National News

Dozens Of Haitian Migrants Abandoned Near Puerto Rico

NPR News - Mon, 2014-06-02 14:30

Smuggling Haitians has become a big — and deadly — business. In recent days, several groups of migrants have been abandoned by smugglers on uninhabited islands in the Caribbean.

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Vox CEO Jim Bankoff on which numbers matter

Marketplace - American Public Media - Mon, 2014-06-02 14:21

Economists love the numbers. For some companies, the numbers that are most important are the ones that say how many clicks and hits they’re getting on their website.

"ComScore.com is definitely one of the many metric sites we look at for sure," says Jim Bankoff, CEO of Vox Media. "ComScore reports monthly. We have metric services that report in real time. We can literally look at a dashboard and just be obsessed with what’s going on, who’s looking at our content and how many people at any given moment."

So how interested are companies like Vox Media in having people understand the numbers by which they do their job?

"We make money by growing our metrics and those metrics are largely transparent," says Bankoff. "For instance, you can go to your favorite website and see how many people shared your favorite article on Facebook or Twitter. A lot of these metrics are now transparent and we’re making them more transparent. In our case, our ratings are transparent to our advertisers too."

Is there such thing as too much data?

"Absolutely," says Bankoff. "We like to tell our people that they should be data-informed as opposed to data-driven."

Bankoff says that although the numbers allow companies to produce content in a more targeted and efficient way, technology should be used to assist the story telling and assist the consumption, not replace it.

Double Rape, Lynching In India Exposes Caste Fault Lines

NPR News - Mon, 2014-06-02 14:17

The men accused in the girls' murder belong to their area's dominant caste. Protesters and politicians are lashing out at delays and indifference in a case that is creating a political maelstrom.

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A revision to the revision

Marketplace - American Public Media - Mon, 2014-06-02 13:59

Today we present a number not to be loved.

Economic indicators are often revised, higher or lower, usually a month or two after they come out. Right?

Well, today's report from the Institute of Supply Management, the ISM for short, which measure how American factories are doing, was revised twice in the space of about three hours. Wall Street sold off hard on the initial weak, but incorrect, report.

The excuse:

"Software glitches," the ISM said.

Facial Recognition: From the NSA to Facebook to Vegas

Marketplace - American Public Media - Mon, 2014-06-02 13:57

The NSA, the New York Times reports, is harvesting people’s images, millions of them per day. It's using them, we are told, to search for terrorists and other intelligence targets. 

If the targets are U.S. citizens, the NSA must obtain court approval.  

Facial recognition technology has taken our present national Gordian knot of privacy and security concerns through a circuitous path.

“The NSA and CIA have quite openly been working with facial recognition technology at least for the past 20 years,” says Chris Green, chief technology analyst at the Davies Murphy Group. 

For a time, as that technology filtered into the private sector, it developed a life of its own. Notably “in Las Vegas,” Green says. A banned card counter can cost a casino half a million dollars in 20 minutes, so it was important for the private security industry to work on quick identification. “Vegas has been a great proving ground for facial recognition technology. It’s put a lot of money into it and really refined and honed it down.”

The groundwork laid by government agencies and the military, says Green, “created a secondary market in the private sector which is in turn is now feeding back” into government.

That feedback into government is also largely being financed by the government. Especially since 9/11.  

“I would have to guess its 70 percent or higher government dollars,” says Chris Boehnen, who leads the Secure Computer Vision Team at Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

When it comes down to what that public and private investment has brought us, it’s important to separate the fanciful from the factual, says Boehnen. 

Looking at Facebook’s tagging feature, for example, “you could easily get the idea that modern technology is capable of taking all of Facebook’s images and telling who you are, and that’s very inaccurate from a technical standpoint.”

Facebook, says Boehnen, almost certainly employs shortcuts that make it appear far more advanced than it is. For example, Facebook most likely isn’t comparing your photo album to all photo albums on Facebook from here to Mongolia. It’s comparing the faces in your album, most likely, to your friends, or maybe your friends’ friends. 

In the real world, facial recognition technology can be both much better, and much worse.  Patrick Grother tests commercially developed facial recognition technologies for the National Institute of Standards and Technology. He says in a recent test, theyenrolled 1.6 million people and achieved a 96 percent recognition rate. Meaning that if they were searching for one person out of a group of 1.6 million, they could pick that person out successfully 96 percent of the time. 

But that comes with a big if: it only works if the photos being used are controlled – well lit, frontal photos like a passport or a driver’s license photo. (Incidentally, that’s why you’re not supposed to smile in those photos – all the better to identify you or someone impersonating you). 

This is tremendously useful for government agencies who are trying to determine if someone is fraudulently registering a new passport or driver’s license under another name.  Less so if you’re trying to pick a bomber out of a crowded mall.  

Grother is not privy to what the NSA or CIA use. Green, with Davies Murphy Group, suspects those agencies enjoy even higher success rates “in the high 99 percent range.” But even then, the accuracy is only as good as the data, a.k.a., the photos one is comparing. Clear photos make for high identification rates. Green says modern day surveillance cameras and Closed Circuit TV cameras can often provide such clear images.

We're already halfway toward the EPA's new CO2 limits

Marketplace - American Public Media - Mon, 2014-06-02 13:55

This morning, EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy announced proposed regulations that call for a 30 percent reduction by 2030 in carbon dioxide emissions from existing power plants. But it’s not 30 percent from today's levels. It’s 30 percent from where the U.S. was in 2005— when emissions were a lot higher. In fact, they’ve dropped 15 percent since then.  If the country has already coasted halfway to the finish line, the next half promises to be tougher. 

It's worth remembering that the last nine years haven’t been an easy ride. "The biggest thing since 2005 has been the slow economic times since 2009, so that’s nothing to get excited about," says Lucas Davis, an energy economist at the University of California at Berkeley. The recession meant lower demand for energy— especially from industries that use electricity to run factories.

Doug Vine at the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions offers another contender for what’s been driving emissions down: "The largest force is the natural gas boom that we’ve seen in this country," he says. Burning natural gas emits about half as much carbon dioxide as coal for the same amount of energy.

However, another trend that's pushed emissions down—more efficiency, more solar, and more wind power — stems partly from higher natural gas prices, from the years before 2005.

"Those increases in natural gas prices were leading to increases in electricity prices," says Susan Tierney of the Analysis Group, "and that was making a lot of people very concerned." Those concerns prompted a lot of states to start promoting wind and solar power, and energy-efficiency.

That trend got a push from the federal government. "The 2009 federal stimulus put a big slug of money into energy efficiency and renewable energy," says Dan Bakal of Ceres.  The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act included $31 billion in energy programs, with the biggest chunk going toward energy-efficiency.

But the stimulus is over. The recession too. Natural gas prices have started going back up, and coal is making a small comeback. WIthout a policy like the EPA’s new regulations, analysts say we would expect to see greenhouse gas emissions start going up again.

Study: Americans Less Fearful Of Storms Named After Women

NPR News - Mon, 2014-06-02 13:23

People are less likely to seek shelter or otherwise prepare for storms given female names, researchers say. As a result, such storms result in nearly twice as many deaths as those with male names.

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Will EPA's New Emission Rules Boost Your Power Bill? It Depends

NPR News - Mon, 2014-06-02 13:17

The Environmental Protection Agency wants power plants to cut carbon pollution by 30 percent. Analysts say the impact on consumers will hinge on how individual states move to meet the standards.

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China's economic boom leaves a trail of ghost cities

Marketplace - American Public Media - Mon, 2014-06-02 13:09

Nearly a year ago, I visited a replica of New York City under construction outside the Northern Chinese city of Tianjin. Workers were constructing dozens of skyscrapers on a piece of swampland inside a bend in the river, giving it an uncanny resemblance to the island of Manhattan. There were plans for a Lincoln Center, a Rockefeller center, and much more.

Lin Lixue, a salesman for one of the developers, was beside himself. “Our goal is to create the world’s largest financial center, right here, within ten years!” Lin told me. “We’re building skyscrapers, we’ve got China’s largest high-speed railway station coming soon, we’re building a tunnel under the sea, and we’ll soon build several subway lines.”

A year later, construction on this city, named Yujiapu, has all but grinded to a halt. Investors have pulled out. And a cluster of skyscrapers sit, half-finished – Manhattan on hold.

“It was a failure before it even started,” says Gao Fei inside the Tianjin office of Centaline Property, where he works as director of investment consulting. “The most important thing for Tianjin’s government has always been a high GDP rate. That means the government has to spend a lot of money on huge projects like this one. In China, these kinds of wasteful projects are everywhere.”

For years, high GDP growth has ensured local officials promotions within the Chinese Communist Party. In the case of the faltering Manhattan replica of Yujiapu, it helped boost Tianjin’s GDP growth rate to around 16 percent for three years, the fastest in China at the time. And that helped former Tianjin mayor Zhang Gaoli get promoted – to Vice Premier of China. In Zhang’s rearview mirror on his way to Beijing: a failed project and mountains of debt.

Hundreds of miles away lies China’s most infamous example of a colossal waste of investment: The city of Kangbashi, where on most mornings, you can watch staff members of the local hotel do a choreographed dance to techno music sprinkled with horse calls while taxi drivers pull up to watch.

There’s really nothing else to do here. The city – built for a population the size of Pittsburgh – is nearly empty. It was built a decade ago to house around a half a million people. At the time the region, known as Ordos, was rich from selling coal – Ordos sits atop one of China’s largest coal deposits. But today, coal prices are at an historic low, and according to state media, Ordos is in so much debt that it had to borrow tens of millions of dollars from a local developer just to pay the salaries for its city employees.

Xiong Gang, a migrant from faraway Sichuan province, came here to set up a restaurant to serve them. “Everyone knows this is a ghost town, so our restaurant doesn’t have to pay rent for three years,” says Xiong. “The government gave it to us for free so that they had a place to eat – they also hoped more businesses would come. “

The Ordos shopping mall next door is five floors of emptiness. Red banners hanging from the central atrium congratulate the mall on its grand opening. They dangle over a single squatter living in a tent in front of the first floor’s vacant information booth.

Across an empty public square filled with giant bronze statues of Genghis Khan’s family, I walk through the dark corridors of an office building, where dozens of doors have "for rent" signs on them.

I see a woman coming out of one of them. She says she works at a grocery store serving city employees, she came here from the countryside, and she pays the equivalent of $75 a month to sleep in an empty office space. She washes herself in the building’s public bathroom down the hall. She’s not alone. More than a hundred migrant workers live here, too – all trying to make what they can off of what’s left of this city.

Ordos’ government just issued a ban on all construction. But before it goes into effect, the city just can’t seem to help itself. It’s building a new skyscraper park near a manmade lake and three sports stadiums for the 2015 Chinese ethnic minority games costing hundreds of millions of dollars. Next door to that: a Formula 1 racetrack. Porsche used to sponsor the Porsche Carrera Cup Asia here until last year when sewage reportedly filled the pit stops and racers complained about the quality of the track.

Back in Tianjin, real estate analyst Gao Fei isn’t optimistic about China’s efforts to prevent future economic waste like Yujiapu and Ordos. “You can’t do anything about it,” says Gao, shaking his head. “Local officials are too powerful. They’re only concerned with the problems during their 5-year terms in office. If they can produce good numbers, they’ll be promoted. They’re not interested in the long-term plan."

Gao hopes for a day in China when government officials are evaluated for more than just local GDP growth. He says what really matters is the income of the people they govern, access to good health care and education. If these were the new goals in China, he says, all of this would be pretty easy to solve.

A glimpse into China's most-famed "ghost cities"

Bursts Of Light Create Memories, Then Take Them Away

NPR News - Mon, 2014-06-02 12:33

Scientists seem to have answered a fundamental question about the nature of memory. They have found compelling evidence that memories are made by strengthening connections between certain brain cells.

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Despite Expansion, Many Pre-K Programs Fail To Reach Immigrant Kids

NPR News - Mon, 2014-06-02 12:28

Most states have embarked on a significant expansion of preschool programs, but a new report says they appear to be missing the kids who need these programs most: low-income, immigrant children.

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Civil Rights Activist Yuri Kochiyama Dies At 93

NPR News - Mon, 2014-06-02 12:22

Prominent activist Yuri Kochiyama has died of natural causes at 93. The civil rights champion successfully fought for reparations to be paid to Japanese-Americans interned during World War II.

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Supreme Court: Case Involved Romantic Jealousy, Not Chemical Weapons

NPR News - Mon, 2014-06-02 12:22

The justices ruled that federal authorities erred by invoking the chemical weapons treaty in prosecuting a woman who attacked a romantic rival with chemicals.

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As Bergdahl Returns Home, Accusations Of Desertion Surface

NPR News - Mon, 2014-06-02 12:22

Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl recently returned to the U.S., released from Taliban captivity in a deal that also released five Guantanamo Bay detainees. A member of Bergdahl's squad tells of a young soldier who turned sour on the Afghan mission and deserted. If true, the Army would have to consider the circumstances of his capture and whether it warrants charges.

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Palestinian Split Shows Signs Of Healing, But Israelis Aren't Pleased

NPR News - Mon, 2014-06-02 12:22

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas swore in the cabinet for a unity government joining his Fatah party with Hamas. It resolves a 7-year-old split but also draws condemnation from Israeli leaders.

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As Spain's King Steps Down, Protesters Hope He's The Last One

NPR News - Mon, 2014-06-02 12:22

The king of Spain says he is stepping down, ceding the throne to the crown prince. King Juan Carlos has been in ill health, and his popularity has dropped recently after a series of scandals.

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With New EPA Rules, McCarthy Sees Economic Upside In Health Savings

NPR News - Mon, 2014-06-02 12:22

For more on the new pollution regulations, Robert Siegel speaks with Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy about her agency's carbon emission plan.

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EPA Lays Out Centerpiece To Obama's Climate Change Policy

NPR News - Mon, 2014-06-02 12:22

The Obama administration is announcing new pollution standards Monday. The rules, key elements of President Obama's climate change policy, may decide the fate of coal-fired power plants in the U.S.

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Odds Of Abuse And Mistreatment Add Up Over Children's Lives

NPR News - Mon, 2014-06-02 12:17

Each year, 1 percent of children are abused or neglected, usually by their parents. By the time children turn 18, about 1 in 8 of them is likely to have been maltreated, an analysis finds.

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Former Charlotte, N.C., Mayor Will Plead Guilty To Fraud

NPR News - Mon, 2014-06-02 12:06

Patrick Cannon is accused of having accepted $50,000 in bribes. He will plead guilty to fraud on Tuesday. Cannon stepped down as mayor in March, less than four months after he was sworn in.

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