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Apple says the best things in life aren't freemium

Wed, 2015-05-20 01:56
13 percent

That's how much iTunes music sales dropped last year, and that means Apple is using its remaining pull in the music industry to set up its next big move, Harvard Business Review reported. The tech giant wants labels to pressure Spotify and other streaming services to drop their "freemium" model ahead of its rumored relaunch of Beats Music.

12 percent

The share price for auto supplier Takata fell as much as 12 percent on Wednesday, following Tuesday's announcement that many of its airbags — about 34 million — are faulty and require a recall. The problem has to do with the airbags rupturing when deployed, causing several deaths and many more injuries. As the New York Times reports, it's the largest recall related to automobiles ever. 

$99 billion

That's the total amount of defaulted student loans in 2014. With such high figures, the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor & Pensions is considering legislation that would force colleges to pay back some of that defaulted debt. But some experts worry that such a requirement might discourage universities from accepting low-income students who may be a statistically higher risk for default.


That's how much a Seven Seas journal costs. Made with Japanese Tomoe River paper, it's a little pricier than your average pad or notebook. But writer J. Robert Lennon says it helps him do his job well. Find out more over at "Pro Tool: Tools of the Professional," our series on the must-have devices in the hands of working professionals.

30 million

That's the number of underinsured, working-age adults in the U.S. And according to a new report, many of these people are opting not to seek out expensive treatments in spite of being insured. The reason? Rising deductibles and out-of-pocket costs force people to second guess when is the right time to call the doctor.

$19.35 per hour

That's how much, on average, a household would have to earn at a full-time job to afford a two-bedroom apartment in the U.S. That's according to a new report by the National Low Income Housing Coalition, as reported by the Wall Street Journal. The report lays out required household pay by state, some of them many times the minimum wage there.

America's infrastructure isn't sexy

Tue, 2015-05-19 13:00

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

What’s the solution? 

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

On federal vs. local leadership: 

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

On the word “infrastructure” not being appealing: 

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

Interesting facts about infrastructure in the United States:

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

Tic Tac to release mint flavor geared toward millennials

Tue, 2015-05-19 13:00

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

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

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

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

To freshen their breath. Fine.

To have a "sweet fruity moment." Fine.

But also, the company says, for emotional rescue.

The global influence of hip hop and breakdancing

Tue, 2015-05-19 13:00

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How calculating GDP is like making a gravy

Tue, 2015-05-19 13:00

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

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

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

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

Rudebusch compares it to making gravy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

St. Louis Federal Reserve

David Letterman wears the pants at Worldwide Pants

Tue, 2015-05-19 13:00

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

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

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


“Worldwide Pants is David Letterman.” 

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

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

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

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

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

Ethics in finance: stuck at mediocre

Tue, 2015-05-19 13:00

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

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

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

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

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

Cattle ranchers lock horns with almond investors

Tue, 2015-05-19 13:00

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sasha Khokha/KQED

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sasha Khokha/KQED

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sasha Khokha/KQED

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

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

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

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

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

Sasha Khokha/KQED

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spring almonds ripening on the trees on the Trinitas ranch.

Sasha Khokha/KQED

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

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

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

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

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

An almond harvester on the Trinitas ranch.

Sasha Khokha/KQED

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

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

Supreme Court: employers must monitor 401(k) plans

Tue, 2015-05-19 03:00

In a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court has ruled that employers have an ongoing obligation to monitor the 401(k) plans they offer their workers. The court also established a more flexible reading of the statute of limitations on when employees can sue should they believe their employer failed to uphold its responsibilities. 

The case, Tibble v. Edison, originated as a dispute between current and former workers for Edison, a public utility company in California. The workers argued that the retirement plan included several retail-class mutual funds with high fees when the company, as an institutional investor, could have invested in nearly identical plans with lower fees. 

“The reason fees matter is that over time the power of compounding is very significant. That can make the difference between a retirement that is comfortable and one that is not,” says Marcia Wagner, principal at The Wagner Law Group.

The Supreme Court didn’t pick a winner between the workers and the employer, sending the case back to a lower court instead. But it did say that employers can’t just set up a 401(k) plan and forget about it. They must pay attention to it over time, and that obligation doesn’t ever go away. Wagner says it’s a significant ruling that could impact where pension plans invest their money and what fees retirees pay.

“When the Supreme Court rules unanimously, people listen. Now there are many various factors leading to fee compression in the 401(k) industry. This will be one more factor.” 

PODCAST: American cars in Russia

Tue, 2015-05-19 03:00

First up, we'll talk about the Supreme Court's ruling on 401(k)s, and what it means for workers. Plus, we look at the job ahead of Keith Hall, the new head of the Congressional Budget Office. His role is meant to be a non-partisan scorekeeper, but we look at the difficulties of remaining independent in a charged political atmosphere. And America's car makers are struggling to keep their businesses in Russia on the road as the country's economy stalls. However as we find out, car factories in Detroit are not the only ones feeling the cold winds of Russia's troubled economy.

The Congressional Budget Office: staying above the fray

Tue, 2015-05-19 02:00

Keith Hall, director of the Congressional Budget Office, will offer his first Senate testimony Tuesday since taking the helm of the nonpartisan agency in early April. It’s also the first oversight hearings for CBO in over three decades, according to the Senate Budget Committee.

The primary focus will be the agency’s 2016 budget, drafted under Hall’s predecessor.

While Congress often uses a director’s testimony to question the assumptions and findings of CBO reports, the agency refrains from offering policy recommendations, says Phil Joyce, a professor of public policy at the University of Maryland.

“I heard someone at CBO say once, 'If you ask us how much something costs, we’ll tell you how much it costs. If you ask us whether it’s a good idea, we’ll tell you how much it costs,'” he says.

In fact, Joyce says it’s often members of the director’s own party who are most disappointed with the agency’s reports.

“It’s very much like being the referee in a college basketball game,” agrees Douglas Holtz-Eakin , who led the CBO from 2003 to 2005 and is now president of the conservative think tank American Action Forum. “There’s always a coach standing on the sidelines screaming at the referee, and it’s not usually over the call the referee just made. It’s over the next call. 'Can we soften him up for the next call?'”

Swatting: not a new phenomenon, but the cost is rising

Tue, 2015-05-19 02:00

By now, a lot of video gamers and law enforcement officers are familiar with this bit of viral video. It's professional Video Gamer Jordan Matthewson, a.k.a. Kootra, doing what pro gamers like him do: Broadcasting his game play to viewers from his offices in Littleton, Colorado. In the middle of tactical movements with his teammates online, Matthewson is interrupted by sounds of police activity down the hall in real life. Moments later, he's forced to the ground by members of a real live SWAT team.


Matthewson was the victim of a prank called swatting. It's been around for decades, and it works like this: A prankster calls an emergency hotline claiming to be at the scene of a hostage situation—sometimes the perpetrator of said hostage situation—sending police and other first responders to an address, weapons and gurneys at the ready. But the prankster isn't actually at the location, and instead law enforcement surprises unsuspecting targets at the address.

For hackers, new technology is making swatting both easier to pull off and more attractive. The rise of live-streaming video games and other content online means the potential audience for swatting has gone from a few targets and the people sent to check up on them to thousands or tens of thousands.

For emergency call centers, fighting swatting or distributed denial of service attacks is a perennial cost. Christopher Carver is a director at the National Emergency Number Association in Virginia. He says that the process of updating emergency call center systems has a price tag in the "billions." These days, a 911 dispatcher can see caller ID and location information in a matter of seconds. But now that a majority of calls can come in from smartphones or over online services like Skype or Google Voice, there are also more tools to "spoof" the location of a call.

Spoofing is a hacker method that is used in lots of different ways. Alisdair Faulkner, chief products officer at the security firm ThreatMetrix, says it's one of the most common tools for hackers to take your identity. Swatting attacks from British Columbia to Florida have been made possible in part thanks to the use of spoofing.

Last month in the city of Rochester New York, Lieutenant Aaron Springer and his 30-member SWAT team got a taste. They raced to a residential building where there was actually no hostage situation. How much did swatting set his department back?

"My guys? Maybe fifteen hundred bucks, maybe three thousand dollars," he says. When you add 30 more officers sent to the scene to direct traffic, the fire department, an ambulance, and multiple department chiefs, Lieutenant Springer ballparks the total cost closer to $15,000.

Springer says swatting doesn't happen often enough to make a big change to operations—the last occurrence was several years ago—but the growing costs to law enforcement and emergency services helped inspire New York Senator Chuck Schumer to introduce a piece of legislation that would carry stricter punishments for swatting.

Lieutenant Springer is worried about a different cost; that he'll hesitate the next time his team gets a call, in a scenario when every second counts.

Wal-Mart reports results after hiking workers' pay

Tue, 2015-05-19 02:00

Wal-Mart announces its first quarter results Tuesday. There’s been a lot of buzz about the world’s biggest retailer bumping up wages. Earlier this year, CEO Doug McMillon announced the company would raise starting pay to at least $9 an hour, effective last  last month, and at least $10 an hour starting next year.

Sure, paying employees more comes with a cost—An estimated $1 billion. But Wal-Mart is taking the long view here, says University of California, Berkeley economics professor Enrico Moretti.

“First of all, they’re going to have lower turnover cost, and probably they’re going to be able to attract a better pool of workers,” Moretti says.

The downside: it’ll probably be at least several months before the benefits start to really sink in.

Still, cutting turnover is smart for a company like Wal-Mart, says Neil Stern, senior partner with retail consulting firm McMillan Doolittle. “Turnover is a huge cost for retailers,” he says.

Stern says it costs money to look for replacements, to hire, and to train new workers. And that cuts into profits.

Increasing pay is fine, Stern says, but other things also matter when you’re trying to retain workers; like promotion opportunities and how much fun you have on the job.


The bite is worse than the bark

Tue, 2015-05-19 01:59
$5.8 trillion

That's the size of the market for administering 401(k)s. On Monday, the Supreme Court ruled that employees have the right to sue employers if they find a lack of due diligence in combating high management fees on their 401(k). Most don't tend to notice the 1 or 2 percent fees, but as the LA Times points out, that can add up over the span of a career.

30 percent

That's the commission Uber is collecting from some new drivers, testing a tiered system in which partners work up to keeping 80 percent of their fares after giving 40 rides each week. This would be Uber's highest commission yet, and Forbes notes in the competitive ride-sharing space companies like Uber and Lyft frequently tweak commissions to stay competitive.

5,767 times

That's how many times postal workers were bitten by dogs last year, according to new statistics. That's up almost 200 bites from last year. So in this case, the bite is actually worse than the bark.


That's the portion of Target's $73 billion in revenue that comes from groceries, the Wall Street Journal reported. The retailer is changing its approach to food, stocking more organic and specialty items, downplaying processed, packaged offerings.


That's how much Lieutenant Aaron Springer of Rochester, New York, estimates was spent on a single SWAT team response to an emergency call. The problem? The call was a fake. In a prank known as swatting, a fake call is placed to an emergency hotline, often with claims of a hostage situation. As video gamers who stream themselves live online have become more popular, so has the practice of swatting them to see the ensuing chaos. But aside from creating a dangerous situation, the practice is also causing police departments more and more money.

2.75 million

That's about how many Republican voters from the 2012 election will be dead by November 2016, about 453,000 more those who voted Democratic. That's according to a back-of-the-envelope analysis from Politico, which reports that the GOP could be at a real disadvantage if it can't gather younger voters.

What Qatar doesn't want you to know about the 2022 World Cup

Mon, 2015-05-18 13:11

BBC journalist Mark Lobel and his team recently traveled to Qatar at the invitation of the country’s prime minister.

Lobel was invited to go on a tour of new and improved migrant worker facilities that would address Qatar’s reputation of laborer mistreatment. With Qatar getting ready to host the 2022 World Cup, there’s been an influx of migrant workers to house.  

But Lobel quickly found that he would not be allowed to complete a balanced report of Qatari labor camps.

 “Eight cars drove us off the street, and we were taken in by intelligence officers, treated like spies if you like,” Lobel says.

After two nights in jail, Lobel was released. But he says he worries about what this will mean for future World Cup coverage.

“The fact that we were dealt with by security officers is the beginning of what I think could be a very worrying trend,” says Lobel.  

Listen to the full interview by clicking play on the media player above.

The dark side of online education

Mon, 2015-05-18 13:06

Online education is the new thing, but there’s a dark side to it. The New York Times Pakistan bureau chief Declan Walsh wrote about a company in Pakistan that’s making millions of dollars by selling fake credentials to whoever wants them. His piece is called "Fake Diplomas, Real Cash: Pakastani Company Axact Reaps Millions." 

What’s the problem with Axact?

Our reporting has indicated that these websites are posing as universities, often giving the appearance of being in the United States, or high schools also in the United States. Their customers have been both in the United States and in many other countries around the world, particularly in the Middle East.

They have very cleverly and purposefully crafted the brand identity of these schools to cater to different audiences. Some of them will have names that hue very closely of those of famous American universities. Other universities will appeal to customers, perhaps in the Middle East…within the company, these fake universities are treated as brands to be created and marketed for specific customer basis. 

How do they get people to sign up?

They have a whole range of techniques that starts off by paying companies like Google and Facebook for advertising space, so that if you type in a search for online education, one of their sites will come up prominently. Secondly, they have promotional tools. They place stories on the CNN iReport, which is a citizen-journalism website. They create promotional videos using paid actors posing as staff and students. So, they have a whole range of tools to draw people into the website and to give them an appearance at least of legitimacy that allows them to maintain the fiction that these are genuine education institutions, as opposed to what they are, which is a diploma mill.

Why have they gotten away with it?

 It has very cleverly taken advantage of the sort of freedoms and anonymity that the Internet can allow you to do business. It has set up a whole web of off shore companies in places like Cypress and the British Virgin Islands to both take in the money that it receives and to pay the vendors. It has engaged in often quite aggressive legal tactics against people who would either investigate it or criticize it in public, so newspapers and other media groups in Pakistan and in other countries, including the U.K., have come under strong threats from the company’s in-house lawyers. 

Amazon's Echo lets you order something by saying it out loud

Mon, 2015-05-18 13:00

Amazon moves us one step closer to ordering something just by thinking it. 

People who use Amazon's voice-activated speaker system Echo can now order something just by saying it out loud.

I'd offer some thoughts here, but chances are Amazon already knows what they are.

'Pitch Perfect 2' leaves 'Mad Max' in the dust

Mon, 2015-05-18 13:00

"Pitch Perfect 2" made $69 million in U.S. movie theaters over the weekend, beating the action film" Mad Max: Fury Road."

"This was a huge surprise, I mean earth-shaking," says marketing strategist Peter Sealey, who was the head of marketing at Columbia Pictures in the 1980s.

The movie, about a group of young women in a singing competition, trounced the big summer action movie, which traditionally attracts a male-skewing demographic.

That demographic, boys and young men under 25, is what studios have traditional gone after, says Sealey. "It's just, you know, kind of a knee-jerk reaction."

But the 75 percent female audience that carried "Pitch Perfect 2" is evidence that the paradigm is shifting, says box office analyst Paul Dergarabedian of Rentrak.

"We have a lot of movies that we're seeing where women are driving the story. That they're the center of these movies. And, we're going to see more of that," Dergarabedian says, pointing to recent films such as the "Twilight" series, "Fifty Shades of Grey" and "Cinderella."

But Pitch Perfect hasn't been just a female-centric franchise. The first film, which was released in the fall of 2012, has attracted a broad audience on home video.

"And I have to say, when adult straight men say that they loved the movie, I find that extremely satisfying," Kay Cannon, the films' screenwriter, told Marketplace in an earlier interview.

"Often, there's a big preamble before: My wife made me watch it, none of the other channels on the television worked, I couldn't find the remote," says Cannon.

To reduce the need for a preamble this time around, Universal Pictures marketed the film broadly, even during the Super Bowl.

"Over time . . . given all those marketing efforts," says Dergarabedian, the film "could build more of a male audience" than the audience in its opening weekend.

Pitch Perfect 2

Mon, 2015-05-18 13:00

"Pitch Perfect 2" made $69 million in U.S. movie theaters over the weekend, beating the action film" Mad Max: Fury Road."

"This was a huge surprise, I mean earth-shaking," says marketing strategist Peter Sealey, who was the head of marketing at Columbia Pictures in the 1980s.

The movie, about a group of young women in a singing competition, trounced the big summer action movie, which traditionally attracts a male-skewing demographic.

That demographic, boys and young men under 25, is what studios have traditional gone after, says Sealey. "It's just, you know, kind of a knee-jerk reaction."

But the 75 percent female audience that carried "Pitch Perfect 2" is evidence that the paradigm is shifting, says box office analyst Paul Dergarabedian of Rentrak.

"We have a lot of movies that we're seeing where women are driving the story. That they're the center of these movies. And, we're going to see more of that," Dergarabedian says, pointing to recent films such as the "Twilight" series, "Fifty Shades of Grey" and "Cinderella."

But Pitch Perfect hasn't been just a female-centric franchise. The first film, which was released in the fall of 2012, has attracted a broad audience on home video.

"And I have to say, when adult straight men say that they loved the movie, I find that extremely satisfying," Kay Cannon, the films' screenwriter, told Marketplace in an earlier interview.

"Often, there's a big preamble before: My wife made me watch it, none of the other channels on the television worked, I couldn't find the remote," says Cannon.

To reduce the need for a preamble this time around, Universal Pictures marketed the film broadly, even during the Super Bowl.

"Over time . . . given all those marketing efforts," says Dergarabedian, the film "could build more of a male audience" than the audience in its opening weekend.

Georgia landowners fight eminent domain over pipeline

Mon, 2015-05-18 13:00

We’ve heard a lot about the controversial Keystone XL Pipeline over the last year or so. There are already more than two million miles of pipeline in the U.S., carrying natural gas, petroleum products and chemicals, right under our feet.

Now, a fight is raging over a new pipeline proposed for the Georgia coast. The company that wants to build the pipeline needs private land to do it, and it is asking the state for the right to use eminent domain.

That’s not sitting well with many landowners in the region, like Eddie Reddick, who owns a tree farm near the South Carolina border.

Eddie Reddick at his family's tree farm in Screven County. He says Kinder Morgan surveyors damaged some of his crop.

Molly Samuel/WABE

“This tree will eventually die,” he says, picking up a small crooked tree by its trunk on his family’s 845-acre property in Screven County. A few weeks ago, surveyors for the energy company Kinder Morgan came out here, and Reddick says they drove over some of his young pine trees.

See, there’s a nice vigorous growing seedling, about 7-foot tall, that’s been run over,” he says. Now that tree and others in its row are bent over sideways, like long grass on a windy day. They’re all pointing in the same direction, toward a wooden stake with a pink ribbon fluttering at the top.

Here’s the first stake, and it says, 'proposed pipeline,' ” Reddick says .

Surveyors have begun laying out the route for the proposed pipeline.

Molly Samuel/WABE

This marks where the Palmetto Pipeline would travel through Reddick’s land.

It continues in a southerly direction through this young pine plantation, till we get to a wetland branch several hundred feet on down the line,” he says.

The energy company Kinder Morgan wants to build this 360-mile pipeline along the Savannah River and then down the coast, to Florida. It would split off from another bigger pipeline the company owns that carries gas from Gulf Coast refineries to the Northeast.

A map showing the route of the proposed Palmetto Pipeline. 

Courtesy of Kinder Morgan

Reddick says he thinks the pipeline would take about 4.5 acres of his farm permanently out of production. That’s a small amount of land for Reddick, but he says it’s the principal of the thing. 

“As a private landowner, [you] feel like you’re being run over,” Reddick says. 

But Allen Fore says this is about planning for the larger community’s needs. He’s a vice president with Kinder Morgan.

We’re looking at not just service now and what the needs are now in Georgia, but we’re trying to look at the next 20-30 years,” Fore says .

Savannah’s fuel comes from ships or trucks; Fore says a pipeline would be cheaper and more reliable.

Savannah in particular is one of the few areas that doesn’t have direct pipeline capacity,” Fore says.

It would cost a billion dollars to build the pipeline, and it would eventually carry about 150,000 barrels of fuel a day. Fore says all of the gas is for domestic use, not for export, and that Kinder Morgan will only use eminent domain where it has to.  

“Our use of that, if granted, is extremely rare,” Fore says. “Over 98 percent of properties are acquired by amicable resolution to the satisfaction of landowners. So we’re talking about a small, very small number.”

But a lot of landowners are upset about the idea. At a public hearing earlier this month, a couple hundred people turned out. There were environmentalists concerned about fragile wetlands, but the most vocal opponents were people angry about a private company taking their land.

Most people at a public hearing in Waynesboro, Georgia, in early May opposed the use of eminent domain to build the Palmetto Pipeline.

Molly Samuel/WABE

“My mama’s people, and my daddy’s people, been here since the 1700s,” said Jeff Mallard. “I don’t agree with eminent domain.”

But eminent domain serves a purpose, explains Peter Appel, law professor at the University of Georgia. The government uses it to build highways, post offices and parks. And, yes, states can grant it to private companies, too.

“People want to say this is my property, and you can’t have it, and the fact of the matter is, that’s not true,” he says. “A pipeline, similar to a railway line, is almost a classic case for when eminent domain makes sense.”

That’s because it’s going to serve the public by delivering gas, he says, and a pipeline’s route isn’t very flexible. Kinder Morgan can’t twist and turn around every landowner who doesn’t want to sell. But Appel says just because the pipeline is a good candidate for eminent domain doesn’t mean Georgia has to grant it.

It really is up to the government to decide, 'Are we going to put our power behind this project?' ” he says.

Gov. Nathan Deal came out against the plan earlier this month. But under Georgia law, it’s the commissioner of the Department of Transportation who makes the decision. The deadline for that decision is Tuesday. If the commissioner gives the green light, the project will then need to go through an environmental review.