National News

Tracking Ebola through online data

Marketplace - American Public Media - Tue, 2014-08-12 02:00

On Tuesday, the World Health Organization held a briefing on the Ebola outbreak in West Africa endorsing the use of untested drugs. As information comes out about those affected by the virus, more is being learned about its origins and impact, partly thanks to an online tool called HealthMap.

The program uses algorithms to pull information off the web that could inform researchers about disease outbreaks. In fact, it identified the spread of a virus in Guinea nine days before the World Heath Organization announced the Ebola outbreak. 

“HeathMap is essentially a data aggregation tool, organizing content from hundreds of thousands of sources,” says John Brownstein of the Boston Children's Hospital and co-founder of HealthMap.

The project sources material from all over the internet; including news, social media, and health ministry data.

In this particular case, the first public hints of the Ebola outbreak came from local media in Guinea — news stories of mysterious illnesses.

The tool, which has been around since 2006, has evolved to integrate real-time social media based data.  

Of the project's strengths is the fact that the data collected provides a broader awareness of what’s happening at the population level.

 

The high price of alleged police misconduct

Marketplace - American Public Media - Tue, 2014-08-12 02:00

 The FBI is investigating possible civil rights violations after a police officer in suburban St. Louis fatally shot an unarmed teenager on Saturday. The death of Michael Brown, 18, stirred a night of unrest in the town of Ferguson, Missouri, where the incident happened.

Many of the costs these kinds of cases of alleged police misconduct can have on a community are impossible to quantify — in terms of loss of life, and loss of confidence in civic institutions. 

"The greatest cost is loss of faith in the police department, which then cause crime to spiral out of control," says Dick Simpson, a professor of political science at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

But there are also some very specific costs to a community, with dollar amounts attached. For example, a string of notorious police brutality cases in the 1970s, '80s and '90s, connected to one police lieutenant, John Burge, cost the city of Chicago more than $100 million, says Simpson.

The money went to court fees, lawyer fees, and multi-million dollar payouts to some victims.

As Tim Lynch, director of the Cato institute's Project on Criminal Justice, points out, all that money has to come from some place. “The tax payers of these various cities pay the costs,” he says.

The money usually comes through a city's general fund, says Professor Simpson. Meaning, if a city has to spend a lot on a big police misconduct case, “it diminishes the ability to provide services to citizens, and it raises their property taxes.”

According to a review of public records by the Cato Institute, American cities spent at least $347 million between 2009 and 2010 on settlements and judgments related to police misconduct. Lynch says the amount could be even higher. Many municipalities do not make information on lawsuits involving police misconduct publicly available.

Hospital: Spanish Priest With Ebola Dies

NPR News - Tue, 2014-08-12 01:15

A spokeswoman for a Madrid hospital says a Spanish missionary priest who was evacuated from Liberia last week after testing positive for Ebola has died.

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Why buying Bitcoin is like stepping into the Wild West

Marketplace - American Public Media - Tue, 2014-08-12 01:00

It’s green lights and blue skies for Bitcoin, baby! The government’s attitude seems to be laissez-faire, states are giving it the thumbs-up, the Fed is shrugging its shoulders and saying it has no jurisdiction.

Which is why the CFPB’s recent memo of Bitcoin is such a buzzkill.

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau – I know, it even sounds like the nanny state – “We’re here to protect you from your own poor financial decisions…” (whatever) – the CFPB says that using Bitcoin and other virtual currencies is like “stepping into the Wild West.”

CFPB head Richard Cordray probably should have added, “and not in a good way” to that statement, because I’m pretty certain that most Americans would say that “stepping into the Wild West” would actually be totally cool (ten gallon hat, anyone? Fringed hide jacket? … Leather chaps?).

But several economists say that Cordray is right on the money (as it were). Virtual currencies look very similar to the money issued by banks during the Wild West, they say.

So, the Wild West – Buffalo Bill and Jesse James? Seriously?

Exactly. The Wild West is both a geographical designation and a period in time. It’s a romantic name for the American western frontier, created as America expanded in the latter half of the 19th century (1850-1900). In 1850, most of the area west of Arkansas, Missouri and Illinois was still unsettled, with the exception of Texas, and the rapid expansion across those lands to the Pacific Ocean over the next 30 years was something of a lawless land rush.

Did they even have a banking system back then?

Not at first. Congress made several attempts to create a national bank between 1781 and 1836, but without much success. It didn’t help that Andrew Jackson, who was president in 1836, believed that central banks were the spawn of the devil, pretty much, and only gold and silver should be used as currency. Boy, he would have hated Bitcoin.

So, what did they have?

Basically, from 1836 until 1865, they had a free for all. It was actually called the Free Banking period, and pretty much anyone could open and run a bank, so long as you had a certain amount of capital, a security deposit to back any note issuance, and enough silver or gold or whatever on hand to convert a banknote into that metal on demand.   

No wonder Butch and Sundance went into the bank robbery business!

That’s right, hoss. Unlike banks today in the U.S., banks in the Wild West had to keep a fair amount of precious metal in their vaults. If they had vaults, that is. And many did not.

Sounds sketchy.

It was. Not only was there a risk that your bank might get robbed and you’d have to wait a long time to swap your banknotes for gold, there was also the danger that your bank might run out of precious metal because all your neighbors wanted to exchange their notes at the same time. And then there were the wildcats.

What? Wildcats?

Yeah. Wildcat bankers were people who set up banks, often in remote areas “where the wildcats roam,” and then issued notes to the public without ever having any intention of paying them back. These scumbags would then skip town and leave the poor townspeople with a bunch of worthless scrip.

There are some crazy stories of bank fraud from way back then, including bankers displaying boxes of nails and broken glass and claiming they were full of silver dollars to gull the unsuspecting locals.

I bet those guys went to jail.

When they were caught, yes they did.

OK, so how is all of this similar to Bitcoin?

It’s similar because right now, we’re in a Free Banking period for electronic currency creators.

Anyone can set up an electronic currency company, and there are right now no regulations covering these ventures. Anyone can buy Bitcoin or Dogecoin or whatever, and anyone can accept payment in those currencies. Regulatory organizations are signaling their concerns, but so far they’re keeping their hands off. Then there’s the rhetoric that proponents of electronic currencies like to use. It reads a lot like the libertarian rationale behind the Free Banking reforms, which were conceived in part as an escape from a corrupt system dominated by special interests (doesn’t that sound familiar?).

So are virtual currency companies the new Wildcat banks?

Not necessarily. Most virtual currencies appear to have been set up for ethical reasons, and their founders and supporters want them to succeed. But that doesn’t mean they’re safe. If you are a Bitcoin user, you should be every bit as concerned as someone who put his money in an independent bank in 1850. The CFPB notes that virtual currencies are not backed by any government or central bank. This means that is those companies fail, you may not get your money back, you will have no recourse to a regulator, and there is no government organization that has insured your money with that company. If the company goes down, in other words, the chances are that your money will go with it.

What about bank robbers?

They may not wear Stetsons and bandannas, and use dynamite and a long fuse, but robbers exist in the virtual world, too. The CFPB says “if a hacker gains access to a consumer’s Bitcoin “private keys,” which are 64-character codes that unlock the consumer’s funds, the consumer can lose all their virtual currency. Fraudsters are also taking advantage of the hype surrounding virtual currencies to pose as Bitcoin exchanges, Bitcoin intermediaries, and Bitcoin traders in an effort to lure consumers to send money, which is then stolen.”

So, step into the Wild West if you wish. But bring a pair of six-shooters. And maybe a getaway horse.

It's Sunrise In London And Time For A Rave

NPR News - Tue, 2014-08-12 00:00

The sun is just peeking over the rooftops and the main drink is coffee, not alcohol. But that hasn't kept Londoners from a popular morning rave that's rapidly spread to cities around the world.

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Actor-Comedian Robin Williams Dies At 63

NPR News - Mon, 2014-08-11 15:33

Williams was found in his California home Monday. The cause of death is believed to be suicide, according to a statement by the Marin County Sheriff's Office.

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Barneys Agrees To Settlement Over Racial Profiling Allegations

NPR News - Mon, 2014-08-11 14:03

The retailer will pay a fine of $525,000 in connection to charges that its flagship store in New York was disproportionately suspecting black and Hispanics of credit card fraud and shoplifting.

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The Man Who Might Be Iraq's Next Prime Minister

NPR News - Mon, 2014-08-11 13:31

Haider al-Abadi, a prominent politician for the past decade, has been nominated as prime minister. But a potential confrontation looms with Nouri al-Maliki, the man who's had the job for eight years.

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After Factory Layoffs, Struggling To Stay On The Economic Ladder

NPR News - Mon, 2014-08-11 13:29

Lynn Eldredge has had six different jobs since he was laid off from a tractor manufacturer in 2000. Fourteen years later, he makes the same amount of money at his current job that he did back then.

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Are your sneakers real?

Marketplace - American Public Media - Mon, 2014-08-11 13:16

The World Customs Organization, an international association of customs and law enforcement agencies, is out with its annual report on seizures of illegal goods and counterfeiting.

The product most likely to be counterfeited or illegally traded last year was pharmaceuticals, at a whopping 76 percent of all seizures.

The most counterfeited brand, on the other hand, was Nike. Followed by Apple, Rolex, Samsung and Adidas

 

Why BuzzFeed might be worth $850 million

Marketplace - American Public Media - Mon, 2014-08-11 13:16

BuzzFeed, the website that blessed us with the listicle revolution, just raised $50 million from some very prominent venture capitalists. That investment values the company at an estimated $850 million. To put this in context, the Washington Post recently sold for $250 million dollars. So, how did that valuation happen?

For one thing, BuzzFeed boasts that 150 million people visit it every month. By contrast, the New York Times gets 53.8 million visitors, according to comScore. But it's not just the number of visits that’s valuable, it's who those visitors are. Paul Sweeney, an analyst at Bloomberg Industries, said most of BuzzFeed’s audience is 35-and-under, a demographic that’s catnip to advertisers.

"It’s been harder and harder for advertisers to reach a younger demographic," Sweeney said. "The younger folks are the ones who are spending more time on the Internet, more time off of traditional media like newspapers, magazines or television."

A lot of BuzzFeed’s traffic comes from people sharing its stories on social media sites. Sweeney says that's a risky strategy. BuzzFeed’s audience would be decimated if social media sites excluded its content.

But investors are betting that BuzzFeed will grow beyond listicles, said Ethan Kurzweil, a venture capitalist at Bessemer Venture Partners. He said investors expect BuzzFeed to become a go-to-platform that offers all kinds of content from video to news and who knows what else.

"I assume they’re betting on a modern media tech company," Kurzweil said. "Sort of a modern People Magazine, ESPN all in one, all in one, all in one property."

In fact, BuzzFeed is using its newest round of funding to expand into movies, said Rebecca Lieb, an analyst at the Altimeter Group. She says don’t expect BuzzFeed to compete with 20th Century Fox or Paramount by making traditional films.

"I really don’t think that’s going to be the case," she said. 

Lieb predicts BuzzFeed will redefine movies and create ones that cater to its digital-first audience.

Kinder Morgan deal lays groundwork for more pipelines

Marketplace - American Public Media - Mon, 2014-08-11 13:16

Kinder Morgan oversees a vast network of oil and gas pipelines in North America. It's actually a family of companies and now they're consolidating. The "why" is complicated but the upshot isn't: the new corporation wants to spend more money acquiring even more pipelines. Because, it turns out, there's a shortage. 

Kinder Morgan already operates or owns a piece of some 80,000 miles of pipelines in North America. Barbara Shook says its founder clearly wants more.

“Mr. Kinder kept talking about acquisitions and acquisitions and acquisitions during the conference call with analysts this morning,” says Shook, senior reporter-at-large with the Energy Intelligence Group. Disclosure: Shook owns shares in one of the Kinder Morgan companies.

She says the corporate restructuring will make it cheaper for Kinder Morgan to borrow money. That’s money Kinder Morgan can use to buy a precious commodity: other pipeline companies.

“We were caught short in terms of our transportation infrastructure for energy,” says Bob McNally, president of the Rapidan Group. He says the U.S. oil and gas boom changed everything – both the scale of the boom and where it’s happening.

“The parts of the country where we’re increasing production of oil and gas are not areas where we produced oil and gas before,” he says.

Think of all that natural gas in Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Ohio. Think of the Bakken Shale in North Dakota and Montana.

Paul Sullivan, an energy security expert at Georgetown University and the National Defense University, says there aren’t enough pipelines to move it all.

“I think the proof that there is need for more is the amount of oil that is moving by rail,” he says, adding that so much oil is moving by rail that corn and other agricultural goods are getting squeezed out. Plus, derailments have a devastating effect.

“Moving oil by rail is more expensive and it’s also less safe,” Sullivan says.

Which is why companies like Kinder Morgan want to lay the groundwork for more pipelines.

It's Amazon vs. Disney in a new pricing dispute

Marketplace - American Public Media - Mon, 2014-08-11 13:16

There’s a new front in Amazon’s battle with its vendors. Because of a reported pricing dispute,  some of Disney's DVDs and Blue-rays are no longer available for pre-order on Amazon.com. Book publisher Hachette is in a similar position. Its spat with the e-commerce site has become highly public, with each company publishing scathing letters about the other side. (Amazon's here, Hachette's here, and a group of 900 authors supporting Hachette here).

If this were a Disney movie, some would cast Amazon as the bad guy, like the evil fairy Maleficent (OK, she's  less evil this time around, but still). Others would say it’s a Captain America-esque hero, fighting for lower prices for consumers.

Physical discs of both new Disney films are currently unavailable for pre-order on Amazon, though they are available for pre-purchase through the company's instant video service.

But, says Ed Brodow, the author of Negotiation Boot Camp, Amazon’s tactics aren’t good or bad –  they’re business. Amazon, like all companies its size, is flexing its muscle to get the best deals possible.

“That’s what people do in negotiation all the time, they use their leverage,” says Brodow. “Amazon has a tremendous amount of leverage.”

Wal-Mart employs similar muscle, says Michael Pachter with Wedbush Securities.

“Wal-Mart pays as low a price as anybody wholesale for any product that it sells, and it’s able to do so by exercising  its market muscle,” he says. “Amazon is trying very hard to be Wal-Mart-like.”

Pre-orders are important for Disney because it will impact their first-day sales rankings, but Pachter doubts customers will miss the option much.

Not everyone agrees.

Amazon’s aggressive tactics risk its reputation with its customers, says Michael Norris, an independent publishing and media consultant.

“It’s really remarkable to me that a company that claims to be very consumer-centric finds absolutely nothing wrong with inconveniencing millions of consumers,” he adds.

 

As humanitarian crises grow, so does the aid industry

Marketplace - American Public Media - Mon, 2014-08-11 13:15

The U.S. government is reportedly weighing options to evacuate thousands of civilians from Iraq's Yazidi religious sect, who are trapped in barren mountains in northern Iraq without food or water, imperiled by advancing Islamic State fighters. The crisis has put the Yazidis out of reach for humanitarian aid workers, who typically provide food, water and shelter to vulnerable people.

The humanitarian aid industry is growing, fueled by large-scale conflicts and natural disasters. Last year it took in a record $22 billion from donor governments, foundations, corporations and individuals. It employed more than 250,000 people.

Margaret Aguirre, the head of Global Initiatives for International Medical Corps, is one of them. The non-governmental organization moved offices recently, in part to save on rent, and Aguirre spent part of a recent day peeling layers of bubble wrap from framed photographs that will hang in her office. One, taken in South Sudan in 2012, showed a cluster of women, some with frightened children peeking from behind their backs, outside of an International Medical Corps clinic. Their homes had been bombed.

"It's said all the time, it sounds like a cliche, but when your home is bombed, you run," Aguirre said.

International Medical Corps' growth mirrors the growth of the aid industry. In 1984, when the NGO started work, it was comprised of a handful of volunteer doctors and nurses who traveled to Afghanistan to treat the wounded. Now, it employs nearly 5,000 people in 30 countries and will implement $300 million in program services this year alone.

Aid work as a growing profession

There are roughly 5,000 non-governmental organizations, according to Humanitarian Outcomes, a firm that researches humanitarian assistance. The sector is rapidly professionalizing.

"You can even get masters degrees in humanitarian assistance," said Abby Stoddard, a partner with Humanitarian Outcomes. "These could be technical specialists in water and sanitation or food assistance, logisticians, financial analysts. There's a whole raft of careers in international humanitarian aid."

Even so, aid work is often misunderstood as volunteer or charity work. Jessica Alexander, who has two masters degrees, and has done everything from managing camps for displaced people to working with former child soldiers, wrote a book called "Chasing Choas: My Decade In and Out of Humanitarian Aid", in part to clear up some of the misconceptions.

"People have come up to me at this point in my career and said, 'gosh, how can you afford to keep volunteering?'" Alexander said. "What they don't understand is this is very much a career and we're paid, and we're paid well, and we're paid with benefits."

As with any field, there's even a kind of career ladder, says William Easterly, who teaches economics at NYU and wrote the book "The Tyranny of Experts: Economists, Dictators, and the Forgotten Rights of the Poor." Easterly says he has seen a "huge increase" in the number of his students interested in pursuing careers in aid. Many of them will start in NGOs, where salaries are relatively low.

"They are small and operating on a pretty limited budget," Easterly said. "There's also a big phenomenon in NGOs of unpaid interns. Part of this is just supply and demand. There's a huge amount of young people who want to work in development and that's great, but there's just not enough jobs for them."

However, working for an NGO can offer young people a foothold to advance to the United Nations or World Bank, where salaries are higher.

An industry based in crisis

There is one large difference between humanitarian aid and other growth industries: An increase in the number of jobs, the amount of donations, and the demand for services usually isn't a good thing. It means more crises.

In addition to Iraq, there are humanitarian crises in Syria, South Sudan, the Gaza Strip and across Central Africa. There is even, according to the U.S. government, a humanitarian crisis on our border with Mexico, sparked by children and families fleeing Central America.

"We've been doing this for thirty years and I can honestly say there are more crises, there are more conflicts, there are more disasters," said International Medical Corps' Margaret Aguirre. "There are a lot of people in peril. It seems like there's a crisis everywhere."

Obama Calls Nomination Of New Iraqi Prime Minister A 'Step Forward'

NPR News - Mon, 2014-08-11 13:09

The president said the only long-term solution in Iraq would be for Iraqis to work together. Obama said he and Vice President Biden have called to congratulate Haider al-Abadi.

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A Good IT Person Needs To Be Half Technologist, Half Psychologist

NPR News - Mon, 2014-08-11 12:58

Your doctor and lawyer may know a lot about you. But in a time when we are using computers to socialize, keep track of finances, do work and store family photos your IT person probably knows more.

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Graphic Warnings: Ebola Posters Keep The Virus On People's Minds

NPR News - Mon, 2014-08-11 12:51

Sierra Leone is at the epicenter of the Ebola outbreak. To help stop the virus, health workers are putting up Ebola awareness posters around the country. One doctor explains why they're so graphic.

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Assessing The Scope And Scale Of American Aid For Kurds In Iraq

NPR News - Mon, 2014-08-11 12:47

Brett McGurk is the U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for Iraq and Iran. He joins Robert Siegel to explain U.S. policy on Iraq.

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Sandwich Monday: The Dahlia

NPR News - Mon, 2014-08-11 12:42

For this week's Sandwich Monday, we try The Dahlia, from Denver Biscuit Co. It's a breakfast sandwich served on a French toast biscuit.

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