National News

Beau Biden, Vice President Joe Biden's Son, Hospitalized

NPR News - Tue, 2015-05-19 15:26

The former Delaware attorney general is being treated at the Walter Reed Medical Center in Bethesda, Md. In 2013, he underwent surgery after being diagnosed with a brain lesion.

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Reddit's New Harassment Policy Aimed At Creating A 'Safe Platform'

NPR News - Tue, 2015-05-19 15:06

Interim CEO Ellen Pao says the site wants to encourage a variety of views, within limits. "It's not our site's goal to be a completely free-speech platform. We want to be a safe platform," she says.

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Tea Tuesdays: Cold Weather, Gogol And The Rise Of The Russian Samovar

NPR News - Tue, 2015-05-19 14:24

The giant, metal, hot-water urns are at the center of Russian tea culture — and national identity. How that came to be may have as much to do with Russian literature as common usage.

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Home-brewed Morphine Is Just Around The Corner

NPR News - Tue, 2015-05-19 14:10

What if microbes could ferment sugar into narcotics, like the way yeasts make beer? That day is quickly approaching. This week scientists report all the steps needed to make morphine in yeast.

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Pressure To Act Unethically Looms Over Wall Street, Survey Finds

NPR News - Tue, 2015-05-19 13:54

About half of the financial professionals surveyed say their competitors have behaved unethically or illegally to gain an advantage. And many say compensation and bonuses can create bad incentives.

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After A Big Victory For ISIS, Iraqi Forces Look To Regroup

NPR News - Tue, 2015-05-19 13:52

With a victory in Ramadi, the Islamic State controls a city just 70 miles from Baghdad. Many civilians are on the move, and Iraq's armed forces are again looking weak.

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After A Month, The 7 Questions Hillary Clinton Answered From The Media

NPR News - Tue, 2015-05-19 13:26

Clinton ended a nearly month-long avoidance of press questions, and addressed the release of her e-mails, foreign donations to the Clinton Foundation, the state of Iraq and more.

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Rabbis Diversify To Connect To Students; Just Don't Bring Up Israel

NPR News - Tue, 2015-05-19 13:19

As the number of religious young people declines, Hillel International is trying to build a "big tent" Judaism for secular and religious students alike. But some say that tent may not be big enough.

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What Does 'Raw' Mean? When It Comes To Almonds, You Might Be Surprised

NPR News - Tue, 2015-05-19 13:11

By law, all California almonds must be pasteurized or treated with a fumigant — processes aimed at preventing foodborne illness. But critics say the treatments taint flavor and mislead consumers.

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FTC And States Sue Sham Cancer Charities

NPR News - Tue, 2015-05-19 13:01

Donations to four charities allegedly went toward officials' personal travel, jet ski outings and tuition payments.

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America's infrastructure isn't sexy

Marketplace - American Public Media - Tue, 2015-05-19 13:00

America's infrastructure has fallen behind other nations. Highways are congested. Bridges are crumbling. Flights are delayed. Clearly, we need a solution. Harvard Business School Professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter identifies the hallmarks of successful transportation systems and explains the work being done to address these issues in her new book "Move: Putting America's Infrastructure Back in the Lead." 

What’s the solution? 

We need a new vision that puts mobility at the center of so many things. I think that if we can rally the public and rally leaders, state and local, who do press on Washington to say this is a critical national priority for our future, this is the only way to grow the economy, this is the only way to end poverty. I mean, poor people are living in areas where they don’t have access to cars or public transportation. This is important to health, traffic fatalities, the air we breathe. State and local (governments) get it. Mayors and governors get it and we need their voices. 

On federal vs. local leadership: 

Federal, it’s so partisan, it’s so hard to get anything to happen. But mayors, for example, are very pragmatic. They have to run their city and often it’s all about operations and transportation. Governors often have a vision about what will build their economy. 

On the word “infrastructure” not being appealing: 

I thought when I started talking about the fact that I was writing this book, that I would say “infrastructure” and people would go to sleep. Instead, they want to tell me their story…they want to talk about their traffic jam, their late flight, their potholes, their awful neighborhood construction problems.  

Interesting facts about infrastructure in the United States:

  • The average American commuter wastes a total of 38 hours in traffic each year. That’s 5.5 billion hours in lost US productivity annually and 2.9 billion gallons of wasted fuel. Traffic congestion alone costs about $70 billion per year in time wasted.
  • Nearly 20 million Americans work in transportation, transportation infrastructure, and related industries.
  • The average household spends between 11-19 percent of its budget on getting around.
  • Between 1989-2013, the US had nearly 600 bridge failures. Some of those collapses have led to deaths and hundreds of injuries.
  • In 2012, a quarter of all US bridges were deemed by the Federal Highway Administration to be structurally deficient. By 2023, a quarter of US bridges will be over 65 years old (and structurally deficient).
  • Delayed or canceled flights cost the economy about $30-40 billion a year.
  • The cost of traffic accidents is about $871 billion per year.

Tic Tac to release mint flavor geared toward millennials

Marketplace - American Public Media - Tue, 2015-05-19 13:00

This whole "Ooh-milliennials! Gotta-cater-to-the-millennials!" thing pretty much jumps the shark. 

Bloomberg reports today that Tic Tac is coming out with a new product: varieties that change flavor as you suck on them.

The company has apparently spent 18 months studying—yes, Tic Tacs—to make sure that Tic Tacs are "appealing to those younger consumers." 

There are, it seems, three reasons people buy Tic Tacs.

To freshen their breath. Fine.

To have a "sweet fruity moment." Fine.

But also, the company says, for emotional rescue.

The global influence of hip hop and breakdancing

Marketplace - American Public Media - Tue, 2015-05-19 13:00

Although hip hop culture has made its way through much of the world, there are still some places where you wouldn't expect hip hop music to flourish, and countries like Colombia, Yemen, Cambodia and Uganda, might not come to mind when discussing the art of breakdance. 

But those places are where journalist-turned-filmmaker Adam Sjöberg found some very talented young dancers. He made a documentary called Shake the Dust that chronicles the influence of hip hop music and breakdancing in slums and ghettos all around the world.

A dancer from "Shake the Dust" in Yemen. (Courtesy of Bond/360)

“It’s interesting because hip hop, as a genre, as a culture, I found often really connected with people in these poor communities,” says Sjöberg. “Not necessarily in urban communities, but really all over the globe and even in some very remote rural areas that I went to. Hip hop connected with these people because I think it (especially breakdancing) gave them a feeling that they can transcend their circumstances, that they had a language to talk about what they had been through.”

The documentary is executive produced by rapper Nasir “Nas” Jones.

 A dancer from "Shake the Dust" in Uganda. (Courtesy of Bond/360)

“He got on board a couple of years into this project because we were able to get a trailer in front of him and he saw that we were trying to tell a side of this history, to continue telling the oral tradition history of this genre which is unfolding before our eyes,” says Sjöberg.

Shake the Dust is currently available to rent or buy on Vimeo on Demand and iTunes

How calculating GDP is like making a gravy

Marketplace - American Public Media - Tue, 2015-05-19 13:00

The Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco says our rough winter weather skewed the data on gross domestic product (GDP) growth for the first quarter. GDP grew at just two-tenths of a percent at the beginning of the year.  

Was it really that bad? Or were the numbers just not crunched enough?

“Of course, it’s always hard to separate the wheat from the chaff,” says Glenn Rudebusch, director of research at the San Francisco Fed.

The Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) calculates GDP growth, and Rudebusch says the BEA makes seasonal adjustments as it gathers each piece of data. But he thinks there should be another seasonal adjustment at the end of that process.

Rudebusch compares it to making gravy.

“There’s a lot of things in there that maybe you don’t want in your final dish, so you want to reduce it down and get the real essence of flavor,” he says.

In economics, you’re trying to get rid of all the extraneous noise, so you can see underlying economic trends.

“I think they’re onto something,” says Ken Kuttner, a former Fed economist who now teaches economics at Williams College. “And what the San Francisco Fed has uncovered is, well, maybe there’s a slightly better way to do it.”

How much do these GDP numbers matter? Well, the Fed uses them to decide whether it’s time to raise interest rates. But it also looks at other things.

“The most important data is the unemployment rate. It’s the single best indicator of labor market conditions," says Chris Rupkey, chief economist at MUFG Union Bank.

But, lately the unemployment rate and GDP numbers haven’t jived.  The unemployment rate is getting steadily better, as GDP fluctuates. The San Francisco Fed says its number crunching formula could smooth out those differences, too.

St. Louis Federal Reserve

David Letterman wears the pants at Worldwide Pants

Marketplace - American Public Media - Tue, 2015-05-19 13:00

NBC gave "The Tonight Show" to Jay Leno in the '90s, and Dave Letterman left for CBS. That’s when things got bitter, says Marisa Guthrie, TV editor for the Hollywood Reporter.

"He couldn’t take a lot of the bits he created for late night at NBC. Because NBC owned the show," she says.

At the time, one of Letterman’s popular bits was a segment called "Viewer Mail." But because NBC owned the rights, Letterman had to rename it "CBS Mailbag."  And that, Guthrie says, is why Letterman created his own production company — so he could call the shots.

 

“Worldwide Pants is David Letterman.” 

The company has had some big hits like "Everybody Loves Raymond," but some other projects that never made it out of development, like a comedy with Harry Connick Jr.and a kid's show intended for Nickelodeon.

But Letterman is the company’s single most valuable asset, notes James Dix, a senior media analyst with Wedbush Securities.

“Now a lot of it comes down to David Letterman himself," he says.

As well as the library of shows Letterman has created over the years, Worldwide Pants may be thinking multi-platform for future opportunities in streaming and online video, says  The Wrap executive editor Joseph Kapsch. Worldwide Pants says we'll have to stay tuned for future plans; any new developments will be announced after the Letterman's "Late Show" run ends Wednesday..

But one thing seems clear: whatever happens, Letterman will definitely be wearing the pants.

Ethics in finance: stuck at mediocre

Marketplace - American Public Media - Tue, 2015-05-19 13:00

Ethics on Wall Street continues to be a struggle, according to a survey of more than 1,200 financial professionals conducted by the University of Notre Dame and law firm Labaton Sucharow. 

John Boatright, professor of business ethics at the Quinlan School of Business at Loyola University Chicago, used a previous version of the survey in his class on ethics in finance.

"People recognize that there is a problem," he says. 

One reason for the problem may simply be the finance industry's necessary emphasis on money. Paul Piff,  assistant professor of psychology and social behavior at UC Irvine, says research shows merely being exposed to money can make people act unethically, and in their own interest.

Changing that requires a counter-incentive, says Bill Black, white collar criminologist and professor of law and economics at University of Missouri-Kansas City — like putting law-breaking bankers in prison. 

Cattle ranchers lock horns with almond investors

Marketplace - American Public Media - Tue, 2015-05-19 13:00

Kathy Smith actually heard the almonds coming before she saw them.

“It’s 11:30 at night, we are trying to sleep, and those tractors are ripping the land right outside our bedroom,” she recalls.

She woke up to find giant patches carved out of the grassy foothills above her house, making way for new almond trees.

Smith is rolling along in a golf cart, calling her 35 cows to dinner. “Come boss! Come boss!” she brays.

“That’s how my father did it. That’s how I do it,” she says. “And my mother used to do it by coming out and playing on her trumpet.”

Smith’s family has grazed cattle on this ranch near Oakdale, in California’s Central Valley since 1943.

Mural in Kathy Smith's kitchen that visitors to the ranch have been signing since the 1940s. Her mother sketched the foothills around the ranch; today many of them are planted with almond trees.

Sasha Khokha/KQED

But now she’s worried that an explosion in investor-backed almond orchards might threaten that livelihood.

Caifornia almonds have come under fire lately as a particularly water-intensive crop. But they seem to be weathering the drought very well. And some of the latest “farmers" to cash in on California’s almond boom are investors who are locking horns with cattle ranchers.

 “I can’t tell you how upset I am to have to look over there every single day and see what’s happening to those beautiful foothills. It’s sickening,” says Smith, who had to drill a new well after her household well went dry four years ago. She blames almond growers for sucking down the groundwater.

“It was a shock to the whole neighborhood,” says Smith’s neighbor, Gail Altieri. “It’s almost like the Confederate army is coming towards the east, and we didn’t see their bushy little heads until they were there. ”

Altieri raises mules and cattle, and lives in a log cabin decorated with cowhides and saddles. Oakdale bills itself the “Cowboy Capital of the World.” But Altieri worries that almonds may threaten that way of life.

Gail Altieri and her horses and mules in Oakdale—the ''cowboy capital of the world.''

Sasha Khokha/KQED

“The water’s disappearing,” Altieri says. “There will be no grazing land for the cattle. And if the cowboys don’t have cattle, how can this be the cowboy capital of the world?”

Altieri points to a well drilling rig high up on a hill above her house. She says it makes a loud booming noise and flashes bright lights into neighbors’ homes at night. She says investment companies growing almonds here have no concern for neighbors.

“They’re not farmers. They are investors. They are out for the almighty buck and for greed, bottom line,” she says. “Their product is an export. And also, it is a snack. It’s not a food.”

Paul Wenger, president of the California Farm Bureau Federation, is a local almond grower himself, and he doesn’t like the almond-bashing he’s been hearing recently. But he calls the current almond investment rush “bizarre.”

“We are seeing investors come from all over the world trying to get in on it. It’s kind of like the Gold Rush,” Wenger says.

The latest federal statistics, from 2012, classify 90 percent of almond growers as “family farms,” even though some of the operations are quite large. But investors are increasingly seeing almonds as a better bet than the stock market.

View of almond orchards planted on former cattle rangeland in California's Central Valley. 

Sasha Khokha/KQED

“As a grower, I think they’re making foolish investments,” says Wenger. “They look at what the prices of almonds are today. They weren’t there 10 years ago, and they won’t be there 10 years from now.”

So just exactly who are these almond investors? Some are banks or investment funds like TIAA-CREF. Even the Michigan Municipal Employees’ Retirement System is getting into the almond game (albeit in Australia).

Near Kathy Smith’s house, the target of frustration is Trinitas Partners, a private equity investment company based in Silicon Valley that’s planted more than 10 square miles in almonds here.

Ryon Paton’s one of the company’s three principals. He says they have been unfairly painted as the bad guys for an operation they started eight years ago, before the current drought began.

Dan Kaiser, Dave Germano, and Ryon Paton of Trinitas. Kaiser and Germano are local farmers who help manage day-to-day operations. Paton's background is in real estate investment. His company has bought up about 10 square miles in almonds near the California town of Oakdale. 

Sasha Khokha/KQED

“We understand real estate, we understand how to finance. We did not understand how to grow almonds,” Paton admits.

“But we did enough of our supply-and-demand studies to understand that supply was growing more slowly than demand worldwide, and if that imbalance continued, there would be not an outrageous Silicon Valley profit in almonds, but a reasonable, responsible profit in growing almonds.”

Paton takes me through the gates of his ranch to the top of a steep hill where you can see the peaks of Yosemite — and acres of almond trees planted in neat rows across the rolling terrain.

“Not all of what we produce goes overseas, by any stretch of the imagination, but we have customers all over the world because of our sustainable, responsible farming practices,” Paton says.

Typically, California farmers put more than 3.5 feet of water onto every acre of almonds they grow. Paton says his operation uses about three feet an acre because its scale allows it to use advanced water-saving technology.

“We irrigate at night during off-peak hours, so there’s less evaporation,” explains Paton, pointing to the lines of drip systems running through the orchard. “But we also have a technique for making sure there’s no runoff, that every drop goes into the root systems.”

Spring almonds ripening on the trees on the Trinitas ranch.

Sasha Khokha/KQED

Trinitas also says they’ve stopped planting new trees in this area because of the drought. And they’re carefully checking their wells, and those of neighboring farmers, to make sure there’s no overdraft.

“Our hydrology folks are always measuring the situation,” Paton says. “Because I’m always asked this question, ‘Are you affecting your neighbors adversely?’ And to this point, I can honestly say, we are not.”

In fact, Paton says he hopes to wean the farm from groundwater entirely by getting river water from the local irrigation district instead. Problem is, the Oakdale Irrigation District is imposing first-time cutbacks on its customers this year, and farmers with more senior water rights want to make sure they get their allotment before newer customers like Trinitas.

So Paton feels like he’s getting conflicting messages: some neighbors don’t want them to drill wells for groundwater; others don’t want them using surface water.

“We have a history of listening and responding in a pretty conciliatory way when there’s an acute problem with the neighborhood,” says Paton. “On the other hand, they need to respect that this is an ag community and we have the right to farm.”

An almond harvester on the Trinitas ranch.

Sasha Khokha/KQED

The guys who are actually managing this ranch day to day are fourth-generation farmers, who use the local pronunciation — “AM-mundz” instead of “ALL-mundz.”

And by the way, no matter what you call the nuts - there’s going to be a lot of them this year.  Despite the drought, the USDA predicts just a one percent dip in this year’s lucrative almond harvest over last year.  That’s about 1.85 billion pounds. 

Wanna Go To Fit City? List Ranks America's 50 Fittest Metro Areas

NPR News - Tue, 2015-05-19 13:00

The new American Fitness Index is out, with some good news and bad news. Five cities fell five or more slots; Washington, D.C., finished first, followed by Minneapolis-St. Paul.

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LA City Council Votes To Raise Minimum Wage To $15 By 2020

NPR News - Tue, 2015-05-19 12:42

The increase — from $9 per hour — could cover as many as 800,000 people. LA is the biggest U.S city to raise its minimum wage to $15.

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Trustworthy, Loyal, Helpful ... This Great Teacher Abides By The Scout Law

NPR News - Tue, 2015-05-19 12:28

For 27 years, Romy Vasquez has been leading Boy Scout Troop 780 in South Central LA. Where, he says, it's easier to find a gang to join than a Boy Scout troop.

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