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An Expat Thanksgiving

Yesterday, right on schedule, my local expat Facebook group became very focused on one thing: Where to buy last-minute critical ingredients for Thanksgiving.

Turkeys, canned pumpkin, and cranberries were a hot topic of discussion, since the Swiss don’t generally roast turkeys, use canned pumpkin, or have much use for cranberries. Switzerland’s has approximately 2 million foreigners living in her borders–approximately 25 percent of the population. My region is higher because of the pharmaceutical industry which is headquartered in Basel. I have no idea how many of those are Americans, but it seemed like every American was searching for canned pumpkin yesterday.

I, on the other hand, have done this for many years, so I ordered my canned pumpkin in October, and I don’t care for cranberry sauce. My turkey is being delivered today–also ordered in advance rather than risking the stores not having enough. Swiss ovens are small and one year I cooked a 20-pound turkey and it was within a centimeter of the top and sides of my oven. This year, I got a 10 pounder.

Thanksgiving is simply a normal Thursday outside of the United States, although inexplicably they have Black Friday Sales all over Europe and possibly all over the world. But a normal Thursday means the kids have school and I am working. Most of my clients are American so in years past I took the day off for cooking, but I have a local client that wants to meet today, so I’m working.

The one advantage of this being a normal day is that I can run to the grocery store without feeling guilty that someone has to work on the holiday and there are no crowds. It makes it easy when I have forgotten enough eggs for pecan pie.

For most expats, being away from family on this holiday is the toughest part. It can be sad seeing pictures of your siblings and cousins gathered together, but many of us celebrate with friends. In years past, I’ve coordinated a big dinner with up to 65 people at my church, but this year we’re going for a toned down dinner. 

Of course, being far away from home and family can be an advantage for some expat families. You don’t have to deal with the mother-in-law that hyper-focuses on your weight or the aunt that wants to know if you’re ever going to settle down and buy a house in Iowa like the rest of the family did. You can be blissfully alone.

But, you can also be miserably alone. For many expats, it’s a very difficult time of year. Because you have to work and the kids have school, unless your expat assignment is in Mexico or Canada, it’s just too far to get home for Thanksgiving. Many more go home for Christmas, which comes with longer breaks. 

While it’s pretty easy, with advanced planning, to get everything you need for your Thanksgiving dinner in Switzerland, that’s not true in all of the world. But, regardless of where you are, and regardless of whether you’re having a traditional turkey dinner or ordering takeout, I wish you all a very happy Thanksgiving.

10 Common Tax Scams and How to Avoid Them

  • Every tax season, there are criminals trying to scam innocent people out of some of their money.
  • Bogus, aggressive phone calls demanding payment and “phishy” emails taking you to scam sites are still the most prevalent scams, but there are some new tactics, and some lesser-known scams to be wary of too.
  • Business Insider spoke with three CPAs to get the inside scoop on scams to watch out for this year.

But there’s another group getting revved up for the tax season: Fraudsters.

These criminals can try to scam you in person, over the phone, or, most popularly, through email.

Business Insider spoke with three CPAs to help prepare you to look out for — and avoid — tax-season scams.

1. Phishing emails

1. Phishing emailsThomson Reuters

The IRS, other government agencies, and banks have been warning us about these emails for years, but they continue to be a problem. Some of these fraudulent emails will look like they are from the IRS or a bank and will ask you to visit their site and “update your account,” according to the IRS. The page will look official, and criminals are hoping you’ll enter your private information so they can use it to steal your identity, file a fake tax return in your name, or open new accounts without your knowledge.

There is a new twist on the theme this year. Fraudsters are sending emails pretending to be a professional association you might belong to, “like the state societies of opticians, or lawyers, or any other profession,” Melanie Lauridsen, senior manager for tax policy and advocacy at the American Institute of CPAs (AICPA) told Business Insider.

Criminals will often use the official name of a professional association, or a very similar name, according to Lauridsen. The email will say that you need to login to update your information, such as licensure or registration info, and get you to enter other sensitive information. This leaves you vulnerable to identity theft or other fraud.

2. Phone calls from the “IRS”

“More and more of my clients have been getting random phone calls from scammers claiming to work for the IRS,” Chad Elkins, CPA and author of “Elkins’ Tax Guide 2019 Edition,” told Business Insider. The IRS will almost never make initial contact with you by phone.

“They like to target the elderly and recent immigrants, in particular, who may not be aware that the IRS will never call to demand immediate payment, nor contact taxpayers about taxes owed without first corresponding by mail or providing the taxpayer an opportunity to appeal a balance due,” Elkins said.

These scammers have gotten sophisticated, according to the IRS. Now, they can spoof the local IRS Taxpayer Assistance Center (TAC) phone number to appear on your caller ID. If you doubt them, the scammers will tell you to look up the number.

The IRS does not do anything immediate — they have a process of warning letters, registered mail, and other paper information before they demand money. To collect the money owed, the IRS can file a tax lien on your home, levy your bank account or wages, or offset any refund you are entitled. Eventually, they can seize your car, boat, or real estate if you don’t pay up. They have the force of the law behind them to eventually collect any money that you might legitimately owe them.

3. Using your Social Security number to file a tax return and steal your refund

3. Using your Social Security number to file a tax return and steal your refundiStock/Getty Images Plus

Whether criminals have gotten your information from hacking, data breaches, or by using a phishing email that you fell for, if they have your social security number and other vital data about you, they can file a return in your name, according to Lindsey. “The scammers often get the refund put onto prepaid debit cards instead of being deposited in bank accounts because it’s a lot harder to trace once the payment has been made,” Lindsey said.

“We saw it at the height for our clients in 2017,” Lindsey said, but the number of incidents has been declining since then. If you can file early, this reduces your chances of having this scam pulled on you.

4. Fees based on your return amount

4. Fees based on your return amountAP Photo/Nam Y. Huh

“If a tax preparer says they can get you a $6,000 refund and will charge 10% of that for their fee, be suspicious,” Lauridsen said. “Preparers should charge based on how much work it takes to do your return, not the amount they can get you as a refund. The IRS may quickly refund you the $6,000, but when they figure out that you don’t have three extra children, huge donations to charities, or other sneaky tricks, the IRS will want that money back.”

By then, that preparer will be long gone with your $600, while you’ll be on the hook for paying back the IRS. No matter who you go to for tax preparation help, the amount of your refund shouldn’t vary by much.

5. Pop-up tax preparers

5. Pop-up tax preparersJustin Sullivan/Getty Images

“With the in-person scam we often see fraudulent tax preparers. The preparer creates a business out of thin air and reports a loss on your tax return in order to inflate your refund.” Lindsey said. “I’ve seen this scam happen to several law-abiding citizens, including police officers.

“The best defense is to know who is preparing your return and to actually look over your return before filing it,” Lindsey continued. “You don’t have to understand every nuance of the tax law, but you should know if you had a side gig or not.”

6. Harvesting information from hotspot or public WiFi networks

6. Harvesting information from hotspot or public WiFi networksJustin Sullivan/Getty Images

Anyone can harvest your data on a public WiFi network. Don’t file your taxes from Starbucks or McDonalds. Don’t bank from there either. If you are a professional who works with sensitive data, use a VPN if you need to work while traveling. Then, when you log in from the airport or the coffee shop, you have safeguarded the information you are accessing.

7. Prize and trip email scams

“You have not won anything, so do not click on that link,” Lauridsen said. People get fooled every day, click on a link, and then the criminals can be inside your company’s computer system, able to get to all kinds of files, from employee information to customer data. Stop and think about it very carefully before you click on any link in an email — it might download malicious software that allows outsiders to access your private data.

8. Tricking businesses to release data

“As the IRS has better filters in place to avoid identity theft, scammers have had to resort to going to businesses to try to get information to commit their various types of fraud.” Lauridsen told us of one common scenario: “The ‘CEO’ of the company sends an email to the HR department, asking for sensitive data for all employees.”

“Not wanting to question the CEO, someone in HR sends out a spreadsheet with all the employees’ complete information — social security numbers, bank account numbers, tax information, addresses, etc,” Lauridsen continued. “But really, it was a scammer having hacked or spoofed the CEO’s email account.”

If you get a suspicious request that is out of the ordinary, especially when it relates to personal data on employees, take the time to verify it through another channel. “You want to impress the boss, but be aware that scammers are able to make it look like they are using internal email accounts,” Lauridsen said. It should be pretty easy to pick up the phone and check out the request. You may be the hero who averts a major data breach at your company.

9. Tax preparers getting hacked

Because there are more robust identity theft filters in place, criminals are specifically targeting tax professionals with phishing emails posing as the IRS or software companies.The IRS warns that fraudsters are working to hack into CPA and tax preparer computers to steal their client information. All financial professionals need to have good cybersecurity installed and working to keep out intruders. In addition, there are programs that will automatically log you out if you step away from your computer for a few minutes — this is much safer than leaving the data open and available on your computer.

10. Fake tax bills through the mail

10. Fake tax bills through the mailREUTERS/Carlos Barria

Even though most IRS contact with taxpayers is through the mail, some mail might be a scam. “The IRS will generally contact taxpayers by regular mail before any other contact is made, and even that can be suspicious, because a growing scam involves fraudsters sending out phony tax bills through the mail on what looks like official IRS letterhead,” Elkins writes in his tax guide. “If you think you don’t owe any tax or don’t owe the amount shown on the bill, be careful not to fall for this scam. You should check with the IRS before paying any bill that looks suspicious.”

7 Ways You Need to Organize Your Desktop (and Your Life)

If your computer is cluttered with disorganized files and unnecessary apps, it’s tough to get any work done. Not only will you find it harder to find the content you need when you need it, but you’ll also feel additional stress, and may also be more easily distracted.

Still, most people find it challenging to organize their computer desktop in a meaningful, intuitive way.

You can start by acknowledging the main challenges that get in the way of an organized desktop:

  • Choosing a standard. If you don’t have an idea how to organize your files, you’ll never get started. The analysis paralysis on deciding on an organizational method can kill some efforts before they even begin.
  • Clearing the clutter. Clutter has a powerful effect on your stress and emotional wellbeing, but it’s hard to delete files if you think there’s a chance you’ll use them again in the future. It’s very easy for a computer to become cluttered with unnecessary items.
  • Finding the time. It’s almost impossible to automate the process of organizing your desktop, which means you’ll need to make time to do it manually–time many workers feel they don’t have.
  • Staying consistent. Once you decide on an organizational standard, you’ll need to stay consistent in applying that standard in the future. This is where most people fail.

Now let’s focus on strategies you can use to get–and stay–organized:

1. Consolidate your most important apps.

First, take inventory of the apps that are most important for your position. You might have three or four that you use on a daily basis, or a subscription suite of software programs that provide you with most of the functionality you need. For example, you might be able to merge functions from multiple apps with a single, comprehensive solution, or use a single suite of apps to replace the hodgepodge collection you accumulated over time.

2. Delete or tuck away what you don’t use at least weekly.

Next, start decluttering whatever you can. If you can’t remember the last time you used an app, uninstall it. If you can’t imagine a scenario when you’ll need a specific file, delete it. If you’re struggling with the decision, but it seems like it might be unnecessary, create a folder where you can store these rarely accessed files and apps–then tuck that folder out of the way.

3. Decide on a file naming convention.

Next, decide on a naming convention for your files that you can use consistently. For example, you might code each file with the date, so they’re listed in chronological order, then include the name of the client each file pertains to, so you can quickly search by client. Start renaming any files that don’t already adhere to this convention, and make notes so you can use it consistently in the future.

4. Create a system of folders and subfolders.

Try to keep every file on your computer or in your cloud storage account in a strictly organized system of folders and subfolders. You should have a handful of “main” folders (like Documents, Artwork, or Templates), and several subfolders within those main folders based on clients or the specific types of files contained within. There may be some files that belong in multiple categories; for these, you’ll need to make an individual judgment call, and remember, you can always run a search if there’s something you can’t find.

5. Customize your background.

If you want your desktop to be even more intuitively organized, consider creating a custom background, divided into clear sections. For example, you might designate the left side of your screen for your “most used apps” and the middle for “frequently accessed files.”

6. Take the extra time to sort new content.

It’s tempting to dump new files onto your desktop haphazardly when you’re in a rush, but if you want to stay organized, you’ll need to commit to making the time to keep all new files and apps in the proper order (and with the proper naming conventions). It takes a few minutes at most, so it shouldn’t be much of a commitment.

7. Schedule a recurring cleaning session.

As long as your calendar isn’t already packed with reminders and to-dos, schedule a recurring session to re-clean your desktop to keep it from overflowing. Scheduling something once a week, or even once a month, can prevent your desktop from becoming cluttered again.

Once your desktop is sufficiently organized, you’ll find it much easier to find what you’re looking for, you’ll feel revitalized, and you might even find yourself in a better mood throughout the workday. It might take an investment of time to get organized, but the end results are worth it.

Switching Jobs? Your 401(k) Balance Could Be Automatically Transferred Under a New Federal Rule

Workers changing jobs could have their retirement savings automatically transferred to plans at their new jobs under a proposed federal rule.

The U.S. Department of Labor is considering allowing Retirement Clearinghouse LLC to run a program that automatically transfers small 401(k) balances into individual retirement accounts when employees leave a job. Then, when they start a new job, RCH would automatically transfer the savings into the new employer’s 401(k) plan.

Why This Matters

This would help solve what Retirement Clearinghouse calls a “cash-out crisis.” Many people cash out their 401(k) savings when they change jobs rather than going through the process of transferring them to a new job. This hurts their long-term savings, the company said in a statement. Spencer Williams, CEO of Retirement Clearinghouse, did not immediately return a call seeking comment.

How the Program Works

The RCH Auto Portability Program rolls over balances of less than $5,000 from the old 401(k) plans into an IRA (here’s a cheat sheet on the difference between the two). The company sends a letter to departing employees tell them their 401(k) will be placed into an IRA unless they respond.

The company uses technology called “locate, match and transfer” to detect when the IRA owner starts a new job. It then moves the money from the IRA into the new job’s retirement plan. Employers and plan providers can sign up for the program.

Dennis R. Nolte, a certified financial planner and vice president of Seacoast Investment Services, said most planners would be happy to be rid of the headache of dealing with small leftover account balances. More programs like this could help make sure retirement savings stay invested in a plan, he said.

Are There Downsides?

Jon L. Ten Haagen, certified financial planner and founder of Ten Haagen Financial Group, said he wouldn’t want a company deciding on its own what to do with his retirement savings. Moving your money into a new company’s 401(k) isn’t always the best choice, he said, because it “may or may not be a piece of garbage.” The company managing the IRA in between jobs may also not make the right investment choices for you, he said.

Companies should educate departing workers about their best options for their retirement savings instead.

“There are many questions to be answered,” Ten Haagen said.

What’s Next?

The Department of Labor is taking comments on whether to allow RCH to take a fee when it transfers money to a new employer’s account without the IRA holders explicit permission. The comment period lasts until December 24.

Starting a new job? Aside from dealing with your old retirement plan, don’t forget these money tasks.

This article originally appeared on Policygenius and was syndicated by MediaFeed.org.

How Blockchain Technologies Can Enhance Cross-Industry Transparency

Now, blockchain technologies are poised to enhance cross-industry transparency via improvements to charity and donation programs.

I spoke with Changpeng Zhao, CEO of the cryptocurrency exchange company Binance, which runs the Blockchain Charity Foundation (BCF)–a wing of the company that’s devoted to global sustainable development. He shared how blockchain technologies can enhance transparency within a huge range of industries by making donation and charity systems easier to track and understand.

The Trouble with Current Donation Systems

There are so many disparate industries these days that it can be challenging to find any commonalities beyond death and taxes. But here’s one thing most industries have in common: At least some people and organizations within said industries are likely to participate in charity or donation programs.

That’s good news for society, but there’s just one problem: Donation systems notoriously lack transparency, which can lead to corruption and wear down the public’s trust–thereby decreasing the odds that people and organizations will continue to donate to worthy causes.

After piloting disaster relief donations via a campaign for West Japan flood donation, Zhao is intimately familiar with the lack of transparency that pervades so many charity programs.

“It was quite hard to push money to the ultimate beneficiaries–to identify who they are and who needs help,” Zhao says. Because the process of collecting and distributing donations is generally an opaque one, Zhao says not many people can understand where the money goes unless they’re provided with a detailed written report.

“Everyone sees one layer of transaction,” Zhao says. “The people who donated to us trust us to make good use of the money, but they no longer know where the money went until we publish that report.”

Zhao is concerned this can limit people’s willingness to donate. “In addition to being worried that the money may or may not be put to good use, the lack of transparency also reduces the sense of personal achievement,” he says. “If you can see where the money is going, that will help a lot in terms of personal feelings of achievement–so that’s very important.”

All of this helps explain why the BCF is committed to developing a fully transparent charity platform.

Making Charity Programs More Transparent

Zhao and his BCF maintain that employing blockchain technology within the charity ecosystem will yield a more efficient and transparent system and enhance the odds that donations will be distributed to those most in need.

“When it comes to the BCF program, our aim is to focus on transparency through this tracking portal,” Zhao says. “We want a completely transparent system.”

“Looking at the UN Sustainable Development Goals, the first few in the list could all be easily enhanced with a more transparent charity program,” Zhao says. “This increased transparency will prompt people to donate more and that will help a number of the initiatives including poverty, health, quality of education, gender equality and more.”

Rather than advocating for a specific charity, the BCF aims to help all charity initiatives via its blockchain charity platform.

Making Donation Systems More Transparent

In order to establish a fully transparent charity system, it’s necessary to track donations through multiple layers of donors, charity programs, NPOs, local supporters, and the ultimate beneficiaries.

That’s a tall order, but Zhao says Binance’s blockchain donation portal is capable of achieving it.

“As long as all of the transactions stay on-chain (done via cryptocurrency), blockchain tracks everything automatically,” Zhao says. “The job of the BCF portal is to collect the information on the blockchain and present it in an easy to understand manner. You can see the number of transactions of the incoming donations and the number of outgoing transactions for beneficiaries. And in between these two, there could be multiple layers for NPOs, local partners… etc., so we can track all of those in an easy to visualize way.”

The emphasis here is on easy to understand. Revealing oodles of data in and of itself doesn’t enhance transparency; it’s making that data accessible and understandable by all parties involved that provides greater clarity within donation systems.

The Importance of Education

In order to onboard more charitable organizations, governments, corporations, and grassroots communities, Zhao says the BCF first has to educate people about the value of the blockchain and cryptocurrencies.

The foundation is approaching this effort in several ways. For starters, the BCF is beginning to partner with universities and governments to educate teens and university students about cryptocurrency, blockchain, and so on.

“We also try to push very hard for the ultimate beneficiaries to accept cryptocurrency, so that will be a good way [for] people to learn,” Zhao says. “If users receive donations via crypto and these users need to learn about cryptocurrency or require help installing a wallet to receive the donation, there is a high incentive to learn that.”

Zhao is also hopeful that an increasing number of people and organizations from far-ranging industries will get on board with the blockchain in pursuit of a transparent charity platform.

“There [are] a lot more people that understand blockchain… [compared to a] few years ago, so today it is easier to push,” Zhao says. “I think the most significant challenge in expand[ing] BCF’s impact is really just educating people on blockchain. The more people who understand blockchain, the easier it is for BCF to push our impact.”

Who Should Sit on Facebook’s Supreme Court? Here Are 5 Top Candidates

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said this week the company will create an oversight board to help with content moderation. The move is a belated acknowledgement Zuckerberg is out of its depth when it comes to ethics and policy, and comes six months after he first floated the idea of “a Supreme Court … made up of independent folks who don’t work for Facebook.”

The idea is a good one. If carried out properly, a “Supreme Court” could help Facebook begin fixing the toxic stew of propaganda, racism, and hate that is poisoning so much of our political and cultural discourse.

But how would a Facebook Supreme Court actually work? Zuckerberg has offered few details beyond saying it will function something like an appeals court, and may publish some of its decisions. Meanwhile, legal scholars in the New York Times have suggested it must be be open, independent and representative of society.

As for who should sit on it, it’s easy to imagine a few essential attributes for the job: The right person should be tech savvy, familiar with law and policy, and sensitive to diversity. Based on those attributes, here are five people that Facebook should select if it is serious about creating an independent Supreme Court.

Zeynep Tufekci

(Julia Reinhart/ Getty Images)

(Julia Reinhart/ Getty Images)

A Turkish sociologist and computer programmer, Tufekci was one of the first to raise the alarm about the moral and political dangers of social media platforms. She is a public intellectual of the internet age, using forums like the New York Times and Harvard’s Berkman Center to denounce Silicon Valley’s failure to be accountable for the discord it’s fostered. Tufecki has also taken aim at Facebook’s repeated use of “the community“—a term that is meaningless to describe 2 billion users—to defend its policies.

Peter Thiel

(Photo by Stephanie Keith/Getty)

(Photo by Stephanie Keith/Getty)

An iconoclast who has built several public companies, Thiel is also a lawyer who started the venture capital firm Founders Fund. A gay conservative and a supporter of Donald Trump, Thiel is deeply unpopular with Silicon Valley’s liberal elites—which is why his appointment would ensure ideological diversity on Facebook’s Supreme Court. Thiel is an early investor in Facebook and a longtime board member, which gives him a deep knowledge of the company. He would have to give up these positions to preserve the body’s independence.

Judge Lucy Koh

Koh has presided over numerous high-profile technology trials and is highly regarded in Silicon Valley. Her work as a federal judge includes the long-running patent trial between Apple and Samsung, as well as a case involving an antitrust conspiracy between Google, Adobe, and other firms. Her work on the bench and inspiring personal biography made her the subject of a flattering 2015 Bloomberg profile. Koh’s familiarity with the political and legal strategies of tech giants would provide invaluable expertise for Facebook’s Supreme Court (provided federal ethics rules permitted her to do so).

Tim Berners Lee

(Nicolas Liponne via Getty)

(Nicolas Liponne via Getty)

Sir Berners Lee is a computer science professor at Oxford University and MIT, who is best known as the inventor of the World Wide Web. Highly regarded in tech circles for his humility and vast knowledge, Berners Lee in recent years has become a vocal critic of the advertiser-based business models of the Silicon Valley tech giants. Appointing him to Facebook’s Supreme Court would show the company is serious about fixing its systemic problems with privacy.

Bozoma Saint John

(Wesley Hitt/Getty Images)

(Wesley Hitt/Getty Images)

Saint John, who was raised in Ghana, became a familiar name in tech circles when she became Apple’s head of music marketing after the company acquired her former employer Beats. She also worked at Uber before moving to the talent agency Endeavour. Saint John’s outspoken views on Silicon Valley’s white male culture would help inform Facebook’s Supreme Court in tackling hard issues of diversity.

9 Words, 2 Tweets: How the Philadelphia Flyers Convinced Their Fans to Support 'Gritty' (and Broke the Internet in the Process)

The Philadelphia Flyers figured they were in for something horrible when they introduced their new mascot, Gritty, this year.

The thing looks ridiculous, let’s just admit: “an orange mess of googly eyes and a hoopla-hoop belly,” according to ESPN.

And Philadelphia is a tough sports town. It’s a place where sports fans have been trying for 50 years to live down the infamy of booing Santa Claus and throwing snowballs at him during a Philadelphia Eagles game in 1968.

But a lot has changed in 50 years. And this is partly the story of how a single tweet turned everything around for Gritty and the Flyers. Maybe two tweets.

Introducing ‘Gritty’

The idea of a new mascot came after watching the mascots of the Philadelphia 76ers and Phillies greet the Eagles after they won the Super Bowl earlier this year. It suddenly was clear that the Flyers were missing out on lots of marketing and PR by not having a mascot.

So, the team spent months on the task–and came up with Gritty, which is perhaps the ugliest, weirdest-looking mascot any team has ever imagined. Gritty made its first appearance on September 13, and then was introduced at an event for 600 Philadelphia area kids on September 24.

And the Internet attacked–at least at first. 

The first epic tweet

Now, the Flyers were waiting for this. They’d talked with their baseball colleagues at the Phillies, who had warned that they should expect a rough opening, as had happened with the Phillie Phanatic. 

But then, the Flyers’ cross-state, archrivals, the Pittsburgh Penguins piled on, commenting on Twitter with a simple dis that replied to the Flyers’ official Twitter introduction: 

The Penguins wrote: “lol ok.”

Minutes later, Gritty replied with a seven-word Twitter takedown that barely stopped short of a threat of violence and lived up to its bizarre name:

“Sleep with one eye open tonight, bird.” 

And that tweet changed everything.

The Flyers had expected to have to “weather the first two weeks to two months,” the teams vice president of marketing, Joe Heller, told Adweek. “Little did we know it was going to be under 24 hours, but that was always the goal.”

He’s our goofy-looking no-nose mascot

Fans sprung to Gritty’s defense.

They, the Flyers fans, could make fun of him all they wanted. But for the Pens, it was off-limits. And the Penguins’ mockery made Gritty one of their own.

Sure, he might be a goofy-looking, no-nose, ZZ Top-beard-wearing, conspicuously out-of-shape looking mascot–but he was their goofy-looking, no-nose, ZZ Top-beard-wearing, conspicuously out-of-shape looking mascot.

Okay, it wasn’t just one Twitter post. It was two. And the team swears they didn’t think up the second one ahead of time, even though it’s the one, just a few hours after the first, that went the farthest toward making Gritty a true sensation.

‘Break the Internet’

It spoofed Kim Kardashian’s 2014 photo shoot in which she tried to “break the internet.” And we’ll just let it speak for itself.

“We started talking about it at dinner and then did it by 10 o’clock,” Heller said. “When we did that Kardashian post, it was likes by the thousands. … 35 days later it hasn’t slowed down.”

The whole story is told in greater detail at Adweek, and it’s well worth your time. But the bottom line for any entrepreneur trying to make a mark.

Be authentic, take risks, and be willing to keep at it. And if social media isn’t the centerpiece of your strategy, no matter what other assets you have at hand, you’re missing out on something big.

Why We Need Women to Have a Larger Role in Innovation

Every once in a while I get a comment from an audience member after a keynote speech or from someone who read my book, Mapping Innovation, about why so few women are included. Embarrassed, I try to explain that, as in many male dominated fields, women are woefully underrepresented in science and technology.

The preponderance of evidence shows that women can vastly improve innovation efforts, but are often shunted aside. In fact, throughout history, men have taken credit for discoveries that were actually achieved by women. So, while giving women a larger role in innovation would be just and fair, even more importantly it would improve performance.

The Power of Diversity

Over the past few decades there have been many efforts to increase diversity in organizations. Unfortunately, all too often these are seen more as a matter of political correctness than serious management initiatives. After all, so the thinking goes, why not just pick the best man for the job?

The truth is that there is abundant scientific evidence that diversity improves performance. For example, researchers at the University of Michigan found that diverse groups can solve problems better than a more homogenous team of greater objective ability. Another study that simulated markets showed that ethnic diversity deflated asset bubbles.

While the studies noted above merely simulate diversity in a controlled setting there is also evidence from the real world that diversity produces better outcomes. A McKinsey report that covered 366 public companies in a variety of countries and industries found that those which were more ethnically and gender diverse performed significantly better than others.

The problem is that when you narrow the backgrounds, experiences and outlooks of the people on your team, you are limiting the number of solution spaces that can be explored. At best, you will come up with fewer ideas and at worst, you run the risk of creating an echo chamber where inherent biases are normalized and groupthink sets in.

How Women in Particular Improve Performance

While increasing diversity in general increases performance, there is also evidence that women specifically have a major impact. In fact, in one wide ranging study, in which researchers at MIT and Carnegie Mellon sought to identify a general intelligence score for teams, they not only found that teams that included women got better results, but that the higher the proportion of women was, the better the teams did.

At first, the finding seems peculiar, but when you dig deeper it begins to make more sense. The study also found that the high performing teams members rated well on a test of social sensitivity and took turns when speaking. Perhaps not surprisingly, women do better on these parameters than men do.

Social sensitivity tests ask respondents to infer someone’s emotion by looking at a picture (you can try one here) and women tend score higher than men. As for taking turns while in a conversation, there’s a reason why we call it “mansplaining” and not “womensplaining.” Women usually are better listeners.

The findings of the study are consistent with something I’ve noticed in my innovation research. The best innovators are nothing like the mercurial, aggressive stereotype, but tend to be quiet geniuses. Often they aren’t the types that are immediately impressive, but those who listen to others and generously share insights.

Changing The Social Dynamic

One of the reasons that women often get overlooked, besides good old fashioned sexism, is that that there are vast misconceptions about what makes someone a good innovator. All too often, we imagine the best innovators to be like Steve Jobs–brash, aggressive and domineering–when actually just the opposite is true.

Make no mistake, great innovators are great collaborators. That’s why the research finds that successful teams score high in social sensitivity, take turns talking and listening to each other rather, rather than competing to dominate the conversation. It is never any one idea that solves a difficult problem, but how ideas are combined to arrive at an optimal solution.

So while it is true that these skills are more common in women, men have the capacity to develop them as well. In fact, probably the best way for men to learn them is to have more exposure to women in the workplace. Being exposed to a more collaborative working style can only help.

So besides the moral and just aspects of getting more women into innovation related fields and giving them better access to good, high paying jobs, there is also a practical element as well. Women make teams more productive.

Building The Next Generation

Social researchers have found evidence that that the main reason that women are less likely to go into STEM fields has more to do with cultural biases than it does with any innate ability. For example, boys are more encouraged to build things during play and so develop spatial skills early on, while girls can build the same skills with the same training.

Cultural bias also plays a role in the amount of encouragement young students get. STEM subjects can be challenging, and studies have found that boys often receive more support than girls because of educators’ belief in their innate talent. That’s probably why even girls who have high aptitude for math and science are less likely to choose a STEM major than boys of even lesser ability.

Yet cultural biases can evolve over time and there are a number of programs designed to change attitudes about women and innovation. For example Girls Who Code provides training and encouragement for young women and UNESCO’s TeachHer initiative is designed to provide better educational opportunities.

Perhaps most of all, initiatives like these can create role models and peer support. When young women see people like the Jennifer Doudna, Jocelyn Bell Burnell and the star physicist Lisa Randall achieve great things in STEM fields, they’ll be more likely to choose a similar path. With more women innovating, we’ll all be better off.

Amazon's Negotiations With Virginia Included a New Name for the HQ's Area, But It's Confusing Everyone

Place names in Arlington County have never been a simple matter. A major fight broke out when National Airport was named for Ronald Reagan in 1998. A fight continues over whether to name a park next to the airport for Nancy Reagan. And in the 1920s, the Postal Service refused to establish a post office in Arlington because the street names were so confusing and haphazard.

Amazon announced Tuesday that it was coming to National Landing, a place people had not heard of because it doesn’t exist. Economic development officials who were wooing the online retailing giant came up with the name as a way to describe the multiple neighborhoods that were being offered as a site.

Those neighborhoods — Crystal City and Pentagon City in Arlington County, and Potomac Yard in the city of Alexandria — span multiple jurisdictions, so the name allowed Alexandria and Arlington to work cooperatively without marketing one locality over another.

Unfortunately, because the yearlong process of wooing Amazon had been so secretive, the moniker that had become so commonplace in the economic-development discussions had zero recognition among the general public. So Amazon’s use of the name in its big announcement left people scratching their heads.

Some people confused it with National Harbor, a new development in Maryland that has attracted one of the biggest casinos on the East Coast. Comedian Remy Munasifi, who made his name poking fun at Arlington in a YouTube rap that has been viewed more than 2 million times, suggested that Arlington National Cemetery would soon be renamed “Kindle Shores.”

Rep. Don Beyer, whose congressional district encompasses the neighborhoods, got in on the act when he suggested that the location of a new $1 billion graduate campus be dubbed “Hokie Landing.” The campus was a key incentive offered to Amazon by Virginia, which promised to double the number of students who graduate each year with bachelor’s and master’s degrees in computer science and related fields.

No official steps were ever taken to rename the region, and local officials have made clear they have no intention of trying to rename Crystal City or any other neighborhood.

In a tweet posted by Arlington Economic Development on Thursday, Arlington County Manager Mark Schwartz explained that National Landing was simply “a way to avoid saying, ‘Parts of Arlington, parts of Alexandria.’ “

Christina Winn, director of business investment for Arlington Economic Development, said officials never imagined “there would be so much conversation” about the concept. Winn said there’s no intention to supplant or override the name of Crystal City, which draws its name from a big chandelier in one of the first apartment buildings to go up in the area in the 1960s.

Still, she said, if Arlington and Alexandria team up on another economic-development pitch in the future, she said that the moniker might be revived.

“It worked once,” she said.

–The Associated Press

Amazon Announces a Security Change That May Help Companies Using AWS to Avoid Data Breaches

Amazon is finally offering a simple way for its cloud services customers to lock down data stored at its Simple Storage Service (S3) with one fell swoop. This change should help companies in the Fortune 500 and mom-and-pops down the street avoid embarrassing breaches of data.

Customers of Amazon Web Services (AWS) routinely leave private files available for public consumption. That’s led to routine, sometimes costly situations for companies that find hackers or security researchers have retrieved customer information, databases containing user passwords, or even proprietary company secrets.

That includes the global consulting and management firm Accenture, which in October 2017 left four of its S3 storage areas, known as “buckets,” open to public examination and download. Over 137 gigabytes of data could have been retrieved, including 40,000 unencrypted passwords. Accenture’s cloud platform, hosted on Amazon’s services, include 92 of the Fortune Global 100 and three-quarters of the Fortune Global 500. A security researcher discovered the public data and informed Accenture.

In August 2018, a researcher discovered that a company that sells surveillance software it markets for parents, Spyfone, left an Amazon S3 bucket publicly available, and intimate and personal data extracted from thousands of people its customers were monitoring were exposed, according to Motherboard. This included several terabytes of camera photos.

Last November, Amazon released a change that gave system administrators better notification about any storage buckets set to public access, using an orange label in its file-browsing dashboard.

The change released on Nov. 16, however, allows top-down control for an entire storage area, including disabling overrides for individual folders or files within it. This will prevent companies from leaving data open for global snooping—if they’re attentive enough to know about the new feature and enable it.

The number of security breaches due to customer settings at Amazon S3 has been so high that articles at tech sites devote themselves to listing them all.

Notable breaches include Uber, which exposed personal data of about 57 million customers in October 2016, and didn’t disclose the matter [until November 2017](Dara Khosrowshahi), after it had hired a new CEO; Deep Root Analytics, which exposed personal data on 198 million American voters; and the WWE wrestling entertainment firm, which exposed personal details of 3 million of its fans.

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