Marketplace - American Public Media

Astro Teller talks about making room for failure

Thu, 2015-03-19 02:00

This week, Marketplace Tech is exploring South by Southwest Interactive, the tech-oriented event that draws tens of thousands of people to Austin, Texas every year.

We caught up Astro Teller, scientist, author and head of Google X, aka its “Captain of Moonshots.” Teller runs Google’s mysterious research facility tasked with achieving major breakthroughs in technology. He spoke with us about the culture at Google X, the ideas they have had to let go, and the single piece of technology he is waiting for.

So you’re the head of one of the most famously mysterious places in the tech world. What’s the most different thing about it as a workplace?

The talk that I just gave here at SXSW was about failure. And I think that subject is one of the things that’s sort of the Google X special sauce. We actually have a culture where doing the experimenting is the learning; is the innovation.

Not only okay but encouraged?

I am not sure that there is an alternative.

What’s the craziest idea that you guys completely passed on and are not doing anything about?

I am just throwing out random examples but...the first couple I can think of. Someone said, hey, I wonder how much power there is in an avalanche? So we’re like, do the math and is that practical? You know...throw that one out after half-an-hour. But that was worth doing. Someone else says, hey, what if we put a coil of copper around the North Pole and then harvest the magnetic flux of the earth’s core as it joggles back and forth, which will cause a current in that wire of copper and we can pipe that back down to Europe or something.

Bad idea? Not a good idea?

Several hours before we threw that out. But if you ever say to those people, that’s stupid, they will never bring you another idea.

Do you think culture then is more important than ideas?

It’s everything.

At one time, Google’s model was, “Don’t be evil.” I mean, is that a part of your thinking when you're talking about putting giant coils of metal on the North Pole?

Of course. Actually that issue of “don't be evil” is probably the number one reason we throw out ideas. It’s not just, “don’t be evil”, which is still the sort of inform mode for Google. We want to actively make the world...


If we can, a radically better place...That’s an even higher bar and that cuts off a bunch of avenues that we might otherwise have gone down. Maybe that even would have been lucrative. But what we lose in those ways, we more than make up for because everybody at Google X gets to be passionate and purpose-driven. And it translates into a special kind of progress.

How do you define the culture in terms of being good? I mean is that a challenge as well?

We don’t have some message from god that gives us a list of what's good and what’s not good. Obviously we have to make our own flawed judgments about each thing. But when we try to make a car that drives itself, we believe - whether we’re right or not - we believe that there would be strong net positive benefit to the world if cars could drive themselves safer than people could.

What’s a piece of technology that you wish you had that you don’t have?

We have started a few projects that are sort of shells. They are like projects waiting to happen but we don't have an idea but we are so desperate to do that project. Batteries is one of them. It comes up over and over and over again that a ten times increase in the weight-oriented density of batteries or the volume metric, the space oriented density of batteries, would enable so many other moonshots that that’s one that just constantly comes up over and over again and we will start that moonshot if we can find a great idea. We just haven’t found one yet. So it's just sitting there like an empty box, waiting.


Got milk (and financial success)?

Thu, 2015-03-19 01:44
15 percent

According to the National Urban League's "State of Black America", the black unemployment rate exceeds 15 percent in 33 major U.S. cities. The report also included a state-by-state assessment of education inequality for the first time, and found that areas with greater segregation also saw major reading and math proficiency gaps, as well as high school graduation gaps.

350 jobs

Yahoo announced it would close its remaining office in China, effectively eliminating 350 jobs. The company says the move is part of its efforts to cut global costs. As reported by the BBC, the fired employees have already been approached by a local employment agency.


That's how much Target will pay in minimum wage starting next month, as reported by the WSJ. As companies like Wal-Mart and T.J. Maxx make similar moves, efforts to attract and retain low-wage workers are getting more competitive.

$10 million

Speaking of Target, the company has reportedly agreed to pay a $10 million settlement in the class-action lawsuit related to 2013's data security breach. As reported by Reuters, Target will put the money into an " interest bearing escrow account, to pay individual victims up to $10,000 in damages."

6,000 babies

That's how many babies were involved in a Brazilian study looking at correlations between breast feeding and long-term success. As reported by the Guardian, babies that were breast-fed longer tended to be better educated, and higher-earning as adults.

Want to run the Iditarod? You'll need a lot of scratch

Wed, 2015-03-18 14:37

Before musher Lance Mackey leaves a checkpoint in a race, he greets every dog on his team, with a scratch behind the ears, or a nuzzle. Mackey is the winningest musher in Alaska’s long-distance sled dog racing history, but he’s certainly not the richest.

Lance Mackey leaves a race checkpoint, driving a sled bedecked with the logos of sponsors that help finance his mushing career.

Emily Schwing/Marketplace

“Oh man, the cost is ridiculous,” he says. 

It can take between $70,000 and $100,000 to keep a kennel full of racing dogs running year-round.

“[It’s] the price of fuel, price of dog food, entry fees all that stuff isn’t normally justifiable by racing for first place of $25,000,” says Mackey.

This year’s first place Iditarod finisher wins 70-thousand dollars and a brand new pickup truck. The first prize in Alaska’s ‘other’ 1000-mile sled dog race, the Yukon Quest, is less than half that, and there’s no truck. Mackey says prize money barely covers the cost of the race and expenses throughout the season, so he relies heavily on sponsorships to get his team to the start line.

“I have a new dog food company from Italy of all places," says Mackey.

That sponsor’s logo is sewn on his sled bag and all the coats his dogs wear. Some mushers are sponsored by major international companies. Others make deals with small local businesses, but Mackey knows those relationships are often short-lived.

“Sponsors are not only hard to come by they are hard to keep,” he says.

That’s why some mushers, like Rob Cooke, also work a second job. He runs boisterous Siberian huskies. They’re also a slower breed, unlikely to win any big races. So, when Cooke isn’t training them, he works as a qualified aircraft engineer in the Canadian Yukon. “There’s that old quote that ‘It’s as expensive as cocaine, but a lot more addictive,’” says Cooke.

“I think that’s the truth. It’s so much fun, and it has to be worth it if you sit and think about how much money we do spend on this,” he says.

So how much money does Cooke spend?

“The meat costs for the race season was about $5,000. A new sled was about $3000, so yeah, I don’t want to think about it,” he laughs.

Four-time Iditarod Champion Jeff King used to own more than 100 dogs. Now he works with 35. “The dogs need to eat and be cared for every day: Vet bills, vaccinations and equipment … anything that is remotely disposable about our income goes into dogs,” says King.

Thirty years ago, a bag of dog food used to cost about nine dollars. These days, high-quality kibble can cost up to $60 a bag and it only lasts for two days.

This may be the last season of competitive long distance mushing for French Canadian Normand Casavant, known as the singing musher. And while he may be singing, he’s also broke.  “I don’t know how I did that, but now it’s time to change.  The thing is I need to bring money in now with my dogs,” says Casavant.

He wants to replace his tourism business with a mushing school, where he’ll start training the next generation of long-distance mushers, but it’s not clear if he’ll include a class on how to finance a dog team.

Janet Yellen isn't ready to raise interest rates

Wed, 2015-03-18 12:03

Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen and Fed policy makers wrapped up a two-day meeting in Washington D.C. today. Investors were hoping Yellen would provide a few clues about when the Fed might raise interest rates.

Marketplace’s Nancy Marshall-Genzer, who attended Yellen's press briefing following the meeting, reports that the Fed is willing to move, but cautiously.  

"If the Fed waits too long you could have undesirable things like deflation kick in that are a lot harder to correct once they’ve started," Genzer says. "On the other hand, you don’t want to do things too quickly because that could throw us back into a recession."   

So, for now, interest rates will stay the same. But what’s the magic unemployment number that might get Yellen to consider an uptick in interest rates?

"…Unemployment needs to be even lower, between 5 percent and 5.2 percent," Genzer says. 

Yellen didn’t completely rule out an interest-rate hike in April, “but she’s really trying not to spook the markets. She refuses to be pinned down on timing,” Genzer says.  

As expected, #Fed drops its pledge to be patient in raising interest rates, but makes it clear it's in no hurry.

— Nancy Marshall (@MarshallGenzer) March 18, 2015

Weak Euro undermines Chanel's China strategy

Wed, 2015-03-18 12:00

If you’re thinking about planning a vacation to Europe, now would be a good time. The American dollar is worth more now against the Euro than at any point over the past decade.

While the exchange rate may be welcome news for some tourists, the same may not be said for luxury European brands like Chanel or Gucci. Chanel handbags are so much cheaper in Paris than in China that Chinese tourists are flooding Paris shops for luxury bargains. Chanel want them to buy its handbags in China, expanding its market there.

So Chanel will increase prices in Europe and cut them in Asia.

“I think the Chinese consumer will benefit from this, because they will get lower prices and they won't have to go shop in New York, London or Paris in order to get the benefit of those relatively lower prices,” says Milton Pedraza of the Luxury Institute.

But high-end brands in particular need to think long and hard about changing prices from country to country.

"One of the keys to running a luxury business is that the customers understand that the prices don't move all that often, and that you're not waiting for products to go on sale,” says Stifel analyst David Schick.

Schick says long-term profitability for companies like Chanel or Louis Vuitton won’t hinge on exchange rates, but rather on how they are able to compete in a market that is increasingly crowed with competitors — many of whom are perfectly willing to sell you a handbag online, instead of through a shop on the Champs-Élysées.

Kraft recalls 6.5 million boxes of macaroni and cheese

Wed, 2015-03-18 11:19

Kraft Foods says it is recalling more than 6.5 million boxes of its iconic original-flavor "Macaroni and Cheese Dinner." The company says numerous consumers reported finding metal pieces in the packages. The affected boxes have a "Best When Used By" date of Sept. 18 through Oct. 11, 2015, and the manufacturing code “C2” printed below the date.

A company spokesperson told Marketplace via email it is, “too early to speculate about the cost of this action.” Large recalls can run up costs in the tens of millions of dollars for a company — including lost revenue, inventory and production, as well as damage to brand reputation. Some of that cost may be covered by insurance.

The system for food-safety product recalls in the U.S. has changed in the past several years, following passage of the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) in 2011. When a food company — like Kraft — receives complaints from consumers or reports of food-borne illness, or it discovers contamination at a production facility in its supply chain, it notifies the FDA and consumers, and voluntarily recalls the product. If a food-safety problem is identified by the FDA and the company does not comply with a request for a voluntary recall, FSMA allows the FDA to order a recall.


Mac 'n cheese noodles make great art supplies, but just make sure to check your recalled Kraft boxes for metal first.

Raghu Manavalan/Marketplace 

Colin O’Neil, director of government affairs at the Center for Food Safety, a consumer-advocacy group, says there is still more work to be done to ensure that mass-produced food sold in America is safe.

“The recent announcement (by Kraft) is a reminder of just how fragile our food-safety system is here in the U.S.,” he says. “Increasingly, responses to food-safety concerns are more motivated by PR and marketplace interests, than by public health concerns.”

But industry analyst Jim Hertel at food consultancy Willard Bishop in Chicago believes Americans are generally satisfied with the largely-voluntary system of food-safety monitoring and enforcement. His company does consulting work for Kraft and other food manufacturers.

“There is a level of confidence that the U.S. inspection regimen basically has gotten it right,” he says.

Hertel says most consumers understand that contaminated food does make its way into grocery-store and restaurant food occasionally. But he believes these incidents sow more fear in consumers when they are caused by a microbe or dangerous chemical, rather than (as with Kraft's Macaroni and Cheese) a chip of metal, possibly left by a flaw in the manufacturing process.

“The things that consumers can’t see are sometimes more terrifying than the things they can see,” Hertel says. “When it’s a biological or bacterial agent, I think there’s a lot more fear, uncertainty and doubt that creeps into the consumer’s mind.”

Parents weigh the lessons of Common Core testing

Wed, 2015-03-18 10:20
In a small brick house in Glen Burnie, Maryland, 9-year-old Thevy Mak sits at the piano, practicing before a lesson.

Small and thin, with long dark hair, Thevy is a little girl caught up in a big fight playing out around the country. This week, her fourth grade class will take the first round of the new PARCC assessment; standardized tests tied to the Common Core education standards. Thevy won’t be joining them.

“I was glad I didn’t have to,” Thevy says. “Sometimes the questions are really hard and I get really confused.”

Thevy's mom, Sheena Mak, tried some sample questions from the test and felt they were beyond Thevy’s grade level. Mak also doesn’t like what she views as corporate-driven school reform. Pearson, a multi-billion dollar education company, helped develop the test. Not that she went into all that with Thevy.

Sheena Mak (center), with daughters Sophia, 7 (left), and Thevy, 9. Thevy is not taking standardized tests tied to the Common Core standards this year. Amy Scott/Marketplace

"As a parent it is my duty, it's my responsibility, to make the decisions for my children that I think are in their best interest,” Mak says.

Thevy is among millions of students who are scheduled this month to take the first round of tests aligned with the Common Core standards.  Depending on the state, the tests have different names and take different forms. They’re all designed to track kids’ progress toward college and careers. And no matter where you live, there are likely to be families who will refuse to let their kids be tested.

As more parents make that choice this spring, they’re wrestling with what it will mean for their kids. After all, the kids are the ones who have to show up and refuse the tests.

“The first thought that came to my mind was, ‘Boy this puts a kid in an awkward position,’” says Joanna Faber, a former teacher who runs workshops about how to communicate with children.

With all the drama about testing — parents shaming each other on Facebook and protesting in front of schools — Faber says kids may feel torn between two authorities: parent and school. She suggests giving children a choice.

“If your child’s very uncomfortable about the idea of opting out, you might tell her, ‘Listen, if you want to just sit and take the test, that’s okay. I can protest in other ways,’” Faber says.

Parents should let their kids decide whether to take the Common Core tests.
Lynne Rigby wanted to opt her kids out of Florida’s new Common Core test. She says it’s taking too much time away from learning. But she worried about how her seventh grader would feel going against the grain.

“He's such a rule follower and I expected him to want to take the test,” Rigby says.

So she let him and his older brother decide.

“I don’t want them to feel uncomfortable, and they’re not here to fight my battle,” she says. “They’re 13 and 14. They’re capable of making those decisions.”

Both boys chose not to take the tests. So did lots of other students at their school, Rigby says, so they didn’t stand out. Other parents worry about how that decision will affect kids later on, though, when they confront other challenges like in college or the workplace.

“I think it’s actually very destructive in a deep way to signal to kids that a test is hard or scary or that they can’t do it,” says Amy Briggs, a mother of two in Brooklyn, New York, a hotbed of the opt-out movement.

Briggs works for a nonprofit that helps teachers implement the Common Core, so she doesn't share the distaste many in the opt-out movement have for the standards themselves. As a mom, Briggs says she’d rather see her kids fail a test than be protected from taking it.

“I feel like my job is to cheer them on,” she says. “I’m not going to remove every obstacle. Tests are part of the deal.”

A lot of parents think they shouldn’t be part of the deal — at least not so many of them — and that test scores shouldn’t play such a big role in how schools are rated, whether get kids ahead, and whether teachers keep their jobs. They say opting out teaches kids a different lesson about standing up for their beliefs.

Public school parents and teachers remain closely divided when it comes to their overall attitudes toward the Common Core standards, split between positive and negative impressions. Kelsey Fowler/Piktochart

Brooklyn Ritter, 9, will sit out testing at her public Montessori school in Baltimore.

“I decided that I didn’t want to take it, because I am no good at tests — especially when it’s being timed,” she says.

Her mom, Elena Ritter, says Brooklyn was so worried about the test she didn’t want to become a third grader. That’s when annual state testing begins. But Ritter says refusing the test is not about saving Brooklyn from something scary.

“I always say ‘90 percent of fear is between your ears,’” she says. But if I can’t get behind the test myself and they don’t want to do it, I didn’t feel like I could push them to do it.

In the end, the lesson a kid takes away from opting out may depend more on the kid than the parents, says Faber.

“If your child feels empowered by it, then it’s empowering,” she says. “If they feel awkward and frightened about it, then it’s not going to be empowering.”

With kids taking 113 standardized tests, on average, by the time they finish high school, they’ll have plenty of opportunities to think about it.

Yik Yak, privacy settings and the anonymous economy

Wed, 2015-03-18 09:16

In South by Southwest Interactive’s idea exchange, the goal is often trying to get some pattern recognition. Brands, entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, academics — everyone is trying to get a sense of what is happening right now, and what is the Next Big Thing. Right now, data privacy is a huge issue. Over 100 events at Interactive tackle privacy as a topic, from drones to health care.

One of the week’s privacy-focused events was the release of a new login management system from Yahoo. The company is calling it an “on-demand password” system where, every time you want to login, you get a new code texted to your phone. For a company that has been pulling in user data — and fielding “change password” requests — for years this seems to make a lot of sense. But it’s also part of a larger recognition at Yahoo that users increasingly understand the value of data protection and control.

“It’s really important to provide our users with the tools and the ability to control what they share with us,” says Dylan Casey, a VP of products at Yahoo. “And, be as transparent as possible about what we do with it.”

Other people at Southby are here to talk about anonymity. For Yik Yak, one of the hot startups making an appearance at the festival, anonymity is a key feature. The app lets college kids share anonymous comments publicly with the entire campus community. There has been plenty of criticism leveled at Yik Yak for allowing racism, sexism, and worse to be posted without much accountability. Co-founders Tyler Droll and Brooks Buffington say they are combating that content by adding filters for certain language. But they tout the app for recently alerting students to a campus shooting nine minutes before the college’s emergency alert system. And their promise of anonymity for users is bringing in cash.

“The company's at about 35 people working on Yik Yak,” Droll says. “We've raised about 70 million dollars and we have a presence at just about every college campus in america.”

Yik Yak is one of many increasingly popular apps that offer anonymity as a big selling point. But many of these startups don’t have to worry about revenue yet. For Yahoo, Google, Facebook, and Amazon, data is an incredibly valuable resource. Which is probably why those larger companies are trying to offer more general controls and protection--not anonymity.

Is there a way to mine data and offer some anonymity to a growing number of users who don't want their email messages used for marketing ploys, or something worse? Security specialist at the company Rapid7 Nicholas Percoco says it depends on what you really want from your technology.

“By nature of using the device or service,” he says, “the benefit of that is that it’s tracking you.”  

Location based rewards, mapping, recommendations and more convenience based on the data we’re giving up is already here. And even if you do decide you do want anonymity as a user and are willing to do the work to get it, it might be a quixotic quest. Percoco says as time goes on, companies that pull in our data get bought and sold, along with our information. Take a bit from data column A and a bit from data column B, and a company, government or hacker can turn anonymity into your positive ID.

Oh, for the want of a decent copier

Wed, 2015-03-18 08:57

A lot of reporters use the Freedom of Information Act — FOIA — to request documents from the government.

Last year, I asked the State Department for copies of some correspondence related to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. And it took me a while to hear back.

I received a response last week. 

Evidently, there's a huge backlog at the State Department in the office that handles requests like mine, and we now know why.

An inspector general looked into the matter and provided an explanation: "The office lacks copy machines that can handle the volume required."

There aren't enough copy machines. At the State Department. In 2015.


American Express launches multi-brand loyalty program

Wed, 2015-03-18 08:02

A handful of the country’s biggest companies announced out a new loyalty program Wednesday. American Express is teaming up with Macy’s, ExxonMobile, AT&T, Hulu, and others to create a program that lets customers gather and redeem points across the group of merchants.

Traditionally, loyalty programs have been exclusive to one retailer – one card for the supermarket, another for the drugstore.

This program, called Plenti, is different in that it allows points gathered a one merchant to be redeemed at another, says Abeer Bhatia, CEO of U.S. Loyalty with American Express.

“Let’s say you walk into a Rite Aid and you pick up soda, band aids, and you go and check out,” explains Bhatia. “You’re going to earn points at Rite Aid and these points will accumulate in a common points bank and then when you go next time, maybe, to an ExxonMobil or Macy’s, you can use those points.”

Customers don’t have to pay with an American Express card to get collect points. Bhatja says the company hopes the program will make new customers aware of their cards.  

The program may also help American Express target a different kind of customer.

“The appeal for American Express has always been targeting that higher-end, more upscale card holder than the other card issuers have focused on,” says Matt Schulz, a senior industry analyst at

By partnering with companies with wide-ranging customers, like Rite Aid, AT&T, Macy’s, Schulz says American Express could broaden its base with a less-affluent customer and that the company could also be hoping for some good headlines after losing an exclusive contract with contract with Costco recently.

PODCAST: Facebook gets into mobile payment

Wed, 2015-03-18 07:53

We're watching closely today for any clue to when the Federal Reserve could be raising interest rates, and most of the speculation hinges on just one word: "patient." What does it mean and how did we get here? J.P. Morgan's David Kelly is here to shed some light on the situation. Then, Facebook is adding the option to send other users money via its Messenger app. Tracey Samuelson tells us how the move could bring mobile payment into the mainstream and open up new revenue opportunities for the site. Finally, it's taken as a given that that veterans from the post-9/11 era have had an especially hard time finding work. Anecdotal evidence is plentiful, but hard numbers are surprisingly elusive. Dan Weissmann investigates.

World's biggest art heist, 25 years later

Wed, 2015-03-18 06:32

On March 18, 1990, two men dressed as police officers stole 13 pieces of art from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, in Boston.

They took rare Rembrandts, a Vermeer, and works by Manet and Degas. All together, the stolen art was worth about $500 million. According to the FBI, it was the largest property crime in U.S. history.  A few days after the incident, the Gardner Museum's president and director said, "It is as if there'd been a death in the family."

A quarter-century later, the case remains unsolved. Kelly Crow covers art for The Wall Street Journal. She says the heist changed the art world. 

"I think both museums and private collectors got a wake-up call," Crow tells Marketplace's David Gura. "Museums have gone back and taken a much tougher look at their protocols."

For example, the security guard on duty that night had only one alarm he could trigger at his post. And when the guard was lured away, there was no way for him to signal for help.

Crow says, even after all these years, the stolen art leaves gaping holes in the museum. Isabella Stewart Gardner hadn't wanted any of the pieces moved. So all that hangs in the place of the stolen masterpieces are empty frames.

Status update: Facebook Messenger helps split the bill

Wed, 2015-03-18 05:00

Facebook announced Tuesday it is adding the option to send other users money via its Messenger app.

Messenger is the social network's separate, but required, app for chat — basically an updated version of AOL Instant Messenger, for those of you still using Internet Explorer.

Marketplace's Tracey Samuelson tells us how the move could bring mobile payment into the mainstream, and open up new revenue opportunities for the site. The announcement language suggests users will only be able to transfer money to people who are already their Facebook friends, but Facebook could expand the service in the future, possibly creating more opportunity for businesses.

Facebook reports the money feature will roll out during the next few months in the U.S. To send money, users start a message with a friend, tap the "$" icon and enter the amount they want to send, and then tap "Pay" to send money. The funds are transferred right away, but the first time someone sends of receives money in Messenger, a Visa or MasterCard debit card has to be attached to their account.

A pin, or Touch ID on iOS devices, will add another layer of security, so hopefully toddlers on tablets everywhere don't end up sending strangers cash.

John Maeda on why good design takes decades

Wed, 2015-03-18 04:42

This week Marketplace Tech is exploring South by Southwest Interactive, the tech-oriented event that draws tens of thousands of people to Austin, Texas every year.

We spoke with designer John Maeda, who is at SXSW to talk about designing for the tech industry. A graduate of MIT and former president of the Rhode Island School of Design, Maeda is now a design partner at the Silicon Valley venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield and Byers. He talked with us about his first Macintosh, the tech industry's diversity problem, and how design can make technology more accessible.

The year you started at MIT — 1984 — is the year that the Apple Macintosh came out and your parents got you one?

Sure did. Brought a Macintosh to MIT and people made fun of me.

Did they?

Oh yeah.

Because you were a weirdo?

At MIT we are all weirdos so that’s okay. It’s the fact that the Mac didn't look like a computer. It had pictures on it.

How did that piece of technology influence your approach to design?

I remember the time I first touched a Mac and it was so much faster at graphics processing. I could draw an ellipse. Drawing ellipse used to take like ... sitting there [saying] "Ahh, draw that ellipse!" And the Mac was flowing with you.

In your role at Kleiner Perkins, you work with companies to build and design from the beginning. At what point in that process do people start to notice good design?

People's first notion of design is ... pretty stuff. And if you're there, I have to get them out of that. It’s about taking an idea and giving it a system behind it because design doesn't happen by buying a part. It happens by having people who can design.

Is there a design solution for the tech industry’s diversity problem?

Well, it’s a systems problem, really. The question is how do you design the system to enable people from different backgrounds to participate?

How do you do that?

Let me give an example. When you recruit for a more diverse student base, you forget that a diverse population will not stay on your campus if there aren't more role models like themselves. I would argue often at MIT, even at RISD, we need more people, more faculty around to role model for. So that’s a systems approach.

What’s a piece of technology that you really enjoy using, that you interact with and you just really appreciate the design of, that’s not a laptop, a smartphone, [and so on]?

Anything we use with our hands is going to feel good. Like a spoon or chopsticks or our glasses. Why do they feel so good? We've spent hundreds of year improving those ... So when we think technology is hard to use we have to remember, it’s like a decades worth of experimentation. So it’s going to get better. It’ll take time.

What role do you think design plays in getting people to adopt new technology? Something that people might even be a little bit skeptical of?

Technology, by nature, we fear because it’s hard to do something new. It’s easier for younger people because they don’t know they are going to die. Older people are like "I am so done with that, I’d rather have fun instead of figuring that new thing out," right? Young people [are like] "Who cares," right? So design helps to bridge that gap. It makes it more interesting. But I want to caution, because design that’s just about desire — the "wow" — is not enough. My friend who designs for Muji — the brand Muji in Japan — talks about how he designs for what’s called the “after-wow” effect. The “after-wow” is: You've bought it, you bring it home, you've had it for a month, you’re sitting there and saying, "Wow, that’s really awesome."

How does one create that? What’s he doing?

I am glad you asked that question. It takes time. Taking time is what is so difficult in the tech industry, which moves so fast.

What are the the tensions of that working in a VC firm?

A lot of my role is to create time for people, to be able to advocate for: "Hey, you know, this design needs more time or this design team is really getting there, so let’s support that," which I find is important.

Why so much hangs on the Fed's choice of words

Wed, 2015-03-18 04:30

It’s that time again, the Federal Reserve is meeting later today, and once again many will spend their time parsing the Fed’s words for any hint that an interest rate is coming.

If rates go up, some economists think there will be a land rush to scoop up homes to lock in low interest rates.

The only problem says with that theory says Sterne Agee Chief Economist Lindsey Piegza is that even with today’s sweet rates, prices are too high for too many.

“If we don’t see the wage and income growth needed to fuel the demand, then we will continue to see a sluggish housing market,” she says.

Even though higher interest rates would mean more homes are out of reach. Zillow economist Stan Humphries says he’d welcome higher rates.

“Home buyers for too long have been looking at the home market through this distorted lens at very low rates which is leading them to bid up prices in a lot of metros and instead they should be looking at home prices through a clearer lens so they get an accurate read on how expensive homes are,” he says.

Humphries says new rates would suggest the Fed sees a strengthening economy.

One where more people have money in their pocket, which Humphries says is what the housing market really needs.

Do today's veterans really have trouble getting jobs?

Wed, 2015-03-18 04:30

The Bureau of Labor Statistics releases annual figures on employment for veterans every March. There’s a familiar story that veterans from the post-9/11 era have had an especially hard time finding work. However, the numbers supporting that premise turn out to be elusive. 

There is this striking graph from the Institute for Veterans and Military Families at Syracuse University:

This chart from Syracuse University shows that veterans ages 20-24 have higher unemployment rates than older veterans, and than the general population. But other data isn't broken out.

Courtesy:Syracuse University Institute for Veterans and Military Affairs

"If you look back to about ten years or so you start seeing a real spike," says Nicholas Armstrong, the Institute's research director. "A gap in terms of unemployment being higher for vets that are ages 20 to 24."

However, that’s a small group — small enough that the gap isn't always statistically significant, according to Jim Walker, an economist who tracks veteran-employment numbers at the Bureau of Labor Statistics. "That group, there's very few of them," he says. "It has a very high error rate."

The Syracuse chart also leaves out other numbers that seem like they would make a useful comparison, For instance: What about 25 year-old vets? What happens when those younger vets turn 25? Armstrong’s group hasn't tracked those stats over time.

It’s not that the data undercut the familiar narrative. Only that I haven’t seen an analysis that demonstrates that story.

Neither has Kate Kidder, a researcher who looks at veterans issues at the Center for a New American Security. She says veterans groups, lobbying for resources, do push stories about out-of-work veterans. 

"Individual stories are compelling," she says. "And it’s also — a number of these folks were coming back as the economy was tanking."

Fighting the "nerd" stereotypes

Wed, 2015-03-18 02:00

HBO's "Silicon Valley" is about a lot of things: being an underdog, funding a business, succeeding in a competitive field. But it's also about being a techie, and the way in which the world sometimes labels you a "nerd." And as actor and comedian Thomas Middleditch points out, television and film have not always been kind when portraying nerds. 


We caught up with him on the streets of Austin during SXSW Interactive. For his part, Middleditch is proud of the research that goes into accurately portraying Silicon Valley. For him, it means the poking fun at the people in the tech industry is earned. And if anyone engrossed in start-up culture is paying attention, he also points out they can learn a lot from improv comedy when it comes to improving their approach to working with others.

Click below for an extended cut of our conversation with Thomas Middleditch:

Silicon Valley premiered at last year's SXSW Interactive conference, and is gearing up for a season 2 premiere on April 12th. 

Even if it's not "123456", change your password

Wed, 2015-03-18 01:30

The age Rep. Aaron Schock was elected to the Peoria school board, shortly after graduating. He would become board president at 22 and eventually represent Peoria's district as one of the youngest lawmakers on Capitol Hilly. Schock resigned Tuesday amid a spending probe, and the Washington Post has traced the congressman's rapid rise and the never-too-big attitude that may have been his undoing.

9 minutes

The gap between when students were alerted to a shooting at Florida State University via Yik Yak and when the school's emergency notification came through. The app, popular on college campuses, is part of a theme the Marketplace Tech team has seen running through SXSW Interactive this year: Users want more than just data privacy, they value anonymity too.


Speaking of privacy, that's the most common password among 15 million put online by a security analyst and Russian hackers, Quartz reported. That seems obvious, but interestingly that pattern of keystrokes is also the most common, accounting for passwords like "qwerty," "asdfgh" and any other combination of six adjacent keys to the right. Here are the other most common combinations:

Courtesy:WP Engine via Quartz 20-24 years

The age group researchers at Syracuse University found a sizeable gap in employment between veterans and non-vets. There's plenty of anecdotal evidence showing veterans from the post-9/11 era have more trouble finding employment, Marketplace's Dan Weissmann learned hard numbers are difficult to come by.

Snapchat worth as much as Campbell's Soup?

Tue, 2015-03-17 14:03

Pinterest is the latest company to get a multi-billion dollar valuation. But how do investors and the startup founders decide what a company is worth in the first place?

Marketplace host David Gura spoke with Sarah Frier of Bloomberg Business to find out.

“The founder will go out and take meetings with venture capitalists, sovereign wealth funds, institutional investors like the big banks who are trying to get in on these big deals and they’ll negotiate,” Frier says. 

Take Snapchat, for example. The company is valued at almost $15 billion — which might be proof that a messaging app is worth about as much as Campbell’s Soup, a company that actually makes food.

“What you don’t hear is the steps that it took to get there,” Frier says.

Companies are realizing how easy it is to get funded by venture capitalists. And investors are eager to provide that cash.

“It’s easy to go to investors who have fear of missing out on the next Google or Facebook. They want to get in your company early,” Frier says. 

Much ado about rusting

Tue, 2015-03-17 12:33

Every year, the U.S. military spends more than $20 billion combatting the effects of rust. Rust takes ships out of commission and even grounds warplanes. In the civilian world, rust damages vital infrastructure such as bridges, the neglect of which can wind up costing money … and lives.

“We associate it somewhere between cholesterol and hemorrhoids,” says Jonathan Waldman, author of the book, “Rust: The Longest War.” “There’s a database where you can look up all of the State of The Union addresses, and if you look up the word ‘rust,’ you’ll find mention of the word ‘thrust,’ and ‘trust,’ but you won’t find the word, ‘rust.’”

It’s not like President Obama hasn’t had to deal with the problem, there's even an office of Corrosion Policy and Oversight, headed by Daniel Dunmire -- the “Rust Czar,” if you will.

“For what it’s worth, his boss’s boss reports to the President,” Waldman says.

Waldman contends that if we don’t rethink rust, corrosion will continue to cost us billions annually. And he says simply painting over the problem isn’t enough.

“I think the solution going forward is one of addressing maintenance and thinking about the long term livelihood of what we build, and not necessarily some new fancy alloy that nobody can afford that is hard to manufacture in the first place.”

An excerpt from “Rust: The Longest War”

They say a lot of things about boats. They say a boat is a hole in the water that you throw money into. They say boat stands for “bring out another thousand.” They say that  the pleasures of owning and sailing a boat are comparable to standing, fully clothed, in a cold shower while tearing up twenty-dollar  bills. Consequently, they say that  the best day of a sailor’s life, aside from the day he buys a boat, is the day he sells it.

Ignoring all of this wisdom, I bought a forty-foot sailboat. This was at the end of 2007. She was in San Carlos, Mexico, at a pretty marina on the Sea of Cortés. There were palm trees and haciendas, with deep sparkling water to the west, a rugged volcanic tower to the east, and an immaculate Sonoran sky overhead. With  two friends, we split her three ways. I’d thought  she was a bargain, but the marina was more bonita than our new boat.

Our sloop was thirty years old, and showed her age. There were little rust rings around every screw on the deck, rust stains on the stanchions, bow pulpit, and pushpit, streaks of rust down the topsides. A white powder surrounded the rivets in the mast. The jib car tracks had corroded so badly that  there was a layer of goop beneath  them. Some of the bronze through-hulls  had turned a frightening green, while a few of the seacocks were so corroded that they wouldn’t budge. The stainless steel water tanks had rusted, too, and they leaked. Her appearance was at first so grim that I wished we had named her the Unshine, which would have been a very easy change from Sunshine. Instead we chose an obscure Greek word that nobody could pronounce or define.

But if Syzygy had cosmetic defects, we didn’t care. Then we took her sailing. The diesel engine overheated on the way out of the marina, because the heat exchanger was caked up with rust. The reef hook had rusted so badly that  it snapped the  first time we furled the  mainsail. Blocks had seized up, and the winches were so tight they offered little mechanical advantage. The wind vane almost fell off. Instruments  didn’t work, because the copper wires winding through  the bilge had corroded so thoroughly that  they no  longer conducted  electrical current. Shackles, turnbuckles, clevis pins, chain plates, backing plates, furler bearings, engine parts, the windlass axle—everything that could rust had rusted. Water, salt, air, and time had taken their  standard  toll, and corroded my bank account, too. That’s how rust ate into my life...

Rust has knocked  down  bridges, killing dozens. It’s  killed at least a handful of people at nuclear power plants, nearly caused reactor meltdowns, and challenged those storing nuclear waste. At the height of the Cold War, it turned our most powerful nukes into duds. Dealing with it has shut down the nation’s largest oil pipeline, bringing about negotiations with OPEC. It’s rendered military jets and ships unfit for service, caused the crash of an F-16 and a Huey, and torn apart the fuselage of a commercial plane midflight. In the 1970s, it was implicated in a number of house fires, when, as copper prices shot  up, electricians resorted  to aluminum wires. More recently, in the “typhoid Mary of corrosion,” furnaces in Virginia houses failed as a result of Chinese drywall that contained strontium sulfide. They rusted out in two years. One hundred fifty years after massive ten-inch  cast iron  guns attacked  Fort  Sumter,  rust  is counterattacking. Union forces have mobilized with marine-grade epoxy and humidity sensors. Rust slows down container ships before stopping  them  entirely by aiding in the untimely removal of their propellers. It causes hundreds  of explosions in manholes, blows up washing machines, and launches water heaters through  the roof, sky high. It clogs the nozzles of fire sprinkler heads: a double whammy for oxidation. It damages fuel tanks and then

engines. It seizes up  weapons, manhandles  mufflers, destroys highway guardrails, and spreads like a cancer in concrete. It’s opened up crypts.

Twenty-five miles northeast of San Francisco, one of the country’s largest rust headaches bobs at anchor in Suisun Bay, and puts Syzygy to shame. Fittingly, the National Defense Reserve Fleet belongs to the US Department of Transportation, an agency that nearly plays God in its attempt to placate the needs of man and machine. Scores of people inspect on a daily basis as many old merchant  ships that, in earlier extralegal times, would have been scuttled offshore. Now, the ships are too fragile to be hauled out and repainted, and not worth towing to Texas to be scrapped. Lacking other options, to Texas they’ve gone. Confounding  matters, the US Coast Guard  insisted in 2006 that the hulls of the ships be cleaned of invasive mussels before being moved, while the  California  Water  Quality  Control Board demanded  that  the bay not be polluted during said cleaning, and threatened  to fine the Maritime  Administration  $25,000 a day until it came up with a plan. Environmental  groups sued, demanding  studies. While  ten biologists, ecologists, toxicologists, statisticians, modelers, and mapping experts collected clams and mussels and took hundreds of sediment samples, the ships went on rusting. Big surprise: they contaminated the bay. At least twenty-one tons of lead, zinc, barium, copper, and other toxic metals have fallen off of the ships. What  to do about the Reserve Fleet conundrum is such a touchy question that Senator Dianne Feinstein, who has a position on every environmental issue in California, officially has no position on the matter.

On the other coast, two dozen flip-flop-wearing employees of the US Naval  Research  Lab  fill their  time  studying  corrosion-resisting  paints under palm trees at Naval Air Station  Key West. Long before the place was an air station, in 1883, the Naval Advisory Board tested anticorrosive concoctions there, because rust was plaguing the navy. Today’s paints self-heal, or can be applied underwater, or change color when exposed to rust—and still, rust plagues the navy. Rust, in fact, poses the number one threat to the most powerful navy on earth. By many measures, and according to many admirals (who sound as if they’re employed by the DOT), the most powerful navy on earth is losing the fight. The name of one of the department’s annual maintenance  conferences: Mega Rust. The motto  of that Florida lab: “In rust we trust.”