National News

Using the internet to influence lawmakers

Marketplace - American Public Media - Tue, 2014-02-11 03:11

Today a list of over 5,000 online companies and organizations want to help, and hurt, two separate legislation moving through capital hill. The bills deals with the NSA and Surveillance. Tumblr, Mozilla, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation are all calling their efforts "The Day We Fight Back."

The website Reddit is also involved. Erik Martin, Reddit's General Manager, describes the pieces of legislation:

"One is called the U.S.A. Freedom Act, that's a bipartisan bill that would curtail some of the NSA's surveillance activities and abuses. The other bill, sort of a competing bill, attempts to legalize and codify the bulk collection of data and phone records, and that's the FISA Improvement Act. So 'The Day We Fight Back' is really getting people to show their support for the U.S.A. Freedom Act and show their disapproval of the FISA Improvement Act."

Martin admits that Reddit is entering a new and tricky area when it decides to push for certain laws over others. But he hopes that posts on Reddit's front page, which gets 19 million views every day, will inspire more dialogue about surveillance.

And maybe some real world action, like people calling their Congressional representatives. Two years ago internet companies helped kill the so-called SOPA and PIPA acts this way. Many felt those bills went too far in protecting intellectual property. The challenge here, Martin says, is getting people to pick up the phone again for an issue as murky as surveillance.

See Martin's call to action to Reddit users here.

Silicon Galley? Seeking innovation off-shore

Marketplace - American Public Media - Tue, 2014-02-11 01:47

Could Silicon Valley become more of an island? An island is both an outpost with its own rules that's also a bit cut off from the wider society -- a combination of characteristics which emerged during a series of conversations on whether an island of innovation would end up a richer or poorer place if left to its own devices. 

I invited Dario Mutabdjiza, CEO of a start-up called Blueseed, to explain his out-to-sea vision at a Half Moon Bay California pier that may end up launching a thousand entreprenuerial ships. If he can raise enough money, Mutabdjiza would like to put a collection of floating dorms and offices just past the limit of current US immigration law, about 12 miles out to sea. The "venture capital row" near Stanford is about 30 minutes away from this wharf.

“The most realistic possibility would be [to use] a cruise ship, a used cruised ship,” Mutabdjiza says. The cost to maintain the floating real estate might even be competitive with the Bay Area's high-priced commercial rental space.

“They're beautiful, they have rooms, they have theaters, they have restaurants.  Any cruise ship would be good enough to begin with. We wouldn't have to do much retrofitting.”

 

Sailing Through Immigration Laws 

Many entrepreneurs and-or engineers have bright ideas they'd like to develop in the United States, but it's a difficult process getting them a full-time work visa to pursue that dream, Mutabdjiza says, who sees a more flexible business multiple entry visa as an easier get: “What you cannot do on those [traditional full-time work] visas, and that's where Blueseed comes in, you cannot legally work in the United States. So the work on their startup would happen [with a business multiple entry visa] on a ship. The coding and the business development, and the networking activities would happen in Silicon Valley.”  He concedes the work visa concerns could be better solved if the U.S. Congress changed immigration laws. 

If this seems familiar--a floating solution to a policy problem--you may remember how the overseers of British broadcasting denied the public consistent rock n' roll until pirate radio stations went on the air from ships at sea. 

 

Maritime Urban Planning 

Another Northern California-based outfit even has a grander vision: Entire floating cities in an attempt to solve what's seen as a broken government that stands in the way of innovation.

“The end goal is to see a thousand floating cities each competing for citizens,” says Randolph Hencken, executive director of the Seasteading Institute, which wants to break what supporters see as a government monopoly… on government.

“It's strange to think of governance as a technology, but a technology is something we use to get things done.  Most technologies advance through innovation and competition in the marketplace,” he says. “Right now just a few big firms have that monopoly on government.  IF we can open up the blue frontier to humanity, each competing for citizens, we'll see great advances in government.”

Floating cities could be part of a liberatian-flavored utopian community -- think Hershey, Pennsylvania or the community in Texas tried by cereal tycoon C.W. Post.  When the Seasteading Institute put up a survey, more than a thousand people said they want in.

“I think that people who are called to the seasteading want to do good for the world,” Hencken says.

 

Pirate Bay (IRL)

Might a community beyond the reach of many existing laws attract pirates? “I think that while there have to be rules, there has to be safety out there,” Hencken replies. “The ocean is a harsh environment, it's not a place that will invite people to do bad things.”

The first goal would be to start small with a ship docked in the protected harbor of a friendly country, which isn't likely to be California or the U.S. any time soon. 

Financially, Mutabdjiza rejects any accusation that Blueseed’s vessels will be used as offshore tax dodge, saying a typical venture capitalist looking to invest would insist that that a start-up incorporate-and therefore pay taxes-in actual U.S. jurisdiction.

 

Tomorrow, our Silicon Island conversations continue with one of the Valley's most influential venture capitalists, Tim Draper.  He wants Silicon Valley to be its own state and is pushing a ballot initiative to make it so. 

Should the post office sell personal loans?

Marketplace - American Public Media - Tue, 2014-02-11 01:23

Imagine you've just walked into a U.S Postal Service branch office in 2016.

Mail that package -- check.

Buy stamps – check.

Apply for a loan --- uh, check?

The Service’s independent Inspector General wants post offices to provide basic financial services, both to help low-income people who are underserved by banks and to shore up its own ailing balance sheet. If you want to meet unbanked and underbanked people, go stand outside ACE Cash Express in Arlington, Virginia. Stevenn Foster just paid off a $500 payday loan, "and interest was $136,” he says, referring to the fees. That gives his short term loan an effective APR of several hundred percent.

“If that’s what they say I have to pay, I pay, I don’t have no problem with that,” Foster says. “I mean, they been good to me.

He can’t get a loan from his regular bank. In fact, most people here say they’re grateful to have somewhere to cash checks and pay bills.

But just a block away, there’s a post office.

David Williams is Inspector General of the U.S. Postal Service and if he gets his way, that post office would offer some of the same services as ACE Cash Express, for less. He says that would be a huge draw for the 68 million people who are underserved by banks.

“People that are currently in a pretty desperate situation,” he says. “They live in economic deserts today, they don’t have access to anyone other than these enterprises that charge 300% plus (for a loan).”

Post offices already provide money orders. Williams thinks they should expand to provide pre-paid debit-type cards (people could load cash or paychecks onto the card), savings products, and even simple loans.

He says collecting a fraction of the money now spent on interest and fees for payday lenders and other banking alternatives would bring in nine billion dollars a year. That’s the payoff for the Postal Service, which has lost about 25 billion dollars since 2011, due in part to a Congressional requirement that the Postal Service pre-fund retiree health benefits.

So, does additional revenue + helping the underbanked = win-win?

Lauren Saunders is managing attorney with the National Consumer Law Center. She likes the creative approach to reaching people underserved by traditional banking. But, “getting into loans, I think, is a little more of a tricky area,” she says.

The idea is that borrowers at post offices  would arrange to have loan payments automatically withheld from their paychecks. That would lower risk and interest rates.

“A lender may feel confident they’re gonna collect on your loan if they get to take part of your paycheck before you get it,” Saunders says. “But that doesn’t mean you can afford it, and that you can make it through the month, and pay for the necessities and expenses that you have, without getting yourself into a cycle of debt.”

Even with better terms, many low-income people just can’t afford more debt.

Still, the Inspector General’s postal banking idea is gaining steam with Congressional Democrats. The Postal Service itself says it’s evaluating the recommendations.

Should the U.S. Postal Service get into financial services?

Marketplace - American Public Media - Tue, 2014-02-11 01:23

Imagine you've just walked into a U.S Postal Service branch office in 2016.

Mail that package -- check.

Buy stamps – check.

Apply for a loan --- uh, check?

The Service’s independent Inspector General wants post offices to provide basic financial services, both to help low-income people who are underserved by banks and to shore up its own ailing balance sheet. If you want to meet unbanked and underbanked people, go stand outside ACE Cash Express in Arlington, Virginia. Stevenn Foster just paid off a $500 payday loan, "and interest was $136,” he says, referring to the fees. That gives his short term loan an effective APR of several hundred percent.

“If that’s what they say I have to pay, I pay, I don’t have no problem with that,” Foster says. “I mean, they been good to me.

He can’t get a loan from his regular bank. In fact, most people here say they’re grateful to have somewhere to cash checks and pay bills.

But just a block away, there’s a post office.

David Williams is Inspector General of the U.S. Postal Service and if he gets his way, that post office would offer some of the same services as ACE Cash Express, for less. He says that would be a huge draw for the 68 million people who are underserved by banks.

“People that are currently in a pretty desperate situation,” he says. “They live in economic deserts today, they don’t have access to anyone other than these enterprises that charge 300% plus (for a loan).”

Post offices already provide money orders. Williams thinks they should expand to provide pre-paid debit-type cards (people could load cash or paychecks onto the card), savings products, and even simple loans.

He says collecting a fraction of the money now spent on interest and fees for payday lenders and other banking alternatives would bring in nine billion dollars a year. That’s the payoff for the Postal Service, which has lost about 25 billion dollars since 2011, due in part to a Congressional requirement that the Postal Service pre-fund retiree health benefits.

So, does additional revenue + helping the underbanked = win-win?

Lauren Saunders is managing attorney with the National Consumer Law Center. She likes the creative approach to reaching people underserved by traditional banking. But, “getting into loans, I think, is a little more of a tricky area,” she says.

The idea is that borrowers at post offices  would arrange to have loan payments automatically withheld from their paychecks. That would lower risk and interest rates.

“A lender may feel confident they’re gonna collect on your loan if they get to take part of your paycheck before you get it,” Saunders says. “But that doesn’t mean you can afford it, and that you can make it through the month, and pay for the necessities and expenses that you have, without getting yourself into a cycle of debt.”

Even with better terms, many low-income people just can’t afford more debt.

Still, the Inspector General’s postal banking idea is gaining steam with Congressional Democrats. The Postal Service itself says it’s evaluating the recommendations.

U.S. And Canadian Women's Hockey Brings Plenty Of Heat To The Ice

NPR News - Tue, 2014-02-11 00:44

The two teams will meet Wednesday in an early round game, but they have an intense rivalry that has often turned to heated clashes on the ice. The players are neither embarrassed nor proud of the fighting, but, yes, it could happen again.

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With An Air Bag, Help During An Avalanche Is A Cord-Yank Away

NPR News - Tue, 2014-02-11 00:31

Air bags stored in backpacks are saving the lives of backcountry skiers, snowboarders and snowmobilers. They look something like car air bags, but they work on an entirely different principle. These keep you safe simply by turning you into a larger object, and that helps you rise to the top of debris.

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With An Air Bag, Help During An Avalanche Is A Cord-Yank Away

NPR News - Tue, 2014-02-11 00:31

Air bags stored in backpacks are saving the lives of backcountry skiers, snowboarders and snowmobilers. They look something like car airbags, but they work on an entirely different principle. These keep you safe simply by turning you into a larger object, and that helps you rise to the top of debris.

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Tesla's 'fair price' China strategy - will it work?

Marketplace - American Public Media - Tue, 2014-02-11 00:25

There’s a reason the big automakers charge as much as they possibly can in China for their top end models: China’s rich are always willing to spend more.

"From the point of view of having something everybody knows is expensive, as a means to show you’ve made it," says Michael Laske, CEO of the vehicle testing company AVL China, "I think people are more inclined to want to spend higher prices."

But Tesla announced the price of its Model S electric car in China will only be 50 percent higher than its U.S. price.  That's a far cry from typical pricing behavior by foreign automakers in China, which are known for marking up the price of their high-end vehicles by up to 200 percent.

Tesla says the 50 percent markeup is necessary to account for unavoidable taxes and shipping costs.

"It's kind of a good marketing tool," says Jack Perkowski, founder of JFP holdings. "But they need that because they have some other shortcomings they have to overcome."

Like trying to sell electric vehicles in a market where ‘environmentally conscious’ is largely regarded as a foreign spending habit.

But forget Chinese consumers, says AVL’s Michael Laske. China’s government is the one at the controls of the economy, and it wants more electric vehicles on China's expanding network of expressways.

"I think the Chinese government strategy is to try be a market leader in the electrification area," says Laske, "So any company that comes in and supports this approach I think will be welcomed."

Laske says Chinese automakers are five years behind their foreign counterparts in internal combustion engine technology, and the government would prefer to leapfrog over gas guzzler,s and focus their energies on developing innovative electric vehicles - a smart choice, given China's big supply of rare earth metals like lithium, which is used to make batteries for electric cars.

Tesla plans to open operations in a dozen Chinese cities, and expects to achieve a third of its overall growth from China by the end of this year.  It's an ambitious goal for a newcomer, but one that Laske thinks is reachable. After all, Tesla only sold around twenty thousand cars last year, and China now has more than a million millionaires – many of them looking for the newest flashy sports car.

California Given 2 More Years To Reduce Prison Numbers

NPR News - Mon, 2014-02-10 22:23

Federal judges on Monday gave California two more years to meet a court-ordered prison population cap. It's the latest step in a long-running lawsuit aimed at improving inmate medical care.

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Report Links Sprinter Tyson Gay's Doping To Anti-Aging Cream

NPR News - Mon, 2014-02-10 18:45

Tyson Gay, the American track star whose comeback was derailed by failed drug tests in 2013, is believed to have used a cream containing banned substances he obtained from an Atlanta anti-aging specialist, according to ProPublica and Sports Illustrated.

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Another day, another delay for the Affordable Care Act

Marketplace - American Public Media - Mon, 2014-02-10 17:06

Another day, another delay for the Affordable Care Act.

The White House announced today that it's going to give medium size companies -- places that have between 50 and 99 workers -- an extra year before they have to offer health insurance to full-time workers. 

Bigger companies -- with 100 or more people -- also got a break on how quickly they need to provide coverage for their workers.

Basically: Just about everyone gets a little longer to figure this all out.

The Norwegian Athlete Who's One Medal Away From History

NPR News - Mon, 2014-02-10 16:19

Ole Einar Bjoerndalen is a biathlete competing for a record 13th medal — which would make him the most decorated athlete ever at the Winter Games. No one has ever been so good for so long in his sport. "He's 40 years old, and he's motivated like an 18-year-old," says one expert.

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GM Says New CEO Will Earn 60 Percent More Than Male Predecessor

NPR News - Mon, 2014-02-10 15:55

Based on erroneous figures, the automaker was criticized for paying Mary Barra too little. To correct the record, GM took the unusual step of releasing full details of their new CEO's pay package.

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Time-Delay Question: When Do Announcers Tape?

NPR News - Mon, 2014-02-10 15:33

The Winter Olympics brings up many questions about the sports themselves. But people are also wondering whether TV announcers use the U.S.-Sochi time gap to improve their coverage.

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Slopestyle Skier Devin Logan Keeps It Cool, But She's 'All In'

NPR News - Mon, 2014-02-10 15:31

Much of the attention on the Olympic slopestyle events has focused on snowboarders, but the downhill event is also done on skis. Devin Logan enters Tuesday's competition as the world's top-ranked female freestyle skier. And at 20, she'll compete before she can legally celebrate with a beer.

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Debt Ceiling Standoff? Not This Time

NPR News - Mon, 2014-02-10 15:18

When Congress hits its debt ceiling at the end of the month, don't expect another big confrontation. House Republicans don't have the appetite for it and can't even agree on what points to negotiate.

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U.S. Resets Obamacare Deadline For Some Businesses To 2016

NPR News - Mon, 2014-02-10 15:01

In the second delay for medium-size businesses under the Affordable Care Act, the Obama administration says firms with 50-99 workers now have until Jan. 1, 2016, to provide health insurance. Larger companies must offer the coverage in 2015.

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Man Sentenced To 30 Years In Slaying Of Border Patrol Agent

NPR News - Mon, 2014-02-10 14:22

The killing uncovered a botched gun-walking scheme known as "Fast and Furious." Manuel Osorio-Arellanes, a Mexican national, is the first convicted in the shooting death of agent Brian Terry.

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9 ways to save on rental cars

Marketplace - American Public Media - Mon, 2014-02-10 13:55

Listeners wanted to know how rental car companies make money. The answer got us wondering -- what if they're making extra money off of us?

There are a lot of ways to pay less than top dollar on your next rental car. Here are a few tips based on our interview with Jack Gillis, director of public affairs at the Consumer Federation of America, and author of The Car Book.

1) Don’t go for a size -- or model -- upgrade. When’s the last time your suitcases didn’t fit in the trunk of a car? If you don’t need a mid-sized car or SUV, and an economy or compact is available, make sure to ask for it.  You’ll save on gas in a smaller car, too.

2) Ask for a free upgrade. If you want a bigger car, or more options free of charge, the counter clerk may do it.

3) Bring accessories, don’t rent them. A sophisticated GPS device might cost $7 to $9 per day to rent, and it only costs $100 or so to buy. After the first ten GPS rentals, the rental-car company is making pure profit from you. So bring your own. If you have a smart phone, buy a $10 dash-mount and use that to navigate.

4) Bring your own car seat. But make sure it’s not more expensive as airline carry-on than the additional rental cost.

5) Fill the tank yourself before returning the car. It’s the cheapest gasoline option. Paying for a full tank in advance is only worth it if you return the car with the gas tank completely empty.

6) Decline the additional insurance. You probably don’t need it if you own a car and carry private auto insurance yourself. Make sure to check with your insurance company to verify your coverage. Your credit card company may offer additional coverage, too.

7) Shop online early (and often) for rental deals. If you don’t like the rates for given dates at a given airport, make a reservation and then shop again days or weeks later. Because of demand-pricing, if rental-reservations are slack for a specific time-period, the rates are likely to go down to attract more business. Typically there is no penalty for cancelling a rental reservation made directly with the rental company.

8) Use online services like Priceline and Orbitz. Bid on rental cars using these and other services to get a better deal. A warning, though: These reservations may have to be paid in advance and will likely not be refundable.

 9) Make sure to use affinity discounts. AAA and Costco memberships may get you a better deal.

That's Just Like 'Her': Could We Ever Love A Computer?

NPR News - Mon, 2014-02-10 13:53

Joaquin Phoenix stars in the film Her, in which his character falls in love with an operating system. Will artificial intelligence evolve to that point? Apple's computerized assistant Siri clearly isn't there yet. This is what else needs to happen before we get there.

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