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A gas station in Somerset, Ky., was opened recently by city officials as a way to try to lower gas prices. Critics call it a socialist move and say government competition isn't fair to local firms.
A few seconds of warning before a major earthquake could save lives.
That’s why California legislators passed a bill last year asking officials to set up a seismic early warning system.
The law also requires this system to be a public and private venture, but working out the details of that arrangement hasn't been easy.
One of the businesses looking to help build an early warning network is Seismic Warning Systems, based in Scotts Valley. The company has already set up sensors in certain locations, including more than a dozen fire stations and a transit company in the Coachella Valley, as marked below.
Blake Goetz at Seismic Warning Systems said the company's quake alert tool relies on sensors about the size of paperback novels.
"They’re bolted about a foot off the floor in a bearing wall," he said, showing off the system at a Palm Springs fire station.
Those sensors can detect an earthquake seconds before the serious shaking begins. Goetz says within that brief window of time, the system does three things automatically: "It opens the doors, it turns on the lights and it activates the radio system."
When that happens, a robotic voice calls out over the loudspeakers, repeating the phrase "seismic event detected."
This kind of automated response is crucial for fire departments near the San Andreas Fault.
For instance, if the garage doors are closed when the shaking starts, they may get jammed. That happened four years ago to a station in Calexico, Goetz said.
"They had to extricate themselves," he said. "Meanwhile, there were fires and floods and damage all around their city, and they couldn't get out of the station."
In hopes of preventing that from happening again, Imperial County secured a $250,000 grant and hired Seismic Warning Systems to set up a network there as well. Below is an image of where the company plans to install those systems, marked in yellow.Rocky Saunders, a sales representative for SWS, said the company has cracked the code on quakes.
"We can detect, analyze and warn of a dangerous earthquake in less than one second," he said.
The sensors work by detecting subtle vibrations called P-waves, which occur just as a quake starts and travel at the speed of sound. They reach the surface before the more damaging S-waves that follow.
It’s that gap of time between the P-waves and S-waves that allow a warning system to do its thing. Saunders said the sensor can even determine the size of the impeding quake.
"We essentially are listening and detecting and analyzing the DNA, if you will, of the earthquake," he said.
Saunders claimed that the SWS instruments are faster than anything else on the market, including a system designed by the U.S. Geological Survey that works in a similar manner.
While the SWS system currently uses sensors and automated systems in buildings, the USGS network relies on hundreds of sensors around the state installed near major faults. Below is an image of the sensors for that network in Southern California.
But it's still a prototype. It would require $38 million to build out and $16 million a year to maintain.
Saunders said his company plans to install its own sensors near faults using investor capital. The company will then simply sell early warning subscriptions for about $100 a month.
"So that’s the difference," Saudners said. "We do not require an investment from the state of California, and then there is a public benefit at a very, very inexpensive cost."
While the USGS system may cost more, the agency said the system also does more in terms of gathering seismic data and analyzing quake risks. And Seismic Warning Systems still needs to secure more private funding to build its statewide network.
Regardless of the approach, the state wants both systems linked together. But the USGS’ Elizabeth Cochran said that’s easier said than done. "Our concern is that it’s not clear exactly how their system is functioning and whether it’s functioning in the way that they claim it is," she said.
She pointed out that Seismic Warning Systems won’t divulge the details behind its technology. The company said that information is a trade secret. And while the two sides have met numerous times, they haven’t found a way to get past that.
"It’s kind of a turf war, and that’s kind of bothersome," said Gary McGavin, a professor of architecture at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, and a former member of the California Seismic Safety Commission.
McGavin thinks the USGS isn’t used to having competition when it comes to statewide early warning, and he thinks the agency isn't keen on sharing that spotlight.
But, he added, a system relying solely on a private company is risky, too, since private businesses are more susceptible to lawsuits than public agencies.
Either way, he thinks California desperately needs an early warning system and that the two sides should come together to help make that happen.
"And I’m just flabbergasted that there’s so much balking at getting this going," McGavin said.
According to state law, California has until January 2016 to get a warning system in place.
Data culled from AOL's earnings report last week revealed that the company still has 2.3 million subscribers, which is interesting in and of itself.
But even more interesting is that subscription. For $59.88 a year you can get their baseline plan which includes, among other things, unlimited dial-up service — the only way to get online in a lot of rural areas.
It also includes two free wills from Hyatt Legal planning and — just to drive their target demographic point home — an AARP membership.
Several companies, including Square and PayPal, have made it easier for small retailers to accept credit cards; they make card readers that plug into smart phones and tablets. Well, those companies have new competition from Amazon.
Sure, there is money to be made from processing mobile payments – a cut of every dollar. But something else is driving Amazon’s decision to get into this sector - data. The e-retailer already knows a lot about how we shop – what we search for, what ads we click and what devices we use.
“Within Amazon’s world, they have a tremendous insight into our online behaviors,” says Colin Gillis, a tech analyst with BGC Partners. “But they don’t have access into our offline purchasing.”
Gillis says that, with this new product, known as Amazon Local Register, the company will collect new data on what we buy at stores and restaurants. “That insight into our offline behavior will be useful to them,” he says.
Amazon wants to know what we buy regularly and how we pay for those items. In the future, the company could sell us those items.
According to James Cordwell, an Internet analyst with Atlantic Equities, Amazon - which makes less than a penny on every dollar of revenue - is under more pressure than ever to make money, and Amazon Local Register could help the company do that. “But over and above that,” he says, “it’s about further locking in third parties into its platform.”
R.J. Hottovy, an analyst with Morningstar, wonders if local retailers will be interested in that, even though the company charges less per transaction than Square or PayPal.
“There is going to be some reluctance on the part of small merchants to share any kind of data with Amazon,” he says. That’s because data that could benefit Amazon could hurt those small merchants in the long run. If Amazon sees that your business is doing well, Hottovy says, there is nothing to stop it from competing against you.
Non-profits might want to add a bucket of ice water to their fundraising tool kits after the success of the viral “ice bucket challenge.”
The campaign, which is plastering social media, is drawing in big donations for charities that deal with the neurodegenerative disease ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease. ALS causes its victims’ muscles to stop functioning such that they eventually lose their ability to eat, speak walk and breathe.
Here’s how the" ice bucket challenge" works: dump a bucket of ice water over your head in support of ALS sufferers. Or donate money to an ALS organization. Or both. Then challenge someone else to do the same within 24 hours.
"Marketplace" host Kai Ryssdal takes part in the Ice Bucket Challenge.
The national ALS association and its chapters have pulled in nearly $6 million in donations since late July, compared to just $1 million during the same period last year, as celebrities like Jimmy Fallon and Justin Timberlake join the throng of Americans accepting the "ice bucket challenge".
“I wish I could take credit for this incredible viral phenomenon. I'd be a PR genius if that was the case,” says ALS Association spokeswoman Carrie Munk.
Instead, Munk credits a few individuals who themselves suffer from ALS with making the ice bucket challenge go viral. Pete Frates, a former Boston College baseball player, is one of them. His father, John Frates, says his 29 year-old son got keyed into the challenge from a fellow ALS sufferer.
“It looked like it was just going to be for entertainment purposes around our family and friends. Then it morphed into hey, if you don't do this challenge, you better donate,” says Frates.
Sarah Durham, the president of Big Duck, a communications firm for non-profits, says other fundraising campaigns have had similar roots. Durham says Planned Parenthood appeared to benefit from an individual sending out an email that went viral a few years ago.
Durham says the charities that benefit from grassroots campaigns might scramble to catch up. “It can make it hard for non-profits because oftentimes they're reacting to something that's out there that they didn't get any lead time to plan for or prepare for,” she says.
But in fundraising, that's not a terrible problem to have. [View the story "#IceBucketChallenge Highlight reel" on Storify]
Trying to get inside the head – or wallet – of the American consumer can be dizzying.
Data released by the Commerce Department Wednesday shows retail sales in July were virtually unchanged from the previous month and are at their weakest level since January.
One reason these numbers may be disappointing is actually because of strong car sales earlier in the year, says Chris Christopher, the director of consumer economics at IHS Global Insight.
“You have a couple months of good auto sales, and then even after those months, the discretionary spending is a little bit lackluster,” he explains. “[Consumers] take it a little bit easier on other items that are not necessities.”
In a word, consumers are cautious. Coming out of the recession, they’ve learned to budget.
“For example, three-quarters of consumers make a shopping list before heading to the grocery store,” says Susan Viamari, who covers consumer insights for IRI, a market-research company. “By and large, consumers are sticking to the lists that they’ve made.”
It’s not just that shoppers are being responsible. Buyers have become passionate about finding deals, says Candace Corlett, the president of WSL Strategic Retail. Moreover, wage growth has been fairly anemic and consumers have made paying down their debts a priority.
“It’s a very good thing for shoppers,” she says. “It’s less good for our economy, which thrives on consumers overspending.”
Shoppers aren't all about making savings and having no fun: Corlett says the American consumer can still be tempted by products that are particularly new and exciting—and that the number of people walking around with new Apple products or fitness trackers is proof of that.
UNICEF predicts that Africa will have more than 4 billion people by 2100. Depending on how Africa's governments handle the upswing, that could mean a boom in the economy or a rise in mass poverty.
The most serious Ebola warning to date has been issued in East Africa. Nigeria confirmed at least 13 cases of the disease last week, and Kenya is now a “high-risk” country for the spread of the virus.
"Ebola can spread through physical contact," says Tomi Oladipo, Nigeria Correspondent at the BBC. "There’s a lot of caution now."
Oladipo says people are a lot more reluctant to shake hands. Many public places, like gyms, are providing hand sanitizer to try and help prevent the spread.
Many small food businesses have been affected as well.
"In Nigeria, we’ve got this kind of roast beef, which is sold in skewers and made out in the open. It’s popular and a delicacy around the country," says Olidapo. "A lot of the sellers we’ve spoken to say their sales have gone down. Some of them would have maybe 200 customers a day and now they’re getting about 50."
Listen to the full conversation in the audio player above.
What does it take to be a man? In writer Matt de la Peña's family, it's meeting your woman in a traditionally macho way. Until now, he hasn't told them how he really met his wife eight years ago.
Robert Siegel speaks with local political leader Patricia Bynes of Ferguson, Mo., about the clashes between residents and police taking place there since the weekend. Unrest erupted after an unarmed black teenager was shot and killed by police recently in the St. Louis suburb.
The community of Ferguson, Mo., remains on edge after a police shooting left an unarmed black teenager dead over the weekend. Clashes have erupted between protesters and police, and an officer was involved in another shooting overnight.
After a long period of supporting Islamist militants like the Islamic State, Turkish towns along the Syrian border are now cracking down. Souad Mekhennet co-wrote a story in The Washington Post about the formerly friendly attitude and its reversal. She speaks with Robert Siegel.
The era of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki appears to be coming to an end after eight turbulent years. Haider al-Abadi, the man set to replace him, is not a previously well-known figure. NPR's Alice Fordham has interviewed him, and she tells Melissa Block more about him.
The International Mathematical Union has announced the four winners of its prestigious Fields Medal. The group includes Maryam Mirzakhani, the first woman to win the prize in its long history.
The Ebola outbreak has taken a particularly high toll on health workers, with more than 100 cases of health workers infected with the disease. West Africans are now requesting access to experimental drugs that have been used on Western health workers.
Even though they are bad for state budgets and aren't necessarily good bargains, Americans love sales-tax holidays. Retailers like them too, because the tax holidays motivate consumers.
“It can be a pretty significant increase in traffic in the store and sales,” says Jim Sluzewski, a spokesman for Macy’s.
So why are tax holidays so popular?
“There’s absolutely a psychological impact here that is bigger than the money,” says Craig Shearman, spokesman for the National Retail Federation.
He says consumers generally hold out for sales offering at least 25 percent off.
“If retailers were to offer 5 or 10 percent off, consumers would laugh at them,” says Shearman. “But when shoppers can save that same 5 or 10 percent by virtue of not paying tax, it goes way beyond the amount of money involved.”
While consumers save money at the cash register, it’s really the states that pay.
“The first time I heard about a state tax holiday, I laughed until I cried,” says Verenda Smith, deputy director at the Federation for Tax Administrators, an association of state tax agencies.
There are 27 tax holidays this year.
“They’re expensive. They tend to distort the economy a little bit. But people love ‘em,” says Smith.
If tax holidays disappeared, would retailers lose much business?
Joy Hyrons, who handles accounting for Miller’s School Supplies in central Florida, says not necessarily.
“Well, to be honest with you, it probably wouldn’t make a whole lot of difference because the people have to purchase these items anyway,” says Hyrons.