Marketplace - American Public Media

Syndicate content
Updated: 49 min 36 sec ago

How "public" is Weibo?

Thu, 2014-04-17 02:28

Despite being one of China’s most-visited websites, and analysts are watching to see if Weibo closes way low. That’s because of users like Lixin Huang.  He’s one of 130-million active users the website claims as its customer base. But he’s not exactly what you’d call “active.” 

“I used it sometime last year when my friends were using it,” he says. Huang, a finance professor at Georgia State University in Atlanta, now uses WeChat.  It’s growing at three times the rate of Weibo.

That’s one reason Huang is skeptical  about today’s NASDAQ debut. Another big reason? Censorship. China’s government bans everything from sexual innuendo to political dissent on the Internet.  

“Censorship has already caused a chilling effect,” says Jason Ng, who wrote the book, Blocked on Weibo.  He says China’s crackdown on that type of chatter means the site’s not as much fun as when it debuted. 

Even so, Ng says it’s still the go-to place for China’s nationwide conversation. “Obviously investors recognize the value of having that sort of space.”

A bill of health for insurance companies

Thu, 2014-04-17 02:26

Big insurance companies report quarterly earnings over the next two weeks, starting with United Healthcare today.

Thanks to new customers brought in by the Affordable Care Act, 2013 was a good year for health insurance companies.  The extended deadlines, which ended just this week, may provide more good news:   More enrollment, more premiums, more revenue.  Now comes the hard part. 

For one thing, new customers means new costs, in the form of claims, says Joel Shalowitz, a professor at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management.  Insurers don't yet know the extent of those costs.

"For people who needed services provided, the insurer is not going to see the claims for another month or two," says Shalowitz. "The revenue has come in, but the expense has not yet been realized."  

Those new customers also came with new restrictions on insurance companies, says Morningstar analyst Vishnu Lekraj. "They’re restricted as far as profitability, and overall there’s more competition in the market, there’s more transparency, there’s more regulation," he says. "I do still see some tough headwinds for the industry and for most of the players."

At best, Lekraj thinks the strongest companies will see flat profits for years to come.

Blind spot: VC and minority business

Thu, 2014-04-17 01:03

Before a company sells for billions of dollars, it starts as an entrepreneur's big idea. Typically, somewhere in between are venture capitalists, who invest in startups with hopes of a hefty payday if the companies make it big. A recent study from researchers at New York University’s Stern School of Business and University of Munich shows VCs are more likely to back companies if the executives are the same ethnicity as the investors.

The findings have profound implications for entrepreneurs of color, though they don't come as a surprise to them. At the South by Southwest Interactive Festival recently, African-American entrepreneur Wayne Sutton recalled times he appeared at conferences and was mistaken for a member of the service staff.

“It’s hard enough just to try to launch a product that the world can use,” Sutton says. “But overcoming those biases as a minority entrepreneur is even double hard.”

The research supports what many minority startups have long believed, that investors have a tendency to back people who look like them. Entrepreneurs of color see the problem as one of investors afraid to step beyond what they know.

“A venture capitalist provides money, but also provides a lot of blood, sweat and tears,” explains Melissa Bradley, an African-American who started a venture capital firm after seeing firsthand how finding investors can be frustrating for minorities and women. “They’re there with you day in and day out and so there’s this implicit nature around if I have something in common with you already at the onset, that we’re probably gonna do pretty well down the road.”

Bradley says she’s raised tens of millions for minority and female-owned businesses and profited.

Both Bradley and Sutton say minority entrepreneurs shouldn’t despair. Both believe in the power of a great idea to break through, no matter who pitches it.

Deepak Hegde, the NYU management professor who co-authored the study, agrees. He adds that the findings may point to changes VCs could make.

“Startups tend to come from multiple communities,” Hegde says. “A venture capitalist that has a diversity of partners in its ranks might be in a better position to identify these opportunities and evaluate them better.”

After all, the last thing investors want is a billion dollar opportunity missed, lost in a blind spot.

Mark Garrison: That’s a venture capitalist investing in a startup on the HBO show “Silicon Valley.” Everybody around the table is white. The real Silicon Valley is also heavy on white guys. Minority company founders often go unrecognized, or worse.

Wayne Sutton: It’s like, what are you doing here? Or, go get me something to drink, because they think I’m working here or something.

Wayne Sutton has started companies and mentored entrepreneurs. As an African-American in tech, he’s not surprised by the study’s findings of a tendency for investors to go with people who look like them.

Sutton: It’s hard enough just to try to launch a product that the world can use. But overcoming those biases as a minority entrepreneur is even double hard.

Many American venture capitalists are white, so black entrepreneurs confront the problems the study uncovered daily. Melissa Bradley felt it firsthand when she pitched her business ideas.

Melissa Bradley: There was no one in the room that looked like me. There were no women and there were certainly no people of color in the room, oftentimes in the building.

That sometimes frustrating experience inspired her to start her own venture capital firm. She says she’s raised tens of millions for minority and female-owned businesses and profited. Bradley sees the larger problem as one of investors afraid to step beyond what they know.

Bradley: A venture capitalist provides money, but also provides a lot of blood, sweat and tears. And so they’re there with you day in and day out and so there’s this implicit nature around if I have something in common with you already at the onset, that we’re probably gonna do pretty well down the road.

Both Bradley and Sutton believe in the power of a great idea to break through, no matter who pitches it. Deepak Hegde, the NYU business professor who co-authored the study, agrees. He adds the findings may point to changes VCs could make.

Deepak Hegde: Startups tend to come from multiple communities. A venture capitalist that has a diversity of partners in its ranks might be in a better position to identify these opportunities and evaluate them better.

Because the last thing they want is a billion dollar opportunity missed, lost in a blind spot. I'm Mark Garrison, for Marketplace.

Dude, where's my flying car?

Thu, 2014-04-17 01:00

With recent attitudes towards the tech industry sometimes bordering on chilly, Americans are surprisingly optimistic about what technology has to offer them in the next 50 years.

According to a new report published by the Pew Research Center, 59 percent of those surveyed thought that technology would lead to peoples' lives being generally better, though what most people hope for is a little different than the expectations of yester-year:

When it comes to health technology, a majority of Americans (81 percent) believe they will be able to receive a transplant of an organ that has been custom grown in a lab. That's not to say that there is general approval of high-tech healthcare: 66 percent of those surveyed think society would be worse off if parents could alter the DNA of their prospective children to create custom-designed wunderkinder.

The idea of robots taking care of the elderly was also met with disaproval; 65 percent thought this would be a change for the worse. Inspiring even less confidence is the prospect of one day being able to pull off this stunt (only 39 percent of Americans believe that scientists will achieve teleportation in the near future):

Among current hot topics (i.e. drones and Google Glass), 63 percent thought we would be worse off if drones were given permission to fly through U.S. airspace, and 53 percent thought it would also be a negative development if people wore devices that constantly showed them information about the world around them. 

In terms of that age-old expectation of flying cars, 19 percent of Americans said they would like to own a travel-related invention like said flying vehicle, but 50 percent said they would not ride in a self-driving car. Go figure.

In spite of skepticism surrounding certain aspects of technological advancement, the results of the study show that Americans' feelings are mixed-to-positive when it comes to how technology affects their lives -- Dystopian sci-fi aside, of course.

How to make a White House Summit more than a photo op

Wed, 2014-04-16 13:53

More than a dozen business school deans gathered at the White House today to talk about how to make the workplace work better for women and people with families. The meeting was part of the lead-up to  a bigger Working Families summit coming up in June.

The White House holds a lot of these sorts of gatherings. There have been summits on everything from job creation to food marketing to diversity in the tech industry. So what actually gets done?

“Everybody likes to come to the White House, come to Washington, have their picture taken,” says Bob Guttman, who teaches media and politics at Johns Hopkins University. “ In terms of policy, I think it’s less important.”

One way to make the events more than a photo-op is for organizers to ask for specific commitments, as the White House did last year when college presidents gathered to talk about expanding opportunity for low-income students. 

“So just that one project alone – clearly there’s been some great momentum from the convening in January,” says Daniel Porterfield, president of Franklin & Marshall College, one of 10 schools that pledged scholarships after the summit.

 

The sometimes strange world of White House summits

by Marc Sollinger 

Summit on Food Marketing: Michelle Obama is concerned with childhood obesity. So much so that last year her office convened a summit to get food companies and the media to push healthier food to America’s kids. Speaking to a group of parents, scientists, and representatives from the food industry, the First Lady urged everyone to make children’s health a priority.

Beer Summit: One of the most recognizable White House Summits wasn’t actually an official summit at all. But after a national uproar over the 2009 arrest of Harvard Professor Henry Gates, Obama met with both Gates and his arresting officer at what came to be known as the “Beer Summit.”

SelectUSA Investment Summit: As part of Obama’s push to bring jobs and investment money to the US, the White House convened a 1,300-person summit last fall that let global investors mingle with government officials and representatives from U.S. Companies.

Tech Inclusion Summit: This January summit was the highlight of an initiative to encourage diversity in the tech industry. Over 200 people participated and discussed ways to achieve President Obama’s goal of producing one million additional STEM graduates over the next decade.

Summit on Black Male Success: More a series of summits than a single event, this was an effort by EBONY magazine and the White House to host discussions throughout the country about the issues that face African American males. This series is a follow up to Obama’s “My Brother’s Keeper” campaign.

White House Summit on Working Families: Part of the reason business college deans are traveling to the White House, this summit will focus efforts on creating a more workable and equitable workplace. Taking place this June, it will convene business leaders and experts to talk about the issues. 

Producers try to keep fish sticks from going under water

Wed, 2014-04-16 13:23

Another day in which I pass on what I read in the Wall Street Journal this morning, comment on it, and have you guys tell me how wrong I am:

The Journal has a story about fish sticks, and how the fish stick industry is looking to get kids excited about fish sticks again. They say fish are transitioning from the frozen stick model to "a fillet that can be cut into a fish stick" instead. 

I personally think that's gonna be a tough haul because... ew.

You should know, by the way, that I appear to be in a minority here at Marketplace Global headquarters, when it comes to feeling that way.

Bank earnings show: Americans got better at paying off debts

Wed, 2014-04-16 13:14

The big banks have been releasing their first quarter earnings reports over the last week, and they’re all over the map: Profits are down at JPMorganChase, up at Wells Fargo.

But one trend is clear from nearly all the banks: Consumers are doing a better job paying down their mortgages and credit cards.

“This is not an unusual phenomenon,” says Nancy Bush, banking analyst and founder of NAB Research, LLC. “It normally goes on after a financial brush with death like the one we had in the years 2005 to 2008.” 

Both consumers and the big banks have changed their ways since those dark days. Banks are more cautious about who they lend to. And, we, the public, are a lot more careful with our credit cards and other loans. 

“Credit card and auto delinquencies have been hovering around all time lows for the last several quarters,” says Steve Chaouki, head of financial services at the credit reporting agency TransUnion.

Look at just about any big bank’s earnings report lately, and the trends are clear. JPMorgan Chase’s earnings, for instance, shows four charts under the heading "delinquency trends". All of them—whether home loans or credit cards—point straight down since 2010.

Total US home loan delinquencies are down more than 12 percent versus last year, according to Black Knight Financial Services. 

But this isn’t just because Americans are getting better at managing debt. Banks have also been much stricter. 

"In order to get a mortgage loan these days, you need to have a high credit score, so these borrowers are already more responsible,” says Kostya Gradushy with Black Knight’s Data & Analytics division. 

But all this responsibility can have a downside for the economy: Careful, responsible Americans tend to spend less - which means retailers won't be thrilled.

Bloomberg: 'Here's $50 million for gun control'

Wed, 2014-04-16 13:11

Former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg is spending $50 million to fight the National Rifle Association on gun control. This is not the first time Bloomberg has used his private foundation to contribute huge sums of money to nonprofits. He’s has given $50 million to fight coal companies, to clean up the oceans and to promote women’s reproductive rights.

In terms of gun control, Bloomberg’s $50 million is a huge amount to spend in a single year. The NRA spent just under $3.5 million on lobbying in 2013, and the Brady Campaign, a gun control advocacy group, has an annual budget of just over $3 million. Bloomberg’s $50 million will fund a network of smaller nonprofits organized under one large umbrella group called Everytown for Gun Safety.

Stacy Palmer is the editor of The Chronicle for Philanthropy. She says this money will help these smaller grassroots groups eliminate some of the redundancy in their organizatio,n “and make them a lot more efficient.”

Professor of philanthropic studies Mark Hager says large donations allow a group to fund big campaigns on a particular issue. “It can stop and take stock of that and really give its attention to marketing or lobbying efforts,” says Hager.

Private foundations are prohibited from lobbying for legislation and supporting political campaigns. But, says writer Joanne Barkan, “private foundations are allowed to spend as much money as they want on educating.” For private foundations like Bloomberg’s, the Koch brothers’ and the Gates', the difference between Gates’ educating a member of Congress and lobbying one is often impossible to distinguish. 

Backlash over Crimea hits Russian economy

Wed, 2014-04-16 12:08

The Russian economy is beginning to suffer fallout from the crisis in Ukraine.

Economy Minister Alexei Ulyukayev told parliament in Moscow today that growth slowed sharply to just 0.8 percent in the first quarter -- far short of the earlier prediction of 2.5 percent. The minister said that the Ukrainian turmoil had spooked investors, and capital is fleeing the country at a record rate. Earlier in the week, the Russian finance minister forecast that if the capital flight continues the economy could see zero growth this year. Independent observers are equally gloomy.

"Everything seems to be going in the wrong direction for Russia at the moment,” says Raoul Ruparel of the Open Europe think tank in London. "It’s really due to increasing uncertainty around the situation in Ukraine and potential sanctions.”

So far, the U.S. and the Europeans have imposed travel bans and asset freezes on certain Russian and Ukrainian officials. The European Union has threatened to escalate the sanctions if peace talks due to begin in Switzerland on Thursday fail to make progress, and if Russia persists with what the EU calls its “provocation.”

 But Russian President Vladimir Putin seems unfazed by all the threats.

"Regaining Russian lands is taking precedence over practical , economic considerations," says Daragh McDowel of the Maplecroft research house.

 Other analysts argue that Putin has no reason to feel seriously threatened -- yet.

"The Russians have the third largest hard currency reserves in the world – a half a trillion dollars' worth - and that could cushion the capital flight," says Sam Charap of the International Institute for Strategic Studies. "So I don’t see a dramatic, huge, short-term economic impact from this."

A European embargo on imports of Russian oil and gas or a ban on Russian banks to stop them dealing in western financial markets could be a different matter. That could bring Russia to its knees. But such drastic action – which could also inflict real economic damage on Europe - seems highly unlikely... unless Russia invades eastern Ukraine.

Pattern making: A stitch in time?

Wed, 2014-04-16 11:41

Jen Beeman is a pattern maker based in Chicago. She runs the patternshop Grainline Studio.

Here's how she describes her job:

"Nobody ever realizes that people are involved in the making of your clothes anymore. People just assume that it’s a machine that makes our clothes. We’re so removed from how our garments or products in general are made that they never assume that there’s a person who does that.

With pattern making, if you can imagine something you want to make, then you can make it because you have the tools to make the pattern to make that a reality. And that’s really exciting to me – the creativity.

What it involves is a large work table, brown paper, 90lb craft paper, rulers, and a pencil. That’s pretty much it."

The Archer Button Up shirt is one of Grainline's most popular patterns.

Courtesy of Jen Beeman/ http://shop.grainlinestudio.com/product/archer-button-up-shirt

"[My job]’s going away because computers are making things more efficient. And you need less patternmakers to do the same amount of work and also things are getting outsourced overseas where the things are being made. But for me, it means that you need to be more creative and think outside the box to make it a viable career.

In 2009, I randomly started a blog and published my first pattern in, I think, 2010. And from there, it’s taken off. There are people in high school who buy them, and I’ve had people email me who are in their eighties. I’m just kind of flabbergasted that that many people are using my patterns and it is world-wide too which blows my mind.

I’ve thought a lot about what I would do if I couldn’t do patternmaking, and I honestly can’t come up with an answer. And I know that’s super lame. But I just really love what I’m doing. And I just know I’m really, really lucky to be able to do what I do."

Hear more stories in our Disappearing Jobs series:

Finding a battery that will power the future

Wed, 2014-04-16 11:29

Wearables like smartwatches have been the techie dream since forever. Now it seems as though the dreamm may come true. The mobile revolution has allowed hardware makers to create devices that can fit on your wrist  - devices that have the same computing power as devices that used to sit on your desktop.

But while the electronics have shrunk, the batteries haven't, says Marc van den Berg. He's a venture capitalist at Technology Partners in Palo Alto, Calif. On an iPhone, for example, the battery takes up nearly half the real estate of the device.

"If my watch is going to become my new smart phone I don’t want the watch to be a nice piece of jewelry and for me to have to wear a big arm band battery next to it," van den Berg says. 

In the past, the battery business wasn't as sexy as the software or mobile hardware biz.  But the challenge of powering mobile and wearable devices has sparked a renewed excitement in battery technology among tech companies and investors in Silicon Valley. And it's not just small batteries people are excited about.

"The investment community sees the need -- certainly in consumer electronics - but we also have the automobile marketplace and we have utility scale storage devices," van den Berg says. "All three of those things are the demand that the investment community has woken up to."

Just down the road from van den Berg, Yi Cui is working in his lab ast Stanford, where he's a professor. He’s also the CEO of a venture backed start-up called Amprius, which tests the boundaries of battery technology. The company counts former Google CEO Eric Schmidt as one of its big name investors. 

"My group invented paper batteries and textile battery," he says. And in this lab, Cui also developed a battery that uses silicon, which he sells through Amprius.

Cui says batteries are hard to develop because they live in the world of material science or very simply put, it all depends on finding the right material. Sometimes, materials like paper don’t hold enough charge. Or others like metals, can be too expensive. And often they can be dangerous.

"The safety concern is there. Make sure the packaging is good. You don’t leak out anything bad for your body," he says. Sorting through those issues takes a lot of research, time and testing. 

He shows me his battery testing machine. It’s around 4 feet high and has about a 100 little slots. In them, flat silver button batteries, like the ones in a watch. The chip uses silicon, and Cui says it allows the battery to lasts 25 percent longer than other batteries. And Amprius is selling a small number of them to Asian smartphone manufacturers.

Jim Kim is a venture capitalist at Formation 8 and he’s rooting for Amprius.

But, he says, "There’s a valley of death that exists between the research lab and commercialization."

He says while venture capitalists might be funding the research, nobody is paying to manufacture the batteries on a mass scale, at least not in the U.S.

"If you think about what needs to be done, you have to build a plant and that’s very expensive," he says. "And this is a process that takes a long time to tune. You have to be safe with it. If you make a mistake, it’s catastrophic."

Kim says a battery factory can cost up to hundreds of millions of dollars. While the luxury carmaker Tesla wants to build a factory, Kim says it’s mainly Korean conglomerates like LG that are investing, not companies in the U.S.

"And then you’ve had Panasonic, Samsung BYD and Lishen in China, who have built their factories on the back of government subsidies," he says. "Those are the players who are now dominating the market and that’s a shame."

This is what the new SAT will look like

Wed, 2014-04-16 11:00

Update: The College Board has released sample questions for the updated SAT. Scroll down to see some selected questions below.

It’s going to be a late night for folks in the multi-billion dollar tutoring and test prep industry. Details of the newly revamped SAT are expected to hit the web just after midnight eastern time.

“I’m somewhat of a night owl,” says Christine Brown, executive director of K-12 and college prep products at Kaplan Test Prep. “I’ll probably be online this evening keeping an eye on things.”

From the big players like Kaplan to small mom-and-pops, test prep companies will be scrambling to overhaul their offerings in time for the new test’s debut in the spring of 2016—and hoping to capitalize on an expected surge in demand.

“When the new SAT comes up, business just goes through the roof,” says David Benjamin Gruenbaum of Ahead of the Class, a California-based tutoring company.

He expects another bump in business this time around, even though the College Board is teaming up with the nonprofit Khan Academy to offer free help.

As Marketplace has reported before, the college application process is a huge -- read: expensive -- endeavor. Standardized tests cost from registration to score reports:

Just taking the SAT costs upward of $51.00. Tack on individual subject tests required by some colleges, and you're adding another $24.50 in initial registration fees, plus $13-24 for every individual subject.

The ACT  costs $36.50. The ACT Plus Writing Test, required by some colleges, costs $52.50.

A new official test prep book is $31.99. A subscription to the full online suite runs $69.95 per year.

SAT and ACT tutoring costs an average of $125 per session. Private tutoring for the tests will range in costs by tutor. Princeton Review's 24-hour private tutoring program will set a family back $3000. One independent tutor we spoke with charges almost $550 an hour for his services. 

Sample questions from the new SAT:

Reading and Writing:

Courtesy of The College Board

Courtesy of The College Board

Math:

Courtesy of The College Board

Problem Solving and Data Analysis:

Courtesy of The College Board

View the entire set of sample questions here.

 

Oman: 15 percent unemployment, but jobs are open

Wed, 2014-04-16 10:53

Like its neighbors, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, Oman has oil. But unlike others in the region, Oman’s supply is limited so it’s been trying to diversify the economy by encouraging small businesses, and pushing locals to work, especially in the private sector. The results have been mixed.

Salma’s Chocolates is a tiny café and store in the lobby of the Bank of Oman; it’s the kind of small business that a lot of people here think is the future of Oman’s economy.

What sets Salma’s apart from the competition are the local flavors it uses. “We have old sweets that started to vanish,” explained Aisha Al Hajri, one of the owners, “so we choose to take the old generation sweets like the halwa, the caramelized sesame and there’s a kind of sweet called mahoo, it’s like a toffee.

They source the sweets from local producers, and then fill their chocolates with them.

Although they pride themselves on local ingredients, Al Hajri and her co-owner (and the store’s namesake) Salma Al Hajri are the only Omani employees.

“The rest are foreigners,” Aisha Al Hajri said. “For a small business in Oman, it’s difficult to hire an Omani due to the minimum wages.”

Instead, they use foreign workers from the Philippines, India and Indonesia. There’s no minimum wage for foreign workers. (Although, Al Hajri, says, they do pay them a living wage.)

About 15 percent of Omanis are unemployed, but a lot of them would rather have government jobs, because they have shorter hours and other perks. To get more locals to work, the government has been raising the minimum wage for Omanis in the private sector.

David Mednicoff, director of Middle Eastern Studies at U Mass-Amherst, says changing Omani attitudes about private sector employment will be hard. “The new expectation they’re going to be shaping,” he said. “If you’re young, looking for a job, you can’t count on the public sector. This is going to be a very big shift."

Other countries in the Persian Gulf, like Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, also want more locals to work in the private sector; Mednicoff thinks Oman is more likely to succeed, partly because its native population is bigger.

But Aisha Al-Hajjri isn’t sure about that. She recently offered her young cousin a job, and the woman turned it down saying a private sector job just wasn’t stable enough.

Pass the pecans

Wed, 2014-04-16 10:22

From the Marketplace Datebook, here's a look at what's coming up April 17:

  • Events continue at the National Cathedral in Washington in observance of Holy Week.
  • NASA is scheduled to make an announcement—a discovery by its Kepler Space Telescope.
  • Securities, salsa and soda. Goldman Sachs, Chipotle and Pepsi are slated to report quarterly earnings.
  • "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" has a birthday. Actress Rooney Mara will be 29.
  • And April is National Pecan Month. That's just nuts.

What happens when there are 9 billion mouths to feed

Wed, 2014-04-16 10:00

As it stands right now, the world has a little over 7 billion people. 

Come 2050, however, that "7" will look more like a "9," and those 2 billion extra mouths could mean disaster for the planet's already-strained resources.

Jonathan Foley wrote the cover story for the May issue of National Geographic magazine, kicking off an eight-month series on food and sustainability. In his words: "We've got to get more value out of agriculture.We need to figure out how to feed a growing and more prosperous world, but we also have to figure out how to make it more sustainable."

Foley teamed up with National Geographic photographer George Steinmetz on this "big-picture approach" to landscapes of industrial food:

On the Vulgamore farm near Scott City, Kansas, each combine can harvest up to 25 acres of wheat an hour—as well as real-time data on crop yields. Most of the food Americans eat is now produced on such large-scale, mechanized farms, which grow row after row of a single crop, allowing farmers to cover more ground with less labor.

George Steinmetz/National Geographic

At Granja Mantiqueira in Brazil eight million hens lay 5.4 million eggs a day. Conveyor belts whisk the eggs to a packaging facility. Demand for meat has tripled in the developing world in four decades, while egg consumption has increased sevenfold, driving a huge expansion of large-scale animal operations.

George Steinmetz/National Geographic

Only the Brazil nut trees—protected by national law—were left standing after farmers cleared this parcel of Amazon rain forest to grow corn. Despite progress in slowing deforestation, this northern state of Pará saw a worrying 37 percent spike over the past year.

George Steinmetz/National Geographic

At the Nutribras pig farm in Mato Grosso, Brazil, sows are confined to sectioned crates that allow a mother to suckle her piglets without acci­dentally crushing them. Hog farms can be big polluters—the average 200-­pound pig produces 13 pounds of manure a day—but Nutribras recycles waste as fertilizer and methane power.

George Steinmetz/National Geographic

At Monsanto’s North Carolina lab, corn plants emerge from an automated photo booth that documents their growth. The company is trying to develop strains of corn and soybeans that need less water and fertilizer—a goal that’s eluded biotech thus far. Reducing the use of such resources is key to feeding the world in the coming decades. 

George Steinmetz/National Geographic

Check out the entire series on National Geographic's website.

Professional video gamers earn lots of real life dollars

Wed, 2014-04-16 07:38

In recent years, competitive online gaming, known as eSports, has grown in popularity and scope. Professional video game players face off in matches broadcast to global audiences, sometimes for hundreds of thousands of dollars, in arenas filled with tens of thousands of fans.

At the recent Call of Duty World Championship in Los Angeles, two four-man teams of gamers -- their shirts covered in corporate logos -- faced off for the top title. The gamers  competed in front of a studio audience, which peered into a control room constructed on a gunmetal stage. On the side of that stage sat the play-by-play men, who called the action in suit and ties.

$1 million in prizes was on the line at the tournament, which was broadcast online for free by Major League Gaming. MLG is an eSports promoter that's been around since 2002, when most of America was on dial-up.

"Internally, we refer to ourselves as the e-ESPN," says MLG CEO and co-founder Sundance DiGiovanni. "I saw things like extreme sports taking off and realized that we were on the verge of this technological revolution that was going to allow us to have a global, connected, digital sport."

MLG has built its success by promoting live events for shooter genre-games like "Call of Duty" and "Halo." These are pumped-up versions of the gamer tradition of having friends over to play in front of the TV. The spread of broadband in the U.S. leveled the playing field, making it possible for even more gamers to compete as pros.

"Without broadband internet, you simply can't practice games at a professional level," says Jason Lake, who should know. He's the founder and CEO of CompLexity Gaming. Its "Call of Duty" team took home the $400,000 grand prize at the World Championship.

"Complexity in its simplest form is, I guess you could say, the LA Lakers of video games," says Lake. "Except we play multiple games instead of just basketball."

It has the look of a lot of new media companies: one part talent agency, one part marketing firm. Complexity lets the players keep any competition prize money they earn. Instead, the company makes its revenue from marketing deals.

"We're always keeping an eye on the next game because it's our business to do so, as we need to find the stars and get them under contract before our competition does," says Lake, who compares the current state of eSports to the Wild West.

Promoter MLG has locked up official "Call of Duty" matches and has even started its own streaming platform. Other promoters, like the Electronic Sports League, are using the game streaming juggernaut Twitch.tv as their platform of choice. A recent event in Katowice, Poland drew more than 643,000 simultaneous viewers at its peak -- double the previous record.

A new generation of gamers is discovering eSports, and what was once a subculture inside a subculture is on the verge of going mainstream.

This story was produced by TurnstyleNews.com, a project of Youth Radio

PODCAST: China's slowing growth

Wed, 2014-04-16 06:55

China’s first quarter Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growth in 2014 was 7.4 percent, the slowest China’s economy has grown in a year and a half.  Markets in Asia rose because of China’s GDP news. Slower growth, however, could be an indication that China’s leadership is serious about making tough changes to its economic model.

If you're a shrimp lover, you may be wondering why you're paying more for your favorite shrimp cocktail or Pad Thai. It's a bacterial infection ravaging shrimp farms in Southeast Asia called "early mortality syndrome" or EMS. The disease doesn't affect people, but it kills baby shrimp. The resulting shortage is causing price spikes.

Santa Clara County in the Bay Area has the fifth largest homeless population in the US. The area is also home to some of the country's most expensive real estate. And that's got the area's homeless population turning to some unlikely places for shelter.

.buzz and .pics: Your site here

Wed, 2014-04-16 03:20

"After hearing all the .buzz and .reviews surrounding .london, we’ve finally settled on the .uk as our destination for our 2014 .vacations": these dot-words are possible future top-level domain names expected to be released in the upcoming months since the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) began its rollout of new top-level domain names on January 24 of this year.

Since its inception, over 175 domain names have been created, and on Wednesday, you can start to register domain names ending in .holiday and .marketing. 

  • Marketplace reported on the new domain frontier earlier this year when things got underway, and here's an update on how to create your own .holiday: 
  • You can visit hockey.today, jamesforbes.photography, or vintageelectric.bike to see these new domain names in action. 
  • The most popular names thus far include .guru, .berlin, .photography, .email and .today.
  • Some companies are pushing for industries to cluster around specific names.

For example, luxury brands such as Chanel, Balenciaga, Ferragamo and Harry Winston, Isabel Mirant, and a few others have already registered with the domain name .luxury, according to Zoe Coady of Brandstyle Communications.

".Luxury is providing an innovative platform and competitive advantage for companies to position themselves within the luxury space. For the first time, luxury goods and services will now be found in one place online," said Monica Kirchner, CEO, .Luxury.

Here's a screenshot from the TSOHOST.com website displays domain names expected to launch April 2014: 

Happy 50th birthday, Ford Mustang

Wed, 2014-04-16 02:36

If you're in midtown Manhattan on Wednesday and look way, way up, you might see a Mustang perched on the observation deck of the Empire State Building -- a triple yellow, 2015 model. It's Ford's way of celebrating the 50th anniversary of the iconic car. The Mustang's design was so innovative it had a huge impact on auto makers and car culture, and Ford is still making the cars today.

Mark Takahashi, an editor with automotive website Edmunds.com, says the first Mustangs sold for around $2,300. When the first Mustang came out, in 1964, it was a hit.

"People driving around the first Mustangs were being hunted down on boulevards, being asked to pull over, so they could take a look at the car," he says. "You pull into a parking lot and you're just swamped with people – it was just such a big deal back then."

The Mustang's sales, he said, blew away expectations. "They expected to sell 100,000 the first year, and they ended up selling 100,000 the first three months."

David Whiston, an equity analyst with Morningstar, says the Mustang was built on the platform of another car, the Falcon, which saved a lot on development, engineering and design costs.

"It was sporty, it was cool. It was something you wanted to drive, or take to the beach, but it was also -- and the key thing for why it was still around -- it was affordable."

A lot of automakers today, notes Whitson, are interested in building multiple models on the same platform. Luckily he says, they won't have to reinvent the wheel.

ON THE AIR

KBBI is Powered by Active Listeners like You

As we celebrate 35 years of broadcasting, we look ahead to technology improvements and the changing landscape of public radio.

Support the voices, music, information, and ideas that add so much to your life.Thank you for supporting your local public radio station.

FOLLOW US

Drupal theme by pixeljets.com ver.1.4