As 2013 wraps up, NPR is looking at the numbers that tell this year's story. The number 1,134 got us all talking about where our clothes come from, who's making it, and under what conditions. It's the official death toll of the Rana Plaza building collapse in Bangladesh.
Utah's surprise decision to legalize same-sex marriage caps a landmark year for gay rights. The last 12 months saw a huge string of victories, from state legislatures, to Congress, to the Supreme Court.
An experimental technique called optogenetics is starting to change the way researchers look at the brain. The tool allows them to switch entire brain circuits on and off using light, and may help figure out what's going wrong in brain ailments from epilepsy to depression.
Iowa initially chose not to expand Medicaid to thousands of beneficiaries under the Affordable Care Act. But it's come up with a plan that uses federal money to pay for expansion, while writing its own rules. Beneficiaries will have to pay a small premium, for instance.
Before Syria's civil war, there was no real need for a clinic that could teach the disabled how to walk on artificial legs. Now there's huge demand, not only for the legs, but also for training.
The good news is that air travel to and from Venezuela is dirt cheap due to the difference between the official cost of tickets and the black-market currency rate. The bad news is that many flights are booked up months in advance.
As the U.S. economy continues to recover, it has been getting some help from an unexpected place. After decades of massive job losses, manufacturing firms have been steadily creating jobs — many of them well-paying. One particularly bright spot is a new generation of high-tech manufacturers.
Robinhood, a new smartphone app launching after the new year, wants to make investing in the stock market free. Well, at least it wants to save consumers the commission fees they usually pay to make trades. Robinhood’s website says the service is about letting everyone fully share in the fruits of capitalism. But is paying a fee for a trade really what’s stopping people from investing?
Aside from being broke, says James Angel, a professor at Georgetown’s McDonough School of Business, the primary barrier to investing is ignorance. “I remember when I was starting out, I was an engineer, I had a college degree, I had a job and I was clueless about how or where to invest,” he says.
Angel, who has since gone to grad school and now, as a finance professor, "knows a little bit about it", says consumers can be afraid of making expensive mistakes. So instead, they invest nothing. “If you put the money in the bank it sits there," he says, "but at least it stays there.” Which Angel says could be better than making bad investments.
Kent Smetters, a professor who teaches risk management at Wharton, says a free trading app like Robinhood could encourage poor strategies. "An app like this," he notes, "would be attractive to those who trade much more frequently, and usually people who trade frequently underperform the market."
But Robinhood's co-founders, Vladimir Tenev and Baiju Bhatt, say it doesn’t encourage any particular investment philosophy. They have a laundry list of the service's selling points, including the argument that that the individual investors they hope to serve can help to stabilize the economy.
Twenty-something millennials making $300 dollar trades on their iPhones don't have the same impact as a Goldman Sachs. "They can't borrow a ton of money and short sell stock," the pair says.
Tenev and Bhatt say they believe in giving consumers freedom and tools. If products are tough to use they’ll turn off consumers. But Nan Morrison, with the Council of Economic Education, says ease of use is not enough. “For a reporter, spell check is a great app," she says, "for an engineer, less so.” Education, says Morrison, is the biggest obstacle for investors. “It was really easy to get a mortgage in 2007. Not such a smart decision for a lot of people, right?” she says.
Wharton’s James Angel says low cost options for investors already exist. But Tenev and Bhatt say 50 thousand users added their names to its early access list– in just one day. And they hope their app will mean better returns for its users than what they see as the only alternative for their money - "dumping it into a savings account and waiting for it to accumulate."
Citing violent clashes between police and anti-government protesters, the country's Election Commission asked for a delay in the Feb. 2 vote.
That's 426 purchases every single second. Enough crayola markers do draw a line around the world four times. Enough miniature flashlights to light up four football fields to NCAA standards.
Exactly how many packages didn't show up in time for Christmas.
Over a year ago, Royal Dutch Shell began oil drilling operations offshore of Alaska, the first attempt to explore the outer continental shelf in two decades. But Shell's initial foray proved disastrous. After sinking $5 billion into the effort, not a single well was drilled and its rig ran aground. Shell racked up big fines for faulty equipment, pollution and safety violations and sat out the last season. Outgoing Shell CEO Peter Voser called the Arctic one of his biggest disappointments. Elizabeth Arnold, based in Alaska, looked into the state of Arctic oil exploration in the U.S.
Out the window of a propeller plane, Wainwright appears below through the fog, an Inupiaq eskimo village of wooden houses perched on a sand spit at the edge of the Arctic ocean. I'm the only one on this flight, just me, the pilot and a dozen empty seats. We land on a short dirt runway. There's no one around, so I head on foot to town.
Wainwright is the usual portrait of contrast in the Arctic, a polar bear hide stretched over a satellite dish, slabs of whale meat in the bed of a shiny new pick up.
Old ways, and new money.
Wainwright is the closest village to Royal Dutch Shell's most prized oil leases offshore. It's where a subsea pipeline would surface to move oil 300 miles across the frozen tundra to Prudhoe Bay. A year ago, this place wasn't so quiet. Flights were sold out and the man camp was full up. But other than a lone excavator shoring up the eroding beach, there's no sign of any activity here today.
Inside the tribal office, Ronnie Morales makes coffee and shakes her head over how quickly everything came to a standstill. "With their ability to just up and go, that just really made it real, you know that really happens," she says.
Six years ago, at a standing-room-only auction in Anchorage, Shell spent $2 billion on leases in the Arctic, including a record-breaking amount for a single block just miles out from this village. But Shell had problems from the start.
Support vessels were deemed unsafe, a rig dragged anchor on its way north, and last year, when Shell was finally allowed to start limited drilling, an ice flow 30 miles long and 80 feet thick shut down operations after just one day.
The Coast Guard found multiple violations on one rig, and the other snapped its tow lines and ran aground.
A month later, Shell announced it wouldn't try to drill in 2013. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell says industry just wasn't ready.
"Nobody wants to put their company at risk, their reputation at risk, or the environment at risk," she says, "and I think that that's what we saw in the lessons learned over the course of the last year."
Interior is now poised to issue new regulations for arctic drilling.
"This is not a place where you mess around," says Marilyn Heiman, arctic program director for Pew Charitable Trusts, which made its own recommendations a few months ago. "This is probably the most challenging place on the planet to drill for oil."
"What we're asking for is a set of standards that every company operating in the arctic needs to follow," she says. "Most of the regs that Interior uses to regulate are based on temperate water -- during the Deepwater Horizon spill, when the waves got to six feet they stopped cleaning up oil. when it was dark they stopped cleaning up oil. Those are normal conditions in the Arctic!"
From the bow of this icebreaker, the Healy, conditions are extreme, even on a bright blue spring day. The Arctic Ocean is a flat plain of ice, ice so thick we have to back and ram every hundred feet to make headway. Building-sized slabs of ice fold and crash on both sides of the hull. The open black water behind us freezes in our wake.
The Healy is the Coast Guard's only working icebreaker in the Arctic. The nearest base and major port are 1,000 miles away. That worries Rear Admiral Thomas Ostebo, the commander of the Coast Guard here. Vessel traffic, he says, is on the rise, and much of it, the U.S. has little control over.
"As the North Slope of Alaska and the northwest portion of Alaska down to Nome, as that all opens up and becomes accessible, we just don't know what we don't know," he says. "I do know wherever humans operate in the marine environment, sooner or later someone gets in trouble or there's some form of a disaster."
Despite the risk, and Shell's pitfalls, Alaska's former oil and gas division director, Ken Boyd, says the Arctic is in play.
"If you're hunting elephants," he says, "you have to go where the elephants are."
In its conference call over third quarter earnings, Shell broke its long silence over plans in the Arctic. CFO Simon Henry said the company will move forward on leases in the Chukchi Sea, which he described as a "multi-billion barrel opportunity."
"individually it's the largest single exploration prospect in the Shell group," he said.
The company has submitted a stripped-down exploration plan to Interior to keep its options open to drill next summer.
In Wainwright, news that Shell may be back next summer was met with skepticism. But village leaders are planning ahead for the day when offshore oil does begin to flow. This winter they're holding hazardous materials training sessions and drafting response plans in the event of a major oil spill, out on the ice, at sea.
Online retailers shipped us so many individually-boxed Christmas gifts this year that UPS couldn't keep up. And once all those packages arrive, the boxes themselves have to go somewhere.
Christmas week has always meant a bulge for trash pickup, thanks to piles of wrapping paper and other detritus. Add cardboard boxes on top, and it’s reasonable to start worrying how big a mess we’re creating.
So, first, some good news: The Christmas trash pile hasn’t grown out of control — at least not yet.
Economist Jeffrey Morris creates forecasts of Seattle’s waste stream for the city’s public utilities — “the big picture of what’s coming at them,” as he puts it. He says that December’s bump hasn’t grown appreciably in the ten years he’s been paying attention. “Nothing’s punched me in the face,” he says. “Maybe because it’s the early days, but it hasn’t shown up yet.”
Nationally, the big picture is similar: The total tonnage of stuff we throw away and recycle hasn’t grown appreciably in the past ten years, says Chaz Miller, director of policy and advocacy for the National Waste and Recycling Association, an industry group.
Even the amount of cardboard has been flat. “What we have seen in the last decade or so is called the ‘evolving ton,’” says Miller, meaning that today’s ton of waste reflects a new mix of materials.
For instance, some cardboard boxes have gotten replaced by lighter weight, smaller plastic containers. “For instance, my asthma pills come in a little, plastic package now,” he says, “because that’s all that’s needed to ship them.” Cardboard boxes themselves have gotten a bit lighter.
However, it’s likely that we’ve only begun to face the rising tide of cardboard.
An individually shipped item generates about ten times more solid waste, on average, than the same item purchased from a retail store, says H. Scott Matthews, an engineering professor at Carnegie Mellon University who has studied the issue.
He says the primary reason online retailing hasn’t yet affected the waste stream in aggregate is likely because these are still such early days. Despite rapid growth, e-commerce still represents only six percent of total sales.
As that tide rises, that cardboard sea will rise with it. “It’s humbling to think about managing all that waste,” says Matthews.
However, he thinks another problem will come first -- the explosive growth in air and truck traffic delivering all this stuff.
“Eventually, we’re going to be sitting in traffic, in rush hour on the way home, competing for space with these delivery trucks,” he says. “We’re going to be staring at the problem next to us, out the window, while sitting on streets and highways.”
Southwest Airlines has been doing better than a lot of its rivals. But the discount carrier hasn’t hired new flight attendants from outside the company since February 2011. Last week, it announced 750 new positions, and, says company spokesman Dan Landson, “we received 10,000 resumes that were emailed to us within two hours and five minutes.”
At which point, Landson says, Southwest closed the search.
Southwest is expanding after its merger with AirTran, with more international flights planned, says Landson. And it will be flying bigger planes—it has ordered 55 additional Boeing 737-800 jets—which carry more passengers. Regulations require more flight attendants to staff those flights.
Flight attendants can make close to $25/hour for time flying (they are paid from the time the plane leaves the gate, until the time it arrives at the gate, but not for time getting through security or boarding). Free travel (including for some family members) and flexible hours are other perks of the job.
And these jobs have been scarce—total employment at the nation’s airlines has been falling over the past year, even as employment in many other industries has been gradually increasing. Airline employment fell by 0.8 percent in October 2013 compared to October 2012, according to the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics It was the smallest decline in 13 months.
But with the economy getting better, University of Portland transportation expert Richard Gritta expects airline employment to increase in 2014. He says mega-mergers have left fewer airlines flying fewer, more lucrative routes. And they’re packing their planes 85-percent-or-more full to make the flights more profitable.
“The consolidations have reduced competition, the airlines have cut capacity, and their profits are up,” says Gritta. “The economy is continuing to grow, allowing them to begin to expand very gradually.”
Seth Kaplan at Airline Weekly also expects hiring to pick up—especially at discount carriers.
But not so much for jobs on the ground.
“You don’t need quite as many employees to serve the same number of travelers anymore,” says Kaplan. “Every year you have more and more people using kiosks at the airport instead of having to talk to an agent. They print their boarding passes at home or get them on their mobile phones.”
Richard Gritta says changes in the industry have made the job of flight attendant more stressful.
“Now you’re flying with planes that are full to the limit,” says Gritta. “More people being crammed in, fighting over space for their luggage because they’re trying to avoid the checked bags fees--the pressure has ratcheted up, and your wages haven’t really done the same.”
That makes it not so much of a pleasure to fly—or work a flight—these days.
Searching through a pile of 100,000 packages
Heath Thompson thought he’d covered every base, and come today he’d be on his way to the Caribbean. Then he forgot his passport.
"I had a friend ship it early on the 22nd priority overnight with UPS," Thompson says.
The passport did not arrive overnight. Or on the 24th. Or on the 25th. He became concerned that, "I wasn’t going to be able to go on vacation with my family."
Thompson flagged down a UPS driver, got the number for the warehouse, and inquired there.
"It might be lost," he was told at one point.
But a warehouse worker took pity and personally searched through a vast pile of 100,000 packages at the distribution center. She and another worker gave Thompson their cell phone numbers and he was able to stay in touch with them as they looked.
He drove to the distribution center and called her on his phone, "she ran the package out through the freezing weather, came out and delivered it in the car window," just hours before his plane took off.
"I’m sure they’ve been getting tons of calls of people whining and complaining but they were very sweet, helpful ladies," Thompson says.
Not everyone was as lucky. Twitter was awash with venom directed at UPS and FedEx.
So how does something like this happen?
Bottom line: Shippers always have to predict demand, and this time they got it wrong.
UPS was expecting peak holiday package traffic to run 15-18 percent higher than their daily average of 15.5 million packages per day, according to Satish Jindel, president of SJ Consulting.
On Christmas Eve, UPS was looking at 34 million packages.
FedEx was overloaded too, going from handling 10 million packages on an average day to 22 million Christmas Eve, says Jindel.
Why the last-minute crush?
"What was not expected and could not have been planned for was the change in the weather patterns in the days leading up to Christmas Eve," says Jindel. He is not, however, saying that bad weather delayed the shippers, but rather, it paralyzed shoppers. "They were placing online orders that they otherwise would’ve gone to the brick and mortar stores if the weather was better."
Add to that eager retailers who, with six fewer shopping days this season, tried to snag as many last minute shoppers as possible by pushing back deadlines.
"It really compresses the logistics providers’ ability to make those schedules and have any flex at all in their system," says Doug Fisher, director of the Center for Supply Chain Management at Marquette University.
Consumers want – and are offered – instant gratification.
"You don’t build a church just for Easter."
Fisher says that during the holidays, shippers have to expand capacity and there is little room for last minute finesse .
"UPS has close to 400,000 employees, about the size of Milwaukee, with a fleet of 230-240 jets and 100,000 trucks," he says. "Over the holiday period they hire 50,000-60,000 temporary workers, they lease another 20-25 airplanes, and will try to build another trucking fleet for capacity purposes."
Demand prediction is an art, and there is increasingly little wiggle room.
"I used to know demand planners," says Fisher. "They used to introduce themselves as the people who are always wrong.”
Moving forward, retailers and shippers may well promise less, and consumers may have to expect less.
Questions of brand damage
Jindel, with SJ Consulting, says it’s important to bear in mind that the number of affected people is probably relatively small.
He says service is usually so good, and consumer opinion normally so favorable (far better than the airline industry), that FedEx and UPS will probably be able to weather this incident.
Remember, 90 percent of packages make it on time on an average day, he says.
In this instance he thinks mailers “probably still achieved close to 96-97 percent, which I would remind you is a very high number.”
It’s just that when those missed deliveries happen on Christmas ... everyone notices.