Economist 9/15/14

  1. DIET COKE is one of science’s great miracles. Ordinary Coca-Cola relies on lashings of sugar to achieve its trademark sickly sweetness—15.9 grams per can, or about a third of the total daily intake recommended for women by Britain’s National Health Service. A can of Diet Coke, by contrast, contains no sugar at all. It owes its sweetness to aspartame and acesulfame-K, a pair of chemicals that are far sweeter than ordinary sugar, but which provide the body with no energy at all. A paper just published in Nature bolsters that view. It provides a big dollop of evidence in support of an emerging idea that artificial sweeteners are not directly bad for people (humans cannot even digest most of them). Rather, they may be bad for the zillions of microbes that live in people’s guts—and this, in turn, may be bad for their human hosts.
  2. Libraries in general are struggling. Americans tell pollsters they love them, but few use them. In June the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), a federal agency, published data showing that library visitor numbers have declined in recent years. Polling published on September 10th by the Pew Research Center, a think tank, revealed that more people say they are going to the library less than going more, with a sharp gap among the young.Rather libraries’ woes are the result of several headwinds. First, smartphones and cheap laptops have brought down the cost of accessing the internet, emptying many of those (often ageing) PC terminals. Firms like Amazon and the rise of e-readers have made books cheaper and easier to buy. And since the start of the recession in 2008, state and municipal budget squeezes have hurt libraries.In Philadelphia the main response has been to raise more money privately. The William Penn foundation grant will pay for ageing stacks in the central library to be replaced by a collegiate “shared working space”.
  3. The American Senate is currently considering the merits of the Transparent Airfares Act, which has already been passed by the House. If it makes it through—by no means a formality—the bill will allow airlines to strip out government tax from their advertised fares. This would then get added at the end when the customer comes to pay. By highlighting it as a stand-alone item, the idea is to persuade the government to reduce the tax—or at the very least not to raise it.. But if transparency means anything, it is that the price advertised is the price that a passenger can reasonably expect to pay.But any charge that is mandatory should surely be included in the up-front price that is being offered.
  4. Data are crucial to the $120 billion online advertising economy.The advertising industry obtains its data in two main ways. “First-party” data are collected by firms with which the user has a direct relationship.“Third-party” data are gathered by thousands of specialist firms across the web. To identify users as they move from site to site, third parties use technologies such as cookies, web beacons, e-tags and a variety of other tools. PubMatic, a firm that helps publishers sell advertising space in real time, provides some 50-70 data points about users on desktops and around 100 on mobile, including the mobile device’s precise position.Companies stress that they do not know users’ names. But they identify them by numbers, and as they build up detailed profiles about those numbered users, there is concern that the information might be traced to individuals. Data brokers earn their living by helping advertisers and publishers manage their own first-party data, as well as selling them more data about users. They divide them into segments defined by location, device, marital status, income, job, shopping habits, travel plans and a host of other factors, and auction those segments off to buyers of ad space in real time. This segmentation can become highly specialised.Credit-card companies, including Visa, MasterCard and American Express, all sell anonymised data about their cardholders to advertising companies. Bidders for advertising space can go to MasterCard to buy aggregated segments of consumers who are likely to subscribe to particular telecommunications services, for example, or stay at particular hotel chains. American Express has an edge, says someone in the data business who has worked with the company, because it actually issues the card (whereas MasterCard and Visa are in partnership with banks), enabling it to put cookies on users when they log in to check their statements and see where else they go online.Auctions can also be data mines. Some companies plug into the exchanges where firms buy and sell advertising just to glean information about users and publishers. Facebook, for example, has joined with Datalogix, a data provider, to link purchases in both spheres (online and offline). Acxiom, one of the largest data brokers with expertise in the offline world, recently paid more than $300m to buy LiveRamp, a firm that helps match offline data about customers with online information.In America a government proposal to make it harder to track people online has fallen flat. Instead, under the digital-advertising industry’s system of self- regulation users can go online to opt out of being targeted with ads (but not of being tracked). Ads delivered by firms that have signed up to the self-regulation programme feature a small “Ad Choices” icon on which people can click to opt out, though according to Chris Babel of TRUSTe, a mere 0.00015% of those who see the icon take advantage of that option.
  5. THE two leading Kenyans,Uhuru Kenyatta, who has been president of Kenya since his election in a later (and less violent) vote in 2013 and the other William Ruto, Kenya’s vice-president facing prosecution at the International Criminal Court (ICC) at The Hague were once mortal enemies whose followers killed each other in the wake of a disputed election in 2007. Yet they have since been locked in a cosy embrace, both denying responsibility for the mayhem that, according to an official Kenyan commission of inquiry, left at least 1,100 people dead.The two cases go back to the election in 2007 that pitted a coalition led by the ageing Mwai Kibaki, the then president, supported by Mr Kenyatta, against the opposition, led by Raila Odinga and backed by Mr Ruto. The victory of Mr Kibaki’s lot was widely deemed fraudulent, provoking angry members of Mr Ruto’s Kalenjin group to kill members of the Kikuyu tribe, to which Messrs Kibaki and Kenyatta belong. In return, Kikuyu gangs then wreaked revenge against their assorted rivals. Regarding Mr Kenyatta, the ICC’s chief prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, said on September 5th that “as matters currently stand” she would “not be in a position to proceed to trial on October 7th”, as scheduled.

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