National News

Ballerina Misty Copeland counts herself lucky

Marketplace - American Public Media - Thu, 2016-06-30 11:20

Update: Misty Copeland was promoted Tuesday, June 30 to principal dancer for the American Ballet Theater. She's the first-ever African-American woman to hold that title.


Age starting dance: 13

Height: 5 feet 2 inches

Bust: "Bigger than most"

At least, that's how ballerina Misty Copeland describes her numbers-defying career in dance. A soloist with the American Ballet Theater in New York, Copeland recently explained how she doesn't really fit into the traditional model for ballet, but still made it work.

“All of those numbers, they just don’t add up to create a classical dancer,” she says. "No matter what, I'm going to be who I am."

Listen to the full conversation from our live show in New York City in the audio player above.

Tesla is disrupting more than just the car business

Marketplace - American Public Media - Sat, 2016-02-06 16:01

Tesla Motors is building the world's biggest battery factory just outside of Reno, Nevada. The company is calling it the “gigafactory,” and when it’s up and running in 2016 it’s expected to make Tesla’s electric cars much more affordable. 

“In a single factory we're doubling the worldwide capacity to manufacture lithium-ion batteries,” says J.B. Straubel, Tesla's chief technology officer. 

That's significant enough. But the company also plans to develop batteries for use with solar-power generation – giving Tesla a shot at challenging public utilities as an energy source, Straubel says.

“At the price points that we're expecting to achieve with the gigafactory ... we see a market that is well in excess of the production capability of the factory,” says Straubel.

The market for batteries is an offshoot of the booming business for solar panels, particularly in states such as California, where solar is becoming commonplace.

“We sign up approximately one new customer every minute of the workday," says Will Craven, director of public affairs at California-based SolarCity.

Much of the excess energy harnessed by solar panels is returned to the power grid, Cravens says. This means homeowners and businesses may earn a credit from their power companies, but have no say over when and how that energy is used.

The partnership with SolarCity will use rooftop solar panels fitted with Tesla’s battery packs to allow customers to keep that energy in-house. That means they can use it however, and whenever, they want. The concept puts Tesla in direct competition with utility companies.

“Stationary storage, or backup storage, is really being considered the ‘Holy Grail’ of renewable electricity generation,” says Ben Kallo, an analyst with the Robert W. Baird financial services firm.

Kallo points out that the intermittent nature of renewable energy sources makes them less reliable because the wind doesn’t always blow and the sun doesn’t always shine.  But with the ability to store that energy, renewable energy sources can compete head-to-head with utility companies for customers.

“There are still many utilities out there who kind of have their head stuck in the sand and just hope that this goes away. What we're seeing is really building momentum,” Kallo says.

Forward-minded utilities might look at Tesla’s business model as an opportunity, he says.  Energy-storage technology could be used to build capacity in their existing grids, and also build new infrastructure for battery-powered cars and homes.


A giant robot that shoots ... T-shirts?

If the whole idea of creating a new sports entertainment league that will rival the UFC, WWE and NASCAR for sheer dollars, excitement and danger doesn't work out, the MegaBots can always do parties. It turns out that a MegaBot is a really good T-shirt cannon.

MegaBots is a startup, based in Oakland, California, doing the kind of work a lot of kids hope to be doing someday, too: building a 15-foot tall, 15,000-pound fighting robot, and hoping it'll become the centerpiece of a new global entertainment business.

Matt Oehrlein, Gui Cavalcanti and Andrew Stroup, who was later replaced by Brinkley Warren, started the company as a Kickstarter campaign back in 2014. Their goal was to raise $1.8 million, but they managed just over $65,000 — a less than mega haul. That would seem to be the end of it, until earlier this summer when the MegaBots team issued a challenge to a Japanese company called Suidobashi Heavy Industries, which is making its own fighting machines. MegaBots called for a duel, the Japanese accepted, and the company is suddenly back in the spotlight. 

MegaBots raised some private funding and got a sponsorship from AutoDesk, and managed to build its roughly $200,000 prototype, which it has taken on the road to build interest and support.

Cavalcanti said the company will take a two-headed approach to building its brand: venture capital funding for the business of creating a fighting robot league, and a second Kickstarter that will hopefully pay for upgrades to the robot, both structural and decorative (think eagle heads on each shoulder, since the robot is now part of "Team America").

I tracked down the MegaBot at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California, where it had been summoned to entertain some august members of the tech community. The bot was baking in the summer heat of the museum's parking lot, and Cavalcanti and Warren said they'd recently learned that the MegaBot could perform a new trick: using its missile-launcher left arm to fire T-shirts into the air.

The MegaBot can certainly draw a crowd — people crowded around for selfies and questions. But skepticism abounded, too: one spectator in a Maker Faire T-shirt pointed out that the device couldn't rightfully be called a "robot," since it has to be piloted by humans. The MegaBot, in fact, requires two pilots: a driver and a gunner.

Warren declares that the presence of humans inside the fighting robots (or, uh, exoskeletons, if we're being specific) adds the crucial element of danger and excitement that will make a fighting league a big draw. It's like NASCAR or hockey, he says. These aren't purely mechanical, remote-controlled gadgets like BattleBots — there are people in there, and the blood lust, as it were, is real.

Critics charge that the MegaBot won't actually do what other high-profile robotics projects have done, which is to spur innovation and development that could further the field overall and lead to breakthroughs that could save lives, make work more efficient or even do a better job cleaning our houses. Instead, noted the Washington Post, MegaBots is merely violent fantasy, leading to a vision of robotics that bristles with guns and will only militarize robotic development.

After a few hours with the MegaBots crew, it's clear that their motives aren't particularly altruistic, and to expect otherwise would be like asking Vince McMahon whether his wrestling empire had led to training breakthroughs for Olympic athletes. It's just not the point.

And after my own brief ride in the gunner's seat, and the opportunity to rapid-fire about 80 T-shirts across a parking lot into the foliage above a group of excited children, I admit that if and when the MegaBots duel actually occurs (the team is hoping for summer of 2016), I'd probably watch it. Sometimes, robots are just fun.

The minimum wage debate

Next weekend on Marketplace, guest host David Lazarus will take a look at the debate behind the minimum wage across the U.S. Does the minimum wage force companies to layoff low-paid employees? Or is a living wage fair to employees?

Have you ever lived on the minimum wage in your area? We want to hear your stories. Send us an email or reach us on Twitter, @MarketplaceWKND

Zimbabwe Official Calls For Extradition Of American Lion Hunter Walter Palmer

NPR News - 3 hours 39 min ago

Minister of Environment, Water and Climate Oppah Muchinguri wants Palmer to face justice in Zimbabwe, wire services report. U.S. authorities are investigating whether any American laws were broken.

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Decades Of Limbo Ends For Some Indians, Bangladeshis Along Border

NPR News - 3 hours 41 min ago

The fate of pockets of Bangladeshis and Indians living on opposite sides of the border was left unresolved after the partition of the former British colony in 1947. A new agreement has changed that.

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Juvenile Justice System Failing Native Americans, Studies Show

NPR News - 3 hours 45 min ago

One report shows that state courts are twice as likely to incarcerate Native teens for minor crimes like truancy and alcohol use. Another, that alternatives like treatment programs are more effective.

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Ebola Vaccine Hailed As 'Game Changer' In Fight Against The Virus

NPR News - 3 hours 50 min ago

In a small trial, an experimental vaccine protected 100 percent of people at high risk for Ebola. But more data are needed to figure out exactly how well the vaccine works.

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Hillary Clinton To Release 8 Years Of Tax Returns

NPR News - 4 hours 3 min ago

The returns will show that she and her husband Bill Clinton paid nearly $44 million in federal taxes since 2007, according to her campaign. "We've come a long way," she said.

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Employee compensation growth stalls out

The Labor Department reports that employee compensation — wages, salaries and benefits — increased 0.2 percent in the second quarter of 2015. The employment cost index increased 0.7 percent in the first quarter, and economists expected about the same pace of growth for the second quarter. The annual rate of compensation inflation was 2 percent in the second quarter, compared to 2.6 percent for the first quarter. Compensation for private-sector employees was unchanged in the quarter; compensation for government workers rose 0.6 percent.

A separate measure of employment income from the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ monthly employment situation report has shown hourly earnings increasing at 2 percent (the annual rate for June 2015), the same anemic growth rate as reported in the second quarter employment cost index.

These labor-cost measures inform an ongoing debate as to whether the job market has largely returned to health after the Great Recession or if it is still weak, leaving behind millions of people who want to work or earn a better income.

Economist Ozlem Yaylaci at IHS Global Insight says the weak second quarter ECI report contradicts evidence of an employment market that has mostly returned to health.

“It’s a big shock,” says Yaylaci, “because we see employment numbers very solid month to month, and the unemployment rate has been declining. We are now close to full employment.” The unemployment rate fell to 5.3 percent in June.

Labor economist Jesse Rothstein at University of California, Berkeley says in such a positive labor-market scenario, it would be easier for people to find jobs and harder for employers to attract and hire qualified workers. He says employers could be expected to lower their requirements for job applicants and to offer new hires more training, rather than expecting them to have job-specific skills and capabilities when they apply.

“We’d also be looking for evidence that wages are increasing as employers need to pay more to attract workers to jobs,” Rothstein says. “We’re not seeing evidence of any of these, which suggests that we really are still in a situation with a lot of slack in the labor market.”

Rothstein believes there is a shadow labor pool that isn’t showing up in the standard unemployment data but is strengthening employers' bargaining power and helping them maintain lower wages without suffering labor shortages. This shadow labor pool includes people who have dropped out of the labor force or never entered because of poor job prospects, but who might start job hunting if their prospects improved. Labor market slack is also fed by people working part time who can’t find full-time work, and people working in jobs below their training, education or experience level.

Yaylaci says this economic scenario worries Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen as she steers the Fed toward higher interest rates.

“She’s concerned because measures of the labor market, such as the unemployment rate, sometimes don’t measure the slack in the labor market correctly,” Yaylaci says. If that diagnosis is correct, the economy might not be strong enough yet to take the medicine of lower interest rates.

Weekly Wrap: Interest rates, Janet Yellen and profits

Joining us to talk about the week's business and economic news are Linette Lopez of Business Insider and Fusion's Felix Salmon. The big topics this week: the possibility of an interest rate hike this year, Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen's dependence on data and corporate profits in the tech world. 



The Plan To Give Pell Grants To Prisoners

NPR News - 4 hours 46 min ago

The Obama administration unveiled a pilot program Friday morning that will once again allow some prisoners access to federal Pell grants.

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Beijing to host the 2022 Winter Olympics

Beijing will host the 2022 Winter Olympics. The city beat out Almaty, Kazakhstan, which was the only other bid. This will make Beijing the first city in over a century to host the summer and winter Olympics.

These games come at a very different time in China’s economic life than the 2008 games. “China was a very different country in 2001," says Rob Schmitz, Marketplace China correspondent. "Things were looking up. The economy was going crazy. It was going almost at double digit speed,” he says. “In the years leading up to 2008, we had 10 to 14 percent GDP growth. That’s not the case anymore. We’ve got 5 to 7 percent GDP growth and things are slowing down.”

The games will happen seven years from now, and China will have to build the infrastructure to support the Olympics. "China's trying to change the way that its economy is run. They're trying to turn from an infrastructure-led economy to a consumer-growth-led economy. And here we have a huge, huge infrastructure project," Schmitz says. "This is the old model of growth. This is not the direction that China wants to go with its economy on paper at least." 

Pollution was a big issue for the Summer Olympics and will affect the Winter Olympics as well. “Beijing has made some significant efforts, some significant movement, on the pollution issue," Schmitz says. "Realistically, there’s going to be a lot of pollution for years to come. What we’ll probably see is a repeat of the 2008 Olympics, where they flipped the switch and basically had all these restrictions on factories, and when it’s done, start it all over.” 

U.K. Officials Instructed To Grant Ai Weiwei's Original U.K. Visa Request

NPR News - 5 hours 33 min ago

The Home Office has apologized for denying the prominent Chinese dissident a six-month visa. He got only 20 days, because staff counted secret imprisonment as a criminal conviction.

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Pesticide Drift Threatens Organic Farms

NPR News - 5 hours 43 min ago

Conventional farmers use millions of pounds of pesticides each year to protect crops from weeds and insects. When those chemicals drift to neighboring property, they can ruin crops on organic farms.

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Judge Says Virginia Can Refuse To Issue Confederate License Plates

NPR News - 5 hours 46 min ago

Citing a June U.S. Supreme Court ruling, the federal judge effectively vacated a 14-year-old state injunction that prohibited officials from refusing to issue such plates.

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Alan Cheuse, Novelist And Longtime NPR Contributor, Dies At 75

NPR News - 6 hours 36 sec ago

The author and critic died Friday of injuries sustained in a car accident. For years, he was the voice of NPR's literature commentary — and, for many, the "guide to a very exciting world."

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Hillary Clinton's Doctor Says She's Healthy Enough To Be President

NPR News - 6 hours 15 min ago

Clinton's doctor says she's eating healthily, drinking occasionally, swimming, lifting weights and, yes, doing yoga.

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The state of the market for consumer robots

The personal helper bot is the holy grail of our robot fantasies. What's the state of the market for consumer robots, whether they're humanoid or social? Senior tech correspondent Molly Wood spoke to Dan Kara, who studies robotics at the tech market intelligence firm ABI Research. Plus, hear what people in downtown L.A. would want their personal robots to do for them and what they would pay for it. Kara weighs in on just how realistic our fantasies are.

Listen to Molly Wood's interview in the audio player above.

Life as a busker bot in Hollywood

You'll usually find Daniel Moss on Hollywood Boulevard. He's the robot performer who calls himself the Gold Man, a job he's been doing on the streets of Los Angeles for 33 years. He has a treasure box where people tip him in cash as they walk by. At the end of the day, his earnings can range from zero to a thousand dollars. Why be a robot? Moss explains that in his experience, both children and adults like robots because they like toys. 

Listen to Daniel Moss's full story on the audio player above