U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry recently gave Russia's foreign minister a couple of Idaho potatoes. That's just the latest in the pantheon of gifts to world leaders — from camels to bulletproof limos — where, no really, the giver shouldn't have.
Coming Wednesday to your television: the 13th season of American Idol. Ratings were down last time around, but Fox is promising a facelift for the singing competition. Love it, or over it, American Idol has changed the way we watch TV.
At this point, the American Idol format seems pretty unremarkable. We watch some guy that no one’s heard of take on Stevie Wonder; we watch celebs judge him; we vote ourselves. “Basically American Idol, in my mind, introduces audience interactivity,” says S. Shyam Sundar, a communications professor at Penn State. It lets us be part of the action. We chose between Clay Aiken and Ruben Studdard. The show gave all of us a teeny, tiny, bit of control, “and have a say in the outcome of the proceedings of the show.”
Sundar says it blends old media and new. It sets the stage for more watching together, while we’re in our PJs, watching apart.
But, the show’s format wasn’t entirely revolutionary. American Idol tapped into a long history of entertainment.
Live. Amateur competition.
“Even in the 50s, and on radio,” says Susan Murray, a media professor at New York University, “there had been amateur hours, popular amateur hour shows.”
American Idol came up with a new formula for telling a story we’ve liked hearing for a long time: that our secret talents could be discovered, that the guy next door could become the next big thing.
The number of college applications per capita is at an all-time high in America, and that's not making life any easier in the Admissions Office.
"I've applied to four schools and I'm thinking of applying to a few more," says Tim Murphy.
The high school senior from St. Louis sent in applications to places like Vanderbilt University and the University of Missouri, and he is nowhere near landing on his top choice.
"Almost anything feels like it can change my mind sometimes," Murphy says. "Stories I hear from friends who go to these schools, or the amount of money I'm getting from these schools."
Now that the application process has been moved online, kids are applying to more schools than ever. And all those applications stuffed into servers are making it harder for colleges to predict if a student will actually accept an admissions offer.
On a recent afternoon at Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville, hundreds of prospective students and their parents walk through the student center. Director of Admissions Todd Burrell is the guy in a three piece suit hanging out by the registration table.
"We know kids are applying to more and more schools, but they can only pick one," Burrell says.
Folks in the admissions business call this "yield," or the percentage of kids who accept admissions offers.
Like many schools, the university did not hit its target yield last year.
Fewer students can mean less revenue, and the school is using big data to step up its marketing game.
"What can we do more to keep them engaged in this process and say, 'I want to go there,'?" asks Burrell.
The university buys contact information from testing companies, and then sends all those kids e-mails.
The moment a kid clicks a request for more information, the marketing wheels start to turn: phone calls, e-mails, direct mailings, you name it.
Some institutions are taking this process to a whole new level.
"As a student goes through the search and application process, many times unbeknownst to them, colleges are collecting information about everything that they do," says David Hawkins, director of public policy and research for the National Association for College Admission Counseling.
Messages, campus visits, even social media interactions, are logged into admissions software.
"When the application is received, the college then has sort of a trove of data on the student," Hawkins says.
Hawkins stresses that a student has to clear an institution's academic bar. But he says colleges don't want to offer up a spot to a student who isn't likely to enroll, and all that data is crunched in the search for something called "demonstrated interest."
"How likely you are to enroll in the institution if you're accepted? That's 'demonstrated interest' in a nutshell," Hawkins says.
Mostly colleges want to see that a student has stayed in touch during the application process, but Hawkins says some go so far as to analyze the order a student lists schools on their federal aid application.
The idea is that students will put their preferred schools at the top of the list.
Under rising pressure to hit enrolment numbers, more schools are reaching to consultants for help. Hawkins says those contracts can be worth millions of dollars.
"The profession as it exists now is almost alien to the people who got into the business 20 or 30 years ago," Hawkins says.
Colleges are also using big data to help make sure kids leave campus with a degree, experimenting with systems designed to help catch struggling students before they fall through the cracks.
Asking for more details, U.S. District Judge Anita B. Brody rejected a preliminary approval of the $765 million deal reached last summer. Under the agreement between the league and more than 4,500 retired players, the NFL would contribute to a fund that would pay "medical and other benefits, as well as compensation" to those players who were injured during their careers.
A second allegation in as many months has ramped up calls for the country's Supreme Court to abide by its own 1997 ruling requiring panels in the workplace to hear harassment complaints.
Lawmakers tried to put months of bickering to bed on Monday by unveiling a $1.1 trillion spending bill that they'll vote on soon - and we have to admit, we were surprised.
Not by the deal, per se. The surprise came in the form of some unexpected government bills that will continue to be paid in 2014.
- Reassurances to Pope Francis. The U.S. State Department will continue funding a diplomatic presence at the Vatican, prohibiting a merger with the larger embassy in Rome "unless certain conditions are met to maintain its importance and authority." The Foreign Service as a whole, however, will have to make do with less: The bill cuts $224 milion for embassy security, maintenance, and construction costs.
- Condolences to a Congressional widow. Beverly A. Young, widow of Bill Young, the late House Representative from Florida, received her own $174,000 of appropriated funds.
- A ban on horsemeat. The bill contains ten lines reaffirming The Horse Protection Act of 1970. Other animals (and their respective protection acts) mentioned by name include rhinoceroses, tigers, great apes, marine turtles, and Asian elephants.
- Mail on Saturdays. The Postal Service will continue delivering six days a week - and if those packages come from Amazon, maybe even seven.
- "...appropriate" IRS videos? Not only did the embattled IRS lose $526 million in funding, they also lost their film-making privileges. Or at least most of them: "None of funds made available to the Internal Revenue Service by this Act may be used to make a video unless the Service-Wide Video Editorial Board determines in advance that making the video is appropriate, taking into account the cost, topic, tone, and purpose of the video."
- The Affordable Care Act. It's missing $1 billion for the Prevention and Public Health Fund, but Obamacare lives on.
What didn't make it into the bill? Money to enforce the ban on incandescent light bulbs.
Even as smoking bans spread across the U.S., mixologists are coming up with tobacco-infused tipples. But tobacco experts say these drinks could be risky because there's no way of knowing how much nicotine is in them.
The bank also reported a $5 billion profit, despite a series of costly settlements with the U.S. government.
Police say the suspected shooter has been taken into custody. Early reports are that at least two students were injured.
The remarks by defense official Moshe Yaalon indicate just how difficult discussions are over a possible Mideast peace deal.
Newly released court documents tell a narrative that sheds light on the secret world of performance enhancing drugs in professional sports. They detail surprising actions taken by both Rodriguez and Major League Baseball to hide or uncover a major doping scheme.
In a ruling with implications for the future of the Internet, judges say the Federal Communications Commission can't enforce rules that prohibit Internet providers from prioritizing some types of Internet traffic over others.
More and more women are getting diabetes while pregnant, which can be risky for both mother and child. But the condition can be successfully treated, which is why a panel that sets standards for preventive care has called for all pregnant women to be screened.
Fossils of Tiktaalik, which lived some 375 million years ago and is believed to be the first fish that walked on land, had more robust hindquarters than previously known.
Pizza printed up for dinner? Or how about an edible photograph for your next birthday cake? The first restaurant-grade approved 3-D printer was unveiled last week, and the gadget can churn out candies in any shape imaginable. Other printers in the works make custom-shaped pastas and assemble ravioli and gnocchi.
Officials are slowly lifting the bans on water use in areas that have been affected by last week's chemical spill.
The New Jersey governor's State of the State speech Tuesday will be overshadowed by the scandal surrounding lane closures on the nation's busiest bridge.
The New Jersey governor's State of the State speech Tuesday will be overshadowed by the scandal surrounding the lane closures on the nation's busiest bridge.
The 1984 raid on the Golden Temple in Amritsar, India, killed hundreds in Sikhism's holiest shrine. The revelation has dismayed British Sikh groups and prompted Prime Minister David Cameron to order an inquiry into the claim.