National News

Kinder Words From Putin, But They Come With A Cost

NPR News - Wed, 2014-05-07 12:29

Russian President Vladimir Putin says he is pulling his forces back from Ukraine's border. He also is calling on separatists in eastern Ukraine to postpone a referendum planned for Sunday. This news might be a breakthrough — or just a head fake.

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Syrian Rebels Cede Stronghold After Over A Year Under Siege

NPR News - Wed, 2014-05-07 12:29

Syrian rebels have surrendered Homs, the city known as the birthplace of the uprising against Syrian President Bashar Assad. It marks the end of a long siege and a huge blow to the rebels.

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For Many, Farming Is A Labor Of Love, Not A Living

NPR News - Wed, 2014-05-07 12:29

There are more than 2 million farmers in this country, but most of them have other jobs that bring in the money, retirement benefits and health insurance that they need.

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Shinseki: 'Swift Action' If Problems At VA Hospital Are True

NPR News - Wed, 2014-05-07 12:26

The Veterans Affairs secretary says he takes seriously allegations that some patients at a Phoenix hospital may have died while waiting a year or more for treatment.

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Legalized pot use vs. employer drug testing

Marketplace - American Public Media - Wed, 2014-05-07 12:21

The lawsuit Brandon Coats filed against his former employer Dish Network stemmed from anger.

Coats was angry because Dish Network fired him in 2010 after his random drug test came back positive for traces of pot.

Coats had been upfront about his pot use. As a quadriplegic with powerful muscle spasms that make it hard to stay still while seated in his wheelchair, Coats used medical marijuana to calm his muscles and allow him to function.

“In the part of my body where I'm paralyzed, my body tries to send signals to my head, and it doesn't get through and gets sent back down, and what that causes is for my muscles to flex really hard,” Coats said.

Coats used to take other medications. But he says none worked as well as marijuana with so few side effects. He explained this his employers at Dish Network in 2010, when his random drug test came back positive. But the company decided to fire him, citing the positive drug test as the reason. They told Coats he could reapply for his job, if he could pass a drug test.

But Coats took another path. He sued Dish Network, claiming the marijuana he uses is just like any other medicine. Coats has a medical marijuana card issued by Colorado. His use of marijuana was and continues to be legal in the state.

But Coats lost in state court and at the appellate level, where a three-judge panel ruled last spring that even though Coats’ marijuana use was legal in the state, it was illegal under federal law, so Dish Network had a right to fire him.

The case did not end there. Coats appealed to the Colorado Supreme Court, which has agreed to consider the case. Legal experts in the state expect the court to hear arguments over the summer and rule by early fall.

“Employers really need to keep an eye on this decision. It’s not just Mr. Coats,” said Vance Knapp, a labor law attorney who advises Fortune 500 companies at the Denver-based firm Sherman & Howard. “If the Colorado Supreme Court were to rule in Mr. Coats’ favor, that sort of decision would help other proponents of marijuana use in other states and other jurisdictions to support their argument that employees should have protections for using marijuana,” Knapp said.

Right now, there are few if any such protections. All 50 states allow employers to restrict marijuana use, and employees are often surprised that even though marijuana use may be legalized in their state, they can still face sanctions or dismissal by their employers if they test positive for the drug, according to Knapp. 

The Coats case in Colorado could prove a test for that precedent because the state has not only legalized marijuana, but also has a law on the books that explicitly protects workers’ lawful activities outside of work.

The question then comes down to whether marijuana use is lawful. The appellate court said it is not enough for the activity to be lawful under state law, it also has to be lawful under federal law.

If the Colorado Supreme Court reverses that ruling, it would create headaches for businesses around the country, which could find themselves with employees demanding protected status for their marijuana use, Knapp said.

Meanwhile, employers in Colorado and elsewhere are not waiting for a resolution to Brandon Coats’ case. They have been ramping up their drug testing ever since the state legalized recreational marijuana in January, according to a survey by the Mountain States Employers Council, a membership organization that helps companies with human resources issues.

Employers are worried about the costs of substance abuse, says Curtis Graves, a staff attorney with the council.

“There’s a great deal of statistics out that drug use and alcohol, cost employers an enormous amount of money, in the hundreds of millions of dollars a year. So, the marketing message is that by drug testing, they can save money,” Graves said, adding that employers are also concerned about potential liability costs if there is an accident and an employee tests positive for pot use.

A government-sponsored survey conducted in the 1990s did find that drug and alcohol use was costing the U.S. economy $276 billion a year. But proponents of marijuana say the drug is being unfairly targeted. Most employers don’t test for alcohol use, for example. And there are questions as to the science and accuracy of drug tests that find inactive marijuana compounds in people’s bodies (such compounds can remain in someone’s system weeks after they last consumed marijuana).

Michael Evans, the attorney who represents Coats, says that goes to the heart of their case. Dish Network did not know when Coats had taken the marijuana before deciding to fire him. All the company knew was that he had taken it at some point in the recent past. And that is not good enough, says Evans.

“It's about giving the [drug testing] laboratory the right instructions,” Evans said. “If they want to fire somebody that is high on marijuana, they can and they should. Just like they should fire somebody that came in drunk as a skunk after lunch, after having too many margaritas.”

But, Evans adds, employers should not fire someone who is taking marijuana in their own time and who is not intoxicated at work. 

Seeking Better Ways To Tell If Surgery Is Too Risky

NPR News - Wed, 2014-05-07 12:04

Half of all surgery in the U.S. is performed on people over 65, yet many have health conditions that make it riskier. It turns out that the frailer people are, the less likely they'll survive.

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NBC buys Olympics rights for Alibaba's treasure

Marketplace - American Public Media - Wed, 2014-05-07 11:22

NBC has bought the rights to broadcast the Olympics through 2032, on TV, over the internet and on mobile devices.

The head of Comcast, the company that owns NBC, said securing the broadcast rights for the Olympics is, in his words, an "honor" and a "privilege."

That's an honor and a privilege that will cost Comcast a reported $7.65 billion... which is about how much money Alibaba has in cash.

Author Farley Mowat, Who Wrote 'Never Cry Wolf,' Dies At 92

NPR News - Wed, 2014-05-07 10:50

The writer of books including People of the Deer and The Dog Who Wouldn't Be, was also an ardent campaigner for environmental causes well into his later years.

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A comic book pioneer adjusts to the digital age

Marketplace - American Public Media - Wed, 2014-05-07 10:31

Meltdown Comics and Collectibles opened in 1993 on Sunset Boulevard, in Los Angeles, less than two miles from the intersection of Sunset and Vine, right in the heart of Hollywood.

More than 20 years later, the store is one of the largest in the country and has diversified its inventory from simply comic books and graphic novels into comedy, podcasting and pop culture.

"Digital media is killing us, just like records stores," says co-owner Gaston Dominguez-Letelier. "People started downloading music, now they are downloading books and comics. ... It's not the same as it used to be."

Dominquez-Letelier says customers are also having comic books and products shipped directly to their homes, instead of coming in and picking up comic books every week. But he says that most of his customers are 25- to 45-year-olds. Older fans who remember coming in as children are now coming in with their own kids, and "hopefully it keeps going like that."

Dominguez-Letelier says Meltdown is trying new business strategies to grow. They've opened a live comedy venue in the back of the store, and are also accepting new forms of payment, including crypto-currencies like Bitcoin to grow foot traffic.

"The key word right now is 'experience'. Experiential marketing," says Justin Sewell, the director  of new media for Meltdown. "It's not enough anymore to have a line out the store. They want the buzz, they want the cool factor on Twitter, Facebook, reddit, YouTube, Twitch. Cool stuff online, so fans in Terre Haute, Indiana, can be part of the fun here in Hollywood."

South Africans disappointed by growing inequality

Marketplace - American Public Media - Wed, 2014-05-07 10:21

The vast majority of South Africans have become fed up with growing inequality in their country, but they're convinced any action they take at the polls won't make much of a difference.

Wednesday marked the first elections since the death of Nelson Mandela. Many voters have been disappointed by current President Jacob Zuma amidst allegations of government corruption.

"It's almost as if South Africa has two economies," says the BBC's Matt Davies, reporting from Johannesburg. "The insider economy, if you're in there, is great--you've got a job, you've got a house, life is great. If you're outside of the economy, you're most likely unemployed."

Although this year marks the 20th anniversary of the end of apartheid in South Africa, Davies says that a lot of people have missed out on what he calls the "economics of freedom."

"A lot of people have actually been left behind, and their lives haven't been enriched in the last 20 years," he said. "There is an argument that says that back in 1994, political apartheid came to an end--yes, there was freedom and democracy--but economic apartheid still exists."

Putin Tells Separatists In Ukraine To Postpone May 11 Referendum

NPR News - Wed, 2014-05-07 10:12

He also said Russia has withdrawn its troops from its border with Ukraine. The Pentagon noted, however, that it had seen no change in Russia's posture along the border.

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Chemists Expand Nature's Genetic Alphabet

NPR News - Wed, 2014-05-07 10:07

DNA's instructions are written in a code of four molecular "letters," labeled A, C, T and G. For the first time, researchers have created and inserted two brand-new letters into a living cell.

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We've got a peek at Alibaba's books. Thoughts?

Marketplace - American Public Media - Wed, 2014-05-07 09:53

We asked Brian Hamilton, the chairman of the financial information company Sageworks, to give us his thoughts on Alibaba's planned IPO.

1. Alibaba's IPO filing says it will raise $1 billion, analysts say it will raise closer to $15 billion and reports say it could be valued at $200 billion. Can you translate that for me? 

Valuation is calculated by multiplying a company's share price by the number of total outstanding shares. For example, when Amazon went public in 1997, it had 23.8 million total outstanding shares at an IPO share price of $16; therefore it was valued at approximately $381 million (23.8 million x 16 = 381 million).

One should never look at the valuation in isolation. Instead we should look at valuation, in relation to sales and profits. The sales multiple (the company's valuation divided by the company's revenue) and the profit multiple (the company's valuation divided by the company's net profit) give a better indication of "relative value." For example, the dollar amount of Twitter's IPO valuation was much less than the dollar amount of Facebook's; however, taking the sales multiples into account, Twitter'srelative value to sales was more than twice that of Facebook, indicating a richer valuation.

At this point we do not have a confirmed IPO share price for Alibaba, so we do not have a precise valuation. Reports have Alibaba valuing itself at $109 billion as of April, but other analysts estimate that Alibaba may be seeking a valuation upwards of $200 billion when the IPO debuts. Unfortunately, until we get the confirmed number of total shares outstanding and the share price at the time of the IPO, we will not know the company's official valuation.

2. Now that you've gotten a better look at Alibaba's financials, what do you think of the company?

The fundamentals are really, really strong. This is a company with positive cash flow, nearly one and half billion dollars in profits, a solid net profit margin, and solid revenue growth. This appears to be a real company with real profits and revenue.

3. Does Alibaba's valuation seem fair? / 4. How does that valuation compare to other Internet companies (such as Facebook, Twitter) when they went public?

We'll have to see what the final valuation is when the company prices it's IPO shares, but even when you look at the very "conservative" self valuation of $109 billion, it's a very rich valuation. They'd be valued at, at the very minimum, 20 times sales and 80 times profits, but most likely closer to 30 times sales and 125 times profits, if the final valuation ends up being closer to $170 billion-$200 billion. That's not quite as rich of a valuation as Twitter, which went out 40 times sales, but compares Alibaba's relative value to that of Microsoft when it went public. Microsoft was less than one-eighth of the relative value of Alibaba, even looking at the most conservative valuations of Alibaba.

We've got a peak at Alibaba's books. Thoughts?

Marketplace - American Public Media - Wed, 2014-05-07 09:53

We asked Brian Hamilton, the chairman of the financial information company Sageworks, to give us his thoughts on Alibaba's planned IPO.

1. Alibaba's IPO filing says it will raise $1 billion, analysts say it will raise closer to $15 billion and reports say it could be valued at $200 billion. Can you translate that for me? 

Valuation is calculated by multiplying a company's share price by the number of total outstanding shares. For example, when Amazon went public in 1997, it had 23.8 million total outstanding shares at an IPO share price of $16; therefore it was valued at approximately $381 million (23.8 million x 16 = 381 million).

One should never look at the valuation in isolation. Instead we should look at valuation, in relation to sales and profits. The sales multiple (the company's valuation divided by the company's revenue) and the profit multiple (the company's valuation divided by the company's net profit) give a better indication of "relative value." For example, the dollar amount of Twitter's IPO valuation was much less than the dollar amount of Facebook's; however, taking the sales multiples into account, Twitter'srelative value to sales was more than twice that of Facebook, indicating a richer valuation.

At this point we do not have a confirmed IPO share price for Alibaba, so we do not have a precise valuation. Reports have Alibaba valuing itself at $109 billion as of April, but other analysts estimate that Alibaba may be seeking a valuation upwards of $200 billion when the IPO debuts. Unfortunately, until we get the confirmed number of total shares outstanding and the share price at the time of the IPO, we will not know the company's official valuation.

2. Now that you've gotten a better look at Alibaba's financials, what do you think of the company?

The fundamentals are really, really strong. This is a company with positive cash flow, nearly one and half billion dollars in profits, a solid net profit margin, and solid revenue growth. This appears to be a real company with real profits and revenue.

3. Does Alibaba's valuation seem fair? / 4. How does that valuation compare to other Internet companies (such as Facebook, Twitter) when they went public?

We'll have to see what the final valuation is when the company prices it's IPO shares, but even when you look at the very "conservative" self valuation of $109 billion, it's a very rich valuation. They'd be valued at, at the very minimum, 20 times sales and 80 times profits, but most likely closer to 30 times sales and 125 times profits, if the final valuation ends up being closer to $170 billion-$200 billion. That's not quite as rich of a valuation as Twitter, which went out 40 times sales, but compares Alibaba's relative value to that of Microsoft when it went public. Microsoft was less than one-eighth of the relative value of Alibaba, even looking at the most conservative valuations of Alibaba.

Surgeon, Mom, Republican — But Conservative Enough?

NPR News - Wed, 2014-05-07 09:47

Neurosurgeon Monica Wehby, who's running for U.S. Senate in Oregon, has captured the imagination of the Republican establishment. But social conservatives are critical of her position on abortion.

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Broken windows, busted real estate market

Marketplace - American Public Media - Wed, 2014-05-07 09:25

Building inspector Derrick McCall spends much of his day in a noisy city truck making his way through a list of 25,000 vacant properties in Philadelphia.

He’s part of a novel new program that seeks to get landlords to do something about the city’s vacant buildings, and make the city money at the same time. His goal: to make sure every vacant home in Philadelphia has working doors and windows.

“I’ll go by a property to see the condition, to see if it has boarded doors and windows, and attempt to bring it to compliance,” said McCall, a burly man who drives a gurgling city truck through some of Philadelphia’s toughest areas.

If McCall does find a home with boarded-up doors and windows, he’ll staple a bright pink poster on the door, informing the owner that the building is in violation of a law that prohibits boarded-up doors and windows. The fine: $300 per opening, per day. Owners must go to Blight Court to fight the fine.

Building inspector Derrick McCall pauses at a home in Philadelphia after citing it for doors and windows violations and posting a pink poster on the door to inform the owners. 

Alana Semuels

The idea: force building owners to fix up their homes and make them habitable, or sell them to someone who will.

“We can make them do something now,” said Rebecca Swanson, who runs the city’s vacant property strategy. “If we can catch them now, we can get to the point where we can save it from being something that falls into disrepair.”

The city came up with the strategy after realizing it was spending millions a year on tearing down blighted properties, but that newly decrepit homes seemed to be popping up every year. And it was costing a lot to tear down the homes – around $15,000 each, a big deal in a city constantly strapped for cash.

The initial goal of the strategy was to prevent homes from falling into disrepair, but other benefits have emerged, Swanson said. After spending the money to fix the doors and windows, landlords are deciding to spend an extra bit of money so they can fix their properties enough to rent them out. All those permits for fixing their homes and renting them out make the city money.

The city points to the neighborhood of Francisville, now bustling with new development, as an example of a place where the city’s strategy has led to a makeover for an entire area.

“We found all these tangential benefits as we’ve gone along,” Swanson said.  “Increased tax collection, improved neighborhoods, getting more revenues through licensing and permits.”

A study by the Reinvestment Fund, a group that finances neighborhood revitalization, found that the strategy led to a 31 percent increase in home prices in the neighborhoods targeted by the city. Comparable neighborhoods saw home prices rise just 1 percent.

Philadelphia has many row houses, so decay in one house can affect another quickly and bring down property values.

Alana Semuels

“Essentially, if you’re smart and you’re targeted and you’re focused, and you send a very clear market signal that blighting properties are not going to be tolerated in a place,” said Ira Goldstein, who authored the study.

Before, Goldstein said, there was a perception in Philadelphia that landlords could hang onto vacant buildings for a long time, and that the city wouldn’t do anything about them. That perception has now changed because of the enforcement strategy, he said.

But there are still some owners that the city can’t reach. Though it used a database also used by the IRS, it hasn’t been able to find all of the property owners who own vacant homes in the city. That’s why the home next to James Culler is falling into disrepair, even though he’s called and complained many times.

Philadelphia has started enforcing a law that would fine the owners of buildings like this one $300 for each boarded-up door or window in an effort to get owners to fix up the buildings. 

Alana Semuels

As Derrick McCall walks up the rickety concrete steps to inspect the home, Culler sticks his head out of his door and asks if the city is finally doing something about the house that’s attached to his.  Vagrants keep breaking in and he’s worried they’ll burn the place down.

“My wife done called a couple of times, ain’t nobody respond,” Culler said to McCall.

“It is in the system, to try and get the owners to repair the doors and windows,” McCall assures him. “It’s a slow process, but it does work.”

It’s a lesson other cities, like Detroit and Buffalo that have thousands of vacant properties to deal with: cleaning up blight takes time. But it does work.  Eventually. 

A Symbol Of Syria's Uprising, Homs Reverts To Assad's Control

NPR News - Wed, 2014-05-07 09:20

More than 1,000 rebel fighters in the central city began leaving Wednesday under terms of a conditional surrender.

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Move Over Chickens, Here's Something Duckier For The Backyard

NPR News - Wed, 2014-05-07 08:41

A small but growing number of people are discovering the joys of raising ducks. They say the nutritional and agricultural benefits of the eggs outweigh the cost of feeding the birds.

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DEA Raids Target Synthetic Drugs' Makers And Sellers

NPR News - Wed, 2014-05-07 08:32

Federal agents acted on hundreds of warrants Wednesday, in an operation that included at least 25 states.

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Dove tops list of mothers' 10 favorite brands

Marketplace - American Public Media - Wed, 2014-05-07 08:22

Just in time for Mother's Day, research organization YouGov has found that American mothers perceive Dove as the best brand, according to their BrandIndex report. The soap and beauty product maker tops a list of mothers' favorite brands despite backlash to the company's "Real Beauty" ad campaign that went viral in the past few months.

In it's press release, YouGov even speculates that the "Real Beauty" campaign and its "highly-viral" nature is what propelled Dove into the top spot.

This is the second year YouGov has tracked brand perception among American mothers, and the first year Dove made it in to the top 10. Joining Dove on the list are brands like Johnson & Johnson, Amazon, Cheerios and Samsung.

YouGov also mentions that, while they didn't crack the top 10, brands like Facebook and Victoria's Secret saw the greatest gains in perception compared to last year. Pillsbury and Discovery Channel, on the other hand, fell out of the top brands.

YouGov on their survey methods:

YouGov BrandIndex filtered their entire 1,250+ brand universe for respondents who identified themselves as women over the age of 18 with children under 18 years old. The firm then ranked them using their flagship Index score, which measures brand health by averaging sub-scores on quality, satisfaction, impression, value, reputation and willingness to recommend. The scores reflect surveying over the past 30 days.

See the full list in the graphic below.

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