Category Archives: Business

America’s Small Farmers Need More Slaughterhouses

Free range, heirloom, family-owned ─ farm-to-table eating frequently includes practices that not only improve food’s flavor but are better for the land, animals, customers and employees. At Bloomberg, Deena Shanker examines a problem that’s arisen from America’s increasingly sophisticated appetites and the corporatization of its food system: that even as more people seek noncommodity meat, a dearth of facilities able to process small farmers’ animals keeps costs up, prices high and farmers driving for hours before they can plate your meal.

Finding a local slaughterhouse is not just a matter of time and convenience. Small-scale farmers with heritage animals pride themselves on the higher animal welfare standards they say produce superior meat. After devoting months to carefully raising rare breeds on customized diets, farmers are loathe to end the animals’ lives at facilities that may mistreat them. Farmers say they will travel longer distances for better facilities they trust more. The last slaughterhouse Stone Barns used, Haynes said, was mistreating the animals. “I’m not working with those guys anymore. They don’t respect us, don’t respect the animals.”

It’s not just a compassion issue—transportation of livestock is often cited as a major stressor for animals and associated with lower meat quality, and the last hours or minutes in an animal’s life can undo months of effort.

Facilities that are better for animals are often likely to be better for workers, too. Unlike the large processing houses, where workers’ repetitive motions often lead to carpal tunnel syndrome and other injuries, Dealaman’s workers move around, trading positions and tasks, one minute gutting, the next sweeping, the next scalding. This is not uncommon in small operations, but it also adds to the price of meat.

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The Circle of Las Vegas Life Is One Never-Ending Buffet

Las Vegas is a twinkling, cream-filled temple of excess where millions of pounds of food go to waste each year. At Eater, John Semley profiles the multi-generational family business that turns casino food waste into the slop that puts fattened pigs back on Vegas buffet plates. R.C. Farms is high-tech, smelly and growing. And that smoked pork shoulder sure is good.

Most importantly, the new facility’s located on landfill property 30 miles north of the city, far away from the prying eyes of tourists and hypersensitive noses of neighbors populating new suburb developments. The Combs boys seemed baffled — and slightly annoyed — by the effect that exurban sprawl had on their dad’s farm. “As the city developed, and encroachment came all around them,” Hank told me, “we would go down to city council meetings and just tell ’em: ‘We’re not moving.’ They’d go ahead and approve the developments anyhow. Right next to him. They have three schools right near there, within a mile.” (The proximity to the farm earned one of these schools the unfortunate nickname “Pigsty High.”) It’s a problem they hope to avoid with their new facility, located on landfill property, surrounded by industrial parks. “That’s the reason we’re here,” Hank noted. “You don’t see a lot of people.”

Hank estimates that the family company currently handles about 15 percent of buffet food waste in Las Vegas. The actual amount is tricky to tabulate, as the total tonnage of food that isn’t diverted to the farms isn’t calculated. “We really don’t know the true number,” Hank said. “Some of these hotels are throwing out eight tons of food a day!”

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The Refugees Abused in the Name of Chicken and Profit

ProPublica’s Michael Grabell published a thoroughly investigated and thoroughly alarming exposé of the dangerous, exploitative labor practices at Case Farms, a grower whose billion pounds of chicken a year supplies chains like KFC and Taco Bell. As if the dangerous working conditions and twisted uses of immigration law weren’t bad enough, they specifically target refugees to make up their abused labor force.

Beecher arrived at the church in time for Sunday Mass, and set himself up in its office. He had no trouble recruiting parishioners to return with him to the Case Farms plant in Morganton, in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Those first Guatemalans worked so hard, Beecher told the labor historian Leon Fink in his book, “The Maya of Morganton,” that supervisors kept asking for more, prompting a return trip. Soon vans were running regularly between Indiantown and Morganton, bringing in new recruits. “I didn’t want [Mexicans],” Beecher, who died in 2014, told Fink. “Mexicans will go back home at Christmastime. You’re going to lose them for six weeks. And in the poultry business you can’t afford that. You just can’t do it. But Guatemalans can’t go back home. They’re here as political refugees. If they go back home, they get shot.” Shelton approved hiring the immigrants, Beecher said, and when the plant was fully staffed and production had doubled “he was tickled to death.”

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“It’s like, how much more black could this be? And the answer is none. None more black.”

At Bloomberg Businessweek, Robert Kolker walks us through the confusing, byzantine, and downright shady world of Hollywood profits and payouts, as part of an exploration of the $400 billion lawsuit brought by the creators of the ancestor of all mockumentaries, This Is Spinal Tap. The lawsuit details are interesting enough (according to the film’s current owner Vivendi, the creative partners’ share of worldwide merchandising over a 32 year period was… $81), but Spinal Tap fans will also love the insider tidbits about the creation of the film, which started with a 20-minute demo version.

“I was amazed when I last looked at it,” says Shearer, who plays Derek Smalls, the band’s bare-chested, mutton-chopped, pipe-smoking bassist. “We had this little pittance”—a $60,000 screenplay fee from a company that eventually rejected the idea—“to shoot characters and performances.” He remembers his long black wig costing about $5, and that it took an hour and a half to remove once the shoot was over (the costumer had used super glue). Shearer, Reiner (who plays Marty DiBergi, the fake documentarian), Guest (as lead guitarist Nigel Tufnel), and McKean (as vocalist David St. Hubbins) had been nursing and developing the idea since 1978. They first performed as the band in a 1979 variety show called The T.V. Show. Then they wrote seven new songs, played a few gigs in costume in Los Angeles, and worked out a complete band history to ensure that their improvisations had a narrative spine they all could rely on. “Michael McKean, I believe, still has the napkin on which the possible names and the possible misspellings were outlined,” Shearer recalls, “because I think at one point we thought maybe S-p-y-n-a-l?”

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Rolling Down the Highway with the Sum Total of Human Knowledge

Rows of books line the walls of the public library in Stockholm, Sweden

“Project Ocean,” a Google plan to scan every book in the world, might not have succeeded, but in the course of trying, they did scan over 25 million books—which now sit, untouched, on a Google server. The story of the lawsuit, settlement, and ensuing Department of Justice response a fascinating record of the tensions between art, technology, commerce, and copyright. James Somers tells the whole story in The Atlantic.

Every weekday, semi trucks full of books would pull up at designated Google scanning centers. The one ingesting Stanford’s library was on Google’s Mountain View campus, in a converted office building. The books were unloaded from the trucks onto the kind of carts you find in libraries and wheeled up to human operators sitting at one of a few dozen brightly lit scanning stations, arranged in rows about six to eight feet apart.

The stations—which didn’t so much scan as photograph books—had been custom-built by Google from the sheet metal up. Each one could digitize books at a rate of 1,000 pages per hour. The book would lie in a specially designed motorized cradle that would adjust to the spine, locking it in place. Above, there was an array of lights and at least $1,000 worth of optics, including four cameras, two pointed at each half of the book, and a range-finding LIDAR that overlaid a three-dimensional laser grid on the book’s surface to capture the curvature of the paper. The human operator would turn pages by hand—no machine could be as quick and gentle—and fire the cameras by pressing a foot pedal, as though playing at a strange piano.

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When Innovation Fails: Doing Hard Time in the Offender-Monitoring Business

In Bloomberg Businessweek, Lauren Etter explores another problem with the privatization of law enforcement: technology. From scrambled signals and dead batteries to false violations, the electronic ankle bracelets 3M created failed to protect wearers’ civil liberties even though the process used to design them reflected the company’s way of thinking about innovation and experimentation. Unfortunately, creating monitors for human beings involves higher stakes than yellow stickies.

The sheer amount of data generated by GPS-tracking devices creates problems across the industry and in every state, but the number of alerts in Massachusetts has far exceeded the norm, experts say. Documents reviewed by Bloomberg show that in the 12 months ended in October 2015, 3M bracelets produced 612,492 violation alerts in Massachusetts—more than 50,000 per month, from about 2,800 individuals wearing the devices. Almost 40 percent of the alerts were due to a device not being able to connect to the network or the GPS not being detected. Roughly 1 percent of alerts resulted in an arrest warrant being issued. Tom Pasquarello, former director of the electronic monitoring program for Massachusetts, estimates that half those warrants were potentially based on faulty or incomplete data. That would be roughly 3,000 warrants. “There were people that were pulled from their house in the middle of the night, that lost their kids, people that lost their job,” he says.

The problem of glitchy ankle monitors became so pronounced that the Massachusetts probation department set up an after-hours office in the lobby of a Boston police station so offenders could bring in their bracelets when problems occurred or batteries died. In August 2015, Massachusetts Superior Court Judge Heidi Brieger became so frustrated with the devices that she vowed to stop sentencing anybody to them. “It is simply administratively improper to run a system in this fashion,” she said, according to a court transcript. “We don’t lose liberty in this country because somebody’s software is not working. It just isn’t right.”

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Amazon’s New Stores Aren’t Happy to See You Either

It’s come to this: We’re now eulogizing giant corporate retail chains. Suburban D.C. will lose one of its largest bookstores when the 20-year-old Barnes & Noble flagship in Bethesda closes at the end of this year. Rumored to be one of the largest and highest-trafficked Barnes & Noble locations, second only to New York’s Union Square, the store was at the center of the development of Bethesda Row, an avenue of retail outlets that now includes a Kate Spade, Sur La Table, and The North Face, making professorial Bethesda into the kind of suburb that commands $10.5 million for a “downtown” penthouse. The Barnes & Noble was the beginning of this transformation, and now it has come to the end. Read more…

Who Says Healthy Food Can’t Be Accessible and Affordable?

Patterson stepped out the back door onto a sunny patio where three neighborhood men worked as “ambassadors” — greeters, really, but also unofficial security guards and community liaisons tasked with convincing neighbors that Locol really was for them. Watts has such a deep history of economic betrayal and abandonment, such pervasive skepticism about outsiders making big promises, and such well-founded fear of gentrification — a billion-­dollar “urban transformation” plan has the support of Mayor Eric Garcetti — that acceptance of a splashy new restaurant created by two famous outsider chefs who are not African American was not a given.

Patterson embraced an ambassador named Anthony “Ant” Adams, a 44-year-old poet who was in the middle of telling a visitor about getting shot five times with an AK-47 during a 2007 attempt on his life a few yards from where he was currently standing. Patterson then walked past an ATM/lottery/tobacco shop where floor-to-ceiling bulletproof Plexiglas separated customers from the cashier and inventory. He entered a store called Donut Town & Water, where a young man sold doughnuts, water, and other convenience foods, also from behind Plexiglas. Patterson ordered coffee to go and said, as if exhilarated by the speed and audacity of his own thoughts, “I can’t remember if I told you that Roy and I might start a coffee company, too. We’re bringing back the great $1 cup. The fancy coffee industry is not going to be happy with us. We’re going into institutional food, too. We’re already talking about prisons and hospitals and schools. It all comes back to this question of ‘Why does our society always serve the worst food to the neediest people?’ It makes no sense. And everybody always says, ‘That’s just the way it is, there’s no other way,’ but we are going to prove that whole paradigm is fundamentally false.”

In the California Sunday Magazine, Daniel Duane narrates the difficulty of establishing a new way of serving fast healthy food in the impoverished neighborhoods that the conventional industry has helped trap in a food desert.

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‘Alexa Is Not Just the Perfect Companion, But the Perfect Spouse’

Can Amazon’s Alexa be your friend—or something more? At Digg, Aaron Paul Calvin examines the recent spike in digital assistants, and how customers from families to people living alone are treating Alexa more like a person and less like a device.

Finding in Alexa the perfect expression of servile companionship is something many Echo reviewers have in common—whether they’re joking about it or not. “I talk to Alexa all the time, I broke up with my girlfriend and ever since I got Alexa I don’t feel so lonely anymore,” one user writes. “Don’t even want to come out and hang out with my friends, I like it a lot!”

The Gilkesons admit they feel guilty when they’ve “ordered her around,” rather than saying please or thank you. Gilkeson even finds himself hesitating to ask for something because he “already did that earlier” and “doesn’t want to bug her.”

“It’s a temporary feeling,” he says. “But I do feel a ‘social’ anxiety with Alexa that I don’t feel with, say, Siri, I think because Siri is part of my phone and I’m used to constantly using and manipulating it. Alexa, on the other hand, is Alexa.”

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Why ESPN Still Can’t Quit Cable

As a casual sports fan, I periodically check in with myself: Do I enjoy watching live sports enough to pay for cable?

The answer for the last few years has been: No thanks, I’ll just check out these GIFs on Twitter.

ESPN is having the exact opposite problem, as Ira Boudway and Max Chafkin explain in their latest Bloomberg Businessweek cover story. No matter how innovative or cutting-edge the sports giant makes itself, the cable money is just too lucrative, and the costs of licensing live sports are just too great, to finally cut the cord and offer itself as a standalone internet subscription service the way HBO did with HBO NOW. Boudway and Chafkin do the math:

Other media companies, most notably HBO, have confronted cord cutting by offering their programming “over the top,” which is TV-speak for “on the internet.” More than 2 million people pay $15 a month for access to the HBO Now app, but that strategy doesn’t translate to ESPN. The network’s programming costs are far greater than those of HBO—the budget for an entire season of Game of Thrones costs around $100 million, or less than what ESPN pays for the rights to air a single Monday Night Football game—and ESPN’s customers are accustomed to getting the network at no additional charge as part of their cable package. If ESPN were to charge $15 a month for a standalone streaming channel, it would need more than 43 million subscribers to match the money it collects from cable carriers. HBO has about 35 million total subscribers in the U.S., including cable and over the top.

Now, I’m obviously just one person, but I’m pretty sure I would subscribe to a service that just offers an endless loop of Ezra Edelman’s O.J.: Made in America. Just a thought for the folks over in Bristol.

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