July 2, 2014

Is it any wonder that In-N-Out Burger scored well on the Consumer Reports survey?     Photo: Simon Willison/Flickr

The End of the Fast-Food Giants

Consumers crave quality over price

Fast-food juggernauts such as McDonald's and KFC might have taken over the world, but their days of domestic dominance may be numbered if they don't start offering healthier and more innovative menu items. That was the takeaway from Consumer Reports' latest fast-food survey, which came out today. 

Consumer Reports received feedback from readers who ate 92,208 meals at 65 chains and ranked the food on a scale of 1 to 10. Results were divided into culinary categories, like burgers, sandwiches, and Mexican food.

The results had many of the larger chains like McDonald's, Taco Bell, and Subway scoring near or at the bottom in their respective categories, while chains known to focus on quality ingredients, such as In-N-Out Burger and Chipotle, fared much better.

As Consumer Reports senior projects editor Tod Marks told Reuters, "More and more, food quality—not just low price—is emerging as a deciding factor for many Americans."

Food quality is also usurping convenience in what American consumers look for in fast food, as survey results also suggest that consumers are increasingly willing to go farther out of their way to get a more satisfying dining experience.

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Badwater in California's Death Valley is always this brutal, but as residents feel the burn of the state's third dry summer, wallets are emptying for any extra water.     Photo: Fikret Onal/Flickr

The Next Gold Rush? Water

Prices in California skyrocket

California continues to suffer through its third summer of drought, but the state's water market runs free—and people are willing to pay a pretty penny for the stuff. To put it in textbook-visualization terms, the price has climbed as high as $2,200 for an amount of water that would cover a football field in a foot-deep layer.

Anyone with water to spare is taking advantage of that. That mostly includes water districts and farmers, who are making millions of dollars from private water sales, predominantly to other farms. As California cities fine residents for excess water use or pay them for planting drought-resistant vegetation, the state has allowed the market to set the price for water.

Hence the four-digit price tag. According to the Associated Press, economists are saying that "it's been decades since the water market has been this hot." In fact, at a California Environmental Protection Agency meeting on Tuesday, staff members projected that this month's water demand in Sacramento and the San Joaquin River watershed would be five times greater than what's available. In some rural areas, the AP says, water auctions have become a spectacle; one water district got about 50 bids for extra water.

As other drought-prone states like Texas and Colorado follow suit, some water economists say they would like to see more regulations on these sales. The state maintains that buyers and sellers are capable of negotiating amongst themselves. "Now everyone's mad at me, saying I increased the price of water," Maurice Etchechury, manager of the Buena Vista Water Storage District, said at his district's publicly broadcast water auction in February. "I didn't do it, the weather did it."

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The people of Kiribati will be 1,200 miles away from this pristine home if relocation becomes necessary.     Photo: KevGuy4101/Flickr

How 110,000 Will Flee a Disappearing Island

Purchased eight square miles on the Fijian island of Vanua Levu

The island nation of Kiribati is sinking. The seawater surrounding the country is rising four times faster than the global average—as much as 1.2 centimeters a year, according to Climate Progress.

But Kiribati, located 1,250 miles south of Hawaii in the Pacific Ocean, is keeping its head above water. President Anote Tong just finalized the purchase of eight square miles on the Fijian island of Vanua Levu for relocation purposes. Currently, Kiribati's population of about 110,000 people is scattered over 33 islands, which total an inhabitable area of 313 square miles. "We would hope not to put everyone on [this] one piece of land, but if it became absolutely necessary, yes, we could do it," Tong told the Associated Press.

The Church of England sold the stretch of land, which consists mainly of dense forest, to Kiribati in May for $8.77 million. Other island nations, such as the Maldives, Tuvalu, and the Seychelles, are also seeking second homes in expectancy of submersion.

"Among the small islands, Kiribati is the country that has done most to anticipate its population's future needs," François Gemenne, a migration expert at Versailles-Saint Quentin University in France, told the Guardian. "The government has launched the 'migration with dignity' policy to allow people to apply for jobs on offer in neighboring countries such as New Zealand. The aim is to avoid one day having to cope with a humanitarian evacuation."

Any relocation would be better than ending up at the snake-infested "world's deadliest island" of Ilha de Queimada Grande, off the coast of Brazil.

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"Sit back, relax, and if you don't have a pleasant flight, we'll know."     Photo: Courtesy of Nick Morrish/British Airways

British Airways Can Read Your Mind

Introduces "Happiness Blankets" to monitor passengers' brainwaves

Most airlines seek out socially intuitive employees, but just in case, British Airways stewards have a new tool on board as of last week. To ensure that no patron is unnecessarily roused from slumber to choose between coffee and tomato juice, the airline introduced "happiness blankets," the textile equivalent of mood rings, into its cabins.

Patrons wear their emotions on their sleeves while draped in blankets that contain a network of fiber optics. The fibers receive information via Bluetooth from headsets embedded with neurosensors. As activity in a patron’s brainwaves increases and decreases, the fiber optics light up red and blue to indicate tension and relaxation, respectively.

British Airways hopes the blankets eventually will elicit crunchable data that helps its teams elevate every aspect of the experience. Right now, the airline is only concerned with monitoring whether you've had a pleasant flight and is not reacting to the data.

"Using technology like the happiness blanket is another way for us to investigate how our customers' relaxation and sleep is affected by everything on board, from the amount of light in the cabin, when they eat, and their position in the seat," British Airways managing director of brands and customer experience Frank van de Post said in a press release

British Airways has been concerned with sleep quality for a while; it was the first airline to introduce flat beds in business class. The blanket informants will only work insofar as passengers can be persuaded to wear them. Recognizing that they look like leftovers from a 1980's Sky Mall catalog, British Airways gave blankets to passengers on a London to New York City flight to prove they work. Here's what they (allegedly) found:

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