National News

An aerial map quest, with drones

Marketplace - American Public Media - Tue, 2015-02-03 13:09

Skycatch is a company built around drones. But CEO Christian Sanz isn't interested in using drones to deliver goods or spy on people.

"For us, it's just another server that happens to have propellers on it," Sanz says.

Skycatch uses drones to obtain aerial 3D images of construction sites. Companies use the detailed maps for planning and coordinating. In some cases, businesses use the maps to help them automate bulldozers and other construction equipment on the ground.

"We are the first company to automate another machine using a drone," Sanz says.

According to Sanz, using Skycatch's services is as simple as opening up an app. "We invented this concept of being able to, at any given point, open up your app and make a call or just highlight the area you want mapped, and we immediately match you up with a pilot," he says.

And for all the budding drone pilots out there, Skycatch is looking for recruits.

"Right now we are going through a process of verifying and also certifying pilots," Sanz says.

Skycatch uses drones to make 3D aerial maps

Marketplace - American Public Media - Tue, 2015-02-03 13:09

Skycatch is a company built around drones. But CEO Christian Sanz isn't interested in using drones to deliver stuff or spy on people.

"For us, it's just another server that happens to have propellers on it," Sanz says.

Skycatch uses drones to obtain aerial 3D images of construction sites. Companies use the detailed maps for planning and coordinating. In some cases, businesses even use the maps so they can automate bulldozers and other construction equipment on the ground.

"We are the first company to automate another machine using a drone," Sanz says.

According to Sanz, using Skycatch's services is as simple as opening up an app. "We invented this concept of being able to, at any given point, open up your app and make a call or just highlight the area you want mapped and we immediately match you up with a pilot," he says.

And for all the budding drone pilots out there, Skycatch is looking for recruits.

"Right now we are going through a process of verifying and also certifying pilots," Sanz says.

Lots Of Confusion Over Teacher Firings At Howard University Middle School

NPR News - Tue, 2015-02-03 12:52

Parents and students say the teachers were fired for teaching black history. The NAACP says otherwise.

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Jordan May Execute Would-Be Bomber After ISIS Kills Pilot

NPR News - Tue, 2015-02-03 12:22

Audie Cornish speaks with Daoud Kuttab, director of Radio al Balad in Amman, Jordan. He talks about how Jordanians are reacting to the death of Jordanian pilot Lt. Muath al-Kasaesbeh.

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Nebraska Says Colorado Pot Isn't Staying On Its Side Of The Border

NPR News - Tue, 2015-02-03 12:21

Law enforcement in Nebraska towns near the Colorado border are reporting a jump in pot-related offenses. Legalization next door, they say, is creating burdensome consequences they never asked for.

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Duo Smashes World Distance Record In Gas Balloon

NPR News - Tue, 2015-02-03 12:13

It took six days, 16 hours and 38 minutes and an unexpected detour down the California coast. Audie Cornish talks to Troy Bradley about his trans-Pacific journey with Leonid Tiukhtyaev.

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Beyond Rash And Fever: How Measles Can Kill

NPR News - Tue, 2015-02-03 12:09

It happened to Roald Dahl's daughter in 1962. It still happens today, in the U.S. and around the world. In rare cases, measles becomes an incurable disease.

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Marco Rubio Challenges Obama Administration's New Approach To Cuba

NPR News - Tue, 2015-02-03 12:06

Florida Republican Marco Rubio is using his new role as chairman of a Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee to rail against what he sees as U.S. concessions to Cuba. He's particularly concerned about plans to reopen the U.S. embassy in Havana.

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House Votes To Repeal ACA, Though Bill Unlikely To Pass Senate

NPR News - Tue, 2015-02-03 12:06

The House has voted to repeal the Affordable Care Act, the first such full repeal vote in two nearly two years. Some 19 million Americans would lose health coverage under the legislation. The bill, though, is not likely to pass the Senate, where a half dozen Democrats would have to go along with it. President Obama has also promised to veto legislation that undoes his signature achievement.

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ISIS Video Purports To Show Killing Of Jordanian Pilot

NPR News - Tue, 2015-02-03 12:06

A gruesome video from the self-proclaimed Islamic State, or ISIS, released on Tuesday purports to show the killing of the Jordanian pilot who was captured in Syria in December.

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Standard & Poor's To Pay Over $1 Billion In Legal Settlement

NPR News - Tue, 2015-02-03 12:06

Standard & Poor's has agreed to pay more than $1 billion to settle charges that it gave false ratings to mortgage-related securities in the years leading up the financial crisis.

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U.K. Lawmakers Allow Scientists To Attempt 'DNA Transplants'

NPR News - Tue, 2015-02-03 12:06

The British Parliament has voted to allow scientists to attempt to do "DNA transplants" on women's eggs to try to help them have healthy babies. Doctors want to do this to help families carrying devastating "mitochondrial diseases." But opponents question whether transferring DNA from healthy eggs into the eggs of women carrying these diseases is safe, and whether it would open the door to "designer babies."

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Arrest Warrant For Argentine President Found In Dead Prosecutor's Home

NPR News - Tue, 2015-02-03 11:31

The prosecutor investigating the death of Alberto Nisman denied the arrest warrant existed. She changed her story today, adding further proof of a tense relationship between the president and Nisman.

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Love Hot Sauce? Your Personality May Be A Good Predictor

NPR News - Tue, 2015-02-03 11:04

Personality seems to play a key role in our lust for heat in our food. Research has found that thrill seekers tend to like the burn of a spicy meal, and the lure is different for men and women.

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RadioShack's long road to bankruptcy

Marketplace - American Public Media - Tue, 2015-02-03 10:38

RadioShack is preparing to shut down amid bankruptcy.  The chain has over 4,000 U.S. stores, but they have been struggling for quite some time. Things finally came to a head as the 'Shack lost about 90 percent of its value over the past year, and shares sunk Monday.

"One of the most common sentiments I heard when I first started making phone calls for this story was 'I can’t believe it’s taken this long for this to happen to RadioShack,'" says Josh Brustein of Bloomberg.

Sprint and Amazon have separately been in talks with RadioShack about acquiring some stores and closing the rest.

"For the last couple of months, RadioShack has really been kind of circling the drain," says Brustein. "It’s been clear that the most likely outcome was bankruptcy – that doesn’t mean that it would disappear altogether. But basically, what has to be sorted out in bankruptcy is what happens to all these stores."

UPS and FedEx increase fuel surcharge – because they can

Marketplace - American Public Media - Tue, 2015-02-03 10:07

UPS handed investors mixed news when it announced 2014 earnings. Shipping volumes were way up, but profits were down. The company made big investments to meet the 2014 holiday rush – including about 100,000 temporary hires— but didn’t get quite as much revenue out as it had wanted.

Still, don’t feel too bad for UPS. CEO David Abney said the company would start tacking on extra holiday charges. And these are in addition to fee increases by both UPS and rival FedEx that include hikes in fuel surcharges, even though the price of fuel is down. 

FedEx has actually raised its fuel charge, from 5.5 percent to 6 percent. The UPS formula is more complicated: The company has changed how it calculates the fee for ground shipments, so the surcharge doesn't reflect a drop in fuel prices.  

"The price of a gallon of fuel is down a buck," says Jerry Hempstead, a consultant who works with shipping customers to help them get better rates. "You would think: "Oh, the fuel surcharge could even go away.' Well, no."

He thinks it’s the opposite of a price war. First UPS had higher rates. FedEx bumped. Now it’s UPS’ turn.

"They did it because they could," he says.

The price of sending a package includes a bundle of smaller charges, many of which have gone up. The “base rate” just saw annual increases of about 5 percent from both carriers. There are also bumps in “accessorial charges"— like extra fees for delivering to remote locations.

The biggest increase comes from a new way of charging for smaller packages. Instead of charging by weight, shippers now also count the size. That change alone raised shipping prices by an average of 17 percent, according to an analysis by Shipware LLC, another company that helps shipping customers negotiate with carriers.

Not all companies will feel that cost the same way, says Rob Martinez, Shipware's president and CEO. A company that makes microwaves and refrigerators, for instance, wouldn't necessarily take a hit. 

"Other shippers, it is literally doubling some of their costs," he says, meaning companies that ship lightweight items in bigger boxes. 

Martinez thinks FedEx and UPS can impose these fees because they’re the only two national companies in the business.

"It’s great for UPS and FedEx investors," he says. "But lack of competition is bad for shippers."

Some of his customers are giving the U.S. Postal Service another look. "Their 'Priority Mail' product is actually a pretty good product," Martinez says.

The what-ifs of net neutrality

Marketplace - American Public Media - Tue, 2015-02-03 10:06

This week, the Federal Communications Commission is expected to propose reclassifying how Internet service providers are regulated, treating them treated like utilities. The idea is to foster net neutrality, so all data flowing across the Internet is treated equally.

What would the new regulation mean for consumers?  

Internet service providers don’t like the idea of being regulated like a phone company. They say that would pave the way for more taxes on consumers, like those that appear on phone bills. But Congress has prohibited state and local governments from collecting new Internet taxes. So what about federal taxes?

“We don’t know which way the FCC is going to go on any particular provision,” says Jodie Griffin, a senior staff attorney for the consumer group Public Knowledge. The FCC could add a universal service fee to your Internet bill, she says. The fee already appears on phone bills and is used in part to extend phone service to high-cost areas at reasonable rates. But Griffin says the total amount collected might not change. 

“So there will be some people who are not paying now who would be paying something, and there will be other people who are paying now who will be paying less,” she says. 

Other consumer advocates say the FCC could delve into the issue of Internet privacy.

“We’ll have a lot more privacy tomorrow than we do today,” says Jamie Court, president of Consumer Watchdog.  The FCC could use its new authority to prevent tracking on the Internet, he says, but the key word is "could."

Jonathan Zittrain, a professor of law and computer science at Harvard University, says: “Everybody can keep powder dry.  I don’t think there are any immediate changes."

FCC officials seem to be just focusing on net neutrality, Zittrain says. “These are not wild-eyed radicals somehow wanting to blow up the system,” he says.

Zittrain says these are all things the FCC could do, if it wanted to – and that’s a big if.

Curious about what net neutrality means?

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What's changed in the credit ratings business?

Marketplace - American Public Media - Tue, 2015-02-03 10:05

Quick refresher: When mortgage-backed securities and derivatives suddenly collapsed into a black hole of toxic assets in 2008, people immediately asked why credit ratings agencies had listed them as good investments.

And then people sued the credit agencies.

Standard and Poor's, one of country’s top ratings agencies, just settled $1.38 billion in lawsuits with 19 states and the District of Columbia, the Department of Justice and the California Public Employee Retirement System. Last month, the agency paid $86 million to settle charges with the Securities and Exchanges Commission and several State Attorneys General. And now, it’s Moody’s turn to be probed by the Department of Justice.

Has anything changed since 2008 in how credit ratings agencies do business?

“The whole industry and certainly Standard and Poor’s has been transformed over recent years,” says Adam Schuman, chief legal officer of S&P Ratings Services. The SEC has expanded regulatory oversight, with an entire department focused just on ratings agencies. 

Standard and Poor’s says it now has a governance board that includes SEC-certified independent board members to oversee how the firm manages conflict of interest risk, and that S&P conducts investigations into the quality of its ratings and compliance by its employees. Schuman also says those employees are evaluated for their adherence to company rules designed to protect the quality of ratings. 

But critics are still strident, arguing that no matter how conflicts are managed, the incentives to inflate ratings still exist. "The fundamental conflict of interest that has led to this litigation and massive settlements still exists," says Daniel Drosman, an attorney with Robbins Geller Rudman & Dowd who has successfully sued ratings agencies. "You have ratings agencies being paid by the institutions whose bonds they are grading."

Bill Harrington, an independent researcher and former Moody’s employee, goes further. He says the problems don't stop with ratings agencies but extend among the many other parties to any complex financial instrument. “It’s the credit rating agencies, the bank underwriters and the counsel looking at a deal’s merits, and the auditors ... none of them gets paid unless the deal closes with a triple-A rating.”

How Fish Could Change What It Means For Food To Be Organic

NPR News - Tue, 2015-02-03 09:37

The USDA is considering a set of rules for certifying farmed fish as organic. But some consumer groups say the recommendations don't go far enough to meet the strict standards of other organic foods.

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Life In The 'New' Washington: In Your Face! No, In YOUR Face!

NPR News - Tue, 2015-02-03 09:35

The 114th Congress so far has displayed all the dominant traits inherited from its parents – the 113th and 112th congresses. It's all about honoring past promises and settling old scores.

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