National News

Why the government can't plan ahead

Marketplace - American Public Media - Mon, 2014-02-10 03:26

It’s 1987, and Rudy Penner is winding up his fourth year as head of the Congressional Budget Office, wishing he had a magic 8-ball.  He regrets missing the recessions of 1987 and 1990.

“The forecasts for those years were way off,” he says.

Then came the ‘90s, and with them a big uptick in wealth, especially in the financial sector. Uncle Sam’s share of Wall Street’s riches created a surplus nobody expected. 

Penner says it’s a difficult proposition to make accurate predictions about the economy and budget deficit. And, he says, Congress’s fuzzy math doesn’t make it any easier.  Lawmakers budget 10 years out.

“A very distinct budget horizon of 10 years does allow you to cheat by pushing costs beyond that budget horizon,” he says.

The Roth IRA is a good example of that.  Money is taxed as it goes in, meaning revenue in the short-term. But Roth IRA earnings are tax-free.  So the government loses out in the end -- though that accounting is outside the 10-year budget horizon.  But Congress cheerfully ignores that.  Another trick?  Counting spending that we always knew would wind down -- like the cost of the Afghan and Iraq wars -- as savings 

“So it’s not really savings," says Harvard public policy professor Linda Bilmes. "It’s like buying stuff on sale that you never intended to buy and saying, look how much I saved.”

It’s not logical. But it’s how humans have evolved to think: Forget about the past, distort the future, and focus on the present.

“When we were out in the world foraging for food, we had to take what we could get immediately,” says Connecticut College psychology professor Stuart Vyse. He says members of Congress are similarly driven by pressures like the 24-hour news cycle.

"The sort of immediate feeback you get on every single decision does tend to focus you on the battle of the moment," he says.

Cochlear implants get processing boost from MIT researchers

Marketplace - American Public Media - Mon, 2014-02-10 02:53

When it comes to returning the sense of hearing to people who are deaf or hard of hearing, technology is far from perfect. Hearing aids can feed back. And there are other problems, but this week there's been a leap forward in one particular area. Cochlear implants. A new processing computer chip for these implants has been developed at MIT's Microsystems Technology Laboratory and the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmiry. Dr. Konstantina Stankovic is a surgeon who worked on the project and joined us to help explain.

Click play on the audio player above to hear the interview.

In New Orleans, learning music by watching the feet

Marketplace - American Public Media - Mon, 2014-02-10 01:26

Of all the industries technology is disrupting, the music business is experiencing some of the biggest changes. One thing that has not changed significantly: Music education. But the inventor of a new tool hopes to change that.

Shannon Powell is one of the best drummers in New Orleans. He’s played on a platinum record with Harry Connick Jr. and studied under the New Orleans legend Danny Barker.

"This is where it all started, right here on St. Phillip Street,” says Powell, standing in front of the house where he’s lived his entire life.  "I roamed along this whole neighborhood."

Powell grew up in the Treme neighborhood, where he learned to play the drums by studying the musicians who passed by his front door every weekend during the second line parades, and by watching the women in church play the tambourine.

"All of the rhythms that I was listening to when I was a kid are assimilated to the street beats of New Orleans," he explains. "It’s all a part of that Habanera,  African rhythms and Spanish melodies."

Powell teaches music occasionally at the University of New Orleans. That’s where he met a student named Darren Hoffman.

"He showed me how to play the tambourine," Hoffman recalls. He was surprised at how the lesson began. Powell told him, "if you want to learn to play the tambourine, watch my feet."

"The reason why I tell him to watch my feet," Powell says, "is because when I play the tambourine up high with my hand, I’m doing rhythm with my feet."

Hoffman realized that much of what he learned in his lessons with Powell came from watching him. "It’s not just in how he sounds, it’s in his style and his personality," says Hoffman.

Before studying music, Hoffman studied film, and he got the idea for a new tool to connect musicians like Powell with music students so they could learn from masters, the same way Powell had as a kid. So he brought Powell into a recording studio and surrounded him with video cameras.

The result is the Tutti music player app. When the program is pulled up on a PC, phone or tablet, the screen displays five different frames, each one focused on a different instrument, all of them being played by Powell.

It allows the user to choose which instruments they can see and hear. So if you want to isolate the vocals, or the tambourine, you can. Or you can mute the drums so you can play along, even slow the speed of the video down by half.

Hoffman and a business partner, Kristen McEntyre, are working with music education programs to get Tutti in schools. “We have 400 high schools that are using this, and a number of universities, including courses at Berklee College of Music, and of course we have our at-home musicians,” McEntyre says.

The app itself is free, but the songs have to be purchased individually. A percentage goes back to the musicians who recorded them.

Hoffman and McEntyre plan to expand the offerings of Tutti to different genres of music, and eventually create a subscription model to generate revenue.

It Takes More Than A Produce Aisle To Refresh A Food Desert

NPR News - Mon, 2014-02-10 00:26

Residents of a Philadelphia neighborhood that lacked a grocer got a new market brimming with fresh fruit and veggies — but that didn't change what they ate, a survey shows. Additional interventions — such as cooking classes and nutrition education — may be needed.

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Family Planning Squeezed In California By Health Law

NPR News - Mon, 2014-02-10 00:25

As more clients go on Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, some birth control clinics are losing money and looking for creative ways to adapt.

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New Heat Treatment Has Changed Lives For Some With Severe Asthma

NPR News - Mon, 2014-02-10 00:22

About 10 percent of people with asthma aren't able to control it with medicine. The procedure delivers zaps of energy that burn off the outer layer of smooth muscle cells in the lungs' airways. That way there's less muscle to contract.

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For China, a new year and a new U.S. ambassador

Marketplace - American Public Media - Sun, 2014-02-09 23:29

Back in the late 90s when ambassador Baucus was Senator Baucus, he traveled to China to promote the country’s inclusion in the World Trade Organization. More than a decade later, China’s a WTO member, Baucus is ambassador, and according to one former U.S. diplomat in China, he’ll have a lot on his plate - including a chill in relations between U.S. businesses and the Chinese government. "These will be trying times for ambassador Baucus," says William McCahill, who served as charge d'affaires at the U.S. embassy in Beijing. "Prominent firms have pulled out of China, in some measures because the Chinese haven’t lived up to the commitments they made when they joined the WTO."

McCahill says Baucus was a great choice for ambassador because he'll engage the Chinese on sensitive issues and because of his experience in the U.S. senate, where many decisions on foreign affairs are debated. On the Chinese side, Fudan University’s Shen Dingli says the Chinese will watch Baucus closely, but he doesn’t think the ambassador will be able to influence relations in a meaningful way between the world’s top two economies. "He’s just a machine - a tool," says Shen. "I think we really should not expect anything from any ambassador from both countries."

Whatever people’s expectations for Ambassador Baucus, he IS expected to move to Beijing later this month.

6 Die In Wrong-Way Crash On Southern California Freeway

NPR News - Sun, 2014-02-09 22:49

Olivia Culbreath, 21, was arrested on suspicion of driving under the influence and manslaughter in connection with the crash on State Route 60 in Diamond Bar, a suburb east of Los Angeles.

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Tech Week That Was: Industry Gossip, Wikipedia Starts Talking

NPR News - Sun, 2014-02-09 19:20

Between Microsoft's CEO announcement, Twitter's earnings report, Facebook's 10th birthday and Yahoo's disclosures of government requests — there's a lot to catch up with.

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A simple list of ways to avoid a Sochi spoiler

Marketplace - American Public Media - Sun, 2014-02-09 19:07

Spoilers ruin everything. How exciting is The Walking Dead when you learn that [REDACTED] has been evil the whole time? How gripping is Game of Thrones when your friend tells you that [REDACTED] and [REDACTED] are secretly in cahoots before you've had a chance to watch the season finale?

Spoilers ruin movies, TV shows, books... and this year, they might even ruin the Winter Olympics. You see, Sochi is nine hours ahead of the East coast, so like the London Games, NBC will be broadcasting the competition on a tape delay.

That means that if you just watch NBC's primetime coverage, everything you see will have already happened. And if it's already happened, that means it can be spoiled. Whether it's through tweets, news updates, or that annoying coworker who just has to tell everyone about the crazy thing that happened in the curling final… spoilers are out there. Here are four ways to avoid them:

  1. Turn your phone's push notifications off. If you're a somewhat technology-addicted person, you probably have a couple news apps on your iPhone or Android. These apps will send you 'breaking news' alerts when something they deem newsworthy happens. Normally, this is wonderful. But during the Olympics, these alerts are your enemy. You don't want to read a notification that says 'live polar bear wanders onto ski slope, wins men's downhill.' You want to see that polar bear take home the gold on your TV, without knowing anything beforehand. So for the two weeks of the Olympics, you need to turn those push notifications off. How to: If you've got an iPhone, go to Settings, then click Notification Center, and set each app to not send you alerts. Yes, you won’t get any non-Olympic news either, but that’s a small price to pay for watching the Olympics without being spoiled.
  2. SpoilerShield. If most of your interactions with other human beings happen via Twitter or Facebook, SpoilerShield is your friend. SpoilerShield is pretty much exactly what it sounds like, a free app that blocks spoilers from showing up on Twitter and Facebook. There are a bunch of different 'shields'; you can block Game of Thrones spoilers, Football spoilers, and best of all, Olympic spoilers. After all, who wants to see: "whoa, the Jamaican Bobsled team won the whole thing! #BetterThanCoolRunnings" before they see the actual bobsled race? Nobody, that’s who. How to: Simply go to the app store and download the app on your phone.
  3. Actually Watch the Events Live. The only sure way to avoid spoilers is to watch the events before they can possibly be spoiled. Which means watching them live. Doing it this way does mean that you might be watching women's curling at 5 a.m., but if you’re really serious about avoiding spoilers, this is the only sure-fire way to do it. How to NBC puts up all the Sochi events on its website, and if you have either cable or a service like DirecTV, you can watch as much as you'd like. The schedule is online, and if there are certain events you really just need to see, start planning your next two weeks.
  4. Hide Under a Rock. If you just want to watch NBC's primetime coverage of the Olympics without being spoiled, if you're unable or unwilling to get up at 3 a.m. to watch two-person luge, then your best bet might be to become a recluse. Even if you stay off the internet or use SpoilerShield, you can't control what other people do. You might overhear a conversation about the hockey winner, your friends might excitedly tell you about the amazing ski jump they witnessed, there are certain things you just can't help. How to: It's either cut off all contact with the outside world, or serenely accept that you might see a spoiler. Because even if you get to watch the primetime event spoiler-free, NBC might spoil the whole thing during the competition itself. Don't forget: They did it in London.

Kansas Mayor Says Sustainability Is About Community, Not Politics

NPR News - Sun, 2014-02-09 15:01

Today's political polarization makes it seem harder than ever to tackle climate change. Republican Bob Dixson says the goals of going green aren't only for liberals. His town of Greensburg was hit by an unusually strong tornado, and now he's working on a White House task force to prepare communities like his.

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With Fearlessness And A 'Code Name,' Iraqi Helped Navy SEALs

NPR News - Sun, 2014-02-09 14:04

Interpreter "Johnny Walker" accompanied the U.S. military on countless missions in his war-torn home country of Iraq. His memoir, Code Name: Johnny Walker, details his experiences with the SEALs and his family's long path to U.S. citizenship.

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Funeral Home Kiosks Offer Shoppers The Ultimate Deal

NPR News - Sun, 2014-02-09 13:18

To see what services the Forest Lawn company has to offer, there's no need to go to an actual funeral home or cemetery. In shopping centers across Southern California, the business is setting up kiosks that look like they could as easily be marketing homemade pottery instead of urns.

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Prospectors See A Golden Lining In California's Drought

NPR News - Sun, 2014-02-09 12:55

The state's historic drought has been bad for farmers but good for gold seekers, who can now pan areas that have long been buried under feet of water.

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Four-Legged Athletes Compete With Olympic-Sized Heart

NPR News - Sun, 2014-02-09 10:22

Sure, Sochi has competitors who perform feats of superhuman strength and skill. But the agility contest at the Westminster Dog Show had nothing but cheerful contestants and good sports.

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Four-Legged Athletes Compete With Olympic-Sized Heart

NPR News - Sun, 2014-02-09 10:22

Sure, Sochi has competitors who perform feats of super-human strength and skill. But the agility contest at the Westminster Dog Show had nothing but cheerful contestants and good sports.

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Syrian Official Says 600 Evacuated From Rebel-Held Homs

NPR News - Sun, 2014-02-09 10:04

The refugees were reportedly leaving the besieged city of Homs on the same day that a United Nations aid convoy came under fire.

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Swiss Narrowly Approve Rollback Of Immigration Allowances

NPR News - Sun, 2014-02-09 08:56

The referendum was approved by just 50.5 percent of the vote. It effectively ends a "free movement agreement" with the European Union.

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The Beatles, As America First Loved Them

NPR News - Sun, 2014-02-09 08:47

Later, they'd get weird, experimental, and rebellious, but when the Beatles made their U.S. television debut 50 years ago, they were still just a band — but a magically brilliant band.

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Beatlemania! When The Fab Four Rocked The Lunchroom

NPR News - Sun, 2014-02-09 07:56

Soon after they arrived on U.S. shores, The Beatles infiltrated just about every part of American pop culture — including lunchboxes. Fans have been known to shell out more than $1,000 for an authentic 1960s lunchbox featuring the band.

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