National News

How billiards created the modern world

Marketplace - American Public Media - Fri, 2015-04-03 12:10

The world may run out of elephants. Poachers kill an estimated 40,000 of the big animals a year, even though trading in ivory has been essentially illegal for more than 20 years.

But 150 years ago, ivory was booming and nobody worried about elephants. The gorgeous material could be shaped into lots of things — and was. But for one entrepreneur, ivory’s specialness was a big problem.

That man was the father of American billiards — and the his ivory problem made him, in a sense, the grandfather of the modern world. Which is to say, of plastics. 

It's tempting to call Michael Phelan the Steve Jobs of billiards.

"I think that would be an understatement," says Michael Shamos, author of "The New Illustrated Encyclopedia of Billiards."

"While Steve Jobs did amazingly brilliant things, he was not fully responsible for the computer," says Shamos, who is a computer-science professor at Carnegie-Mellon University. "But Phelan, in many ways, was responsible for the uptake of billiards in the United States."

And billiards, says Shamos, was the single most-popular amusement for men in the second half of the 19th century.

Phelan was the top player, a best-selling author, and the first big manufacturer of billiards tables.

To popularize the game, he helped standardize the gear — which, in the case of the balls, meant maintaining a very high standard.

"The billiard ball has to have certain physical properties," Shamos says. "It has to rebound properly. It has to be of uniform density."

In the 19th century, that meant it had to be made of ivory, which wasn’t cheap. 

What's more, billiard balls required the top grade of ivory, much of which was wasted in the process. 

"The average number of billiard balls that could be obtained from a single tusk," Shamos says, "is three."

Phelan and his partners saw the reliance on ivory as a threat to his industry's growth. It was as if the Apple Watch could be sold only in the $10,000 gold edition, because the gold was necessary to make the device function.

"They were really desperate, I don't think is too strong a word, to find some kind of substitute material," says Robert Friedel, a professor at the University of Maryland and the author of the book "Pioneer Plastic: The Making and Selling of Celluloid," which tells the story of what happened next.

Phelan advertised a prize of $10,000 — the equivalent of almost $3 million today, compared to the wages earned by laborers at the time  — for the discovery of a satisfactory substitute for ivory in making billiard balls. The contest prompted a printer named John Wesley Hyatt to experiment with a newly discovered material, nitrated cellulose: cotton fiber treated with nitric and sulfuric acid.

"That material turned out to have very interesting properties," Friedel says. "In particular, it dissolves, and it creates a kind of syrupy liquid."

After more than five years of tinkering, Hyatt produced the first plastic, which he called celluloid — but it doesn’t win Phelan’s prize.   

"Celluloid is a wonderful material," Friedel says. "It’s a beautiful plastic, and it has a wonderful range of uses. But. Billiard balls is not one of them."

Balls made with celluloid just don’t bounce right.

Hyatt looked for another market, and eventually found a hit, producing fake ivory for knick-knacks: knife handles, combs, hand mirrors, all kinds of things. 

"Celluloid a terrific faux-ivory," Friedel says. "And it’s a great faux-tortoise-shell, and amber and coral — there are all sorts of great effects you can get from it.

Billiard balls kept getting made out of ivory. Which was OK — for the billiards industry anyway —  because Europeans keep colonizing and exploiting more of Africa. It was not great for the people of Africa, as documented in books like Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness" and Adam Hochschild's "King Leopold's Ghost."

It was also terrible for elephants. By 1910, the elephant population had dropped to the point where billiard-ball makers, among others, were getting acutely worried about the ivory supply.

Right around then, a chemist named Leo Baekeland came up with a new kind of plastic, made from petroleum, naming it bakelite, after himself.

Among bakelite's advantages: It could be liquefied during production, and fillers could be added.

"With that capability," Friedel says, "you can vary the density, you can vary the elasticity— and you can make a perfect billiard ball."

Celluloid got supplanted by newer plastics except for one key use, one product for which celluloid is said to perform better than any other material: ping-pong balls.

Celluloid balls got bumped from tournament play just last year. It was a controversial decision. 

Energy Secretary: Iran Deal Blocks All Paths Toward Nuclear Bomb

NPR News - Fri, 2015-04-03 12:08

In an interview with NPR, Ernest Moniz says the deal has expanded the time it would take Iran to make a bomb significantly — from two months to a year.

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Get Ready For The Third Installment In The Lunar Eclipse Tetrad

NPR News - Fri, 2015-04-03 12:06

Weather permitting, a "blood moon" eclipse — the penultimate in a four-eclipse cycle — can be seen in its totality by those living on the U.S West Coast.

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This Guy Is Running For President, And So Are More Than 200 Others

NPR News - Fri, 2015-04-03 11:45

Most of the official candidates for president so far are unknown to the typical voter. Turns out, it's not hard to do.

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Making money off trash

Marketplace - American Public Media - Fri, 2015-04-03 11:31

Garry Shigeharu Greene grew up in Los Angeles. He worked for a pool maintenance business and eventually he became the owner, but it all fell apart.


Garry soon found himself desperate to find work. After a few bouts of homelessness, he discovered a new job and for the past 20 years, he's worked for himself, selling what others throw out: recyclable trash.


We caught up with Gary and his shopping cart at the Temple Street recycling facility.


Listen to the full interview in the audio player above.

You won't die if you don't go to Harvard or Stanford

Marketplace - American Public Media - Fri, 2015-04-03 11:01

It's college acceptance season — or perhaps, more accurately, rejection season — at the most elite schools. Harvard and Stanford turned away about 95 percent of applicants this year, a new record for Harvard.

There are lots of reasons top-ranked colleges are turning away more applicants. They're getting more, thanks to more aggressive recruiting. And because some kids are so unsure of what it will take to get accepted, they're applying everywhere. 

All of this can be crazy-making and heartbreaking for a lot of kids and their parents. New York Times columnist Frank Bruni says it doesn't have to be. He's out with a new book: "Where You Go Is Not Who You'll Be."

The fixation on getting into top colleges is nothing new for hyper-talented and extra, extracurricular-engaged high school students. But with 95 percent rejection rates, the competition is all the more intense. 

"It's fed by a whole industry of admissions consultants and coaches," Bruni says, adding the demand has deeper roots in parents' fears about the economy. "I think in their anxiety about the country's prosperity and its future, they want to give kids any leg up, anything that might be a leg up, and they see elite schools as one of those things."

One reason that the volume of applications have increased: ease. Most elite colleges and universities use the common app, an electronic form that allows students to apply to send the same information, scores and essays to an array of schools. Schools also market themselves aggressively to see as many applicants as possible. 

"They want to get the best students and they want the most diverse student bodies, so that's the good impulse behind it," Bruni says. "But they also just want big, big numbers because we've entered an era here where a low acceptance rate – proof that you've turned away masses of people – is bragging rights among colleges."

For low-income students in particular, research shows that going to a selective school can make a big difference in graduation rates and future earnings. 

"It's not fair to say that the brand doesn't buy opportunities," Bruni says of the most elite and selective colleges like Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and Stanford. "But it's not a do-or-die, make-or-break advantage. It's not going to last your whole life."

Listen to the complete interview below to find out which school produces the strongest startup founders, according to venture capitalist and Y Combinator President Sam Altman. (That question comes at 3:21). 

Selling a product that never has to be replaced

Marketplace - American Public Media - Fri, 2015-04-03 10:52

It's one of the most common reasons for a "no deal" on the ABC show "Shark Tank": a one-off product doesn't attract repeat customers.

So, why — and how — do some companies manage to sell items that never have to be replaced?

Marketplace Weekend guest host David Lazarus looks into two indestructible industries. First, Zane Schenk explains his role from the New West KnifeWorks production floor in Idaho Falls, Idaho. Schenk says he has been making knives for as long as he can remember — perfect, since they guaranteed to last forever, too.

Second, with longevity in the kitchen comes cast-iron skillets. Bob Kellerman, CEO of Lodge Cast Iron, says his company makes some of the most popular skillets on the market. These are passed down from generation to generation in many families, usually getting better with age.

Men And Women Use Different Scales To Weigh Moral Dilemmas

NPR News - Fri, 2015-04-03 10:52

Would you kill a young Hitler to prevent World War II? Men are more likely to say yes, a study finds, while women weigh the moral cost of murder along with lives saved.

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Your Wallet: Wedding bills are gonna chime

Marketplace - American Public Media - Fri, 2015-04-03 10:34

Next week we're talking renewal — a clean slate, a new beginning.

For many people, a new beginning might be a marriage, which usually means planning (and paying) for a wedding.

Whether it's your own, or someone else's, a lot of money changes hands.

We want to hear about your experiences with weddings — whether you're the one walking down the aisle, or just shelling out for plane tickets or plates from a registry. 

How much money are you spending? How are you resetting, financially? Write to us here, or tweet us, we're @MarketplaceWKND.

Your Wallet: Weddings

Marketplace - American Public Media - Fri, 2015-04-03 10:34

Next week we're talking renewal -- a clean slate, a new beginning.

For many people, a new beginning might be a marriage, and a wedding

And whether it's your own, or someone else's...a lot of money changes hands.

We want to hear about your experiences with weddings, whether you're the one walking down the aisle, or just shelling out for plane tickets or plates from a registry. 

How much money are you spending? How are you resetting, financially?

Tell us. Write to us here, or tweet us,  we're @MarketplaceWKND

A year in commercial advertising

Marketplace - American Public Media - Fri, 2015-04-03 10:29

Ever noticed the flood of commercials for engagement rings and diamonds around November?  Or the spike in perfume commercials in early February? 

Are you overwhelmed by ads for allergy meds and home repair stores? 

You're not alone, and it's intentional -- there's a calendar for the cycle of advertising and marketing, and it exists because it works ... and that's because of our shopping habits. 

So how does it work? Therese Wilbur of USC's Marshall School of Business lays out the calendar for us. 

Listen using the player above.  

Building an equitable bike-share economy

Marketplace - American Public Media - Fri, 2015-04-03 10:22

Bike shares have become increasingly popular in recent years, shifting from a European novelty to common sight in about 40 U.S. cities 

What makes for a successful bike share?

Martha Roskowski is Vice President of Local Innovation at the national nonprofit People for Bikes. She says that bike share programs have become more innovative, accessible, and affordable, and with the right kind of developments, could become an integrated part of public transportation in cities all over the country. 

Listen to the full interview using the player above. 


You'll Get No Alcoholic Kick From Champagne-Flavored Jelly Beans

NPR News - Fri, 2015-04-03 10:21

Some 16 billion jelly beans are consumed every year in the U.S. alone, and every year new flavors hit the market. But the origins of the popular confection are "lost in the mists of time."

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The NFL has appointed its first female referee

Marketplace - American Public Media - Fri, 2015-04-03 10:13

We still have a ways to go before the 2015 football season kicks off, but the Baltimore Sun broke some big news about the NFL today, seems the league has appointed its first ever female permanent game official.

Sarah Thomas is her name, and she's no stranger to breaking new ground when it comes to football. She was the first woman to officiate a major college game in 2007, two years later, she was also the first woman to officiate a bowl game.

The 2015 NFL season officially starts on September 10.


For U.S. Workers, The March Of Progress Slows Down

NPR News - Fri, 2015-04-03 10:01

On Friday, economists were left scrambling to explain why last month's employment growth was just half as good as they expected. Many fingers pointed at the harsh weather, along with port disruptions.

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How a good night's sleep can help the economy

Marketplace - American Public Media - Fri, 2015-04-03 09:48

There are cycles everywhere in our financial lives. But there's one cycle to rule them all: Our sleep cycle.

How and when we sleep impacts our work, our finances and even the overall economy. Research says most people need at least seven hours to feel rested the next day. But what happens if you don't get that amount? 

We spoke to Monica Schrock, who works the late shift at a diner in Los Angeles and Ken Wright, a sleep expert at the University of Colorado Boulder, to find out what happens when work disrupts our sleep cycles.

Wright says that when people work while tired, they make more mistakes, have more accidents and are generally less productive. And sleepy, inefficient workers are costly. 

Tune in using the player above to hear the full interviews.

When Civilians Accuse Troops Of Rape, Military Courts Often Decide

NPR News - Fri, 2015-04-03 09:34

Hundreds of times a year, civilians accuse military personnel of sexual assault. The cases can wind up in the military justice system, where many victims say they are at a big disadvantage.

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The World According To Xi Jinping (Or At Least His App)

NPR News - Fri, 2015-04-03 09:27

The man sometimes describes as China's most powerful ruler since Mao Zedong now has an app that lets you read about Xi's love of soccer and learn all about his "Four Comprehensives."

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What China Can Teach The World About Successful Health Care

NPR News - Fri, 2015-04-03 09:12

From free, universal care to for-profit hospitals, China has tried out radically different health care systems in the past 60 years. So what works — and doesn't work — for 1.3 billion people?

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For Chinese Migrant Workers, It Is Possible To Go Home Again

NPR News - Fri, 2015-04-03 09:03

In the past, rural Chinese seeking success left their families and found work on the coast. Now, high wages mean factories are shifting inland and migrants are delighted to be following them home.

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