National News

A personal shopper, via data and algorithms

Marketplace - American Public Media - Wed, 2014-08-27 11:11

There are people who enjoy shopping for clothes, and there are people who don't.

If you're in the "don't" camp, you could always just shop online. However, in the depths of the internet, you lose the assist you sometimes get from a person who knows the inventory, and who knows how to put this or that piece together with another one.

Enter a company called Stitch Fix, which takes the personal shopper model and runs it through an online algorithm or two.

We talked with Katrina Lake, founder and CEO, about the intersection of online retail and big data. Listen in the audio player above.

It's Not Whisky, But Everyone In Scotland Drinks It By The Bottle

NPR News - Wed, 2014-08-27 10:35

Irn Bru is a neon orange soda that inspires passion and may help explain the strong independent streak in Scotland as it prepares to vote Sept. 18 on whether to break away from the United Kingdom.

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As Cease-Fire Takes Hold, Big Question In Gaza Becomes What's Next

NPR News - Wed, 2014-08-27 09:43

Some semblance of normal life returned to Gaza, after Hamas and Israel accepted an open-ended cease-fire. People returned home and markets opened. What the future holds, however, is far from certain.

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Lizards And Worms Should Not Be On The School Lunch Menu

NPR News - Wed, 2014-08-27 09:19

India wins praise for providing free lunches to 120 million of its poorest children. But lax supervision has led to lapses that have sickened and even killed youngsters.

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Hate-Crime Convictions In Amish Beard-Cutting Case Thrown Out

NPR News - Wed, 2014-08-27 09:08

An appeals court in Cincinnati ruled that it was interpersonal disagreements rather than religious beliefs that sparked the attacks.

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Iraqi Christian Village: From Sanctuary To Ghost Town In 2 Months

NPR News - Wed, 2014-08-27 08:08

Villagers in Al-Qoush opened homes and schools to Iraqis fleeing the advance of the Islamic State. But that was June. Now it's a ghost town, as silent as it's 6th-century monastery.

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Back Home, Freed American Journalist Says He's 'Overwhelmed By Emotion'

NPR News - Wed, 2014-08-27 07:24

Peter Theo Curtis was released by a militant group shortly after another group, the Islamic State, beheaded the American journalist James Foley.

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High inventory and low sales cut gun makers' profits

Marketplace - American Public Media - Wed, 2014-08-27 07:00

Gun maker Smith & Wesson Holding Corp. cut its revenue and profit outlook for the fiscal year. The company now expects per-share earnings to be about a third lower than previously projected. The downward revision was driven by high inventories and a slowdown in long gun sales following a previous surge in demand.

Here’s what happened. After the Newtown school shooting in December 2012, gun enthusiasts worried the government would ban or severely restrict certain types of weapons.

“A lot of consumers rushed to stores and bought every assault rifle off the shelf that they possibly could,” says Wedbush Securities equity analyst Rommel Dionisio. “That caused a near-term demand surge, but it also pulled forward a lot of future sales.”

The surge in demand lasted months. Retailers faced shortfalls, and then stocked up on inventory in response. 

But Dionisio says now, that person who’d normally be in the market for a modern sporting rifle probably already bought several of them.

“The demand for firearms returned to more normalized levels this year in 2014, and so it kind of just is catching up with manufacturers right about now,” says Andrea James, a vice president and senior research analyst with Dougherty & Company.

She says demand for long guns has plummeted, while demand for handguns is following a ten year upward trajectory. In a research note, James says she still likes Smith & Wesson long-term, but is downgrading its stock rating to neutral.

Smith & Wesson isn’t the only company weathering this return to what James calls ‘historical norms.’ She says one gun maker compared the gun-buying binge to eating a huge Thanksgiving meal: Just because you’re not hungry the next day, doesn’t mean you’ll never eat again. 

PODCAST: ACA reins in executive pay

Marketplace - American Public Media - Wed, 2014-08-27 07:00

Is America's economic recovery getting long-in-the-tooth? Does it have presbyopia and hair its ears? The S&P 500 remains above 2000 at this moment, in part because big companies have the profits to buy back their own shares, in part because investment overseas is a relatively risky bet.  We take a look at the market psychology. Plus, a new report says a little known provision in the Affordable Care Act -- Obamacare, some call it -- could help rein in pay for executives at health insurance companies. Critics charge this is wrong-headed and could push up health care costs. And now a report on the business of lesbian bars. They're a place to grab a drink or a meet a friend but they're more than that. Some lesbian bars are a kind of community center; venues for public events or political organizations. But some of these businesses are disappearing -- We take a look at why that is, and what it could mean.

 

 

 

Rice Bucket Challenge: Put Rice In Bucket, Do Not Pour Over Head

NPR News - Wed, 2014-08-27 06:44

Water is scarce in India, which is a good reason not to do the Ice Bucket Challenge. A journalist came up with another option — give a bucket of rice to a hungry person. Her version is going viral.

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U.N. Says Assad Regime, Islamic State Are Committing War Crimes In Syria

NPR News - Wed, 2014-08-27 06:25

The report paints a grim picture of a country besieged by a ruthless civil war. All sides are indiscriminately killing and torturing civilians.

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Fashion Retailer Zara Pulls Kids Shirt Resembling Concentration Camp Uniform

NPR News - Wed, 2014-08-27 05:12

The company said the shirt's design was meant to look like a sheriff's star from classic Western films. But after popular uproar, Zara decided to pull it from shelves.

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French Prosecutors Put IMF's Lagarde Under Investigation

NPR News - Wed, 2014-08-27 04:01

Christine Lagarde said the allegations of "simple negligence" stem from her days as finance minister under former French President Nicolas Sarkozy.

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Science Crowns Mozzarella The King Of Pizza Cheese

NPR News - Wed, 2014-08-27 03:31

Why do some cheeses melt and caramelize better than others? Researchers used high-tech cameras and special software to figure it out.

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Both Afghan Candidates Pull Observers From U.N. Audit Of Votes

NPR News - Wed, 2014-08-27 02:48

The latest twist in the already contentious election process throws it further into crisis. It's looking likely that a new president won't be inaugurated by Sept. 2, as had been the plan.

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Affordable Care Act provision targets some exec pay

Marketplace - American Public Media - Wed, 2014-08-27 02:30

A little-known provision in the Affordable Care Act (ACA) could help rein in executive compensation at health insurance companies, according to The Institute for Policy Studies

Corporations can deduct the costs of doing business from their tax bills, including the compensation of a firm’s top four executives. The deductions are capped at $1 million for each of those executives.

The Affordable Care Act made the limits stricter for health insurance companies, which stood to gain business as more Americans became insured under the law.

“Members of Congress were concerned that executives could use increased profits from their new customer base to line their own pockets,” says Sarah Anderson, director of the Global Economy Project at the Institute for Policy Studies.  

Anderson says the ACA capped insurance companies' pay-related deductions at $500,000 per employee, per year. It also eliminated loopholes for performance-based pay.

She says the new rules generated $72 million in taxpayer savings from the top 10 publicly traded health insurers alone.

But critics charge the limits are arbitrary and focus unfairly on the health care industry.

“It's a bad[ly] thought out experiment that will not change compensation,” says Kevin Murphy, finance professor at the University of Southern California Marshall School of Business.

Murphy says insurers might just boost premiums to keep paying their employees' high salaries.

To prevent crime, predict it

Marketplace - American Public Media - Wed, 2014-08-27 02:00

The potential that data provides for government is, in many cases, still only just becoming apparent. For the police, data can help them respond to crime before it happens. The technology has promise, but also a dark side.   

“Predictive policing is the application of statistics and big data to the challenge of figuring out where or how to deploy police assets in advance of crime trends,” says Patrick Tucker, technology editor at Defense One.

He cites both New York and Memphis as examples of how the system has been used.

In Memphis, a researcher partnered with the police to pre-deploy resources to neighborhoods where they expected crime, and in their efforts discovered that being in public housing increased the chances of crime victimization, but not likelihood of committing crime, which to a change in strategy.

In New York, one component of predictive policing was the” stop and frisk” program, which, according to Tucker, was not a good use of the statistics because it did not substantially reduce the crime rate and was later found to be illegal. 

Why ambulance service is a tough business

Marketplace - American Public Media - Wed, 2014-08-27 02:00

Al Rapisarda buys lots of EpiPens for his company, Midwood Ambulance Service. They’re small medical devices – a bit bigger than a glue stick – and are used to help treat allergic reactions.

There’s just one problem.

“We never use them,” says Rapisarda, whose father started the company in the 1956. “So we threw out about $25,000 worth of pens about three years in a row.”

The EpiPen is a small, but striking example of why ambulances can be a tough business. The pens expire after about a year and Midwood Ambulance is required to carry them, even though they're a private company that does mostly non-emergency runs, like hospital transfers.

“It’s good medicine versus the money,” Rapisarda says, standing between a pair of brand new ambulances in his company’s Coney Island garage. Their sides are still a crisp white; they don’t even have his company decals yet. He estimates his cost to get each ambulance on the road is between $80,000 and $90,000, not including staff – his biggest expense.

Like most businesses, Rapisarda wants to keep costs down. On the other hand, he knows lives can be at stake.

“EMS is [a] cross between public service and healthcare,” says Scott Matin, northeast director of National Association of Emergency Medical Technicians, which represents EMS workers in public, private, and volunteer services. “Just like police and fire, you dial 911 and you get the service, regardless of whether you can pay for it or not pay for it.”

Unlike the police or fire departments, patients or their insurance companies are generally billed for the services they receive, regardless of whether the ambulance was provided by a local government, a hospital, or a private ambulance company. The setup can vary town by town.

Matin and Rapisarda say people are often surprised and confused when they receive bills.

“If you were here last week, the bills went out for the month, and everyone was on the phone,” Rapisarda explains.

Patients want to know why they have a $50 or a $200 co-pay, especially those who have new insurance plans.

That’s time his staff spends on the phone, chasing payments. Trying to get insurance companies to pay can also be difficult, but Rapisarda says his biggest billing headaches come from Medicaid.

“I do a Medicaid call below cost right now in New York State,” he says. “I’m subsidizing a Medicaid patient.”

Even after a slight increase in local reimbursement rates earlier this summer, Rapisarda estimates he loses money on each Medicaid run. 

The disappearance of lesbian bars may signal change

Marketplace - American Public Media - Wed, 2014-08-27 02:00

Lesbian bars have always been more than just a place to grab a beer. They’ve been community centers, dating services, political statements. But recently, these businesses seem to be disappearing.

On a recent Saturday night in Portland, Oregon, the Temporary Lesbian Bar was full. Musician Katy Davidson started organizing the evening last year, which draws anywhere from 60 to 150 people.

“The music’s not too loud, but it’s just loud enough to dance if people want to,” Davidson explains. “This is fun, it’s romantic.”

The event’s been going strong — probably because Portland’s only brick-and-mortar lesbian bar closed a few years back. And Portland’s not the only place.

Playwright and journalist Alexis Clements was trying to pull together a tour for a recent woman-centered theater piece, and noticed the list of possible lesbian venues was shrinking.

“West Hollywood does not have a lesbian bar anymore. Philadelphia doesn’t have one. Houston doesn’t have one, and I could go on and on,” Clements explains. She noted the decline of lesbian and feminist venues of all sorts. “That ranges from feminist bookstores, to bars, to arts organizations. All of these spaces are kind of going through a variety of different struggles that in some way are similar.”

In response to this decline, Clements re-adjusted her original theater tour, and will now be combining play readings with documenting some of the remaining lesbian spaces.

But Clements notes these struggles may actually reflect positive changes — people don’t need a lesbian bar as a refuge, because the culture at large is more accepting.

In Portland, some people at the Temporary Lesbian Bar, like Caryn Brooks, are pretty happy to move into the brave new world of pop-ups and Facebook groups. “I think it’s actually more vibrant now than it was when there was a lesbian bar,” Brooks notes. “It’s nimble, able to respond to geography and demographics. There’s no going back.”

But others, like Sara Renberg, feel like designated spaces are still relevant — and when they disappear, something is lost. “While I really love this event, it’s also so much harder if this one happens on the third Thursday, and this one happens on the second Tuesday. It’s really difficult to piece that all together in order to find love. And community.”

So if millennials aren't using cash, who is?

Marketplace - American Public Media - Wed, 2014-08-27 02:00

When you buy your morning latte, do you pay cash or charge it? A recent survey by creditcard.com found that if you’re a millennial, the chances are about 50-50. Moreover, mobile payment options are tilting those odds in credit’s favor.

But while millennials appear to be turning away from cash, their elders still prefer it, says Matt Schulz, an analyst at creditcard.com.

"For those who are 65-and-older, for example, about 82 percent of them prefer cash," he says. 

The survey also found a country-city divide when it comes to cash. While 80 percent of people living in rural areas prefer paying with greenbacks, only around 60 percent of city dwellers do. 

The survey didn't drill into why, but University of Washington professor David Stearns says we can get a few clues by looking at the "unbanked." 

"So you've got to remember not everybody has a bank account," Stearns says. 

And those people have to use cash. Stearns says about 8 percent of households in the U.S. fall into this category. He says cash also remains a part of our culture.

"When you’re travelling and you want to tip the person who carries your bag," Stearns says. Or when the plate comes around in a Christian church; it’s important to be able to put something tangible in that plate.

Stearns said folks have been predicting the end of cash since the 1960s, but he doesn't see it happening anytime soon.

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