National News

WATCH: On Sandy Anniversary, Gov. Chris Christie Faces Off With Heckler

NPR News - Wed, 2014-10-29 16:36

Christie, known for fierce confrontations with detractors, finished this particular exchange by saying, "Sit down and shut up."

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Inventor Of 'Operation' Game Says He Can't Afford His Own Operation

NPR News - Wed, 2014-10-29 15:32

John Spinello missed out on a lot of money, because he sold his patent for the legendary game for just $500. Over the past few years, things have been rough for Spinello.

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FTC Says AT&T Misled Customers About 'Unlimited' Data Plans

NPR News - Wed, 2014-10-29 15:05

The Federal Trade Commission says AT&T slowed data speeds for 3.5 million customers, sometimes up to 90 percent.

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Andre Agassi’s pivot to education capitalist

Marketplace - American Public Media - Wed, 2014-10-29 14:44

Former tennis star Andre Agassi has spent the last few years building schools. Recently, he has stopped doing it out of pure generosity. After years of raising money for charter schools, Agassi has had a conversion. He teamed up with investors and joined the growing ranks of education capitalists.

Agassi has been touring some of his schools this fall, including a recent in Nashville.

The second graders in this Rocketship classroom were barely born when Agassi hung up his tennis racket. So they don’t really know much about the guy with the shaved head touring their new school, other than they should be grateful to him.

“What made you want to play tennis?” one student asks. “I never really wanted to,” Agassi says, explaining that his dad made him.

But turns out, he was pretty good.

“And then all of the sudden when I won, I had the chance to build my own school,” he says.

The irony is not lost on him, since Agassi dropped out of school himself. He has since raised $100 million to supplement public funding for a charter school in his hometown of Las Vegas.

But in the last few years, he teamed up with investors to start a hedge fund. They don’t run schools. They just buy the land, finance construction, then rent the school back to a charter, typically part of a national chain like KIPP Academy or Rocketship.

Critics of the charter movement have charged investors with lining their pockets on the backs of public education, and Agassi says he had his own hesitance before switching gears into profit-mode.

“I thought about it a thousand times going into this adventure,” Agassi says.

But given the struggle to finance his own charter school, Agassi says he’s decided charity has limitations.

“I don’t believe – personally – that philanthropy is scalable,” he says.

Agassi’s charter school real estate venture certainly satisfies a need. School founders almost universally struggle to find adequate facilities. Often school districts are reluctant to rent out vacant school buildings to charters, who are sometimes seen as competitors. They occasionally have to locate in less-than-ideal learning environments, like a renovated strip mall.

The pitch from Agassi’s investors is something like this: “Let us build you a school. You focus on teaching. And if you want to buy the building from us in a few years, great.”

 Santa Monica-based investor Bobby Turner helped get Agassi on board.

“If you want to treat a problem in society, philanthropy is fine,” Turner says. “But if you want to cure – really cure – you need to harness market forces to create a sustainable solution. That means making money, because only then is it scalable. And by the way, there’s no rulebook that says you can’t make money and societal change at the same time. They’re symbiotic.”

But some parents don’t buy the sales pitch.

“It kind of makes my stomach turn,” says Brett Bymaster, a parent in San Jose where the Agassi-Turner fund has been active.

He’s taken it upon himself to dig into their business model, though one can only dig so far. While they’re building public charter schools, there’s very little disclosure, including what they charge tenants.

“We need to partner with people outside, but I don’t think the solutions to problems in my community are one-percenters getting filthy rich,” he says.

Bymaster wonders what happens to one of these buildings if the charter has to shut down, and many do. So far, all 39 schools built by the fund are still up and running. A spokesman says if one closed, the building could be rented to another charter operator.

Even among charter school advocates, there is some quiet suspicion of partnering with hedge funds. First, there’s cost. One charter founder said a deal with Agassi was 25 percent above any other option.

Jessica Johnson leads the Colorado-based Charter Schools Facilities Initiative and doesn’t take a position on for-profit investors.

“I mean, I know of many instances where it’s worked out really well. I know of others where there have been challenges,” Johnson says.

Johnson says plenty of charter schools have had trouble working with non-profits too. That’s why she cautions everyone to read the fine print, no matter who is helping build their school. 

Close To 100,000 Hungarian Demonstrators Protest Internet Usage Tax

NPR News - Wed, 2014-10-29 14:11

Critics of the tax said this is a government attempt to create a "digital iron curtain" around Hungary. The government said it was just extending taxes it places on phones.

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As Infrastructure Crumbles, Trillions Of Gallons Of Water Lost

NPR News - Wed, 2014-10-29 14:06

The nation's aging pipes and water mains are springing expensive leaks, wasting more than 2 trillion gallons of drinking water nationally and 22 billion gallons in the Chicago area alone.

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After The Waves, Staten Island Homeowner Takes Sandy Buyout

NPR News - Wed, 2014-10-29 14:03

Staten Islander Stephen Drimalas barely survived Hurricane Sandy. Now he and several Staten Islanders will sell their oceanfront homes to the state, which hopes to get people out of flood-prone areas.

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Decoding The Food And Drink On A Day Of The Dead Altar

NPR News - Wed, 2014-10-29 14:00

The Mexican tradition celebrates the dead and welcomes their return to the land of the living once a year. Enticing them to make the trip is where the food, drink and musical offerings come in.

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To Tackle Sexual Assault Cases, Colleges Enlist Investigators-For-Hire

NPR News - Wed, 2014-10-29 13:41

Colleges are under pressure to revamp how they handle sexual assault cases. Some schools, rather than trying to train administrators to act like prosecutors, are outsourcing the job to real ones.

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No Ebola, S'il Vous Plait, We're French: The Ivory Coast Mindset

NPR News - Wed, 2014-10-29 13:23

The country borders Liberia and Guinea, but so far Ebola hasn't arrived. Maybe it's because of the French heritage. When the authorities tell people what to do to keep the virus out, they listen.

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Monsanto Hired This Guy To Help It Win Over Millennials

NPR News - Wed, 2014-10-29 12:39

Vance Crowe, 32, has a tough assignment: reach out to millennials, many of whom are skeptical of GMOs. Crowe says the company can do a better job of listening to their concerns.

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Campuses Play Host To Tanning Beds, Despite Skin Cancer Risk

NPR News - Wed, 2014-10-29 12:06

The links between tanning beds and skin cancer are well known, but a survey of the top colleges and universities in the U.S. shows that many allow tanning beds on campus.

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TV: Reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated

Marketplace - American Public Media - Wed, 2014-10-29 12:00

Seems like every election, some political analyst says the end is near for political ads on TV – that TV is dead. Well not this year. Candidates in the midterm elections are blasting voters with TV commercials.

Evan Tracey is on the front lines of the political ad wars. He's senior vice president at National Media Research, Planning and Placement, a Republican consulting firm, which offers candidates advice, makes TV ads and places them. What does he tell campaigns? Buy as much TV advertising time as you can. 

“If the predictions of TV being dead are true then it’s being buried in money,” he says.

Tracey says, sure TV audiences are aging, but older people vote. And TV ads can work with online ads to catch younger voters, who watch TV with smartphones in hand.

“So if I can have my voice and pictures on your TV screen and have my digital ad on your smartphone, I’ve gotten you two ways now,” he says.

Plus TV can be targeted more than ever now.  Cable set top boxes tell campaigns exactly what you’re watching. They figure out what your favorite shows are, and advertise on them. But Tracey says it’s still best to use TV as an old fashioned megaphone -- blanketing the airwaves, till there’s no escape.

“Some of these states right now – you know -  they’re seeing thousands of ads a day,” he says.

States like Iowa.  

 “It’s been really hard to watch TV without being bombarded with advertisements,” says Barbara Trish, professor of political science at Grinnell College in Iowa.

But Trish doesn’t mind the ads.  She loves them, even studies them at Grinnell. One of her favorites features a candidate who compares castrating hogs to cutting pork in Washington.

Trish agrees that TV is still king of campaign ads, but for a different reason. Candidates, parties and outside groups are pouring cash into the midterm election, and it needs a home.

“It’s just that there’s so much money out there," she says.  "It seems like, they feel like it has to be spent on something.  You’ve got to put it to use.”

There’s a lot of money sloshing around Colorado, too, where there are close Senate and gubernatorial races.  And lots of ads, focused on women’s issues and big government.

Floyd Ciruli is a pollster in Denver and the head of Ciruli Associates. He’s getting sick of all the ads; in fact, he’s been predicting the dethroning of TV since the early 2000s. Banging the drum about how candidates will go digital, and look for other ways to reach voters.  

But even he admits, when it comes to TV, "It’s still the king.”

Ciruli says blanket TV advertising can gain a campaign a few points in the polls. That could push a candidate over the top in Colorado.

“It’s going to be close," he says. "So a couple of percentage points can make the difference.”

Ciruli says TV’s crown will start to slip, eventually. But it’s firmly in place, for the foreseeable future. 

 

 

 

Scientists Implicate More Than 100 Genes In Causing Autism

NPR News - Wed, 2014-10-29 11:35

Spontaneous gene mutations, not ones inherited from parents, increase a child's risk of autism, scientists say. By comparing genes within families they've identified more than 100 suspects.

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Kickstarter: Bringing an idea to life

Marketplace - American Public Media - Wed, 2014-10-29 11:16

Yancey Strickler was eating at a restaurant in Brooklyn where he had been a regular for many years. His waiter was Perry Chen.

"Perry was an artist and someone who had a lot of interesting ideas," says Strickler. "He had this thought about creating a system where he could propose an idea to the world, and people would support it if they wanted to, but no one would be charged unless everyone thought it was a good idea."

Thus, Kickstarter was born, Strickler is CEO and Chen is Chairman. But it didn’t happen overnight. They went around pitching the idea to big investors for four years, facing rejection after rejection.

"It was terrible," Strickler says. "One guy said, 'There’s already enough art in the world why does there need to be more?'"

Ouch.

Listen to the full conversation from Marketplace's live show in New York by clicking on the audio player above.

How big is a billion users?

Marketplace - American Public Media - Wed, 2014-10-29 11:00

Facebook announced earnings on Tuesday, and the key word was "billion."

$3.2 billion: Revenue for this quarter.

One billion views: A new milestone for videos.

And, perhaps most importantly, 1 billion users. 

It's a number Facebook itself has already exceeded, and it's also the number that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg set as a goal for Facebook-owned products like Instagram, WhatsApp and Messenger before Facebook attempts to "aggressively" monetize them and turn them into "meaningful businesses in their own right."

"This may sound a little ridiculous to say, but for us products don’t really get that interesting to turn into business until they have about a billion people using them," said Zuckerberg. 

"It sounds a little ridiculous to me as well," says Nate Elliott, analyst at Forrester Research. 

"The reality is Facebook didn't turn its primary property - the Facebook business - until it had about a billion users," says Elliott. "And I wonder if they're not using that as the benchmark for everything else they do." 

But to understand just how "ridiculous" that benchmark is, you have to appreciate the sheer size of one billion.  To do that, I called up my high school math teacher, Don Smith.

"It’s an incomprehensible number, Stan, it really is," says Smith. 

The only way to comprehend it is to use a device to shrink it to something more manageable. For instance, consider an inch.

"A billion inches is over 15,000 miles," says Smith. Or about five trips from New York City to Los Angeles.

A billion users--that’s 120 times the population of New York City. To get that many users, you usually have to look at whole industries, not individual companies. 

"For example, the toilet paper market is pretty universal, but nonetheless, it’s not a single supplier," says Roger Kay at Endpoint Technologies Associates.

There are a handful of businesses that sell physical products to a billion people - Proctor & Gamble, Unilever, and so on. But Facebook has the advantage of a product it gives away for free, which it can do because its digital. "So how many accounts do you want to set up? As many as you want," says Kay.

The disadvantage of a free product is that you don't make money selling it--instead, you typically have to sell ads. This quarter, Facebook made about $2.37 in revenue for each of its 1.35 billion users.

So which companies would interest Mark Zuckerberg?

Credit: Brit+Co

How many products actually have a billion users? It depends on how you measure.

  • Facebook didn't pass the billion-user mark that long ago, and its biggest acquisitions, WhatsApp and Instagram, have a ways to go at 600 million and 200 million active users, respectively.
  • PayPal claims to process 10 million transactions a day, or a billion every two years. But they only have 157 million active accounts. Snore.
  • Amazon has inconceivably huge sales, but a piddly 244 million user accounts. Forget it.
  • As mentioned above, there are several huge conglomerates that reach billions of consumers - Procter & Gamble claims to serve nearly 5 billion people - but it's unlikely that they produce a single product that serves a billion people.
  • Google, one of Facebook's biggest rivals, is a contender. It was one of the first sites to reach a billion monthly unique visitors, and YouTube is there too, but it's not clear how many individual products would interest Zuckerberg. For example: Gmail had only 416 million users the last time Google reported those numbers, in 2012. Google Drive only has 240 million users.
  • Apple is close too. There are 800 million iTunes accounts, a decent measure of unique Apple users across their product line. The app store alone has clocked 75 billion downloads, and Apple just sold their 500 millionth iPhone.

There's one company we're fairly certain meets Zuckerberg's billion-user requirement by any measure: Coca-Cola. The company moves up to 1.9 billion servings a day, and its namesake beverage has been around for 128 years.

At press time, it wasn't clear if Zuckerberg would be interested in turning Coca-Cola into a meaningful business in its own right just yet.

Ohio wants its slice of fracking's oil wealth

Marketplace - American Public Media - Wed, 2014-10-29 11:00

The American fossil-fuel boom has spawned debates on what to do with this wealth. Ohio finds itself in the middle of one right now. The state’s Republican governor, John Kasich, is proposing to raise oil and gas taxes, to ensure the riches don’t all go to workers and companies based out of state.

“His view is, this is some sort of a rip-off,” says Ohio State economist Mark Partridge. “That these energy resources are transported out of the state of Ohio, used and refined in other places. And all the profit and wealth goes to these other places and it leaves Ohio.”

By most measures, Ohio’s taxes on energy production are low. They’re less than 1 percent, compared to 7 percent in Texas, 11 percent in Wyoming, and 25 percent in Alaska.

Kasich wants to raise state taxes to 2.75 percent or even higher. Drilling companies threaten to leave and go to low-tax states. But that hasn’t happened historically. A study by Headwaters Economics notes “the academic literature generally disagrees that tax competition is important to oil production.”

“The decisions on where to drill are not going to be determined by comparing different states,” says Michael Levi of the Council on Foreign Relations and author of "The Power Surge: Energy, Opportunity, and the Battle for America's Future." “They’re going to be determined on a location-by-location basis, on whether a profit can be made."

Governments that tax oil and gas taxes use the money in different ways. Some, like Norway, store it away for future generations in sovereign wealth funds. Other spend it on roads damaged by drilling, or invest in education.

Governor Kasich of Ohio wants to cut taxes, which spreads the energy wealth. But Mark Haggerty at Headwaters Economics worries that makes the state budget more dependent on taxes from fossil fuels – a boom and bust sector.

“In fact, what you’re doing is actually creating a less stable tax base for the state going forward into the future,” Haggerty says.

And the future is the whole question: how to take today’s riches and plant them in the right place.

Rocket explosion puts focus on private sector's role in space

Marketplace - American Public Media - Wed, 2014-10-29 11:00

An unmanned rocket that was supposed to ferry supplies to the International Space Station exploded just after liftoff Tuesday. That has drawn attention to NASA’s growing reliance on private space companies to do its legwork.

In 2008, NASA was preparing to retire the space shuttle. So it hired two private companies to resupply the space station: Orbital Sciences Corp., whose rocket just exploded, and Space Exploration Technologies (also known as SpaceX).

The initial price tag was $3.5 billion. The idea was to both to achieve the space agency’s goals at a lower cost to taxpayers, and to help foster the growth of the commercial space industry.

To do that, NASA wasn’t buying a new space shuttle.

“What they actually bought was cargo delivery services, just like you would buy services on Fed Ex or something like that,” says Frank Slazer, vice president for space systems at the Aerospace Industries Association.

Tuesday’s explosion may prompt concern over the increasing privatization of space. But industry watchers are quick to remind that NASA has always relied on the private sector.

“NASA’s never built a rocket,” says John Logsdon, who founded the Space Policy Institute at the George Washington University. “Rockets that NASA and the Air Force use have always been built by private companies.”

He doesn’t think the explosion says anything profound about this model of business.

“What it says is launching things into space is hard. And there will be unfortunately failures along the way,” he says.

The stakes are going to rise, though.

NASA recently hired Boeing and SpaceX to ferry astronauts to the space station in a few years. (Of course Boeing, and its heritage units, played an integral role in building the Apollo spacecraft.)

Meanwhile, the commercial space industry has grown globally. It’s now worth about $225 billion, according to Carissa Christensen, managing partner of the Tauri Group. That figure includes commercial satellite launches and operation.

“Putting that in context,” she says, “the total amount that governments spend globally is about $75 billion.”

NASA is getting ready to spend more. It’s now in the process of awarding the next round of cargo contracts. 

 

Remembering Black Tuesday, 85 years later

Marketplace - American Public Media - Wed, 2014-10-29 11:00

The Fed stopped buying bonds to help the economy recover from its worst disaster since the Great Depression. So we're taking this opportunity to remember what happened 85 years ago today.

October 29, 1929, or Black Tuesday, was the most devastating crash in the United States stock market history.

Interesting tidbit?

The number of shares trading hands on the New York Stock Exchange that day set a record not broken for 40 years. And they were trading by hand!

Russian Engines Could Be Focus Of Antares Launch Failure Probe

NPR News - Wed, 2014-10-29 10:32

NK-33 engines, originally destined for a Soviet-era moon shot that never got off the ground and later used in the Antares, are suspect, some scientists say.

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