approving a new amnesty until the end of this month allowing people to keep half the money they declare.

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Many asexual people fantasize about sex

CNN.com - Top Stories — 12/5/2016 10:26:29 AM

Researchers aren't quite sure exactly what asexuality is. On paper, the concept is clear -- asexual people simply don't experience sexual attraction -- but since scientists are so early on in their attempts to understand the phenomenon, they're not quite sure about many of the specifics.

See the latest news and share your comments with CNN Health on Facebook and Twitter.

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The fabulous coffins of Ghana

CNN.com - Top Stories — 12/5/2016 10:24:22 AM

Chat with us in Facebook Messenger. Find out what's happening in the world as it unfolds.

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Regime blasts Aleppo; aid urgently needed

CNN.com - Top Stories — 12/5/2016 10:06:16 AM

Aleppo, Syria (CNN)The UN Security Council will vote Monday on a proposed ceasefire in Syria's Aleppo to allow desperately needed aid into the war-ravaged city.


  • Civilians caught in the crossfire in Aleppo


'We will rebuild'

CNN's Basma Atassi, Eyad Kourdi and Kareem Khadder contributed to this report.

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Michigan to go ahead with election recount

CNN.com - Top Stories — 12/5/2016 9:50:36 AM

(CNN)Michigan will become the second state to conduct a recount of ballot casts during the 2016 presidential election.


  • Jill Stein: No proof of voter fraud yet


It is inexcusable for Stein to put MI votes at risk of paying millions and potentially losing their voice in the Elec College.


  • Jill Stein escalates Pennsylvania recount case


CNN's David Wright contributed to this report.

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What is Trump's next move on Taiwan?

CNN.com - Top Stories — 12/5/2016 9:29:57 AM

Shannon Tiezzi is managing editor of The Diplomat, a current-affairs magazine for the Asia-Pacific region. She writes on China's foreign relations, domestic politics and economy. The views expressed here are her own.

(CNN)On the face of it, it's hard to believe that a simple phone call could cause such a furor. When US President-elect Donald Trump spoke with Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen, the conversation may have seemed routine, but it was a potentially devastating breakdown in the elaborate dance between China, the United States, and Taiwan that downplays the reality that Taiwan is, in fact, a self-governing democracy.

Join us on Twitter and Facebook

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Art made from decommissioned guns

CNN.com - Top Stories — 12/5/2016 9:23:17 AM

(CNN)Jonathan Ferrara is a modern art gallery owner driven by an old-fashioned idea: He wants the pieces he has gathered at his gallery in New Orleans to hold a mirror up to society and reflect an issue that has become a touchy one for Americans.

See the latest news and share your comments with CNN Health on Facebook and Twitter.

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Beauty contest for young men

CNN.com - Top Stories — 12/5/2016 8:51:05 AM

(CNN)What makes your culture unique?

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Pipeline 'victory isn't guaranteed'

CNN.com - Top Stories — 12/5/2016 8:13:04 AM

Near Cannon Ball, North Dakota (CNN)Celebrations, tears of joy, chanting and drumming rang out among thousands of protesters at the Standing Rock site after the Army Corp of Engineers announced it will look for an alternate route for the Dakota Access Pipeline to cross under Lake Oahe in North Dakota.

Why reroute the pipeline?

Pipeline supporters speak out

This is big-government decision-making at its worst. I look forward to putting this anti-energy presidency behind us. https://t.co/Qu0nFTmGZv

Opponents ready for next fight

From threat of removal to celebration

CNN's Sara Sidner reported from Cannon Ball, North Dakota; Max Blau reported and wrote from Atlanta; Caroline Kenny and Gregory Krieg reported and wrote from Washington, DC. CNN's Barbara Starr, Susanna Capelouto and Kevin Bohn contributed to this report.

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Oakland warehouse fire: 33 dead in dance party tragedy

CNN.com - Top Stories — 12/5/2016 8:06:23 AM

Oakland, California (CNN)Oakland authorities have already deemed the fire at an warehouse cum arts space to be one of the city's deadliest blazes ever. But the death toll is expected to rise as investigators slowly comb through the wreckage of the two-story building, officials said.

One of deadliest fires ever in Oakland

  • What was the Ghost Ship?
  • How you can help

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Hawaii: Sand, surf... and snow?

CNN.com - Top Stories — 12/5/2016 7:35:43 AM

(CNN)Hawaiians more used to dusting sand than ice from their feet have been warned that a winter storm may bring heavy snow to Big Island peaks overnight.

Snow in Hawaii! The summit of #MaunaKea dusted with snow and ice this morning #HawaiianSnow pic.twitter.com/v0IoocrKpT

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Could Hong Kong see more mass protests?

CNN.com - Top Stories — 12/5/2016 7:33:27 AM

Hong Kong (CNN)One of the leaders of the 2014 Umbrella Movement has vowed to take to the streets again if the Hong Kong government succeeds in unseating him and three other pro-democracy lawmakers.


  • Banned HK lawmakers speak to CNN


Veteran protester


  • Hong Kong votes in Umbrella Movement protester



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