National News

Why Some Politicians Turn Down Free Money

NPR News - Tue, 2014-07-15 12:14

Once in a while, elected officials turn down raises because they think it looks bad if they're also having to cut budgets or raise taxes. Sometimes, though, they're genuinely altruistic.

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U.S. Customs Seize Giant African Snails Bound For Dinner Plates

NPR News - Tue, 2014-07-15 12:06

Officials say the snails are "highly invasive, voracious pests" that eat paint and stucco off houses. But the snails are a prized delicacy in West Africa, where they're marinated or grilled on sticks.

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Laughing in Hollywood just got cheaper

Marketplace - American Public Media - Tue, 2014-07-15 12:02

Hollywood is making a lot of comedy films this summer, but they're not spending as much as they were before. The cost of making a comedy has dropped almost 50 percent in the past four years.

So what does this mean for the movies that weren’t a big hit in the box office, like "Blended," starring Adam Sandler and Drew Barrymore? Are those movies going to lose money?

"They’re still going to make money," says Sharon Waxman, editor-in-chief at The Wrap. "It’s not going to make $100 million at the box office, like most Adam Sandler comedies have in the past, but it’s still going to make a profit."

Hollywood has finally figured out how to pay the talent less, and keep production costs down. However, these movies are still profitable because overseas ticket sales make up 70% of the global box office.

"When it comes to comedies, humor is such a particular thing," says Waxman. "It may work in some countries, and not work in others."

In China, the polluter 'that-must-not-be-named'

Marketplace - American Public Media - Tue, 2014-07-15 11:31

Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province, is home to a thriving teahouse culture. But there’s more than tea brewing here. The tradition of chatting away the day with friends has, for centuries, made it easier for folks here to gossip and talk about politics and current events. Lately, the talk has been about air pollution.

“There are more people and more cars and more industry," complains Wu Youqiong, who sits and drinks tea with her family, "The pollution is bad for all of us – we all have lungs. The government needs to do something about it.”

In the past year, one of the most notorious projects in the history of China’s oil industry began operation outside the city. It’s a $6 billion petrochemical plant run by China National Petroleum Corporation, the country’s largest state-owned oil company, and it has become a focus of a corruption investigation into the family of Zhou Yongkang, China’s former security chief. "The people here didn’t want the plant built, but they built it anyway," says Wu, "It’s going to harm everyone’s health. It’s something people should protest."

The people of Chengdu tried.

Last year, many here among the city’s 14 million residents planned a weekend public demonstration to protest the plant. When the local government found out, police detained organizers, sent out text messages warning people to stay inside, and the government required people to work on the Saturday of the protest, forcing high school and university students to remain in class through the weekend.

Officials are still paranoid– within minutes of arriving in Chengdu, I call a source who had agreed to talk with me about how the pollution affects her family. She abruptly cancels our interview – she’s being interrogated by police officers who had intercepted our emails and text messages. The next day, I hire a driver to take me to Pengzhou, the site of the petrochemical plant. It's a refinery that’s as large as the nearby city. In a small village in the plant’s shadow, I stop to talk to a farmer. "My home was destroyed for the plant last August," a woman tells me, "The sky here is always polluted now. The plant has had a huge impact on our health."

Before I can get her name, a man pulls up beside me on a motorcycle and asks me what I’m doing. He glares at the woman and she dashes off.

I tell him I’m a journalist and I’m talking to people about pollution. “There’s no pollution here,” he says.

Before I can ask him more questions, he makes a call on his cellphone. A minute later, a group of thugs show up. I hop in the car, and we drive to another location where I again begin talking with people, but the men catch up to me and intimidate them, too. Before long, I'm being chased out of Pengzhou by six cars; a motorcade of thugs with a foreign journalist in the lead.

Back safely in Chengdu, I speak with Jin Lei and Guo Xiaohong, a husband and wife who are concerned about the plant. "A lot of people are concerned about the plant," says Guo, who used to work for an environmental NGO in Chengdu. "but people are no longer willing to do anything about it – they don’t think they can change the situation."

Jin and Guo’s two daughters are playing in their living room. A couple of years ago, when the pollution in Chengdu was particularly bad, the couple had to bring both girls to the emergency room several times for breathing problems. “The pollution that year was just as bad as Beijing’s," remembers Jin. "I used to train for triathalons, but I’ve stopped that because my bronchitis was so bad.”

Back in 2005 when Jin and Guo were studying at elite schools in Beijing, they were among a group of students permitted to attend a talk by Al Gore. He was visiting Beijing to talk about his documentary “An Inconvenient Truth”. After the talk, officials allowed only one question from students.

Jin raised his hand and Gore called on him.

“I asked Mr. Gore what can we, as normal people, do to help China’s environment?" remembers Jin. "He said, ‘You are the representatives of China’s young generation, and you must have faith that things can change. If you don’t have faith, then future generations will have less faith.’”

Jin and Guo have now applied this message to how they live in Chengdu. The couple uses reclaimed water to help grow their urban garden, and they’ve taught their daughters to use bath water to help flush the toilet. “Whatever mandate the government hands down that will help protect our environment, we will support it 100 percent," says Jin. "As a country, we must work together. Otherwise, we’ll all pay the price.”

We must have faith, he says, echoing what Al Gore told him - that things can change. But sometimes in China, it’s hard to keep that faith: Just two hours after I leave Jin and Guo’s home, the police show up to intimidate them, too.

What bright lights can tell you about a nation's economy

Marketplace - American Public Media - Tue, 2014-07-15 10:52

The pale blue dot aglow with millions of little lights. It's an image that never ceases to fascinate. But those lights might tell us more than you think.

A new study published in the Quarterly Journal of Economics says that cities and regions that are the birthplaces of a country's leader recieve perferential political and economic treatment in some nations, evidenced by how bright they appear from space after the leader comes into power.

From Wired Magazine:

Paul Raschky from the Monash Centre for Development Economics and Sustainability at Monash University in Australia compared the night-time light intensity of 38,427 subnational regions between 1992 and 2009 with the birthplaces of political leaders of 126 countries.

"Our results suggest that being the leader's birthplace increases night-time light intensity and regional GDP by around four and one per cent respectively," Raschky said, citing previous research that confirms the connection between economic activity and light generated at night.

Here's a look at some of the cities that the study examined, and other images from orbit that show how different economic conditions can change the view from space:

Gbadolite, Zaire (Democratic Republic of Congo)

A screenshot from NASA's "Blue Marble" application showing the city of Gbadolite. (Image courtesy of NASA Earth Observatory)

This small town in the Democractic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire) was emphazised by the study for the lavish economic favoritism bestowed upon it by the country's authoritarian president, Mobutu Sese Seko, who was born near Gbadolite.

"Mobuto built a huge palace complex costing millions of dollars, luxury guesthouses, an airport capable of handling Concords, and had the country's best supply of water, electricity and medical services," says study researcher Paul Raschky.

Hambantota, Sri Lanka

A screenshot from NASA's "Blue Marble" application showing the region of Hambantota, on the southern tip of Sri Lanka. (Image courtesy of NASA Earth Observatory)

Another region identified in the study for receiving preferential treatment from Sri Lankan president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, who was born in the district. The largest city in the area, Hambantota has a population of 11,000, has seen the construction of a 35,000-seat cricket stadium, and has plans to build a large port.

North Korea and South Korea

An image taken from the International Space Station on Jan. 30, 2014, shows South Korea (lower right) and China (upper left) with North Korea in the center. (Image courtesy of NASA Earth Observatory) 

A photograph from space perfectly illustrates differences in economic development between North and South Korea — a brightly illuminated South, and an eerily dark North.

The Nile River

(Image courtesy of NASA Earth Observatory)

The Nile River with its valleys and delta make up less than five percent of Egypt’s land area, but more than 90 percent of its population lives there. The string of lights illuminating the river's path through the country at night highlights the societal importance of the Nile in Egypt.

North Dakota's fracking fields

Illustration by NPR/NASA

An NPR science writer was looking through NASA's images of Earth at night, and noticed an unusual glow coming from the normally fairly dark North Dakota, one that revealed how the light across the U.S. is still subject to economic changes.

Their explanation:

What we have here is an immense and startlingly new oil and gas field — nighttime evidence of an oil boom created by a technology called fracking. Those lights are rigs, hundreds of them, lit at night, or fiery flares of natural gas. One hundred fifty oil companies, big ones, little ones, wildcatters, have flooded this region, drilling up to eight new wells every day on what is called the Bakken formation.

What was previously wheat and corn fields has quickly become a blazing energy business that has made North Dakota the second largest gas-producing state in the country.

Two Former State Attorneys General Arrested In Utah

NPR News - Tue, 2014-07-15 10:49

The former chief law enforcement officers face 23 counts of bribery, obstruction of justice and other charges. Utah Gov. Gary Herbert calls it "a black eye" for the state.

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Odin's Beard! Marvel Announces A New Thor — And She's A Woman

NPR News - Tue, 2014-07-15 10:02

The comic book publisher said the new character will be the Thor of the Marvel Universe.

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Why A Village Leader Ordered The Rape Of A 14-Year-Old In India

NPR News - Tue, 2014-07-15 10:00

Rape is illegal in India. But history and tradition make it hard to enforce the law. And in remote parts, rape of a female relative is still considered fair punishment for a man's crimes.

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In Response To Dwindling Applications, Peace Corps Makes Big Changes

NPR News - Tue, 2014-07-15 09:01

The Peace Corps has announced that it's streamlining its application process so volunteers won't have to spend hours doing paperwork or wait a year to find out if they're being sent abroad.

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In 'Underwater Dreams,' Robotics Team Puts Lens On Immigration Debate

NPR News - Tue, 2014-07-15 08:13

The new documentary, produced by Jeb Bush Jr., explores the topic of immigration reform through the lives of undocumented students who win an underwater robotics competition.

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Plan To Make 6 States Out Of California May Head To Ballot

NPR News - Tue, 2014-07-15 08:08

The plan would create states with names such as Jefferson, Silicon Valley, South California. The constitutional amendment needs more than 800,000 signatures to qualify; backers say they have enough.

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Comcast 'Embarrassed' By The Service Call Making Internet Rounds

NPR News - Tue, 2014-07-15 07:53

In case you missed it, a customer posted eight minutes of a bleak call with Comcast. His attempt to cancel his cable set a new standard for bad customer service.

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Will Camu Camu Be The Next Amazonian 'It' Fruit?

NPR News - Tue, 2014-07-15 07:38

Camu camu will soon dethrone açai — an Amazonian berry that's made its mark in the crowded health food market. Or so its promoters are claiming. We asked NPR's Brazil bureau to investigate.

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In Worst Attack In Years, 89 Afghans Killed By Suicide Bomber

NPR News - Tue, 2014-07-15 07:36

The attack occurred Tuesday morning near a market in the eastern province of Paktika. At a time of political uncertainty, deadly attacks are taking place on a near-daily basis.

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Why Google and Novartis are teaming up

Marketplace - American Public Media - Tue, 2014-07-15 07:00

First, there was Google Glass. Now, Google is getting into contact lenses, teaming up with the Swiss pharmaceutical company Novartis. 

They're working on smart lenses that will be able to monitor blood sugar levels for diabetics through the natural tears in our eyes.  

Google and Novartis also say they’re developing another lens that can auto-focus the eye. It could help with reading, because as the eye ages, it’s harder to see things up close.   

The two companies complement each other pretty well: Google doesn’t need any money from Novartis, while Novartis can help Google navigate the clinical and regulatory side of things.

“They need more the expertise in terms of running clinical trials, getting approval from the FDA, and then marketing after approval,” says John Mack, who follows the pharmaceutical industry as publisher of "Pharma Marketing News."

Google could definitely use an FDA go-between. About five years ago, the FDA went after pharmaceutical companies about ads that popped up in Google searches. The FDA said the ads didn’t contain relevant risk information. 

The partnership also benefits Novartis. Its contact lens division, Alcon, will get a huge jump into smart contact lens technology with the deal. 

Novartis sees a lot of potential for contact lenses that monitor our health. The company says it sees the Google deal as an opportunity to “develop and commercialize” Google’s smart lens technology.

CORRECTION:  The original version of this story misidentified the publication of John Mack. The text has been corrected.

 

Money and love: What would you change about your partner if you could?

Marketplace - American Public Media - Tue, 2014-07-15 06:55

A 2009 study by Jeffrey Dew, faculty fellow at the National Marriage Project and an assistant professor of Family, Consumer, and Human Development at Utah State University, found that couples who argue about money once a week were 30 percent more likely to divorce over time than couples who reported disagreeing about finances just a few times per month.

We're collecting stories and moments that drive you crazy when it comes to your partner and money. Here's a few responses we've received so far:

@lizzieohreally @MarketplaceWknd Daily Starbucks visits (when I bought him an espresso machine for Christmas).

— Melissa (@Muhlyssa_A) July 15, 2014

@lizzieohreally @MarketplaceWknd Bet you'll get this a lot, but too cheap! Example: driving around for 30+ mins to avoid paying for parking

— Daryl Paranada (@darylparanada) July 14, 2014

What could you change financially about your partner if you could? Let us know in the comments or email us.

And if you need more help when it comes to money in your relationships, here are a few stories from our archives:

Marriage and money: Tips before you walk down the aisle
Hiding money from your spouse, for the sake of the marriage
Money & relationships: When you can't just hug it out

Money and love: What could you change if you could?

Marketplace - American Public Media - Tue, 2014-07-15 06:55

A 2009 study by Jeffrey Dew, faculty fellow at the National Marriage Project and an assistant professor of Family, Consumer, and Human Development at Utah State University, found that couples who argue about money once a week were 30 percent more likely to divorce over time than couples who reported disagreeing about finances just a few times per month.

We're collecting stories and moments that drive you crazy when it comes to your partner and money. Here's a few responses we've received so far:

@lizzieohreally @MarketplaceWknd Daily Starbucks visits (when I bought him an espresso machine for Christmas).

— Melissa (@Muhlyssa_A) July 15, 2014

@lizzieohreally @MarketplaceWknd Bet you'll get this a lot, but too cheap! Example: driving around for 30+ mins to avoid paying for parking

— Daryl Paranada (@darylparanada) July 14, 2014

What could you change financially about your partner if you could? Let us know in the comments or email us.

And if you need more help when it comes to money in your relationships, here are a few stories from our archives:

Marriage and money: Tips before you walk down the aisle
Hiding money from your spouse, for the sake of the marriage
Money & relationships: When you can't just hug it out

Citigroup Settlement Offers Former Homeowners 'Cold Comfort'

NPR News - Tue, 2014-07-15 06:55

The Justice Department's settlement with Citigroup offers $2.5 billion for "consumer relief." Critics say it will do nothing for those hurt most by the foreclosure crisis: people who lost their homes.

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Most Employers See A Benefit In Covering Contraceptives

NPR News - Tue, 2014-07-15 06:32

The recent Supreme Court ruling gives employers more latitude in refusing to pay for certain kinds of birth control for employees. But most companies won't go that route, analysts predict.

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NPR News Executive Leaves For Job At The Atlantic

NPR News - Tue, 2014-07-15 06:28

Margaret Low Smith, who has served as NPR's senior vice president for news for three years, is leaving the company to become the president of The Atlantic's live events business.

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