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Can community colleges cope with being free?

Tue, 2015-01-20 02:00

President Barack Obama is expected to give a big boost to community colleges in his State of the Union address Tuesday night. The President has proposed making tuition at two-year public colleges free for students in good standing. If the proposal passes Congress—and that’s a big if—can community colleges handle a surge in students?  

Click the media player above to hear more.

The race to make the fastest supercomputer

Tue, 2015-01-20 02:00

Tennessee’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory may once again be home to the world’s fastest supercomputer. It was in 2012, but that title only lasted six months — then a computer in China took the top spot. But the U.S. recently put aside more than $400 million to keep itself in the race.

The supercomputer at Oak Ridge right now, called Titan, is the size of a basketball court and sounds like a jet engine. It can make 27 quadrillion — that’s 27 followed by 15 zeros — calculations per second.

“It’s almost like it’s alive,” says Buddy Bland, director of the Oak Ridge Leadership Computing Facility. “It has a pulse to it. You can feel it in your body when you walk in the room.”

These kinds of machines are used to do incredibly complex simulations of real-world things, such as analyzing weather patterns over time or predicting new chemical combinations in drugs. Faster computers mean more scientific breakthroughs.

But Bland says like any computer, whether it’s Titan or your personal laptop, will be basically obsolete in a few years.

“Because we can go out and buy a new machine for less than it costs to pay the maintenance of the old machine,” he says.

The U.S. has been a leader in supercomputing for decades, and staying up-to-date and ahead of the pack is pricy. Oak Ridge’s next computer, called Summit, could cost up to $280 million.

Yet Congress has funded supercomputing with gusto. In November, the Department of Energy pledged $425 million to help build Summit and a computer at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California. Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) says it’s a priority that stretches across party lines.

“This is a case where the Obama administration and I and others in Congress since 2008 have had the same goal: We wanted to double funding for supercomputing,” he says.

Alexander gives two reasons: First, national security — some federally funded machines manage the country’s nuclear weapons.

Second, private companies can apply for time on the computers to develop products more quickly. For example, Procter and Gamble has used Oak Ridge’s Titan to research how the skin might react to its products.

And then there’s something that has non-monetary value: pride.

“It’s like being number one in football,” Alexander says. “We like the idea of having the fastest supercomputer in the world, and we have had that at Oak Ridge.”

Summit is expected to go live in 2017, but Oak Ridge isn’t calling it the fastest yet — By that time, some other country may be building one that’s even faster.

 

Gasoline prices are all over the map

Tue, 2015-01-20 02:00

You hear about the average national gasoline price, but it’s often different from the station down the block. So why are prices so inconsistent from station to station, not to mention state to state?

A gallon of gasoline costs about 50 percent more in New York than Missouri. Taxes vary by as much as 35 cents a gallon, according to the American Petroleum Institute. Geography plays a role, too. States like Missouri and Oklahoma are near lots of refineries, and those refineries have pipeline access to cheaper crude supplies from the U.S. and Canada. Finally, state and local regulations produce many different varieties of gasoline, with different ethanol blends, octane requirements and emissions standards. 

 

Disappointing economic growth in China

Tue, 2015-01-20 01:30
7.4 percent

With a low not seen in a quarter century, China's economic growth dropped to 7.4 percent in 2014. As reported by the WSJ, some economists predict that disappointing numbers from 2014 are just the start of a global deceleration of growth.

2,000

That's about how many times Ronald Reagan used the word "freedom" for every million words in his State of the Union addresses, the Atlantic reported. He also lead the pack on "god." The Atlantic has an automatic tool showing frequently-used words by president.

50 percent

You may have noticed disparities in gas prices from station to station, but what about state to state? For example, a gallon of gasoline costs about 50 percent more in New York than Missouri. Turns out, there's a lot of factors that play into why you'll pay more or less for a tank of gas in different states.

46 percent

President Barack Obama's approval rating heading into Tuesday's State of the Union address. It's a bump up from the past year, the New York Times' Upshot reported, and it'll become more important in the homestretch of Obama's second term and looking to Democrats chances in 2016.

27 quadrillion

That’s 27 followed by 15 zeros, and it's also the number of calculations per second the Titan supercomputer at Tennessee’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory can compute. And it's not even the fastest in the world. That title is currently held by a supercomputer in China. It's why Congress has begun funding supercomputing with gusto, pledging over $400 million to building Oak Ridge's next supercomputer.

80

That's how many of the world's richest people it would take to match the collective wealth of the poorer half of the population, Quartz reported. That's a sharp drop from 2010, when you would have needed 388 super-rich to do the same.

 

Want to track a snowplow? There's an app for that.

Mon, 2015-01-19 11:22

When a couple of inches of snow fell a few weeks ago in Washington, D.C., the new mayor took some heat – as mayors often do – for the poor condition of the city streets.

Now Chicago, New York and Seattle are among the cities to have smartphone apps that can be used to track snowplows in real time using GPS data, according to an AP report.

It is "a way to show skeptics that plow drivers are working hard and not just clearing the streets of the wealthy and well-connected," the report says.

But the data can be misleading. One woman in Chicago said the app indicated a snowplow had gone down her street. It had ... but the plow had its blade up.

The rich get richer, with no end in sight

Mon, 2015-01-19 11:12

In a new report, Oxfam says that by 2016, the wealthiest 1% of people may control more than 50% of the world's wealth.

Inequality has proven to be a durable and thorny problem, and economists are divided over how to tackle it. Some argue for the "redistribution" of wealth, in the form of higher taxes on the rich, or increased subsidies for the poor.

Some say it's better to tackle the root causes of inequality, like the millions of Americans stuck in low-wage jobs. They argue that better education and training are needed to prepare workers for better-paid jobs in science and technology.

Others, meanwhile, argue there's no problem. And while politicians and experts debate the issue, inequality is likely to grow.

How Obama plans to tax the biggest banks

Mon, 2015-01-19 11:11

President Obama will address both houses of Congress and the American people Tuesday to discuss the State of the Union.

The address is expected to touch on tax reform, including new tax credits for families with two working parents; bigger, simpler tax credits for child care, college and retirement; and a plan to pay for it all with higher taxes on what the administration calls the "wealthiest." That includes the wealthiest people, with tax hikes on capital gains and inheritances, but also the wealthiest financial institutions: Those with at least $50 billion in assets.

More specifically, it's a tax on bank debt. Stanford professor of economics and finance Anat Admati explains this could help push back perverse incentives in the current tax code, which encourage banks to do business with borrowed money. But it's an approach that has been proposed before, as recently as 2010 when it was called the "Financial Crisis Responsibility Fee." It failed back then, and Joel Slemrod, professor of economics and director of the Office of Tax Policy Research at the University of Michigan, says with Republicans in charge of Congress, it doesn't have a chance.

 

Momentum builds to repeal medical device tax

Mon, 2015-01-19 11:09

In Washington, momentum may be building to repeal an important funding source for the Affordable Care Act – a 2.3 percent sales tax on an array of medical devices – everything from surgical gloves to artificial joints.

The industry has raised an army to battle the provision on Capitol Hill and spent more than $200 million since 2008 on the effort.

The manufacturers’ campaign is just the latest example of why it’s hard to reform an industry that’s crying out for change.

The daily rituals of creative people

Mon, 2015-01-19 05:41

There are only 24 hours in a day, but it sure seems like certain people are able to do way more with their time than the rest of us. Some of us barely have time to do the laundry, while others write plays or compose symphonies. 

Mason Currey writes about 161 creative minds, among them are painters, composers, philosophers and poets, in his book, "Daily Rituals: How Artists Work." He finds that many of these artists and geniuses accomplished so much each day because they used their time wisely and efficiently, and practiced rituals.

"People would find that a certain habit was associated with a period of productivity or great insight and they would often, kind of relentlessly stick to that one ritual in a sort of superstitious fashion believing that it somehow enabled their creativity," Currey says.

PODCAST: The World Economic Forum

Mon, 2015-01-19 03:00

It's the time of year when our January mood is lifted by the notion that other people are having a nice conference near the ski slopes in Switzerland. The annual world economic forum is convening in Davos at a time that the U.S. has been resurgent when other key economies are losing steam. Plus, a conversation with one of America's top entrepreneurs on the challenges that face female CEOs. And later this year, the US and the UK are set to conduct cyber war games with each other. It'll test the hardiness of the financial sector. More on that.

Growth industry: Preparing for a cyber attack

Mon, 2015-01-19 02:00

The U.S. and the U.K. plan to conduct cyber war-game exercises with each other later this year through a staged attack on the financial sector. The move is a first for the two countries even though simulated attacks are used often in private industry when companies concerned about becoming targets of hackers look to bolster their digital defenses. But the goals of businesses and nations differ.

"The government is more interested in infiltration and defensiveness than it is about process or remediation," says Joe Loomis, CEO of CyberSponse.

According to Loomis, the list of things private companies test for during cyber-attack simulations includes deciding what to do first after an attack, figuring out what data should be collected, determining how people in the company will communicate and checking to see if the network is compromised.

While cyber security is a growth industry, not enough businesses are running simulations, Loomis says.

"Companies have been doing terribly because they haven't been testing," says Bruce Schneier, chief technology officer of Co3 Systems. "Companies are realizing that this has been a hole in their security."

Global spending on information security is expected to grow 8 percent this year to $77 billion, according to research firm Gartner. The cost of digital crime is estimated in the hundreds of billions of dollars, according to the Center for Strategic & International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Resurgent U.S. economy to star at global summit

Mon, 2015-01-19 02:00

The global corporate and political elite descend upon Davos, Switzerland, once again Wednesday for the annual economic summit.

This year, much of the talk will focus on the resurgent U.S. economy. The World Bank’s top economist has called it the “single engine” in the global economy.

Still, Adam Posen, president of the Peterson Institute of International Economics in Washington, D.C., says this year the American economy is simply winning a global “least ugly contest.”

Click the media player above to hear more.

Addressing the obstacles facing female CEOs

Mon, 2015-01-19 02:00

From time to time, one of America's top entrepreneurs stops in — Jules Pieri is CEO of the Grommet, a site that helps launch other companies' new products.

Pieri joined us to talk about obstacles facing female CEOs; why they suffer higher rates of depression, and how to combat the statistic.

Click the media player above to hear more.

Davos participants gather amidst turmoil and growth

Mon, 2015-01-19 02:00

The global corporate and political elite descend upon Davos once again Wednesday, for the annual economic summit.

This year, much of the talk will focus on the resurgent U.S. economy. The World Bank’s top economist has called it the “single engine” in the global economy.

Still, Adam Posen, president of the Peterson Institute of International Economics, says this year the American economy is simply winning a global “least ugly contest.”

Click the media player above to hear more.

So, who's behind the online black market Silk Road?

Mon, 2015-01-19 02:00

Ross Ulbricht, the alleged mastermind behind Silk Road — the online marketplace that used bitcoin for transactions — is on trial this week. Ulbricht’s defense: he was set up by the real Dread Pirate Roberts or DPR, the site’s mysterious founder and administrator.

Who would that be? Mark Karpeles, according to the defense. That’s the former owner of Mt. Gox, a bitcoin exchange that went bankrupt in 2014.

Sarah Jeong, a tech policy journalist who has been writing about the case, says the defense is leaning on the fact that Karpeles had been a prime suspect at one point. She also says Jared Der-Yeghiayan, the agent from the Department of Homeland Security who arrested Ulbricht, is the one who suspected Karpeles.

Ulbricht doesn’t deny that he was involved. In fact, when he was arrested, he was logged into Silk Road on the account “Mastermind,” which showed the site’s finances in detail. But the defense is now claiming Ulbricht founded the site only as “an economic experiment," and that he later “handed it over to others” who lured him back to take the fall.

“The timeline is very odd,” says Jeong. “The same DHS agent who helped arrest Ross, who was undercover as a Silk Road moderator ... less than two months before he participated in arresting Ross Ulbricht, he swore in an affidavit that he had probable cause to believe that Mark Karpeles, the CEO of Mt. Gox was Dread Pirate Roberts. That is really strange.”

States play catch-up with sand mining

Mon, 2015-01-19 02:00

Fracking for oil and gas consumes about 100 billion pounds of sand every year, much of it from a few Midwestern states. The sand industry has grown faster than regulators can keep up in Wisconsin, which has more sand mines than any other state. Fines for pollution are modest, many mines have not received full inspections, and the state has failed to update its permit for sand mines, even though the old terms expired last year.

In December 2013, the Wisconsin Department of Justice settled its biggest case involving pollution from a sand mine. A company called Preferred Sands admitted to multiple air and water-pollution violations at a site in Trempealeau County. Most vividly, after a spring storm, discharge from the Preferred site went across a road and into a nearby home.

“This sort of mass of sandy, sludgy stuff literally went through an Amish family’s living room,” recalls Pat Malone, a University of Wisconsin Cooperative Extension professor who works with local government. “I mean, it’s like waking up in the middle of the night going, ‘I don’t think I’d like to swim!’”

Six inches of discharge blocked the road. Workers spent three days clearing it. But given sand mining’s scale, the fine doesn’t seem very big: $200,000. Six months after the settlement, an investment firm put $680 million into Preferred Sands.

The pace of inspections appears slow. The state Department of Natural Resources says that at last count, just 37 percent of all active mines had gotten full inspections since mid-2013. It hopes to inspect the rest by July.

State Senator Kathleen Vinehout represents Trempealeau County. Asked if she thinks the state is understaffed, she says, “That is an understatement. The state is woefully understaffed.”

The department has enough people, says Deb Dix, who describes herself as the contact person for industrial sand mining at the DNR. However, she says, the state can’t do everything some people would like.

“We are governed by the authority given to us by the legislature,” she says. “I know, that sounds like trying-to-avoid, but it’s not. We have certain authorities for what we can and can’t do.”

One of the department’s responsibilities is to review the terms of permits for sand mines. The most recent terms predate the frac sand explosion — they were written for gravel pits — and staff decided to rewrite them, says Water Division Administrator Russ Rasmussen.

Meanwhile, the old ones expired last spring. New rules haven’t come out yet, but the department has issued some permits under the old ones; an arrangement that Rasmussen describes as “a gray legal area.”

 

Inviting a cyber attack

Mon, 2015-01-19 02:00

The U.S. and the U.K. plan to conduct cyber war game exercises with each other later this year with a staged attack on the financial sector. It's the first time the two countries have conducted such an exercise, but simulated attacks are used often in private industry where companies concerned about becoming targets of hackers look to bolster their digital defenses. But the goals of businesses and nations differ.

"The government is more interested in infiltration and defensiveness than it is about process or remediation," says Joe Loomis, CEO of CyberSponse.

Loomis says among the things private companies test when they run cyber attack simulations are: "As soon as you're attacked, what are you going to do first ... what data are you going to collect ... how are we going to communicate ... if the network's compromised."

While cyber security is an industry in growth mode, Loomis says there are still not enough businesses running simulations.

"Companies have been doing terribly because they haven't been testing," says Bruce Schneier, Chief Technology Officer Co3 Systems. "So, I think companies are realizing that this has been a hole in their security."

Global spending on all information security is expected to grow eight percent this year to $77 billion, according to research firm Gartner. The cost of digital crime is estimated in the hundreds of billions of dollars, according to the Center for Strategic & International Studies.

When owning an apartment means paying $13,000 a foot

Mon, 2015-01-19 01:30
1 percent

According to anti-poverty charity Oxfam, the wealthiest 1 percent will soon own more than the rest of the world's population. As the BBC reports, the findings coincide with the start of the World Economic Forum in Davos.

76 percent

The portion of Americans who count protecting the country from terrorism as a top priority in the new year, according to a new survey from Pew, neck-and-neck with improving the economy. That's a marked change from last year, which pegged job creation and the economy as the top priorities by far.

50,000 jobs

Travis Kalanick, chief executive of Uber Technologies Inc. stated that his company would add 50,000 jobs to the European economy this year, taking 400,000 cars off the road in the process. As reported by the WSJ, Kalanick's comments at the Digital Design Life conference come at a time when Uber is facing major obstacles in entering the European market.

1928

The year the Model Municipal Traffic Ordinance was created, providing a template for the regulation of roads nationwide. Most notably, the suggested model included laws against jaywalking, which were pushed through by the automotive industry. Vox has the full secret history of the petty law that ceded control of the road.

100 billion pounds

That's how many pounds of sand are used for oil and gas fracking every year, much of it from the Midwest. And in states like Wisconsin, mines often go uninspected, fines are modest, and some rules have lapsed.

One-fifth

That's about how many U.S. malls have a vacancy over 10 percent, a problem number that turns into an all-out "death spiral" by 40 percent. The New York Times has a fascinating look at the way malls die and the strangely beautiful husks that are becoming more common.

$100 million

New York City is notorious for expensive real estate, but the market for pricey apartments just got more ridiculous. A penthouse at One57, a luxury high rise, recently sold for a record breaking $100 million dollars. As Quartz reports, the previous record was held by Ekaterina Rybolovleva, the daughter of a Russian fertilizer billionaire, who paid $88 million for an apartment in 2012.

A quasi-healthy job market for 2015

Fri, 2015-01-16 14:56

The economy is now consistently producing more than 250,000 jobs per month. Unemployment hit 10 percent at the pit of the recession, but it has now fallen to 5.6 percent – and there's no reason to think it won't keep  improving for a while.

Yet the labor market still has some pain points: Long-term unemployment is higher than at any time since World War II, millions are not even looking for work and real wages are stagnant for most Americans.

Still, it's hard to call it a "sick" or "still-recovering" economy with unemployment this low and job-creation this strong.

"Unfortunately, for many, the purpose of work is survival," says William Rodgers, a Rutgers University economist who studies the changing American workforce. The economy  is producing too many jobs that pay the bare minimum, Rodgers says, and don't offer a way up the economic ladder. Work should offer more, he says.

"If we're creating workplaces where people aren't paid enough to meet their families' needs, aren't able to enjoy themselves, be creative – that's lower productivity, that's lower economic growth," Rodgers says. 

The post-recession employment landscape has been fundamentally altered because of the financial crisis, labor-saving technology and perpetual corporate cost-cutting, according to Susan Lambert, a University of Chicago professor of social work. 

One key change, Lambert says: the rise of part-time low-paid jobs, often temporary, with unpredictable schedules and too few hours. She says this "just in time" type of staffing is spreading in retail, manufacturing, academia, journalism and beyond.

"People have a greater sense of insecurity," says Lambert. "It makes it very difficult for people with unpredictable, unstable schedules to maintain employment. Because at some point often they have to decide: their kids or their job."

But these employment trends are not some post-recession "new normal," counters Douglas Holtz-Eakin, an economist with the American Action Forum.

"The degree to which the world is fundamentally different – this gets floated about every five years, and it's always overstated to a great extent," Holtz-Eakin says. "A very bad recession and financial crisis didn't change the fundamentals of how economies grow and the way people benefit from economic growth." 

Maybe Obama should just 'Shake it Off'

Fri, 2015-01-16 13:33

It's a time-honored Washington tradition – the president's rivals offer rebuttals to the State of the Union before the president has even delivered it. That's even easier this year, because the president has spent the last few days previewing his speech as he introduces new policy proposals at events across the country.

House Speaker John Boehner attacked Obama's "free college" proposal in a novel way this morning, in an email with this subject line: "12 Taylor Swift GIFs for you."

He used a different GIF of Taylor Swift to illustrate his argument that the presidents plan will cost taxpayers too much money. 

You can find the whole list here.

 

Apparently John Boehner is a Taylor Swift fan.

 

 

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