National News

In New Exhibit, Running Shoes Are Potent Symbol Of Boston Bombing

NPR News - Mon, 2014-04-07 12:03

Mourners left more than 600 pairs of sneakers at the site, shoes that held deeply personal meanings for runners before the race.

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Pixar: From 'Toy Story' to today

Marketplace - American Public Media - Mon, 2014-04-07 11:56

In 1995, a relatively unknown company called Pixar released the first animated movie made entirely on a computer. The movie was called "Toy Story" and one of the guys at the head of that company was Ed Catmull.

But Catmull downplays the importance of the computer in "Toy Story's" success.

“It’s not about the technology,” he says.  “We use the technology, we develop it, we love it, [but] it’s about the story.”

Catmull’s new book, “Creativity Inc: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration” takes a look at the company’s history and their creative process.

The key, says Catmull, is being prepared to deviate from the plan: "Every one of our films, when we start off, they suck... our job is to take it from something that sucks to something that doesn’t suck. That’s the hard part.”

Sometimes, those "deviations" are more like "overhauls": “Almost half our movies have gone through complete restarts.”

He cites "Ratatouille" as an example where of a dramtic reboot. The original version follows a rat who wants to be a chef -- and it also followed the rat’s mentor, a French chef whose star has faded in the culinary world. The Pixar team found themselves stuck. Who was the story really about? The rat or the chef? They brought in Brad Bird of “The Incredibles” who killed the chef. Literally. Catmull credits Bird with saving the film.

“The trick is, in everything we do, there are things we love. And sometimes the things we love get us stuck. And it’s only if we let go of some of those things that we free the movie up to become greater.”

External forces also helped make Pixar successful – including Steve Jobs and the sale of Pixar to Disney, their longtime partner.

“As we developed, we needed to have other resources,” says Catmull, about how Disney got involved. Jobs at this point knew he had cancer, and was trying to set Pixar up for long term success.

Jobs already had a good relationship with Disney’s Bob Iger. Catmull says he felt Iger “was the right guy to go with” after Disney and Apple made a groundbreaking deal to release episodes of "Lost" and "Desperate Housewives" on iTunes, back when most people felt uneasy about putting their content on the web. Catmull says he realized Iger was someone who could take risks – something he values at Pixar.

When asked to summarize Pixar's theory on innovation, Catmull says: “Everything’s interconnected. That’s the way life is.”

After Voting, Afghans Must Now Wait For A Winner

NPR News - Mon, 2014-04-07 11:53

Counting ballots in the presidential election is a painfully slow affair. The voting took place Saturday, but results are still weeks away. And a runoff election is widely expected in June.

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Delayed foreclosures: drawing out the agony?

Marketplace - American Public Media - Mon, 2014-04-07 10:56

The townhouse where Robert Witherspoon and his eight-year-old son live is in a quiet cul-de-sac in Prince George’s County, Maryland. Witherspoon greets me as I drive up, telling me he’s lived here for 10 years. 

The brick townhouse is solidly built, like Witherspoon, a 52-year-old Navy veteran who now manages a small IT company and works from home.

This house is lived in, but it was sold in a foreclosure auction last September. Witherspoon says his bank bought the house, and that he hasn’t paid his mortgage in a couple of years. 

Witherspoon first fell behind on his mortgage payments when he was laid off in 2009. Now, he’s squatting – not so unusual in Maryland, which has the second-highest foreclosure rate in the country, the forefront of a second wave of foreclosures across the U.S.

Approximately one out of every 540 homes is in foreclosure in Maryland, says Marceline White, the executive director of the Maryland Consumer Rights Coalition. 

She says it’s not that unusual for people to keep living in foreclosed homes, since the foreclosure process takes so long. On a recent afternoon in Prince George’s County, she pointed to one example.

“It’s clearly occupied,” she said, pointing out a jet ski. “There are cars in the driveway.“

At one point, while banks were negotiating a national settlement, they stopped foreclosing in some states. And still, the average foreclosure in Maryland takes almost two years. That’s because Maryland requires foreclosures to be approved by a judge. And new laws slowed things down even more by allowing things like mediation.

Opinions vary on whether that's helpful for homeowners.

“The longer process has definitely helped,” says Lisa Butler-McDougal, executive director of Sowing Empowerment and Economic Development, a group that helps homeowners avoid foreclosure.

Butler-McDougal says foreclosures in Maryland used to be rushed.

“Some people’s homes were being foreclosed in 15 days, 30 days," she says. "Where before they could even understand the notice of intent to foreclose, they were receiving notice of a sheriff’s sale.”

But there's a flip side.

“There’s so many people that come in here that have medical issues as a result of the stress of trying to hold onto a house, that isn’t worth it,” says Manny Montero, an attorney who represents homeowners in foreclosures.

Montero says many homeowners don’t realize that living rent-free in a foreclosed house could eventually cost them, because it makes it much tougher for them to file for bankruptcy and wipe out their debts. 

The pace of foreclosure proceedings in Maryland appears to be picking up, says Daren Blomquist, vice president at RealtyTrac. 

“I would guess sometime this year Maryland would turn the corner and we’d see the numbers go back down,”

Back in his townhouse, Robert Witherspoon says he doesn’t want to file for bankruptcy, and he says he’s tried to start making mortgage payments again. He couldn’t because the bank wanted a lump sum up front, which he didn’t have. Witherspoon’s bank, JP Morgan Chase, wouldn’t comment other than to say it made several attempts to reach out to him. Now, Witherspoon is afraid he’ll get an eviction notice.

Witherspoon says he plans to move after the end of the school year, but he’s hoping to avoid being evicted – something that happened to him as a teenager.

“When you’re in high school and you come home and you see your bed outside the house and not in the house – I was totally embarrassed by that,” he says.

Of course, Witherspoon says his current situation is embarrassing, too. But even after the pain of foreclosure, he still wants to – someday – buy again.

Disease Detectives Are Solving Fewer Foodborne Illness Cases

NPR News - Mon, 2014-04-07 10:42

The government has reported 42 percent fewer foodborne illness cases in the past decade and solved less than half of them, a report finds. But that doesn't necessarily mean the food supply is safer.

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Coal country starts to ask 'What comes after coal?'

Marketplace - American Public Media - Mon, 2014-04-07 10:20

It’s no secret that coal is on the outs in the United States. The country’s natural gas boom and environmental regulations are dethroning King Coal after decades of rule in the electricity market. That should be good for the climate, but the transition to natural gas and renewables has human costs. Right now Central Appalachians are taking the hit, forcing communities there to contemplate a future beyond coal.

In eastern Kentucky, coal mining has been the lifeblood of the economy for well over a century. Now it's facing what might be termed a “low coal” future. Much of the easy-to-get coal has already been mined out. What’s left is harder to get, so production costs are higher. “The coal seams, they’re getting smaller,” says 30-year-old Ryan Trent, a laid-off miner who started at age 19. “You’ve got strata in between it, which is not full coal. So the more rock you cut,  the less coal you’re getting.”

That’s partly why Appalachian coal is having a hard time competing, not just against cheap and cleaner natural gas, but against newer, more efficient coal mines in the West’s Powder River Basin and the Midwest’s Illinois Basin. Coal companies also blame stricter EPA water quality standards, which they argue has effectively halted permits for Appalachian strip mining. 

The overall effect has been a wave of production slowdowns, mine closures and rising unemployment in the last two years. The median unemployment rate for eastern Kentucky’s top 10 coal-producing counties is 15.05 percent. That statistic includes Trent, who was earning $24.50 an hour, non-union, and says coal mining “is in his blood.” He’s been looking for another mining job since he was laid off in December 2012. “I’ve got the softest hands in eastern Kentucky, I’ve been doing so many dishes,” he jokes.

Trent and other miners are used to the ups and downs of the coal business, but Justin Maxson, president of the Mountain Association for Community Economic Development, says this time is different. “To lose almost 7,000 jobs in almost 18 months is a catastrophe,” he says. “It’s a huge economic collapse. Folks to some degree feel like they’re under cultural assault.”

The realization that this could be a permanent decline in what’s been the lifeblood of the region is just now beginning to settle in, after years of warnings and, some would say, denial. John Haywood, owner of a tattoo parlor in Whitesburg, called The Parlor Room, says some of his more regular customers were coal miners, but many have stopped coming in.  “They used to come in once a month, even twice a month,” Haywood says. “Tattoo collectors that were willing to sit for a long time and get covered up.”

“Coal miners are our middle class.” That’s a common refrain in eastern Kentucky, where more than a quarter of the people live in poverty. According to Bill Bissett, president of the Kentucky Coal Association, starting salaries in the mines average $65,000 and the jobs don’t require a high school education.

Communities are just now beginning to seriously discuss economic alternatives. Some blame the slow start on the “War on Coal” rhetoric, saying it’s distracted attention from preparing for a “low coal” future. Others say political leaders have spent coal severance tax money on basic services instead of diversifying the economy. 

Regional leaders who gathered in the mining town of Hazard to talk to Marketplace stressed they didn’t believe there was one single thing that could “replace” coal. They hope a new bi-partisan effort called SOAR (Shaping Our Appalachian Region) will come up with some alternatives. The region has already been targeted for special assistance from the federal and state government, but residents fear the money won’t be enough.  

“I mean, what happened in Detroit when that industry was threatened,” says Jeff Whitehead, executive director of the Eastern Kentucky Concentrated Employment Program.  “There was a lot of government support. Lots of it.”

Jennifer Bergman, JobSight Services Director at the program, says the region should develop an “entrepreneurial” economy, “but we need people with money to spend to have that entrepreneurial base.”

Many here say the region should take advantage of its cultural distinctness and build an economy based on central Appalachian folk arts and crafts. Previous efforts to develop that have fallen victim to politics and lack of funding. Doug Naselroad, master artist in residence at the Appalachian Artisan Center in Hindman, says the incomes generated might not rival coal’s, but that’s not the point. “What we’re trying to create is something sustainable and that’s rooted in the culture and tradition of the people here, instead of something which just plunders the land and moves on.”

Dan Estep, 56, a former coal miner, is experimenting with that idea. He’s teaching blacksmithing and knife-making at the Kentucky School of Craft and selling his wares at craft fares. He doesn’t make much money, but says he’s happy to have a skill that’s “marketable.” “I’m grateful to live in this country,” Estep says.  “Every day’s an opportunity.”

Biofuels, beer and Boardwalk Empire

Marketplace - American Public Media - Mon, 2014-04-07 10:10

From the Marketplace datebook, here's what's coming up April 8:

Ukraine's Winter Of Discontent Gives Way To Spring Of Austerity

NPR News - Mon, 2014-04-07 09:31

The International Monetary Fund has agreed to help Ukraine with a loan of more than $14 billion — in exchange for tough austerity measures. And Russia is threatening to raise Ukraine's gas prices.

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Mob In Ukraine Seizes Provincial Building, Declares Independence

NPR News - Mon, 2014-04-07 09:12

Pro-Russian protesters stormed the building in the country's eastern city of Donetsk, proclaiming sovereignty from Kiev.

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Supreme Court Rejects Gay Wedding Photography Case

NPR News - Mon, 2014-04-07 08:52

An appeal by a company that refused to photograph a gay wedding was turned down. The justices also refused to review a ruling that corporations cannot contribute directly to political candidates.

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Is this town the Luxembourg of Illinois sales tax?

Marketplace - American Public Media - Mon, 2014-04-07 08:06

The Chicago area’s public transit agency says it’s been bilked of hundreds of millions of dollars over the last 15 years, a penny or two at a time. The culprits: towns in outlying parts of Illinois. Like Kankakee, population 27,000. Channohan, population 13,000. Sycamore, population 17,000. The agency says dozens of companies, including Target, AT&T and American Airlines, have used the towns as tax havens.

MTS consulting keeps an office in a faceless little building off Schuyler Avenue in Kankakee, about an hour south of Chicago. When no one answers, I look in the mail slot. No lights are on. A desk is visible, but no computer or phone. Later, MTS CEO David Polush tells me both are just out of view.

Down the hall, I ask a woman at Pinnacle Opportunities about MTS: Have you ever met anybody who’s been there?

"I haven’t. Sorry."  She's been working there for more than a year.

 In a court filing, Chicago’s Regional Transportation Authority says MTS records significant sales here, on behalf of clients based in the Chicago area. It’s one of several companies with offices like this in towns like Kankakee.

They’re here to save on sales tax. Illinois sets a statewide sales tax, but in Chicago the tax is higher because it adds levies for the city, the county and the RTA.

Carol Portman, executive director of the Illinois Taxpayers Federation, says peculiarities in Illinois sales tax law forced the Department of Revenue to write rules about where sales take place. "In some instances," she says, "it led to some rather unexpected results."

That is, some companies have been able to run their business one place— like Chicago— but, for tax purposes, book their sales someplace with a lower rate— like Kankakee. In some cases, it’s consultants like MTS that book the sales.

Additionally, towns like Kankakee offer an extra incentive to companies. Under state law, Kankakee gets a penny of the sales tax it collects— and the village gives 85 percent of that penny back to these companies.

The remaining sliver adds up to $2.5 million dollars a year for Kankakee. Ten percent of the village’s budget.

Portman sees nothing unusual about the arrangement. "That really isn’t any different from the income tax credits, or the property tax abatements that we’re giving people to come here," she says.

For instance, Boeing got tens of millions of dollars in city and state tax breaks when it moved its headquarters from Seattle to Chicago in 2001.

Jordan Matyas, the RTA's chief of staff, sees things differently. He’s suing companies like MTS and towns like Kankakee.

He says there are reasons companies base their operations in Chicago: Amenities like transit make it easier for them to do business.

"If they want to move somewhere else that has less resources, that’s their decision," he says. "But as long as they’re taking advantage of all our government services, they need to be paying the appropriate sales tax."

Kankakee’s mayor, Nina Epstein, makes no apologies.  "There are other parts of the state than the RTA district," she says.

Epstein says some of these companies don’t have Chicago offices at all. Some are Internet companies with no other physical presence in the state. Others simply don’t need full time staff to fulfill orders.

"This has helped fund police and fire services, public works," she says. "But now, it’s going to be taken away."

Last fall, the Illinois Supreme Court ordered a rewrite of tax regulation, to eliminate some of these arrangements.  That’s underway.

Meanwhile, some companies have ended their presence in Kankakee, and Epstein has zeroed out income from the tax deals for her next budget.

Tax expert Carol Portman says this is how tax policy works:  There are winners and losers.

"It’s easy for someone like the RTA to feel like they’ve been the loser and they want changes that make them the winner," she says. "But the problem is: There’s a loser then."

Death Toll At 33 In Washington State Mudslide

NPR News - Mon, 2014-04-07 08:03

Ten people are still listed as missing, officials say. According to the medical examiner's office, all of the victims recovered thus far have died of blunt force trauma.

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New Airline Survey Gives Virgin America Top Rating

NPR News - Mon, 2014-04-07 07:21

It's the carrier's second consecutive year at the top of the annual Air Quality Rating report, with JetBlue coming in second. Overall consumer complaints dropped 15 percent last year from 2012.

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On Stand, A Weeping Pistorius Apologizes To Girlfriend's Family

NPR News - Mon, 2014-04-07 06:56

An emotional Oscar Pistorius broke down soon after taking the witness stand at his murder trial Monday, saying he has nightmares about the death of his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp.

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How One App Might Be A Step Toward Internet Everywhere

NPR News - Mon, 2014-04-07 06:41

FireChat connects users without a cellular network or the Internet. It uses technology, known as mesh networking, that could be scaled up to provide Internet access to disaster zones and remote areas.

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PODCAST: Tech bubble bursting?

Marketplace - American Public Media - Mon, 2014-04-07 06:36

At the end of the first week of April, tech stocks had their worst day in two months with the technology-suffused Nasdaq Composite Index falling 2.6 percent. In early trading in the next week, they aren't doing much better. Carl Riccadonna is Senior U.S. Economist at Deutsche Bank Securities, and joined us to discuss,

President Barack Obama is expected to issue two executive orders this week, in an effort to close the pay gap between men and women. The first would prohibit federal contractors from retaliating against workers who talk about how much they are paid. The second would require federal contractors to give the government pay information broken down by race and gender. But it is unclear exactly how these orders will be meaningful.

The University of Baltimore is like a lot of urban, public campuses. Most students here work, and more than half need to take remedial courses. That's partly why just 12 to 15 percent of students graduate in four years. So starting in the fall, the University of Baltimore will offer new freshmen a deal. If they finish in four years, the last semester's tuition is on the house.

Signal 'Just Like' Emergency Beacon Detected In Search For Flight 370

NPR News - Mon, 2014-04-07 05:28

Calling it the "most promising lead" so far, the leader of the search for a missing Malaysia Airlines jetliner says ships have again detected a signal used by "black box" beacons.

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The best and worst states on closing the gender pay gap

Marketplace - American Public Media - Mon, 2014-04-07 04:00

President Barack Obama is expected to issue two executive orders this week, in an effort to close the pay gap between men and women. The first would prohibit federal contractors from retaliating against workers who talk about how much they are paid.  The second would require federal contractors to give the government pay information broken down by race and gender. 

"Federal contractors employee almost a quarter of the workforce, so it’s going to be a really meaningful thing for many workers around the country" - Fatima Goss Graves, with the National Women’s Law Center

But it is unclear exactly how these orders will be meaningful. "I think they are much more symbolic, to get us talking about the wage gap," Linda Barrington with the Institute for Compensation Studies at Cornell noted, adding that "if we don’t do that, we can’t reduce the wage gap."

The American Association of University Women estimates that women make 77% of what men do.  The median annual salary for men is $49,398.  The median annual salary for women is $37,791. 

However, there are significant variations in the wage gap between states. To get some more context around how states compare to each other, take a look at the states where the pay gap is lowest (as calculated by the earnings ratio between men and women, in parentheses): 

  1. Washington, D.C.  (90%)
  2. Maryland (85%)
  3. Nevada (85%)
  4. Vermont (85%)
  5. New York (84%)
  6. California (84%)
  7. Florida (84%)
  8. Hawaii (83%)
  9. Maine (83%)
  10. Arizona (82%)
  11. North Carolina (82%)

And here are the states where the the gap between what men and women earn compared to each other is the highest:

  1. Wyoming (64%)
  2. Louisiana (67%)
  3. West Virginia (70%)
  4. Utah (70%)
  5. Alabama (71%)
  6. Indiana (73%)
  7. Michigan (74%)
  8. North Dakota (74%)
  9. Alaska (74%)
  10. Idaho (75%)

 How does the legal system apply to equal pay standards? According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 45 states have equal pay laws on the books.  Five states, including Alabama, Mississippi, South Carolina, Utah, and Wisconsin have none.

A free semester for finishing within four years

Marketplace - American Public Media - Mon, 2014-04-07 02:53

Samantha Peterson is what you might call a "typical student" at the University of Baltimore.

"I am a junior-ish," she says, in between bites of a sandwich at the student center. "That means that I've been in school for a very long time."

Peterson has been in school—studying criminal justice—five or six years now, she says. Because she works, full-time, at a school cafeteria.

The University of Baltimore is like a lot of urban, public campuses. Most students here work, and more than half need to take remedial courses. That's partly why just 12 to 15 percent of students graduate in four years.

"The longer it takes for students to complete college, the more life gets in the way, and the less likely they are to graduate," says Dominique Raymond with the advocacy group Complete College America.

So starting in the fall, the University of Baltimore will offer new freshmen a deal. If they finish in four years, the last semester's tuition is on the house. At today's prices that's worth about $3,300 for in-state students.

President Bob Bogomolny expects the university to save money by getting students through faster. It could also attract more full-time students.

"If we can motivate a few students to have the advantage of finishing in four, to have less loans, to get into the workforce sooner, it's worth it to us," he says.

Nationally, just over half of college students finish in six years. Other schools are trying incentives like scholarships and loan forgiveness to encourage more students to attend full-time. The University of North Texas just approved a plan that gives students a fixed tuition rate and $4,000 discount if they finish in four years.

At the University of Baltimore, junior Blair Lee wishes the free semester deal had been around when he started.

"I was actually kind of excited when I heard that—a little jealous," he says. "I think it will give more people an incentive to finish faster and go on to possibly pursue graduate studies."

Lee is proof that money can be a powerful motivator. He's one of the rare students who expects to finish in four years—while working full time. He wants to avoid paying out-of-state tuition any longer than he has to.

In Kentucky, who's to blame for coal's decline?

Marketplace - American Public Media - Mon, 2014-04-07 02:17

An official with the Federal Reserve recently made this rosy prediction: the jobless rate could dip below six percent this year. But there are still pockets of double-digit unemployment around the country. Take eastern Kentucky, where layoffs in the coal industry have helped push the jobless rate to 16 percent in some places. 

Some point the finger at what they call President Obama’s “War on Coal.” “I blame him for trying to regulate coal fired power plants,” says 30-year-old Ryan Trent, a laid-off underground miner from Busy, Kentucky. “Because if it weren’t for that, we’d still have jobs.”

Certainly, the EPA’s crackdown on power plant emissions and mountaintop removal means fewer coal jobs in eastern Kentucky. The area has lost 40 percent of its coal-related jobs in just the last two years, acccording to Jason Bailey, director of the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy.

Yet Appalachian coal would still be at a disadvantage, according to Michael Dudas, managing director at Sterne, Agee in New York. “The cost to mine the coal in Wyoming is $10 a ton," he says. “The cost to mine that coal in eastern Kentucky can range from the low to mid-40s to upwards of $70 a ton.”

One reason it costs more to mine in eastern Kentucky is that coal companies have mined the mountains there for well over a century. They’ve already exhausted the easy coal. What’s left takes more work to get at.

“I don’t hardly see how there can be any more coal in these mountains," says Lee Sexton, 86, a legendary banjo player who retired from mining decades ago because of black lung. "There been so much of it took out, y’know.”

East Kentucky coal is also now competing against higher-sulfur coal from the Illinois Basin. That cheaper coal was a problem for utilities trying to meet federal clean air standards, but once many power plants invested in expensive scrubbers to “clean” the sulfur out,  it gained a foothold in the marketplace. 

Greg Pauley, president and COO of Kentucky Power, says his company will be burning less coal in the future, wherever it comes from. “As the cost of using coal continues to rise, we go away from that," he says. "And what do we go away to? Right now we go to gas.”

The EPA’s upcoming carbon pollution standards mean burning coal will cost more. Bill Bissett, president of the Kentucky Coal Association,  believes eastern Kentucky coal will “continued to be mined for generations to come,” but the industry will play a smaller role in the region’s economy.

"Chances are," he says, "companies will be more privately owned,  less multinational in footprint, and they’ll likely be taking more advantage of the spot markets than long term contracts, which can create uncertainty but I think at the same time it still provides livelihoods and puts food on people’s tables.”

Dee Davis, founder of the Center for Rural Strategies in Whitesburg, Kentucky,  says it’s now up to east Kentuckians to figure out an economy beyond coal. “Coal is our history.  Coal is our heritage. It’s been one pathway into the middle class for a lot of families. It’s been a friend, but it’s not our future.”

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