National News

The Googlers inventing the future: mainly male, white

Marketplace - American Public Media - Thu, 2014-05-29 13:28

In the face of mounting pressure, Google has released some data on the diversity of its workforce, after years of claiming the information was a trade secret. The data came with the caveat from the company that "we're not where we want to be when it comes to diversity.”

Google is not alone in its lack of diversity —  the company’s mostly white and mostly male staff, especially among the ranks of engineers and executives, is in line with national trends in the U.S. tech sector, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics

So how does that lack of diversity affect the tech industry? Here’s one story to consider.

Not long after Arielle Zuckerberg was hired last year as senior product manager for Humin, a San Francisco start up, she was in a meeting talking about the design of the company’s mobile app. At the time, Zuckerberg was one of only three female engineers, and the only woman on the executive team.

Zuckerberg says in the meeting, the guys on the team were excited about a new feature in the works that let a user add a contact to a phone, just by knocking on the phone while it was in his or her pocket.

Well, make that—his pocket.

“I brought to the attention of the execs that women don't carry their phones in their pocket—they carry them in their purse,” Zuckerberg recalls. 

It's the kind of obvious but potentially fatal design flaw that could make an app not so exciting to half a company’s potential customers. A segment also known as: women.

For Zuckerberg, this was a painfully simple insight. “But to the execs,” she says, “it was like—‘Oh, wow, I never thought of that.’” 

Innovation "blind spots" are what Catherine Bracy calls these moments. She recruits engineers for tech non-profit Code for America, based in Silicon Valley—a place, Bracy says, with little diversity and many blind spots. 

“You assume that you have all the knowledge you need to solve all these problems, and you don't realize that your world is so small,” Bracy says. “Innovation happens when you have different types of people in a room together having arguments but coming out with better solutions and better ideas.”

There's lots of research showing that diversity helps a company innovate and profit, says Vivek Wadhwa, a tech entrepreneur and fellow at Stanford Law School. He points out that while engineers and executives at google and other tech companies are mostly white and male, their customers are not.

That imbalance raises an important question for Wadhwa: “If technology developers don't understand anything about their audience,” he wonders, “how will they develop better technologies?” 

Why the GDP got revised downward

Marketplace - American Public Media - Thu, 2014-05-29 13:24

The Bureau of Economic Analysis issued a revision Thursday morning of its estimate for Gross Domestic Product growth in the first quarter of 2014, and the revision made the economic picture look much worse. 

Instead of growing at an annualized rate of 0.1 percent, the bureau announced the economy actually shrank at an annualized rate of one percent. So how do you just not catch an economic contraction until months later?

“When we produced our first estimate last month we didn’t have complete data for the quarter,” explains Brent Moulton, associate director for National Economic Accounts at the Bureau of Economic Analysis in the Commerce Department. 

And why didn’t they have complete data? 

“Most of these data come from surveys of businesses, some from administrative records, but most from surveys ,” says Moulton.  “It takes time to get responses.”

The BEA comes up with more and better estimates over time as it gets more data.

“They don’t get all the pieces of it right away,” says Joseph Gagnon, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics.  “So there’s an advance estimate, then a preliminary estimate, then a final estimate, and at each point along the way they get more reports in and more data.”

And that’s not the end of it – GDP can be updated even years later as new businesses report back records. But back to the latest GDP estimate: Why did it shrink when jobs, unemployment, and the stock market didn’t? 

Two reasons.  Over the nasty winter the economy slowed, and that tainted the monthly data early in the first quarter. That dragged the estimate down, even though the monthly data at the end of the quarter showed pretty good numbers overall.  “By March the numbers were coming in strong again, but by that point the weakness was essentially baked into the cake,” says Christopher Low, chief economist with FTN Financial.

Secondly, business investment in inventory – a particularly volatile indicator, says Gagnon – turned out to be lower than expected.  When the BEA did its initial estimate in April, it only had two months of inventory data.  The missing months, when they finally arrived, showed that businesses had cut down – temporarily – on their inventories more than people had guessed.  That dragged down the estimate of GDP growth into negative territory.

It’s also worth pointing out that GDP didn’t actually shrink by one percent; it shrank at a rate that if  continued over the entire year would amount to one percent. 

If you’re curious why GDP shrank but jobs, unemployment, and the Dow didn’t, just remember that “GDP doesn’t answer all questions,” as Brent Moulton with the BEA says.  It measures all economic output – manufacturing, services, exports, imports, all of it.  That can change in the short term without jobs or stocks being created or lost.  GDP remains, says Joseph Gagnon, “our best measure of economic activity.”

Husband Of Woman Stoned To Death In Pakistan Killed First Wife

NPR News - Thu, 2014-05-29 13:12

Mohammad Iqbal, whose wife was killed by angry relatives in Lahore earlier this week, admits he killed his first wife so he could remarry.

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Ready, Set, Spray! Brazil Battles Dengue Ahead Of The World Cup

NPR News - Thu, 2014-05-29 13:00

With more than a million visitors expected for the games, Brazilian authorities are trying to control the mosquitoes that carry the disease and stop a sudden spike of cases in Sao Paulo.

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Hot Sauce Art: LA Museum Honors Sriracha and Tapatio

NPR News - Thu, 2014-05-29 12:49

For an exhibition called "LA Heat," the Chinese American Museum in Los Angeles asked 30 artists to come up with new works inspired by two homegrown hot sauce heroes: Sriracha and Tapatio.

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10 facts about Bitcoin (before it gets boring)

Marketplace - American Public Media - Thu, 2014-05-29 12:46

You can now pay your Dish Network TV bill with Bitcoin.

Andy Schmidt, Research Director with CEB TowerGroup, says one of the biggest knocks against crypto-currencies is that so far they’ve mostly been used for one-time transactions, not standard recurring payments. But, he says, Dish's move to accept dull, normal everyday payments will get more people using these systems more and more often.

Before Bitcoin becomes totally boring, here are five of our favorites – the weirdest/best/most random things you can buy using cryptocurrency:

  1. Space! Billionaire Richard Branson now takes Bitcoin. So hop aboard a Virgin Galactic craft and shoot off into the starry skies in a shiny space rocket. Maybe you'll get lucky and get a seat next to the Winklevoss twins.
  2. Thank god! It's about time. Bitcoin now buys us Beef Jerky. Chew on that. 
  3. Do you really, really love Bitcoin? Make it official.  Let the world know how you feel by proclaiming your love for Bitcoin in permanent ink on your body
  4. Hiding from the Fed? Hacking the NSA? Now you can use Bitcoin to safeguard your privacy in the brick and mortar world by paying for vertical blind replacement slats!
  5. All this mining for coins is exhausing.  Don't you wish you had a squishy pillow nest to sink into after mining for Bitcoins all day? Now you do!  Thanks to you can pay for your new sectional sofa with Bitcoins!

Five alternatives to Bitcoin
If the dark and shadowy world of Bitcoin isn't dark and shadowy enough, here are some alternatives. But, Schmidt says to keep in mind that most cryptocurrencies are basically variations on a theme. There's an algorithm involved and typically only a set number of coins.

  1. DarkcoinThe darker currency that values privacy. Its website says it's secure, decentralized and anonymous.
  2. Zerocash. This currency, still in the works, is a collaboration from MIT, Johns Hopkins and Tel Aviv University. Its makers say that Bitcoin has a privacy problem – payments can still be traced to users and every transaction is publicly available for everyone to see. Stay tuned!
  3. Aurora coin. A currency specifically for the people of Iceland.  It works like Bitcoin, but because Iceland ran into so much  (ahem) trouble during the last financial crisis, it's not allowed to engage in mining invisible currency.
  4. Latium.  The website for this new cryptocurrency says it's a new dawn, plus it's giving away coins free.
  5. Dogecoin. It has a cute dog for an icon and its tagline is "favored by Shiba Inus worldwide." It also has a NASCAR sponsorship.

You can look for more interesting and unusal things to buy and services to book with Bitcoin here.

Those big summer sequels may stop, one day

Marketplace - American Public Media - Thu, 2014-05-29 12:28

Wesley Morris has a question: Why does “big summer blockbuster” always mean “big summer sequel?”

“There’s another 'Transformers' movie,” says Morris,  film critic at Grantland.  “Everything is ‘another.’ It is either a sequel or part of a franchise, which is technically a sequel.”

Morris says that gargantuan franchises like Spiderman and Transformers have been safe bets for film studios in recent years. But this summer might see that trend changing.

“I think people are going to be ready for something new. And something original. The [negative] response to "Amazing Spider Man 2" has been really heartening, at least for me. It’s interesting to see moviegoers get a point where they are getting fed up with the idea of being expected to go see something because it’s starring a superhero, or based on a comic book."

The Economy Takes A Dip, But Analysts Look For It To Snap Back

NPR News - Thu, 2014-05-29 12:28

The latest U.S. report showed growth shrank in early 2014, but talk of a recession is unwarranted, economists say. They blame a harsh winter and say strong consumer spending signals a rebound.

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As Oklahoma Drought Continues, Farmers Prepare For Losses

NPR News - Thu, 2014-05-29 12:27

As Oklahoma enters its fourth year of sustained drought, some farmers expect the harvest to be so bad they'll end up calling their insurance agents and declaring this year a total loss. StateImpact Oklahoma's Joe Wertz reports that some are calling this the worst drought since the '50s — or even since the Dust Bowl.

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Initial Afghan Elections Went Well, But Worries Rise For Round Two

NPR News - Thu, 2014-05-29 12:27

Afghanistan's presidential election in April left no candidate with more than 50 percent of the vote. A second-round election will be held on June 14 — during the peak of the Taliban fighting season. There are growing concerns that election day could be a blood bath, and that a close outcome would result in political instability.

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Insurgents In Ukraine Shoot Down Helicopter, Killing General

NPR News - Thu, 2014-05-29 12:27

Reports from Ukraine say a general was among about a dozen soldiers killed when their helicopter was shot down by pro-Moscow separatists.

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Pakistani Woman Beaten To Death By Her Family As Police Stand By

NPR News - Thu, 2014-05-29 12:27

Pakistan is reeling from the latest so-called "honor killing." Just feet from a courthouse, a pregnant woman was stoned to death for marrying a man against her family's wishes.

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Old Senate Tradition Lies Behind Controversial Judge's Nomination

NPR News - Thu, 2014-05-29 12:27

President Obama nominated a controversial Georgia judge — one who once supported the display of the Confederate flag — for the federal bench. The White House says there's a particular reason for that.

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Pope Invites Israeli, Palestinian Leaders For Joint Prayer Session

NPR News - Thu, 2014-05-29 12:23

Israeli President Shimon Peres and Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, have agreed to attend the joint prayer meeting at the Vatican, set for next week.

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Texas Takes A Hard Right Turn

NPR News - Thu, 2014-05-29 12:23

In most states this year, the Republican establishment has managed to hold off Tea Party challengers. In Texas, the opposite was true.

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Venture capitalists learn to love education

Marketplace - American Public Media - Thu, 2014-05-29 11:48

Education isn’t what you’d typically think of as sexy. It’s practical. It’s serious.

But add a little tech and vavoom! Venture capitalists are very, very into it.

Michael Moe is CEO of GSV Capital, which has invested $100 million in education technology companies like Coursera and 2U. He said there’s a lot to like about education these days. 

Education as a whole is a big market—$2 trillion in the U.S. and $4.5 trillion globally—said Moe. “And it’s characterized by very few large players.”

Today, technology grabs only a slice of that spending. Moe estimates the e-learning market is around $80 million and growing.

There are big names angling for dominance, like Pearson, Google and News Corp. But Moe said that leaves plenty of room for small companies to hit big and grow fast. “I think the forces at work could compress that time from idea to mega-business into a much shorter period,” he said.

One of the companies trying to make the jump to mega-business is Remind101.

Basically, Remind101 gives teachers the ability to mass text kids and parents, things like homework assignments, test reminders, notes of encouragement. Like these:

Crepe Day is in danger of being cancelled! Be sure your behavior is not the reason! via @remind101

— Krista Applegate (@MmeApplegate) May 28, 2014


Candide: banquet information on choir room board. Payment due Thursday if you plan to attend. via @remind101

— David Carter (@cugeoffrey) May 29, 2014

Company CEO Brett Kopf says the idea originated back in fifth grade. “I have a bunch of learning disabilities,” he said, “I have ADD and dyslexia. I was diagnosed in fifth grade, and school was always really hard for me.”

In college, he realized reminders, like texts, could help him get stuff done. They could help him stay on track. 

So he and his brother set about building a company that provided that service. “I would drool at the thought of going to Silicon Valley,” said Kopf, “I thought it was some golden place where money just fell of trees. And it doesn’t.”

Okay. Money might not fall off trees.

But, since 2011, when Kopf and his brother got to Silicon Valley, they’ve raised more than $19 million from investors.

Remind101 is free for teachers. The company says teachers use it to send more than 80 million texts a month.

And, the teacher focus is part of the reason it’s so attractive to venture capitalists. There’s a shift in the education market. The customer is changing.

“In the past, the way that innovation came to schools was in a car,” said Jennifer Carolan, managing director of NewSchools Seed Fund, part of the NewSchools Venture Fund, a non-profit, philanthropic investment group. “A salesman would set up a meeting with a District IT administrator and in a few weeks time, the salesman would bring his computer and demo the product to the district decision maker.”

Today, she said, it’s all different. “We have teachers discovering apps and tools on their tablets and bringing them into the classroom.”

And with millions of teachers out there, those apps and tools can spread fast. “When this period of education history is written,” said Carolan, “it will be the story of the teacher who is driving technology growth in our schools and starting the edtech companies.” 

The question now is how much of the money chasing what’s next in the classroom, is going to pay-off. For investors. And for students.

Educational technology has already had some high-profile bankruptcies; investors and foundations have taken some hits.

And, on the education side of things, researchers like Justin Reich, at HarvardX think many of the companies getting money aren’t providing services that are changing the equation. 

Take, for example, online games with multiple choice answers. They are easy to identify said Reich, “Oh I know what this is, this is a worksheet. It’s randomized and it’s on a computer, but I had worksheet problems. I know what these things are.”

Or apps that hand out digital badges. “Oh, those are stickers. Mrs. Trusdale in the third grade gave me stickers, I recognize these things.”

A lot of online classes are teachers, teaching in front of a board. Not that transformative, he said. “If what we’re hoping to have happen is to have there be really profound changes in the way we prepare people for an extraordinarily complicated society, then paving old cow paths is not going to be the way to accomplish that.”

He thinks venture capital needs to look beyond what’s sexy, and focus a little more on substance.

Ford Recalls 1.4 Million Vehicles For Various Defects

NPR News - Thu, 2014-05-29 11:30

The recalls include 1.1 million SUVs with power steering defects, 200,000 Taurus sedans with a corrosion issue and 82,500 vehicles with floor mats that might interfere with the accelerator.

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Venture capitalists make a big deal over education

Marketplace - American Public Media - Thu, 2014-05-29 11:04

How to Use this Graphic:

Venture capitalists are pouring money into educational technology. If last year's numbers are any indication, the amount of spending could double to more than $2 billion in 2014. 

The above graphic uses data from the NewSchools Venture Fund, a public charity that invests in educational technology.  The Fund estimates that $452 million was invested in the category in 2013.

Each bubble represents one of 116 deals that NewSchools documented in 2013.  The bigger the bubble, the bigger the investment.  You can read more about each of the deals by clicking on the bubble.

No Surprise Here: Sisi Rolls To Victory In Egypt's Election

NPR News - Thu, 2014-05-29 10:58

Less than a year after a coup, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi won the presidential election with more than 90 percent of the vote.

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The new note home from teachers

Marketplace - American Public Media - Thu, 2014-05-29 10:37

As part of our story on venture capital investments in edtech, we met with the folks at Remind101.  

It's a service that allows teachers to send one-way text messages to students and parents.  Remind101 says teachers send 80 million texts a month.  

Teachers are using the service to do all sorts of nudging.  And celebrating.  


Here are a few examples of what teachers are sending...


Serial killer profile project due tomorrow. Be ready to present your PowerPoint! via @remind101

— Angela Thomas (@ROHSapPSYCH) May 26, 2014

Together we are way stronger than all alone. When we stand up for each other, we all win! via @remind101

— Gus Kaplanges (@gk81359) May 15, 2014

Tell everyone you know to buy their advanced dance show tickets!!!! via @remind101

— Whitney Dance Team (@whitneydance13) May 13, 2014

Remember you need a 2L bottle, construction paper, tube (for nose), duct tape, etc for Tuesday. via @remind101

— Ann Beemer (@Physicstchr) May 26, 2014

PreAP: make sure you bring your books and notebooks today. I'll be out so be on your best behavior. via @remind101

— Erin Underwood (@eunderwo) May 23, 2014

Two days left to preorder leis for graduation via @remind101

— KHS Activities (@KHSActivities) May 23, 2014

@HF2lax Reminder ! Be sure to cheer our varsity team on as they play round two play off today at Clarkston! #beatClarkston via @remind101

— Amy Kowalski (@akkrave) May 22, 2014

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