Marketplace - American Public Media

Why inflation is the new variable to watch

Thu, 2015-02-26 14:49

Jobs and the labor market have held our national attention for so long, it almost seems kind of strange to now talk about inflation.

The Federal Reserve has two main jobs, one is to maximize employment. The other is to keep inflation at a certain target. Why? Because inflation and growth go hand-in-hand, and the Fed aims for a "Goldilocks" rate of inflation that will ensure wage growth and economic well-being. 

The Fed’s target is 2 percent inflation. And once we hit that point, the Fed will start to raise interest rates, to be sure the economy doesn't overheat (Goldilocks, remember!).  But we're nowhere that point, not least because falling fuel prices are holding inflation down. And they may continue to do so. So we can expect interest rates to remain low for a while yet.

What will turn things around? TD Securities economist Millan Mulraine says keep an eye on wages. They are trending higher, and should ultimately push inflation back in the right, upwards, direction.

Death in the suburbs: Reinventing the American mall

Thu, 2015-02-26 14:30

Rumors of the mall's death have been slightly exaggerated. Anchor stores are leaving -- stores such as Sears and JC Penney -- but high-end malls are reporting record sales.  And many suburban malls are witnessing a rebirth.

Some are being turned into mixed-use spaces that include retail, offices, and residences.

Others are being taken over by city governments for use as police stations, fire departments, and libraries.

Another group of developers have discovered that niche malls targeting specific ethnic populations, such as Hispanics or South Asians, can also offer new avenues to retail success.  

For the full story, click the audio player above.

Water and writers: Paolo Bacigalupi

Thu, 2015-02-26 14:17

We've been talking a lot about water this month in our series, Water: The High Price of Cheap. We take it for granted, and that gets us in trouble.

As part of our series, we asked a couple of novelists to talk about water in their work and what water means to them. Author Paolo Bacigalupi, who is known for "The Windup Girl" and "The Drowned Cities," has  His new novel, out soon, is titled, "The Water Knife." 

The Windup Girl (Excerpt)

“No! I don’t want the mangosteen.” Anderson Lake leans forward, pointing. “I want that one, there. Kaw pollamai nee khap. The one with the red skin and the green hairs.”

The peasant woman smiles, showing teeth blackened from chewingbetel nut, and points to a pyramid of fruits stacked beside her. “Un nee chai mai kha?”

“Right. Those. Khap.” Anderson nods and makes himself smile. “What are they called?”

“Ngaw.” She pronounces the word carefully for his foreign ear, and hands across a sample.

Anderson takes the fruit, frowning. “It’s new?”

“Kha.” She nods an affirmative.

Anderson turns the fruit in his hand, studying it. It’s more like a gaudy sea anemone or a furry puffer fish than a fruit. Coarse green tendrils protrude from all sides, tickling his palm. The skin has the rust-red tinge of blister rust, but when he sniffs he doesn’t get any stink of decay. It seems perfectly healthy, despite its appearance.

“Ngaw,” the peasant woman says again, and then, as if reading his mind, “New. No blister rust.”

Anderson nods absently. Around him, the market soi bustles with Bangkok’s morning shoppers. Mounds of durians fill the alley in reeking piles and water tubs splash with snakehead fish and red-fin plaa. Overhead, palm-oil polymer tarps sag under the blast furnace heat of the tropic sun, shading the market with hand-painted images of clipper ship trading companies and the face of the revered Child Queen. A man jostles past, holding vermilion-combed chickens high as they flap and squawk outrage on their way to slaughter, and women in brightly colored pha sin bargain and smile with the vendors, driving down the price of pirated U-Tex rice and new-variant tomatoes.

None of it touches Anderson.

Ngaw,” the woman says again, seeking connection.

The fruit’s long hairs tickle his palm, challenging him to recognize its origin. Another Thai genehacking success, just like the tomatoes and eggplants and chiles that abound in the neighboring stalls. It’s as if the Grahamite Bible’s prophecies are coming to pass. As if Saint Francis himself stirs in his grave, restless, preparing to stride forth onto the land, bearing with him the bounty of history’s lost calories.

“And he shall come with trumpets, and Eden shall return . . .”

Anderson turns the strange hairy fruit in his hand. It carries no stink of cibiscosis. No scab of blister rust. No graffiti of genehack weevil engraves its skin. The world’s flowers and vegetables and trees and fruits make up the geography of Anderson Lake’s mind, and yet nowhere does he find a helpful signpost that leads him to identification.

Ngaw. A mystery.

He mimes that he would like to taste and the peasant woman takes back the fruit. Her brown thumb easily tears away the hairy rind, revealing a pale core. Translucent and veinous, it resembles nothing so much as the pickled onions served in martinis at research clubs in Des Moines.

She hands back the fruit. Anderson sniffs tentatively. Inhales floral syrup. Ngaw. It shouldn’t exist. Yesterday, it didn’t. Yesterday, not a single stall in Bangkok sold these fruits, and yet now they sit in pyramids, piled all around this grimy woman where she squats on the ground under the partial shading of her tarp. From around her neck, a gold glinting amulet of the martyr Phra Seub winks at him, a talisman of protection against the agricultural plagues of the calorie companies.

Anderson wishes he could observe the fruit in its natural habitat, hanging from a tree or lurking under the leaves of some bush. With more information, he might guess genus and family, might divine some whisper of the genetic past that the Thai Kingdom is trying to excavate, but there are no more clues. He slips the ngaw’s slick translucent ball into his mouth.

A fist of flavor, ripe with sugar and fecundity. The sticky flower bomb coats his tongue. It’s as though he’s back in the HiGro fields of Iowa, offered his first tiny block of hard candy by a Midwest Compact agronomist when he was nothing but a farmer’s boy, barefoot amid the corn stalks. The shell-shocked moment of flavor—real flavor—after a lifetime devoid of it.

Sun pours down. Shoppers jostle and bargain, but nothing touches him. He rolls the ngaw around in his mouth, eyes closed, tasting the past, savoring the time when this fruit must once have flourished, before cibiscosis and Nippon genehack weevil and blister rust and scabis mold razed the landscape.

Under the hammer heat of tropic sun, surrounded by the groan of water buffalo and the cry of dying chickens, he is one with paradise. If he were a Grahamite, he would fall to his knees and give ecstatic thanks for the flavor of Eden’s return.

Anderson spits the black pit into his hand, smiling. He has read travelogues of history’s botanists and explorers, the men and women who pierced the deepest jungle wildernesses of the earth in search of new species—and yet their discoveries cannot compare to this single fruit.

Those people all sought discoveries. He has found a resurrection.

The peasant woman beams, sure of a sale. “Ao gee kilo kha?” How much?

“Are they safe?” he asks.

She points at the Environment Ministry certificates laid on the cobbles beside her, underlining the dates of inspection with a finger. “Latest variation,” she says. “Top grade.”

Anderson studies the glinting seals. Most likely, she bribed the white shirts for stamps rather than going through the full inspection process that would have guaranteed immunity to eighth-generation blister rust along with resistance to cibiscosis 111.mt7 and mt8. The cynical part of him supposes that it hardly matters. The intricate stamps that glitter in the sun are more talismanic than functional, something to make people feel secure in a dangerous world. In truth, if cibiscosis breaks out again, these certificates will do nothing. It will be a new variation, and all the old tests will be useless, and then people will pray to their Phra Seub amulets and King Rama XII images and make offerings at the City Pillar Shrine, and they will all cough up the meat of their lungs no matter how many Environment Ministry stamps adorn their produce.

Anderson pockets the ngaw’s pit. “I’ll take a kilo. No. Two. Song.”

He hands over a hemp sack without bothering to bargain. Whatever she asks, it will be too little. Miracles are worth the world. A unique gene that resists a calorie plague or utilizes nitrogen more efficiently sends profits skyrocketing. If he looks around the market right now, that truth is everywhere displayed. The alley bustles with Thais purchasing everything from generipped versions of U-Tex rice to vermilion-variant poultry. But all of those things are old advances, based on previous genehack work done by AgriGen and PurCal and Total Nutrient Holdings. The fruits of old science, manufactured in the bowels of the Midwest Compact’s research labs.

The ngaw is different. The ngaw doesn’t come from the Midwest. The Thai Kingdom is clever where others are not. It thrives while countries like India and Burma and Vietnam all fall like dominoes, starving and begging for the scientific advances of the calorie monopolies.

A few people stop to examine Anderson’s purchase, but even if Anderson thinks the price is low, they apparently find it too expensive and pass on.

The woman hands across the ngaw, and Anderson almost laughs with pleasure. Not a single one of these furry fruits should exist; he might as well be hefting a sack of trilobites. If his guess about the ngaw’s origin is correct, it represents a return from extinction as shocking as if a Tyrannosaurus were stalking down Thanon Sukhumvit. But then, the same is true of the potatoes and tomatoes and chiles that fill the market, all piled in such splendid abundance, an array of fecund nightshades that no one has seen in generations. In this drowning city, all things seem possible. Fruits and vegetables return from the grave, extinct flowers blossom on the avenues, and behind it all, the Environment Ministry works magic with the genetic material of generations lost.

Carrying his sacked fruit, Anderson squeezes back down the soi to the avenue beyond. A seethe of traffic greets him, morning commuters clogging Thanon Rama IX like the Mekong in flood. Bicycles and cycle rickshaws, blue-black water buffaloes and great shambling megodonts.

At Anderson’s arrival, Lao Gu emerges from the shade of a crumbling office tower, carefully pinching off the burning tip of a cigarette. Nightshades again. They’re everywhere. Nowhere else in the world, but here they riot in abundance. Lao Gu tucks the remainder of the tobacco into a ragged shirt pocket as he trots ahead of Anderson to their cycle rickshaw.

The old Chinese man is nothing but a scarecrow, dressed in rags, but still, he is lucky. Alive, when most of his people are dead. Employed, while his fellow Malayan refugees are packed like slaughter chickens into sweltering Expansion towers. Lao Gu has stringy muscle on his bones and enough money to indulge in Singha cigarettes. To the rest of the yellow card refugees he is as lucky as a king.

Lao Gu straddles the cycle’s saddle and waits patiently as Anderson clambers into the passenger seat behind. “Office,” Anderson says. “Bai khap.” Then switches to Chinese. “Zou ba.”

The old man stands on his pedals and they merge into traffic. Around them, bicycle bells ring like cibiscosis chimes, irritated at their obstruction. Lao Gu ignores them and weaves deeper into the traffic flow.

Anderson reaches for another ngaw, then restrains himself. He should save them. They’re too valuable to gobble like a greedy child. The Thais have found some new way to disinter the past, and all he wants to do is feast on the evidence. He drums his fingers on the bagged fruit, fighting for self-control.

To distract himself, he fishes for his pack of cigarettes and lights one. He draws on the tobacco, savoring the burn, remembering his surprise when he first discovered how successful the Thai Kingdom had become, how widely spread the nightshades. And as he smokes, he thinks of Yates. Remembers the man’s disappointment as they sat across from one another with resurrected history smoldering between them.

Water and writers: Pablo Bacigalupi

Thu, 2015-02-26 14:17

We've been talking a lot about water this month in our series, Water: The High Price of Cheap. We take it for granted, and that gets us in trouble.

As part of our series, we asked a couple of novelists to talk about water in their work and what water means to them. Author Paolo Bacigalupi, who is known for "The Windup Girl" and "The Drowned Cities," has  His new novel, out soon, is titled, "The Water Knife." 

The Windup Girl (Excerpt)

“No! I don’t want the mangosteen.” Anderson Lake leans forward, pointing. “I want that one, there. Kaw pollamai nee khap. The one with the red skin and the green hairs.”

The peasant woman smiles, showing teeth blackened from chewingbetel nut, and points to a pyramid of fruits stacked beside her. “Un nee chai mai kha?”

“Right. Those. Khap.” Anderson nods and makes himself smile. “What are they called?”

“Ngaw.” She pronounces the word carefully for his foreign ear, and hands across a sample.

Anderson takes the fruit, frowning. “It’s new?”

“Kha.” She nods an affirmative.

Anderson turns the fruit in his hand, studying it. It’s more like a gaudy sea anemone or a furry puffer fish than a fruit. Coarse green tendrils protrude from all sides, tickling his palm. The skin has the rust-red tinge of blister rust, but when he sniffs he doesn’t get any stink of decay. It seems perfectly healthy, despite its appearance.

“Ngaw,” the peasant woman says again, and then, as if reading his mind, “New. No blister rust.”

Anderson nods absently. Around him, the market soi bustles with Bangkok’s morning shoppers. Mounds of durians fill the alley in reeking piles and water tubs splash with snakehead fish and red-fin plaa. Overhead, palm-oil polymer tarps sag under the blast furnace heat of the tropic sun, shading the market with hand-painted images of clipper ship trading companies and the face of the revered Child Queen. A man jostles past, holding vermilion-combed chickens high as they flap and squawk outrage on their way to slaughter, and women in brightly colored pha sin bargain and smile with the vendors, driving down the price of pirated U-Tex rice and new-variant tomatoes.

None of it touches Anderson.

Ngaw,” the woman says again, seeking connection.

The fruit’s long hairs tickle his palm, challenging him to recognize its origin. Another Thai genehacking success, just like the tomatoes and eggplants and chiles that abound in the neighboring stalls. It’s as if the Grahamite Bible’s prophecies are coming to pass. As if Saint Francis himself stirs in his grave, restless, preparing to stride forth onto the land, bearing with him the bounty of history’s lost calories.

“And he shall come with trumpets, and Eden shall return . . .”

Anderson turns the strange hairy fruit in his hand. It carries no stink of cibiscosis. No scab of blister rust. No graffiti of genehack weevil engraves its skin. The world’s flowers and vegetables and trees and fruits make up the geography of Anderson Lake’s mind, and yet nowhere does he find a helpful signpost that leads him to identification.

Ngaw. A mystery.

He mimes that he would like to taste and the peasant woman takes back the fruit. Her brown thumb easily tears away the hairy rind, revealing a pale core. Translucent and veinous, it resembles nothing so much as the pickled onions served in martinis at research clubs in Des Moines.

She hands back the fruit. Anderson sniffs tentatively. Inhales floral syrup. Ngaw. It shouldn’t exist. Yesterday, it didn’t. Yesterday, not a single stall in Bangkok sold these fruits, and yet now they sit in pyramids, piled all around this grimy woman where she squats on the ground under the partial shading of her tarp. From around her neck, a gold glinting amulet of the martyr Phra Seub winks at him, a talisman of protection against the agricultural plagues of the calorie companies.

Anderson wishes he could observe the fruit in its natural habitat, hanging from a tree or lurking under the leaves of some bush. With more information, he might guess genus and family, might divine some whisper of the genetic past that the Thai Kingdom is trying to excavate, but there are no more clues. He slips the ngaw’s slick translucent ball into his mouth.

A fist of flavor, ripe with sugar and fecundity. The sticky flower bomb coats his tongue. It’s as though he’s back in the HiGro fields of Iowa, offered his first tiny block of hard candy by a Midwest Compact agronomist when he was nothing but a farmer’s boy, barefoot amid the corn stalks. The shell-shocked moment of flavor—real flavor—after a lifetime devoid of it.

Sun pours down. Shoppers jostle and bargain, but nothing touches him. He rolls the ngaw around in his mouth, eyes closed, tasting the past, savoring the time when this fruit must once have flourished, before cibiscosis and Nippon genehack weevil and blister rust and scabis mold razed the landscape.

Under the hammer heat of tropic sun, surrounded by the groan of water buffalo and the cry of dying chickens, he is one with paradise. If he were a Grahamite, he would fall to his knees and give ecstatic thanks for the flavor of Eden’s return.

Anderson spits the black pit into his hand, smiling. He has read travelogues of history’s botanists and explorers, the men and women who pierced the deepest jungle wildernesses of the earth in search of new species—and yet their discoveries cannot compare to this single fruit.

Those people all sought discoveries. He has found a resurrection.

The peasant woman beams, sure of a sale. “Ao gee kilo kha?” How much?

“Are they safe?” he asks.

She points at the Environment Ministry certificates laid on the cobbles beside her, underlining the dates of inspection with a finger. “Latest variation,” she says. “Top grade.”

Anderson studies the glinting seals. Most likely, she bribed the white shirts for stamps rather than going through the full inspection process that would have guaranteed immunity to eighth-generation blister rust along with resistance to cibiscosis 111.mt7 and mt8. The cynical part of him supposes that it hardly matters. The intricate stamps that glitter in the sun are more talismanic than functional, something to make people feel secure in a dangerous world. In truth, if cibiscosis breaks out again, these certificates will do nothing. It will be a new variation, and all the old tests will be useless, and then people will pray to their Phra Seub amulets and King Rama XII images and make offerings at the City Pillar Shrine, and they will all cough up the meat of their lungs no matter how many Environment Ministry stamps adorn their produce.

Anderson pockets the ngaw’s pit. “I’ll take a kilo. No. Two. Song.”

He hands over a hemp sack without bothering to bargain. Whatever she asks, it will be too little. Miracles are worth the world. A unique gene that resists a calorie plague or utilizes nitrogen more efficiently sends profits skyrocketing. If he looks around the market right now, that truth is everywhere displayed. The alley bustles with Thais purchasing everything from generipped versions of U-Tex rice to vermilion-variant poultry. But all of those things are old advances, based on previous genehack work done by AgriGen and PurCal and Total Nutrient Holdings. The fruits of old science, manufactured in the bowels of the Midwest Compact’s research labs.

The ngaw is different. The ngaw doesn’t come from the Midwest. The Thai Kingdom is clever where others are not. It thrives while countries like India and Burma and Vietnam all fall like dominoes, starving and begging for the scientific advances of the calorie monopolies.

A few people stop to examine Anderson’s purchase, but even if Anderson thinks the price is low, they apparently find it too expensive and pass on.

The woman hands across the ngaw, and Anderson almost laughs with pleasure. Not a single one of these furry fruits should exist; he might as well be hefting a sack of trilobites. If his guess about the ngaw’s origin is correct, it represents a return from extinction as shocking as if a Tyrannosaurus were stalking down Thanon Sukhumvit. But then, the same is true of the potatoes and tomatoes and chiles that fill the market, all piled in such splendid abundance, an array of fecund nightshades that no one has seen in generations. In this drowning city, all things seem possible. Fruits and vegetables return from the grave, extinct flowers blossom on the avenues, and behind it all, the Environment Ministry works magic with the genetic material of generations lost.

Carrying his sacked fruit, Anderson squeezes back down the soi to the avenue beyond. A seethe of traffic greets him, morning commuters clogging Thanon Rama IX like the Mekong in flood. Bicycles and cycle rickshaws, blue-black water buffaloes and great shambling megodonts.

At Anderson’s arrival, Lao Gu emerges from the shade of a crumbling office tower, carefully pinching off the burning tip of a cigarette. Nightshades again. They’re everywhere. Nowhere else in the world, but here they riot in abundance. Lao Gu tucks the remainder of the tobacco into a ragged shirt pocket as he trots ahead of Anderson to their cycle rickshaw.

The old Chinese man is nothing but a scarecrow, dressed in rags, but still, he is lucky. Alive, when most of his people are dead. Employed, while his fellow Malayan refugees are packed like slaughter chickens into sweltering Expansion towers. Lao Gu has stringy muscle on his bones and enough money to indulge in Singha cigarettes. To the rest of the yellow card refugees he is as lucky as a king.

Lao Gu straddles the cycle’s saddle and waits patiently as Anderson clambers into the passenger seat behind. “Office,” Anderson says. “Bai khap.” Then switches to Chinese. “Zou ba.”

The old man stands on his pedals and they merge into traffic. Around them, bicycle bells ring like cibiscosis chimes, irritated at their obstruction. Lao Gu ignores them and weaves deeper into the traffic flow.

Anderson reaches for another ngaw, then restrains himself. He should save them. They’re too valuable to gobble like a greedy child. The Thais have found some new way to disinter the past, and all he wants to do is feast on the evidence. He drums his fingers on the bagged fruit, fighting for self-control.

To distract himself, he fishes for his pack of cigarettes and lights one. He draws on the tobacco, savoring the burn, remembering his surprise when he first discovered how successful the Thai Kingdom had become, how widely spread the nightshades. And as he smokes, he thinks of Yates. Remembers the man’s disappointment as they sat across from one another with resurrected history smoldering between them.

Pebble Time breaks Kickstarter's record

Thu, 2015-02-26 13:50

There’s a lot of buzz around the upcoming Apple Watch, expected this spring, but Apple isn’t the only company in the wearables game.

Pebble has returned to Kickstarter with an upgraded product, Pebble Time, a smart watch that may give Apple a run for its money. Pebble Time launched its Kickstarter project on Tuesday, February 24 and raised its first million in just 49 minutes. Since then, the company has raised over $10 million in two days, breaking Kickstarter’s record.

Pebble has funding from venture capitalists and did very well the first time they created a Kickstarter project, but the benefits of using Kickstarter go beyond simply raising funds.

“It’s a great source of marketing, but I think it’s also a massive opportunity for us to engage with our customers. Engage with the people who want to see us succeed,” says founder Eric Migicovsky.

Migicovsky is not worried about competition. He says, “We’re a company that doesn’t have any distractions. We don’t have an existing user base. We don’t have any other sources of capital. This is what we do, and having another company like Apple is pretty good validation that what we do matters.”  

This Kickstarter has the most supporters

Thu, 2015-02-26 09:26

The Kickstarter with the most supporters, at 219,382 people, is a card game called Exploding Kittens.

Here's the key paragraph from its Kickstarter page: "Exploding Kittens is a highly strategic kitty-powered version of Russian Roulette. Players take turns drawing cards until someone draws an exploding kitten and loses the game. "

No, I don't know what's the matter with people either, but the thing raised almost $9 million.

Facebook expands suicide prevention efforts

Thu, 2015-02-26 09:26

Over the next few months, Facebook users will have access to some new tools to help prevent suicide among their friends. Friends can already report suicidal content when they see it online. Now both the person who posts that content — and the friend who reports it — will be directed to mental health resources.

Andrew Souvall

“What this does is it allows people to connect in a large way and provide support through a free platform,” says Stephen Miller, operations manager at Forefront, a nonprofit suicide prevention group in Seattle that helped develop the new tools.

Five years ago Miller lost a friend to suicide, after that friend posted troubling comments on Facebook.

“I didn’t know what to do,” says Miller.

Some privacy advocates are worried about the potential unintended consequences of allowing people to flag their friends.  

“What happens to that record of that tag of someone who’s suicidal?” says Jamie Court with Consumer Watchdog. “Can they ever erase it from their Facebook history, which is the property of Facebook?”

The reporting process is “entirely confidential,” says Rob Boyle, a product manager at Facebook. Posters won't know who flagged their content, and what they choose to do remains private.

Andrew Souvall

“We take privacy and confidentiality very seriously,” he says, “especially around this product and these experiences.”

Why oil prices move up and down so much

Thu, 2015-02-26 09:26

On Wednesday, the U.S. Energy Information Administration reported that oil inventories are at historic highs — we’re running out of places to put the stuff. So, why, did oil prices… rise? And then, why did they fall again the next day?

A lot of factors can move the price of oil day to day, and they may or may not have anything to do with where the market is heading long term. 

For instance, traders were not surprised when U.S. crude inventories hit a new high. And that is why prices went up, says Walter Zimmerman, chief technical analyst for United-ICAP.

"There’s an old proverb," Zimmerman says. "What everybody knows, is already in the price."

In other words, Wednesday's opening price of oil already included a discount for the over-supply that everybody expected to see. So, when the news became official, prices didn’t crash. 

And that says Zimmerman, spooked some traders, who thought, "Hey wait, bad news came, why aren’t prices crashing?" They worried they’d bet too low — and bid up prices a bit.

"This happens quite frequently," he says. "It’s a feature of the landscape of oil trading."

He thinks Thursday's dip was a correction — but there’s always another theory.

"And sometimes it’s counter-intuitive," says Phil Flynn, senior market analyst with Price Futures Group. "Today, oil is down because the U.S. economy’s good!"

Here's what Flynn means:

1. Good news about the U.S. economy makes for a stronger U.S. dollar.

2. Oil priced in dollars is more expensive for countries buying in, say, Euros.

3. Globally, that would mean weaker demand…  and lower prices.

There are facts that shape oil markets over time, but trying to figure out which ones are the most important is really, really hard.  

"At the end of the day, it’s supply and demand, but what goes into supply and demand just boggles the mind," says Flynn. "It’s the story of the global economy. How’s the global economy going to do?"

As someone once said: "It’s hard to make predictions. Especially about the future."

House of Cards showrunner talks secrets, money and art

Thu, 2015-02-26 03:00

A lot of secrecy goes into the making of House of Cards. The Netflix Original Series tells the story of Frank Underwood (played by Kevin Specy), a South Carolina Democrat and House majority whip turned President, caught up in power and politics in Washington.

The show premiered in February 2013 to wide critical acclaim. The online show became the first of its kind to receive Emmy awards, and attracted new subscribers to Netflix. House of Cards became part of the model of success for subscription-based streaming services like Netflix, Hulu and Amazon. Other series followed, and original streaming content changed the market for television, upending traditional weekly broadcasts and inspiring binge watching trends.

House of Cards' third season is set to premiere on February 27, 2015 — only one small hiccup got in the way...a 30 minute leak of the entire season. Netflix quickly pulled the leaked version of the show, but not before some users were able to load the entire first episode, and see short descriptions of the rest of the season.

I don’t mean to alarm you… BUT SERIES THREE OF HOUSE OF CARDS IS NOW ON NETFLIX FOR SOME REASON. pic.twitter.com/DoQKBK4d9X

— Scott Bryan (@scottygb) February 11, 2015  

But if he was concerned about the leak, Beau Willimon, creator and showrunner of House of Cards, isn't saying so. The writer, executive producer, and creator himself says that the leak was almost like a teaser.

Click the media player above to hear Beau Willimon in conversation with Marketplace Weekend host Lizzie O'Leary.

"I take great pains to make sure that I don't reveal anything about an upcoming season, and that sort of undid some of the work," he said, "but I don't think there was a lot of harm done, and in fact, more than anything, it showed us how excited people were about season three...I wish we could take credit for it."

This is Washington. There's always a leak. All 13 episodes will launch February 27.

— House of Cards (@HouseofCards) February 11, 2015

Protecting the secrets surrounding a television show is an increasingly difficult task at a time when a small technical glitch can launch material to the front page of the most popular streaming site in the world. Still, shows guard scripts, conceal episode information to people auditioning, and keep filming locations quiet, preserving plot information until the moment of release.

But secrecy is complicated for streaming shows. House of Cards releases all of its episodes at once, so eager viewers could, if they wanted to, sit for hours in front of all 13 of them. And some do. According to a report from the networking company Procera, 2 percent of Netflix subscribers binge-watched season two in one weekend. Once the season launches, the internet becomes a breeding ground for spoilers, and viewers are on their own when it comes to protecting show secrets.

"We don't want to spoil anything for anyone," Willimon says, "but when you release a show in its entirety in one day, within hours you have the potential for a smorgasbord of spoilers, and there's nothing we can do to control that, but what we can control is prior to that launch, not giving too much away."

Still, Willimon says he's not writing for a binge-watching audience, and that when it comes to writing and producing the show, the mode of delivery doesn't matter much to him. "I don't really pay much attention or think much about that stuff too much," he said, "my goal is only to tell the best story possible and if it brings in subscribers, great. I think that's a tension that really anyone working in television faces, no matter what type of network they're writing for."

Selling ads on network and cable TV is fairly clear cut — it's easier to tell when a show is doing well and when it's floundering than it is when viewers enter through a streaming portal like Netflix. Netflix is secretive about its users and how and what they consume on the site. In the two months after House of Cards first premiered on the site in 2013, Netflix reported 3 million new users. But because Netflix doesn't share what its subscribers are watching. 

"I think that the metric for success have been changing in television," Willimon said, "it's not necessarily just the objective number, how many people watched. For a lot of places, it's about creating a brand, it's about offering something to certain niches within your subscribership that they're not getting anywhere else. When it used to be just about how much you could sell your ad time for, then that number really mattered." 

Willimon says that not even he knows how many people tune in to House of Cards, and can't comment on rumored information about production costs for the show, which some reports say start at $4.5 million per episode.

"You'd have to ask Netflix that," he said, "but if I were to speculate, I would say, what incentive do they have? What is the advantage of telling people how many folks are watching your show, or the shows that you're producing. It gives information to your competitors that you don't necessarily need them to have and since you're not selling advertising, it doesn't play into any meaningful equation in terms of how much revenue you're going to get."  

Transparency clearly isn't necessary for success, in the Netflix business model or in Underwood's Washington D.C., where secrets and manipulations are a crucial part of power. 

"In terms of secrecy as a theme, or a subject, I think it's a fascinating one," Willimon said, "and that really comes down to information as a form of power. Those that have information have a certain power over those that don't. In the fog of war, that person or entity that can look farthest into the fog has an advantage."

Withholding information, for Netflix and for Willimon's fictional politicians, has helped pave the way to success. "When you're writing a show about power, that's one of the tactics for maintaining or acquiring it," Willimon said, "to have more information than the next person, and to be secretive about the information that you have."

That being said, Willimon isn't giving much away about what's ahead in season three. "What happens when you've achieved the highest office in the land?" he asked, "Many presidents have had to contend with that very question: Is the only way to go down? Do you have to fight to maintain your place on the summit? These are precisely the questions that we want the audience to be asking as they click into season three."

 

PODCAST: Let's focus, pilots

Thu, 2015-02-26 03:00

First up, we'll talk about the news that last month consumer prices fell the most since the beginning of the Great Recession. More on that. Plus, we'll talk about an unusual fiscal tradition in India -- Today, the government has released a budget specifically for the railroads. And we'll talk about a memo to pilots of United Airlines that says, in a nutshell, "Let's focus, people."

A big win for net neutrality

Thu, 2015-02-26 02:00

Update: The FCC voted to re-classify broadband under Title 2 of the 1934 Communications Act.

On Thursday, the Federal Communications Commission plans to vote on new so-called Open Internet Rules. If the vote passes, the new rules will classify internet service providers—both broadband and wireless—as common carriers under what's called Title II.

What this means in english is that the FCC will be able to regulate internet companies, making sure they deliver all data from the web to the user at equal speeds. This would be a big win for net neutrality advocates. The most famous of them being Columbia University Law professor Tim Wu, the guy who coined the phrase in the first place. So what does he think about all of this?

Click the media player above to hear more.

As easy as scanning a fingerprint

Thu, 2015-02-26 02:00

We're taking one of our regular opportunities to go back to Back to the Future Part II. The 1989 movie predicted a number of technological advances that would be around in 2015. And now that the real 2015 is here, we are exploring whether or not some of that predicted tech has arrived.

Today, we take a look at biometrics, as in using retinas and fingerprints for identification or passwords. In Back to the Future’s vision of 2015, fingerprint scanners are all over the place. The technology is used to identify people, collect payments, and open locked doors.

Joseph Lorenzo Hall, Chief Technologist at the Center for Democracy and Technology, says we shouldn’t assume that life will fully imitate art.

“Frankly I don’t think we’ll ever be there and we shouldn’t be there. The problem with these kinds of things, in terms of allowing you access to your home, is that your fingerprint is not secret. If someone were able to produce a fake finger or cut your finger off, they may be able to gain access to your house. There’s nothing you can do about it. You can’t change your fingerprints easily," he says.

So you’re saying as a security technology it’s not all that useful?

It’s very usable. The trick is that it’s really best as an addition onto some other thing, be it a passcode on a mobile platform, or a token you may have, like a security key fob or something like that. There are systems that use harder to spoof biometrics like vein patterns in your hand. That’s extremely hard to reproduce, very detailed and highly identifying.

Are there privacy issues that come up as we use our biology to identify us and to give us access?

Holding your biometric data can be a privacy problem. If it leaks out, then someone who needs to reconstruct your fingerprint or your facial pattern can do that, but luckily most companies do a very similar thing to how we work with passwords. You don’t store password as you type them. The iPhone, forr example doesn't store your fingerprint. It stores some abstraction of your fingerprint that’s very hard to back out into your actual fingerprint. So if someone were to get into your phone they couldn't actually steal your fingerprint.

We have talked about other technologies in the movie, like fax machines, that seemed futuristic at the time, but now sort of belong in the past. Would you put fingerprint scanners in that category?

No. I think that was pretty prescient. They identified something we would be using right around the time when they went “back to the future” the second time. I do think they were overzealous in how ubiquitous fingerprint scanning would be. We are a little more careful with how we use these things.

Is there a piece of technology from Back to the Future Part II that you want us to highlight? Send your ideas to delorianhistorians@gmail.com

 

Looking for signs of life at Sears

Thu, 2015-02-26 02:00

On Thursday, Sears reported a revenue loss of 23.5 percent in the last quarter, with U.S. sales down 4.4 percent.

One bright spot for the parent company of Sears and Kmart is its real estate. Sears has proposed creating a real estate investment trust that would buy hundreds of its stores, and then lease them back to the company. That would give Sears a cushion of cash.

“It doesn’t seem like there is going to be a ninety-degree turn on a dime for the fortunes of this company,” says David Tawil with the hedge fund Maglan Capital. “It’s going to need to buy more time by having additional liquidity.”

Click the media player above to hear more.

Pebble's grand return to Kickstarter

Thu, 2015-02-26 02:00

Pebble has put its new, color smartwatch called "Time" up for a funding round on Kickstarter. Three years ago, the launch of its original smartwatch broke records. This time, Pebble's return to the crowd-funding site could have more to do with the marketing than the money.

Click the media player above to hear more.

A potential big win for net neutrality

Thu, 2015-02-26 02:00

On Thursday, the Federal Communications Commission plans to vote on new so-called Open Internet Rules. If the vote passes, the new rules will classify internet service providers—both broadband and wireless—as common carriers under what's called Title II.

What this means in english is that the FCC will be able to regulate internet companies, making sure they deliver all data from the web to the user at equal speeds. This would be a big win for net neutrality advocates. The most famous of them being Columbia University Law professor Tim Wu, the guy who coined the phrase in the first place. So what does he think about all of this?

Click the media player above to hear more.

The Global Economy at work

Thu, 2015-02-26 02:00

In today’s global economy, almost everything is connected in one circuitous way or another. So here’s a riddle: What connects the following things?

  • a $500 dollar pair of sunglasses for sale at a boutique in China
  • an economic slump in Croatia
  • a pair of white inspection gloves in Berlin

 The short answer to the riddle: A woman named Nadja Tobias. Let me explain.

Tobias works at factory in Berlin, in the Quality Control Department. She controls the quality of high-end eye glasses frames, produced by a company called Mykita. Motto: "Hand Made in Berlin."

When Tobias runs her own hands along the frames and stems of the hundreds of glasses produced in this factory every day, feeling for imperfections, she wears a pair of white inspection gloves.

“So I don't leave finger prints,” she explained when I visited the factory recently. She raised a gloved finger and slid it along the stem of a pair of glasses the color of chocolate chips. “For example—here,” she said, pointing to a spot.

I tried to find it with my own finger. I couldn’t.

Tobias reassured me. Over time, she said, “You develop kind of like a micro way of looking at these small objects.”

And that micro way of looking at things—that attention to detail and quality—is part of why Tobias’s employer, Mykita, can charger $500 for a pair of sunglasses.

“That's what makes a Mykita frame a Mykita frame. Why it's worth the extra cost,” explained Chris Leicht, Mykita’s Head of Global Sales.

Of course, until recently, you couldn't sell a pair of $500 sunglasses just anywhere. These days though, Leicht has customers in countries all over the world who can pay that much. Even, say, a boutique in China. Leicht attributed that fact to the country's rising middle class.

“There is growing opportunities for us that made it possible in China for us now to be present,” Leicht said.

So that’s how the white inspection gloves in Berlin connect to the $500 pair of sunglasses in China. What about the final piece of the riddle: the economic slump in Croatia?

That brings us back to Nadja Tobias, the white gloved glasses factory worker. Tobias is originally from Croatia. She lived there until a few years ago, when she was finishing a Masters in Literature and Croatian Language. “And then,” she said. “I couldn't find a job.”

In Croatia, Tobias spent a lot of time beating herself up about being unemployed. It influenced her “everyday existential life,” she said. “I and a lot of my friend had this problem, thinking, ‘I could do more! I could work more!' And you start to blame yourself that maybe you're not doing enough.”

Like many well-educated young people in the economically depressed parts of Europe, eventually she decided to move to Germany, where she heard the economy was doing much better. “I just totally changed my life. I came with one suitcase and I said, ‘OK. Let’s do this now.’”

And it worked. Tobias found a job; first as a bar tender, then at the Mykita glasses factory. 

Once she was in Germany and employed, she saw her existential problems differently. “When I came here, I realized it's not a problem in me,” Tobias said. “I realized I can do a lot. It’s not just about you; it’s about society and how society is built.” In other words, it’s about where you happen to find yourself in the global economy.

Splitting hairs over $1.13 billion

Thu, 2015-02-26 01:30
15 percent

The decline in viewers aged 2 to 11 Nickelodeon saw last year, making it the number-two children's network behind the Disney Channel. Both networks are creating sponsored content arms, with new services presented to advertisers during this years upfront presentations, Ad Age reported. Nick's effort, called Nickelodeon Inside Out Solutions will focus on creating games for clients, putting clients on social media channels and more.

12 years

That's about how long its been since Columbia University law professor coined the term "net neutrality." Marketplace Tech caught up with Wu to talk about the possible big victory for advocates of classifying the internet as a utility under Title II, maintaining a so-called open internet.

7

That's how many of the 25 richest colleges in the country are "need blind" in their admissions process for all students. Sixteen more schools don't weigh the ability to pay in admissions for some but not all students. That's just one of the several subtle but important differences – call it find print – in how the wealthiest schools handle financial aid, the the Chronicle of Higher Education picks apart the distinctions in a new interactive feature. 

$500

What do a $500 pair of sunglasses on sale in China, an economic slump in Croatia, and a pair of white inspection gloves in Berlin have in common? The short answer to the riddle: A woman named Nadja Tobias. Originally from Croatia, she now lives in Berlin where she works in quality control for Mykita, a high-end glasses company. Her story is one of many about the challenges and opportunities of making it in this global economy. Find out more in this first part of our series with the BBC that we're calling "Six Routes to Riches."

$1.13 billion

That's how much investigators think has been taken from 92-year-old Liliane Bettencourt, the L'Oréal heir and second-richest woman in the world, though "a variety of schemes" by aides, lawyers, and others, the New York Times reported. The ten defendants in the very complex trial are accused of taking advantage of Bettencourt's ailing health to try and secure investments, gifts and even a place in her will.

Baltimore sewers: time bombs buried under the streets

Wed, 2015-02-25 14:05

First, a warning: this story is a little icky. 

I’m in Gwynn's Run, a stream in Baltimore, with Michael Flores of the nonprofit Blue Water Baltimore. He’s giving me what he calls his sewer tour.  City pipes are so old and cracked, rainwater gets in. Sewers fill up, and the contents spit out manhole covers and into streams.

Michael Flores of Blue Water Baltimore, showing and explaining sewer system overflows in Baltimore. (Scott Tong, Marketplace)

That sewage eventually dumps directly into Baltimore’s harbor. Eww. Chances are, your city has the same issues. You’ve heard about bridges collapsing? This is the invisible infrastructure crisis below ground.

Baltimore’s story goes back a century. It starts with a putrid harbor, described by the Washington Post as “a 2,000 horsepower smell that lays Limburger cheese in the shade.”

“The Baltimore harbor was the toilet of the city,” says Chris Boone, sustainability dean at Arizona State and author of a paper on Baltimore’s sewer history. “Everything would flow down into the harbor. So everything that was coming from overflowing cesspools and privies, everything that was coming from the streets, ran into the harbor.”

The thing was, Baltimore had no money to build a sewer system. Until the Great Baltimore Fire.

Church of the Messiah in flames during 1904 Great Baltimore Fire. 

National Photo Company Collection/Wikimedia Commons

In 1904, one of the worst fires in American urban history torched 1,500 buildings downtown. Crisis created opportunity.

“That fire, what it did was similar to the Chicago fire of 1871,” Boone says. “I think it gave the city and also residents a chance to re-think ‘how do we regrow the city in a way that was even greater than before?’”

Here more from Boone below:

The resources came. The city put up money, as did the state of Maryland. Voters approved a bond issuance. And Baltimore built a state-of-the-art sewer system completed exactly 100 years ago. Out went the stink and in came more than 1,000 miles of pipes. Typhoid was eradicated. Politicians snapped this picture to commemorate the event.

Baltimore leaders celebrate a new sewer system by driving their cars inside.

Courtesy:Munder-Thompsen Press/Archive.org

To understand this progress, you have to step inside the city's sewer waste-water treatment plant. To simplify, raw sewage floats past an initial set of bars to screen out anything from two-by-fours to rats and mice. Then – euphemism alert — comes sludge settling amid solids removal. The plant takes out chemicals and nitrogen, then bleaches and de-chlorinates water before sending it out to the river.

If you’re wondering, yes, it stinks. But it’s also amazing to see what you get for your sewer bill.

 Back River Wastewater Plant, Baltimore.

Scott Tong/Marketplace    

That is, when the pipes work as intended. A century later, it’s like inheriting your great-grandfather’s car. This is what the pros call the water infrastructure “replacement age.” And by one estimate, the national bill will cost $1 trillion.

“It’s like a time bomb,” Baltimore's public works director, Rudy Chow, says. “This old infrastructure, we know it’s going to fail. The question is where and when.”

Hear more from Chow below:

Baltimore has embarked on a $1.5 billion program to replace and rebuild. Jackhammers throughout the city dig up streets and replace pipes, the oldest of which are made of wood and terra cotta.

Sewer main replacement, downtown Baltimore. 

Scott Tong/Marketplace

The federal government is imposing clean water deadlines. It all costs money Baltimore doesn’t have. Federal grants for this kind of work dried up long ago. The city has lost 300,000 taxpayers and rate payers to urban flight in a generation.

“There was no anticipation of deindustrialization,” Boone says. “No anticipation of riots in the 1960s or the crack cocaine epidemic of the 1980s. All these things. And then the suburbanization of individuals looking for better schools. None of that was in the cards.”

So the city has no choice but to raise rates. A typical quarterly combined water and sewage bill has gone from $62 in 2000 to $201 today. Over the century, the city never charged high enough rates to maintain the system. And now the bill is due.

“Politicians always complain, ‘We can’t raise prices because we’ll get political opposition,’” says economist David Zetland, author of "Living with Water Scarcity." “The most common problem with the water system is that they’re not taking enough money in to pay for the system repair and maintenance that matters over a 50-year cycle.”

Hear more from Zetland below:

Chow says future rate hikes are “inevitable.” The city's plan is to spend more of the public’s money on preventive replacement, and less on emergencies. Right now it’s the other way around. Baltimore plans to put itself on a sustainable pace to replace a water main every 100 years.

But change will not come easily. Residents like Danielle Miles of a northwest section of Baltimore complain they have not benefited from any changes. In fact, Miles says sewer disasters come every time a big rain hits. The most recent came in the spring of 2014.

“I noticed the sanitary sewer manhole had water coming up” Miles says. “And at that point in time I knew that my basement was flooded.”

Miles walked in, down to the basement. And she saw.

“Raw sewage, all throughout. It was maybe about, what’s this, a foot? One step. And it was just rising.”

One street over, an upright freezer was floating, upside down, in the home of Anita Moore and her parents. Wedding albums were destroyed.

“My parents have been married for 58 years,” Moore says. “You can’t replace any of those photos. And all our baby pictures. All gone.”

Now, the rainy season is coming again, and Moore says she has no idea if anything is fixed. She and Miles both say they’ve heard nothing from the city. Baltimore’s public works department says pipes in the neighborhood have been cleaned, and that it's a “long-term strategy” to address the situation. A spokesman says in some cases what floods residents’ basements is not raw sewage but storm water.

What everyone agrees on is that this is the price of a century of infrastructure neglect. In this city, it took a mighty fire to galvanize the public and begin a massive infrastructure build. Now these pipes are nearing the end of their engineered lives.

What will it take to rebuild and replace them nationally? Boone is afraid it may take another crisis – on the order of a city burning down – to attract public attention once again.

What rising interest rates mean for the rest of us

Wed, 2015-02-25 13:12

One takeaway from Federal Reserve Chairwoman Janet Yellen’s recent testimony before Congress is that she and her colleagues are feeling pretty good about the direction of the economy – good enough to “at some point” consider increasing interest rates.

What will those increases mean for the average American?

The Fed doesn’t set all interest rates, but Michelle Girard, chief U.S. economist at RBS, says the rates it does control impact many others, either directly or indirectly.

Ann Owen, economist at Hamilton College, says that could mean higher rates on auto loans, credit cards, and adjustable-rate mortgages, though increases will likely be gradual.

But if this all sounds like bad news, Ken Kuttner, who teaches economics at Williams College, says the silver lining is that interest rates on savings accounts will increase, too. 

NHL team wants to put ticket resales on ice

Wed, 2015-02-25 11:59

At a Nashville Predators game in early December, Greg Atwood arrived at his seat just like he normally does.

"I typically get there right at faceoff. I walked in when it was dark and when they turned the lights on it was pretty shocking just how much,” said Atwood. “I mean it was a majority red.”  That red was a sea of Chicago Blackhawks fans in t-shirts and sweaters supporting their team.  Thousands of fans chanted “Let’s Go Hawks” 

As a reliable Predators fan, Atwood has been coming to games for 14 years and says he actually doesn’t mind seeing out-of-towners. He says one or two thousand opposing fans are okay, but when they fill up half of the arena, that’s where he draws the line.

The Blackhawks won that night 3-1. It was a rare home defeat for the Predators and team president Sean Henry says the complaints came flying in from fans and players.

“I probably got, I don’t know, 50-75 e-mails; 10-12 phone calls,” said Henry. “People are saying ‘I don’t know if I want to come to the game anymore.”

So now, the team is outlining steps to maximize the Predators gold and navy blue in the stands. The team says it’s considering a mandate that season ticket holders clear it with them before re-selling their tickets.  The team is also offering to buy back tickets to certain games at 10 percent above face value.

“The first opportunity and last opportunity to buy Predators tickets should stay right here in our greater market,” said Henry.

Unlike goods that can be bought and re-sold, many professional teams consider their tickets non-transferable licenses.

The New England Patriots took the online site StubHub to court a few years back  over the re-sale of tickets.  And just last year, the Seattle Seahawks tried to ban anyone with a California zip code from buying a ticket to the NFC championship game, in what some say was an effort to keep San Francisco 49ers fans out.

If the Predators end up doing something similar, not only would that keep out-of-town fans away from the arena, it would likely keep them out of Nashville altogether, meaning downtown hotels might lose out.

 John Fleming is manager of the Renaissance Nashville.

 "I had two reactions. One, as a fan, and I said 'absolutely right', the best thing we can do is protect our home ice and go for it,” said Fleming.

But as someone running a hotel?

"We'll lose some business obviously if we do limit that,” said Henry. “It means we'll just have to find other business"

Season ticket holders are conflicted too. Greg Atwood may not like half the arena filled with rival fans, but he also doesn’t want the team to go overboard with new rules.

 "I spent a lot of money on these tickets and when I buy these tickets they're mine to determine what I do with them,” said Atwood.

The Predators say they’re most concerned with building a championship franchise and a regional fan base that will last for generations. They say keeping home-ice advantage is a key to moving in that direction.  

 

BYLINE: Emil Moffatt

BIO: Emil Moffatt is a reporter and news anchor with WPLN in Nashville.  

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