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Lego plans video games, social network for Chinese children

The Free Press WV

Toy maker Lego is partnering with China’s internet firm Tencent to offer games, video and possibly a social network aimed at children.

The privately-owned company based in Copenhagen, Denmark, said Monday that the deal would combine Lego’s ability to create content with Tencent’s distribution reach.

“We’ve seen more and more Chinese children engage with the world digitally, and the partnership will bring them safe and imaginative Lego content,” said Jacob Kragh, general manager of Lego China.

Shenzhen-based Tencent is one of China’s most powerful internet companies, running the WeChat messaging app as well as online payment platforms and games. Because Chinese authorities have largely shut out Western companies like Google and Facebook, homegrown internet companies like Tencent have been able to grow rapidly in size.

For Lego, the move is part of a reorganization of its business that it began last year, when it announced it was shedding 1,400 jobs, or 8 percent of its workforce.

Lego has for years moved beyond the traditional plastic bricks it is known for, backing films and digital products.

But its sales hit a peak last year and the company is looking for new ways to reach children in more countries.

China has been one of the bright spots for Lego recently, with annual sales up by double digits, and the partnership with Tencent will seek to reinforce its presence in one of the world’s biggest and fastest-growing markets.

What Facebook’s shift could mean to users, businesses

The Free Press WV

In coming days, Facebook users will see fewer posts from publishers, businesses and celebs they follow. Instead, Facebook wants people to see more stuff from friends, family and other people they are likely to have “meaningful” conversations with — something the company laments has been lost in the sea of videos, news stories (real and fake), and viral quizzes on which “Big Bang Theory” character you are.

Here are some frequently asked questions about what users and businesses might expect from the changes.

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WHY IS FACEBOOK DOING THIS?

CEO Mark Zuckerberg has been doing a bit of soul-searching about the negative effects his company may be having on society and its users’ psyches. He’s come a long way since November 2016, when he dismissed the notion that fake news on Facebook could have influenced the U.S. presidential election as a “pretty crazy idea .”

Now it’s his personal goal for 2018 to fix the site and weed out hate, abuse, meddling by malicious nation states, while also making it more “meaningful” and less depressing for users.

While he acknowledges that Facebook may never be completely free of malign influences, Zuckerberg says that the company currently makes “too many errors enforcing our policies and preventing the misuse of our tools.”

The company also faces pressure from regulators in the U.S. and abroad, and a growing backlash from academics, lawmakers and even early executives and investors about the ways in which social media may be leaving us depressed, isolated, bombarded by online trolls and addicted to our phones.

Facebook would much rather make changes on its own than have its hand forced by regulators — or to see disillusioned users move on to other, newer platforms.

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HOW WILL IT AFFECT THE COMPANY’S BUSINESS?

Facebook’s stock price dropped almost 6 percent on Friday morning before regaining some ground. That suggests investors take Facebook seriously when it says the move will likely make users spend less time on its service. Less time, of course, means fewer advertising eyeballs at any given time.

This is a huge shift for Facebook, which until recently has been laser-focused on keeping users glued to the service by offering a bevy of notifications and “engaging” but low-value material.

Facebook has been doing very well financially. Its stock hit an all-time high earlier this month, and the company’s market value is more than $522 billion. Its quarterly results routinely surpass Wall Street’s expectations.

So arguably the company can afford to shift its focus a bit away from quarterly profit gains and metrics like “user engagement” that get advertisers salivating. Zuckerberg already signaled this would happen late last year, when he said the company’s planned investments in preventing abuse would hurt profitability.

While the changes could hurt Facebook’s business in the short term, happier users could make for better profits over the long term. At least, that’s what the company hopes.

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IS THIS THE END FOR BRANDS AND PUBLISHERS ON FACEBOOK?

Many news organizations, bloggers and businesses have grown reliant on Facebook to spread information — articles, videos, infomercials — to their followers without paying for ads. The changes could jeopardize that route to their audiences, though some speculate it could be a ploy to force these companies to buy more Facebook ads.

“It’s obvious that the days of getting exposure as a business on Facebook are coming to an end,” said Michael Stelzner, the CEO of social media marketing company Social Media Examiner. While Facebook has made plenty of changes to its news feed algorithm in the past, he said, this time might be different.

That’s because Facebook is being “far more explicit” in its wording about what sorts of posts will diminish. “It has never been this black and white,” Stelzner said.

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WON’T THIS JUST REINFORCE THE “FILTER BUBBLES” THAT TRAP USERS AMONG THE LIKE-MINDED?

Do you enjoy arguing with people you disagree with? Maybe, maybe not. But Facebook’s goal is to make people happier using the site — not to expose them to opposing views. So yes, this is possible.

That said, company says this is how people make friends and interact with each other offline. We gravitate toward people like us. And Facebook says its own research shows that users are exposed to more divergent views on its platform than they would be otherwise. Of course, this is difficult to verify independently, since the company doesn’t often show that data to outsiders.

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ARE PEOPLE REALLY GOING TO SPEND LESS TIME ON FACEBOOK?

Admitting that its changes will likely reduce the time people spend on Facebook less was a big deal for the company. Video, especially, has been a big focus for the social media giant — and videos have been especially good at keeping users around. This latest move, however, will de-emphasize videos too.

While it’s too early to tell what users will do, there’s little reason not to trust Facebook on this particular question.

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WILL THE CHANGES MAKE PEOPLE HAPPIER OR SADDER?

The jury is still out on how seeing mostly exuberant posts from friends and family affects people over time.

Facebook obviously believes most of its users enjoy keeping up with what’s happening in their social circles, even if the material being shared mostly revolves around parties, vacations and other fun times while omitting life’s inevitable challenges and tedium. Sharing these moments together, Facebook reasons, deepens the connections between people, even if they can’t always be together offline.

But some research and anecdotal evidence suggests that Facebook can make people feel isolated, inadequate or alienated as they experience a phenomenon known as “fear of missing out,” or FOMO. Teenagers are particularly prone to “Facebook depression” as they try to measure up to and fit in with their peers, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics .

But other researchers believe how people react to Facebook depends on their personality. If you’re prone to anxiety, insecurity or already unhappy with your life, then seeing other people having fun could deepen your feelings of missing out or being left out. If you’re confident and content with your life, then seeing a friend or family member with a smile on their face could make you happy too.

A recent article in Perspectives on Psychological Science concluded that already lonely people who use Facebook and other social media as a substitute for real-life relationships tend to end up feeling more isolated. But when Facebook is used to deepen friendships that have already been struck and to forge new relationships, the social network helps people feel less alone.

Why the GOP tax cuts are boosting stocks and who gains most

The Free Press WV

Donald Trump and Republican lawmakers late last year rushed $1.5 trillion in tax cuts into law — the most sweeping rewrite of the tax code since 1986.

Republicans assert that the plan will deliver stronger economic growth and substantial pay raises for the middle class. Democrats and most economists counter that the measure will overwhelmingly favor corporations and wealthy individuals and swell the budget deficit.

Lily Batchelder, formerly an economic adviser in the Obama White House and chief tax counsel for the Senate Finance Committee, is a law professor at New York University specializing in tax policy. In an interview, she explained to The Associated Press why she believes stocks are surging in response to the tax cuts and just how the middle class, whose spending drives the economy, will fare.

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Q: Who are the biggest winners from these tax cuts?

A: The wealthy. That’s partially because their income taxes get cut and partially because they tend to be the people who own companies, so they benefit from lower corporate rates.

Q: Is it reasonable to expect that these tax cuts will help the stock market?

A: It’s probably already helped them. The stock market appears to have anticipated these changes, and shares have risen. The increases are one way the wealthy will be better off. Another way is, going forward, corporations should be more profitable, and that should benefit the wealthy in the form of more dividends and capital gains.

Q: How would everyday Americans do?

A: On average, they would get a very small tax cut in the near term and a tax increase in the long term. In the short term, the family earning $40,000 to $50,000 gets a tax cut. But as a share of their income, it’s about one-third the size of the average millionaire’s tax cut. But after 2025, all of the tax cuts for individuals have expired, and their taxes will increase.

Q: Some lawmakers have said the individual tax cuts will be renewed instead of expiring.

A: If they’re renewed, the middle class will continue to get a small tax cut. But the tax cut would shrink over time because a less generous measure of inflation would now be used for adjusting the tax brackets. Also, the deficit would be much higher than the $1.8 trillion in new borrowing and interest costs that are currently projected.

Q: Do you see these tax cuts as a recipe for lasting economic growth?

A: I think the way the economy grows is by investing in families, investing in the middle class and the next generation. This law does very little of that. Lower corporate taxes should have a modest impact on growth in the short term but over the long term are likely to have no impact or a negative impact because of the higher deficits.

How to leverage great credit without borrowing a dime

The Free Press WV

As average credit scores for Americans continue to rise, the question for many becomes how to use their excellent credit rating to optimize their lives without borrowing money or adding risk.

Capitalizing on great credit doesn’t have to mean incurring great debt; instead, it’s about using your money reputation for a financial advantage.

“In the right hands, a good credit rating can be a real asset,” said Jordan Goodman, editor of MoneyAnswers.com and author of “Master Your Debt.”

From higher credit card bonuses and rewards to lower insurance premiums and interest rates, hundreds or even thousands of dollars worth of goodies are available to those with great credit. And they don’t need to borrow a dime.

USE YOUR LEVERAGE

Nearly 40 percent of Americans have excellent FICO credit scores of 750 and above, according to credit scoring company Fair Isaac Corp . Half of those have scores of 800 or higher, considered “super-prime.” They get the best lending terms and lots of special treatment.

Leveraging credit to access these benefits works best for people with responsible financial habits, like paying bills on time, every time, and paying monthly credit card balances in full.

“You want to make sure you have discipline,” said Roger Wohlner, a personal finance writer and financial planner in Arlington Heights, Illinois. “This is for someone who has all the basics covered.”

If that’s you, here are ways to use a great credit rating:

— Shop your insurances: It’s a good idea to regularly shop for better insurance rates; you can often find identical auto and home coverage for less. When you have great credit, you’ll get even better rates .

— Snag credit card bonuses: The market for rewards credit cards is sizzling, with generous sign-up bonuses and rewards for consumers who can qualify. With a travel credit card, for example, you might be able to use points or miles to pay for a trip if you can meet the card’s minimum spending requirement. It’s not about “churning” cards, or opening accounts to get bonuses and then closing them. It’s about not hesitating to apply for a lucrative card that meets your needs. If the card has an annual fee, make sure you extract more value than you pay.

“If you are fiscally responsible and enjoy playing the game to earn these sign-up bonuses, then you do have a real opportunity to win at the expense of credit card companies,” said Byrke Sestok, president of Rightirement Wealth Partners in White Plains, New York.

— Get a HELOC for emergencies: Homeowners can supplement an emergency fund for free by opening a home equity line of credit. The point isn’t to borrow more money with the credit line on your house — instead, leave it unused — but to have it available in case financial tragedy hits. “Everyone who can control their spending should have a HELOC that they can tap in case of an emergency,” said John Eckel, a certified financial planner and financial analyst in Simsbury, Connecticut.

— Lower your interest rates: High credit scores should mean low interest rates. Make sure you’re paying rock-bottom rates for loans, especially big-ticket items like your mortgage and auto loans. If not, you can refinance.

— Get no-interest deals: Paying in full is a solid habit. But if a car dealership is willing to lend you money at 0 percent because of your great credit, you can take the loan and make monthly payments, while banking the money you were planning to use to pay outright — preferably in an interest-earning account.

— Apply for retailer credit cards: Signing up for a credit card at the checkout counter has risks if you don’t pay in full because interest rates are usually high. But if you’re diligent about paying bills, why not apply for a card to get 15 percent off a $2,000 furniture purchase? It’s an easy $300. Diligence is key. “Merchants are very good at offering carrots, but you slip up for one microsecond and they bang you over the head,” Goodman said.

Exploiting your great credit rating in these ways can actually improve it over the long run, assuming you continue to pay bills on time, because credit scoring formulas reward responsible use of credit. Just space out applications so the small dip in your scores can disappear before the next, and be wary of diluting your average age of accounts.

Even if you take none of these actions now, you can rest easier knowing you’ll have plenty of options when a financial crisis hits.

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