National News

Pricing a child's plea for equine ownership

Marketplace - American Public Media - Tue, 2014-11-18 13:01

In third grade, Amanda Ferrara persuaded her parents to let her take horse-riding lessons. She had always loved animals, and her parents, both Bronx born but living in a rural part of Westchester County, N.Y., agreed. Nine years later, her family owns one horse and leases two more.

She says she loves the pursuit and spends six days a week at the barn that boards the horses, taking the bus there after school and staying until dark, often doing homework or eating at the barn. Yet her afternoons are not spent entirely on horseback. For every hour she rides, she spends two to three hours getting her horse ready and cooling him down. “It’s my entire life now,” Amanda, 17, said.

When children express a desire for a pony, obliging parents in urban and suburban areas often vow that they will find a middle-class horse that will not cost more than a car (or a mortgage) payment. It is not easy, though it may not be impossible.

The Ferrara family boards all three horses — Cookie, Teddy and Rubio — at Echo Farm in South Salem, N.Y., which charges $1,300 a month per horse. That includes hay and grain, cleaning the stall and turning the horse out into the field every day.

At least the animals make the expense of boat ownership look reasonable.

Still, despite the cost, parents think the experience is worth it. They typically insist that horses provide deep life lessons in being responsible and caring for something that goes beyond themselves — or how well the animal can jump a fence.

“They’re learning a lot of responsibility at a young age,” said Callie Kuntz-Bauer, owner of Echo Farm. “You have to give up a lot of your social life. You can’t go out and party if you have a 6 a.m. horse show.”

So when children ask for a pony, what are parents to do? They would save a lot of money by steering the child toward another sport. But those parents who want to cultivate their children’s interest need to consider recurring costs that can continue for 30 years or more, long past the time when a child will be riding the horse.

Owners should expect the total spending for the animal’s upkeep to be far greater than the cost to buy it. “The real price is the monthly expenses,” said Carleton Henrich, a mother of four who grew up on 250 acres in southern Virginia.

Henrich recently bought a 5-year-old thoroughbred named Emery. A giant at 17 hands high (5 feet 8 inches at the withers), Emery is for her and her three daughters. (Her son is less interested.)

“He’s a big teddy bear,” she said, giving Emery a peppermint.

Henrich negotiated a two-week trial period to get a sense of the horse’s demeanor. But even during that period she had to have insurance to cover anything that might happen to him. She, like many owners of expensive horses, now has mortality insurance and medical coverage for the animal, which typically costs 3 percent of a horse’s value per year.

Even minor injuries can be costly in time as well as money. Amanda Ferrara said an injury a couple of years ago confined Cookie to his stall for six months. It took six more months for him to get back in shape. But at that point Amanda couldn’t jump with him anymore, so now her family just rides him for recreation.

Leasing a horse generally saves a family only on the upfront cost of buying one. Kuntz-Bauer said that a full lease of a horse is typically one-third of the horse’s value a year. The horses in her barn range in value from $2,500 to $50,000. And people who lease a horse usually take over all the responsibilities and ensuing costs as if they were the owner. A partial lease could spread the costs across multiple owners, but it also reduces riding time.

The list of expenses doesn’t end with room and board. Entry fees for competitions range from $500 for a one-day event to $3,000 to $6,000 for five-day events where the horses have to be transported, boarded and fed, Kuntz-Bauer said. There are also Interscholastic Equestrian Association events where competitors ride the horses at the host barn and don’t need their own horse to compete.

A veterinarian to assess a horse’s initial fitness will cost $1,500 to $2,000. Kuntz-Bauer said annual shots will run about $400. There are costs for dental visits and new shoes, too.

And some costs can rise rapidly.

Rachel Kosmal McCart, a lawyer specializing in horse issues in Portland, Ore., said local hay to feed horses in her area rose from $1 a bale 11 years ago to $5 a bale today. “People who were used to paying very little to feed their horses suddenly couldn’t afford to feed them,” she said.

Incidentals include saddles, bridle and blankets, as well as riding clothes and boots. Used gear is available, too; Georgina Bloomberg, a champion equestrian and daughter of the former New York City mayor, runs the Rider’s Closet to help make the clothes more affordable.

Not all areas are as expensive as Westchester County or other horsy enclaves filled with well-heeled parents and high land costs. Outside Portland, Ore., for example, it would cost $600 a month to board a horse.

In most areas, even wealthy ones, there are also opportunities simply to take lessons or buy time to ride. 

Horse clubs can defer costs further and still teach valuable lessons. In New Canaan, Conn., the New Canaan Mounted Troop aims to teach equestrian skills to children ages 7 to 17. The annual cost of $4,350 is not cheap, but it covers one lesson and one barn day per week during the school year.

The group started out as part of the Junior Cavalry of America, a sort of Girl Scouts on horseback, but today it functions like an equine version of Zipcar: Cadets can ride any of its 27 horses, all donated, as long as they have the ability.

But Margot Tucker, the student leader of the troop, said she got the most out of the barn days, when students help care for the horses. “If I could ride every day that would be awesome,” she said. “But what I really like about it is being part of the community. It’s the friendships we have.”

Those are the learning experiences that parents want their children to absorb from horses or any other activity.

This story is part of a collaboration between Marketplace and The New York Times called “A Guide to Buying Just About Anything.” 

Dangerous Deliveries: Ebola Devastates Women's Health In Liberia

NPR News - Tue, 2014-11-18 12:58

When a pregnant woman catches Ebola, the fetus and amniotic fluid are flooded with the virus. The ripple effects of these dangerous deliveries could be more catastrophic than Ebola itself.

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Regaining control of your online data

Marketplace - American Public Media - Tue, 2014-11-18 12:18

When a strange man knocked on her door three years ago, Susan Manion decided to do more to protect her private information. As a musician in Northern Illinois, she was used to people getting in touch. But her work had started to draw unwanted attention.

“It wasn’t a stalker,” says Ms. Manion. She thinks the man wanted to collaborate, but her doorstep was the wrong place. “We didn’t want something like that happening again. It creeped me out.”

Ms. Manion signed up for DeleteMe, a service from a company called Abine. Abine promises to “remove your public profile from leading data sites.” Your public data profile can include photos of your house or family, your address and contact information. Ms. Manion has paid for Abine’s service for two years and says her home address and phone number are less likely to pop up in search results.

Nearly 25 years after the first publicly viewable website appeared, the culture of sharing on the Internet is changing. Privacy and anonymity are crucial features of new social apps like Secret, Whisper and Canary. A growing number of websites also offer services that help protect, maintain or even erase what is fast becoming your most permanent and accessible record: data that can be gleaned about you from search engine results.

These businesses are responding to what they see as evolving consumer interest. This month, a report by the Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project found varying attitudes around privacy but a consensus around the challenges of managing personal information online.

“There’s this overwhelming sense that consumers feel they’ve lost control over the way their data is used by companies,” says Mary Madden, a senior researcher at Pew.

That is exactly what people like Rob Shavell, Abine’s chief executive, are banking on. When Mr. Shavell and his co-founders started the company in 2009, financing was not easy to find. Investors didn’t think young users cared about privacy. But Mr. Shavell said that in the last six months, Abine has faced more competition than in its first four years.

“That exact group that investors told us would never care, they’re moving from Facebook to Snapchat,” Mr. Shavell said, referring to the app that allows users to send each other messages that disappear right after delivery. “They do all kinds of things to make sure they’re managing their online identities in such a way that it’s not going to have so many negative ramifications.”

Other data companies are pivoting. MyLife.com began as Reunion.com in 2002, helping users connect with old classmates and friends. Then Facebook happened.

“As Facebook became so popular, we realized there wasn’t as much of a need for our services,” said Jeffrey Tinsley, the company’s chief executive. “So we looked for other opportunities.”

That road has had bumpy stretches. The firm was criticized for mining the email address books of some of its 52 million users for new customers. Mr. Tinsley realized the script on privacy had flipped. So he changed his business model to helping users try to manage their public data online.

“Three years ago, 75 percent of our revenue was public profile stuff and maybe 25 percent was helping people take it down,” he said. “Now it’s the exact opposite.”

To deliver for their customers, subscription services like Abine and MyLife use organized, repeated pressure. They go to top data broker websites like Spokeo.com, which collects information, then creates and sells profiles on consumers. They fill out removal forms on behalf of users. But the result is never a full cleanup.

“The options for getting facts and personal information removed once it’s been posted online in the U.S. are fairly limited,” says Christopher T. Bavitz, managing director of the Cyberlaw Clinic at Harvard Law School. “It’s very challenging to regulate the spread of this kind of information, but it’s challenging for very good reasons. The first good reason is the First Amendment.”

Users’ control over information has fared better in Europe after a May ruling from the European Court of Justice on the so-called right to be forgotten. That allows users to petition search engines to remove outdated or incorrect information about them. Google reports receiving 163,000 requests and approving 41 percent.

A growing chorus of voices is worried that the emergence of paid services that promise to clean up data could result in another case of the haves and have-nots. Ryan Calo, an assistant law professor at the University of Washington, said many states sold, rented or granted access to criminal records and other information to third-party data brokers.

“If a juvenile commits a crime but doesn’t reoffend, they might have the right to get the state’s record sealed or expunged,” Mr. Calo said. “But the user doesn’t have the same right to access when it comes to the data broker.”

Mr. Calo worries that these sorts of arrangements disproportionately affect populations that cannot afford to pay even once, let alone for the subscription fee that many services charge.

If you ask Philip R. Zimmermann whether money can buy back privacy, he will laugh and point to a paradox. If money is no object, he said, you are too famous to escape the Internet anyway. Mr. Zimmermann created Pretty Good Privacy, or P.G.P., a widely used email encryption program, in 1991. He now runs Silent Circle, a company that promises encrypted communication and offers the $629 Blackphone, a smartphone that features a custom operating system and applications.

Silent Circle tries to protect a user’s privacy out of the gate, instead of acting as a cleaning service. Encryption can make it more difficult for your data to be mined and published around the web. When it comes to cleaning up information that is already public, however, Mr. Zimmermann recalled the plutonium contamination at the Rocky Flats Plant nuclear weapons facility in Colorado.

“It gets into the soil,” he said. “If you’re a person that’s not of any interest to anyone, then maybe your information exists only on a couple of servers. Maybe. But once it’s out, it’s pretty hard to get it cleaned up. You can’t put toothpaste back in the tube.”

This story is part of a collaboration between Marketplace and The New York Times called “A Guide to Buying Just About Anything.” 

Measles Still Kills 400 Kids A Day — And It May Be Making A Comeback

NPR News - Tue, 2014-11-18 12:04

The global fight against the disease has stalled, says the World Health Organization. The recession gets some of the blame. And so does the anti-vaccine movement.

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With Cash And Cachet, The Islamic State Expands Its Empire

NPR News - Tue, 2014-11-18 12:00

Based in Iraq and Syria, the Islamic State is using its chameleon-like branding and financial incentives to attract extremist groups from Egypt's Sinai Peninsula to Libya's Mediterranean coast.

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ClassDojo learns lesson in protecting student data

Marketplace - American Public Media - Tue, 2014-11-18 11:02

While the rows of education apps crowing teachers’ iPads are meant to help manage a classroom, there is increasing concern about the management of student data tracked in those apps.

Following an article published Monday in the New York Times, the founders of education app ClassDojo announced an update Tuesday regarding student privacy and data collection. Beginning next January, ClassDojo will start storing student profiles for only one year.

ClassDojo is a classroom tool designed to help teachers improve student behavior. Teachers can award positive and negative feedback points for behavior in class in real-time, using a smartphone or laptop. Parents, students and teachers can then engage with the data generated by the app.

A screenshot of a demo ClassDojo class shows how students can receive points for positive behavior.

 Manoj Lamba, marketing lead at ClassDojo, said unless a parent chooses to save their child’s information, the individual profile will now delete at the end of school year. He said the plan was already in the works, but it was "a no-brainer to announce it today."

In the post "What the New York Times got wrong," co-founders Sam Chaudhary and Laim Don responded to concern the data from their app could become part of a student's permanent record: 

"If students or their parents don’t save their ClassDojo profiles within that school year, we’ll permanently delete that data. If teachers want to keep data for longer than that, they can invite parents and students to save their ClassDojo profiles."

Lamba also said he thinks the company should have taken this step earlier. ClassDojo currently serves more than 2.5 million teachers. With this change, parents and students will now know about — and own — any lasting data that exists about a student.

However, the official privacy policy was last updated Oct. 24, 2014, so the promise of data deletion exists only as a promise, for now. ClassDojo claims they are the only education technology company to implement such a "pro-user" privacy policy, and said in Tuesday's announcement they will be making a more formal statement about the upcoming changes soon.

Why Uber execs may get away with their bad behavior

Marketplace - American Public Media - Tue, 2014-11-18 11:00

Uber has become known for questionable corporate behavior. The latest example is an incident in which a senior executive at the company suggested spending a million dollars to investigate the personal lives of journalists, in particular one female reporter who’s been critical of the company.

But will the bad behavior affect the company’s bottom line?

Robert Sutton, a professor of management science and engineering at Stanford University, says it's unlikely and consumers don't seem unduly concerned. But Karen North, a clinical professor at the USC Annenberg School of Communications, thinks Uber’s profits could suffer if the company burns through the trust it has built with customers.

Why Uber execs' bad behavior likely won't be punished

Marketplace - American Public Media - Tue, 2014-11-18 11:00

Uber has become known for questionable corporate behavior. The latest example is an incident in which a senior executive at the company suggested spending a million dollars to investigate the personal lives of journalists, in particular one female reporter who’s been critical of the company.

But will the bad behavior affect the company’s bottom line?

Robert Sutton, a professor of management science and engineering at Stanford University, says it's unlikely and consumers don't seem unduly concerned. But Karen North, a clinical professor at the USC Annenberg School of Communications, thinks Uber’s profits could suffer if the company burns through the trust it’s built with customers.

Does Keystone even matter anymore?

Marketplace - American Public Media - Tue, 2014-11-18 11:00

Today’s top political story is, by all appearances, a top environmental story: a Senate vote to authorize the controversial Keystone XL pipeline, which would carry hundreds of thousands of barrels of crude from the Canadian tar sands to the Gulf of Mexico. The fight against Keystone has been a marquee battle for the U.S. environmental movement for years. However, after all these years, the stakes may have gotten lower. 

The fight against Keystone was primarily about preventing climate change. "Crude oil from the oil sands is a lot more carbon intense," says Jim Krane, an energy-studies fellow at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy. Just extracting the stuff emits more carbon than extracting other crudes, Krane says, and it throws off extra carbon when burned as well.

The hope was blocking Keystone could prevent this type of crude from getting to market. But in the years Keystone has been debated, that train has left the station. Literally. Without a pipeline, rail has emerged as the crude's route to market. 

"It’s being transported now by train, down to Vancouver, it’s being put on tankers, and it’s shipped over to Asia," says Keith Brownsey, a political scientist at Mount Royal University in Alberta, Canada. "Bingo, there you go."

The original pro-Keystone argument has also lost a lot of steam. That was “energy independence for North America,” which fracking has made a less-urgent concern.

But for Brownsey, putting the oil in a pipeline now matters for a new reason.

"Rail is exponentially more dangerous than transmitting it by pipeline," he says.  In other words: pipelines don’t derail.

Opponents say the pipeline remains important, if mostly as a symbol. 

"It’s kind of like the polar bear," says Andrew Weaver, a climate scientist at the University of Victoria and a Green Party legislator in British Columbia. "Keystone has become that iconic image of: 'If we can’t force change here, where can we force change?'"

Networks battle for morning supremacy, young viewers

Marketplace - American Public Media - Tue, 2014-11-18 11:00

Just a few months ago, NBC brought in hotshot young programmer Jamie Horowitz from ESPN to help turn around "Today." Now he's already out. Meanwhile, the show is struggling to hold on to viewers and regain its No. 1 spot in the morning news ratings, which it lost to ABC’s "Good Morning America" in 2012 after 17 years on top.

The battle for ratings — and for younger viewers — can be seen in the shows’ daily lineups.

"Good Morning America" had rapper Lil Jon on Tuesday, getting host George Stephanopoulos to bust some (awkward but good-natured) moves to "Turn Down for What."

At rival NBC on Nov. 17, "Today Show" host Matt Lauer had Anglo-Irish boy-band One Direction on stage. Band member Zayn Malik was missing, and Lauer asked: “Is it something more serious than just a minor illness? There have been rumors of substance abuse. What’s going on?”

The band addressed the question, attributing Malik's absence to a "stomach bug." But the audience booed and younger viewers slammed Lauer on social media. “Those are the people they need to grow the 'Today Show' audience,” says Jim Hill, an entertainment writer and blogger. “And here Matt has managed to drive a whole generation away.”

Brian Steinberg, TV editor at Variety, says ABC has nailed the morning formula.

“‘Good Morning America’ knows who it is,” Steinberg says. “It’s single-minded. It’s an entertainment show with a little news thrown in. ‘Today’ is a little more of a split personality. They want to be a news show but they also want to entertain and have the same kind of fun. And sometimes it’s hard to pivot.”

Networks battle for morning supremacy

Marketplace - American Public Media - Tue, 2014-11-18 11:00

NBC brought in Jamie Horowitz from ESPN just a few months ago to help turn around "Today." Now he's out. Meanwhile, the show is struggling to hold on to viewers and regain its No. 1 spot in the morning news ratings, which it lost to ABC’s "Good Morning America" back in 2012 after 17 years on top.

The battle for ratings — and for younger viewers — can be seen in the shows’ daily lineups.

"Good Morning America" had rapper Lil Jon on Tuesday, getting host George Stephanopoulos to bust some (awkward but good-natured) moves to "Turn Down for What."

On November 17, at rival NBC, "Today Show" host Matt Lauer had Anglo-Irish boy-band One Direction on stage. Band member Zayn Malik was missing, and Lauer asked: “Is it something more serious than just a minor illness? There have been rumors of substance abuse. What’s going on?”

The audience booed and younger viewers slammed Lauer on social media. “Those are the people they need to grow the "Today Show" audience,” says entertainment writer and blogger Jim Hill. “And here Matt has managed to drive a whole generation away.”

Brian Steinberg, TV editor at Variety, says ABC has nailed the formula.

“‘Good Morning America’ knows who it is,” Steinberg says. “It’s single-minded. It’s an entertainment show with a little news thrown in. ‘Today’ is a little more of a split personality. They want to be a news show but they also want to entertain and have the same kind of fun. And sometimes it’s hard to pivot.”

Uber's data makes a creepy point about the company

Marketplace - American Public Media - Tue, 2014-11-18 11:00

Uber has had to deal with some bad PR after several inappropriate comments by its senior vice president, Emil Michael, were reported by Buzzfeed.

Well, sad news: This isn't the first time Uber has done something icky.

A couple of years ago, there was an entry on the company's blog titled "Rides of Glory." The company examined its rider data, sorting it for anyone who took an Uber between 10 p.m. and 4 a.m. on a Friday or Saturday night. Then it looked at how many of those same people took another ride about four to six hours later – from at or near the previous nights' drop-off point.

Yes, Uber can and does track one-night stands. Consider it the Uber equivalent of the walk of shame.

The thrill of the hunt for discount prices

Marketplace - American Public Media - Tue, 2014-11-18 10:29

The Internet can tell us how long it takes to walk the length of the Great Wall of China (10 months), how many girlfriends George Clooney has had (lots) and even how many snowflakes fall in a year (about a septillion). But consumers still can’t quickly and easily compare prices for a leather purse (big enough to tote a laptop, please) or a 10-quart aluminum stockpot.

Sure, thanks to aggregator sites like Orbitz and Cheaptickets.com, comparisons of airline tickets are easy to come by. And there’s transparency of pricing on wholesale commodities like butter, eggs and sugar. But that leaves a vast middle ground untouched. There is no Kayak9.com for teapots or women’s sweaters.

Perhaps that is because nobody — neither consumer nor retailer — wants it.

“We think we want all access, to know everything about everything in the consumer space,” said Kelly Goldsmith, an assistant professor of marketing at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. “In reality, when we know everything about everything, it is exhausting,” she said.

Especially if consumers investigate options on their own — from new to used, vendors local to national, warranty or no. Too much information, Goldsmith said, can decrease the odds of a consumer buying anything.

There is a psychological aspect to this, too. Finding deals can make people feel good. For some shoppers, it’s about the thrill of the hunt.

“When there’s something I’ve been eyeing and I see it go on sale, it’s like God just sort of put it there for me,” said Elise Ariel, a 37-year-old legal assistant, as she shopped recently at Century 21 in Manhattan. “How do I feel about sales? Like a moth to a flame.”

And while she admitted that shopping through a price aggregator site for a new pair of pumps, as she might for airline tickets, would be better from a practical standpoint, it would mean an end to her love affair with retail. “You come across something with a little red price tag on it in a bin of God knows what. You feel like it’s destiny.”

Then there is the retailer’s perspective. Consider what happened when Ron Johnson, former chief executive of J.C. Penney, committed to transparency and predictability and decided the chain would stop running sales. Shoppers waiting for the dopamine hit that comes with the unexpected opportunity for a bargain were disappointed, and customers fled in droves.

Advertising discounts, deals and perceived steals are often how retailers get shoppers in the door in the first place, said Barbara Kahn, a professor of marketing at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. “If the sale wasn’t there, well, maybe they wouldn’t go to the store that day,” she said.

For discount chains, slashing prices is crucial and nearly constant. But for midrange retailers, the Lord & Taylors and Banana Republics of the shopping world, sales are meant to be special. Competing solely on price can lead to a downward spiral of ever-deeper discounts.

“I don’t think they want to get into this game that you can’t win,” Kahn said. “They’d rather compete on providing value to the customer.”

Even if retailers agreed that transparent pricing should be more widely available, comparing prices for multitudes of products would take a special kind of brain — one that loves spreadsheets or navigating phone trees run by the Internal Revenue Service.

“There are a limited number of products where consumers have boiled down their understanding to such a limited set of factors that they can be confident truly shopping on price,” said Robert Haslehurst, the managing director of retail practice for L.E.K. consulting, a global management consulting firm.

Take the humble T-shirt and its endless varieties. “The T-shirt from Walmart and the T-shirt from the Gap aren’t the same T-shirt, and you need to be superexpert at the construction of T-shirts, and the shipping of T-shirts and the marketing of T-shirts in order to determine if one retailer was making extra margin off of you,” said Joshua Pollack, an associate partner with the Parker Avery Group, a retail price consulting firm.

Even if you do manage to sharpen your focus — to, say, a black, short-sleeve V-neck in a polyester blend — you will wonder why it costs what it does.

Raw materials are also only one part of the equation, Haslehurst said. “There was the artist who designed it. There was the retailer you bought it from and the person who put it in front of you,” he said. “There’s value in more than just the item. There’s value in the distribution.”

And then there is the variable that retailers rely on, that different shoppers are willing to pay different prices for the same product. Take the ever-changing price of a plane ticket. “One would think that I would pay the exact same price wherever I go,” Pollack said. “But because of this price discrimination capability you actually may not.” When the airline industry first began setting prices based on when customers bought tickets or how many seats were still left, customers were furious, Pollack said. And they still are. “But despite the fact that customers hate the practice, it was so profitable for the travel industry, they just had to bear it out,” he said.

It is unlikely, Pollack said, that consumers will see complete transparency of prices, mostly because comparing products is not always as easy as Apple iPhone to Apple iPhone.

Tell that to Vivian Harrow, 46, a human resources director for a global beauty company, and odds are she won’t mind. Harrow said she enjoyed browsing and scanning, but not online and not with an app. “It’s no fun to go out, and go into a store, buy something at retail, or buy something where you know every place you go it’s going to be priced exactly the same,” she said. “There’s no challenge in that. It’s just not as much fun.”

This story is part of a collaboration between Marketplace and The New York Times called “A Guide to Buying Just About Anything.” 

Indonesia Urged To Stop 'Virginity Tests' For Female Police Recruits

NPR News - Tue, 2014-11-18 10:04

Human Rights Watch says the tests are discriminatory and "harms and humiliates women." The test is listed as a requirement for female applicants, and the group said it is widely applied.

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Trying to outrun aging

Marketplace - American Public Media - Tue, 2014-11-18 09:57

For thousands of years, people have sought to escape or outrun their mortality with potions, pills, and elixirs, often blended with heavy doses of hope and will.

In the “Epic of Gilgamesh,” a Mesopotamian king searched for the secret of immortality after the death of his best friend. At least three Chinese emperors in the Tang dynasty died after consuming treatments containing lead and mercury that they hoped would make them immortal. In the late 19th century, a French-American physiologist seemed to have found the elixir of life by injecting the elderly and himself with extracts from animal testicles.

Despite this enduring quest, most scientists say we are no closer to eternal life today than we were all those years ago. The word “immortality” elicits a mixture of laughter and earnest explanations about the difference between science and science fiction.

Conversations about longevity, however, are an entirely different story. Researchers are optimistic about recent efforts to delay the effects of aging and, perhaps, extend life spans.

But at the same time, the scientific community is wary of how quickly these findings are packaged and resold by companies promising a fountain of youth. “It’s probably worse today than it’s ever been,” said Dr. S. Jay Olshansky, a professor in the School of Public Health at the University of Illinois at Chicago and a research associate at the Center on Aging at the University of Chicago. “As soon as the scientists publish any glimmer of hope, the hucksters jump in and start selling.”

Understanding the process of aging and developing treatments that might slow the rate at which people grow old could help doctors keep patients healthy longer. We won’t be able to stop or reverse aging, but researchers are interested in slowing down its progress, such that one year of clock time might not equal a year of biological time for the body. That could delay the onset of diseases like cancer, strokes, cardiovascular disease and dementia, which become more prevalent as people age.

“By targeting fundamental aging processes, we might be able to delay the major age-related chronic diseases instead of picking them off one at time,” said Dr. James Kirkland, a professor of aging research and head of the Robert and Arlene Kogod Center on Aging at the Mayo Clinic. “For example, we don’t want to have situation where we, say, cure cancer and then people die six months later of Alzheimer’s disease or a stroke. It would be better to delay all of these things together.”

This is where the field known as the biology of aging is moving — to develop drugs that will increase life span and what researchers refer to as health span, the period of life when people are able to live independently and free from disease.

Dr. Kirkland said at least six drugs had been written up in peer-reviewed journals and he knows of about 20 others that appear to affect life span or health span in mice. The goal is to see if those benefits can be translated into humans to increase their longevity, “to find interventions that we can use in people that might, say, make a person who’s 90 feel like they’re 60 or a person who’s 70 feel like they’re 40 or 50.”

Other researchers are studying centenarians, seeking to understand whether certain genes have carried them past 100 years old and kept them in good health.

“Everybody knows someone who’s 60 who looks like he’s 50, or someone 60 who looks 70,” said Dr. Nir Barzilai, the director of the Institute for Aging Research at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine who is currently studying centenarians and their children. “Intuitively, we understand that we age at different rates, so the question is, really, ‘What’s the biological or genetic difference between those who age quickly and those who age slowly?’” Drugs that mimic the effect of those genes might be beneficial to the rest of the population who wasn’t born with them.

Dr. Barzilai said that as a scientist his goal wasn’t to help people live longer, but to live healthier, although he does occasionally get emails from people interested in how his work might benefit their quest to live forever. He doesn’t respond — he says he has nothing to offer them.

The global anti-aging industry was worth $195 billion in 2013 and was projected to grow to $275 billion by 2020, according to the market research firm Global Industry Analysts. Products include beauty creams,  Botox,  dietary supplements and prescription medications, not all of which seek to reverse aging as much as minimize its visible effects.

Dr. Olshansky points to resveratrol supplements and human growth hormones as products that were marketed as having anti-aging benefits soon after initial scientific studies suggested promising results. But resveratrol, often made from the skin of red grapes, is still being studied and commercially available products are premature, he said. Growth hormones are a more severe risk, he said, because they can actually be dangerous for those who take them.

Dr. Barzilai noted many of the centenarians he studied had naturally lower levels or activity of growth hormones.

“We think that’s important for their survival,” he said.

Other dietary supplements promise to help consumers reverse the aging clock. Such products aren’t required to prove their effectiveness or safety with the Food and Drug Administration before their sale, although the F.D.A. can take action against products with misleading labels or that claim to treat diseases.

After being approached to sell a line of supplements, Melanie Young, a health coach who advises clients on weight and stress management, decided to try a series of products that promised to protect her body against the “ravages of aging.” She’d recently survived breast cancer and left behind a public relations and event management career. “A lot of health coaches supplement their own income by selling supplements,” she said.

She thought the company, which she didn’t want to name, had “all the right science.” But the half dozen pills she took each morning and evening didn’t improve her energy as promised; they instead left her feeling dizzy. She quickly stopped taking them and told her clients to eat a balanced diet to get the nutrition they needed.

“People are aware of the aging process and they want to interfere,” Dr. Barzilai said, but he thinks it’s a mistake to turn to Internet remedies. “Some are causing harm. Some, maybe, you couldn’t care less, and some might be even good, but we don’t know that.”

It is a message Dr. Olshansky echoes — instead of spending money on aging “fixes,” he suggests people accept the bland prescription doctors have been offering for decades: a healthy diet and exercise. “You don’t need to spend money,” he said. “Maybe a good pair of running or walking shoes would work. Exercise is roughly the only equivalent of a fountain of youth that exists today, and it’s free to everyone.”

This story is part of a collaboration between Marketplace and The New York Times called “A Guide to Buying Just About Anything.” 

More States Adopt Laws To Ease Access To Experimental Treatments

NPR News - Tue, 2014-11-18 09:51

While several states have approved so-called right-to-try measures that aim to give patients with life-threatening illnesses access to unapproved drugs, drugmakers don't have to comply.

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Can curried crust and balsamic drizzle help Pizza Hut?

Marketplace - American Public Media - Tue, 2014-11-18 09:47

Pizza Hut, the nation’s biggest pizza chain, is overhauling its brand. There’s a new logo, a more casual uniform, and fresh leadership, but the biggest upgrade is the menu.  

Taking a hint from fast casual stars Chipotle and Chop't, Pizza Hut will allow customers to design their own pies with curry-flavored crusts and Sriracha sauce. They're doubling flavor options and going exotic. 

The question is, can those changes help Pizza Hut get back on track?  It's reported same-store sales declines for eight straight quarters, while rivals like Domino’s Pizza and Little Caesars have enjoyed gains. 

At Pizza Hut’s Plano, Texas headquarters, chief marketing officer Carrie Walsh shows off what looks like artisan pizza – a thin-crust pie with bright green spinach and red Peruvian peppers, topped with a spiral swirl of balsamic.

There are more than two dozen new ingredients on Pizza Hut’s “Flavor Of Now” menu. Customers will be able to choose flavors to brush onto crusts – like “Pretzel Piggy” and “Ginger Boom Boom”. There are four drizzles, and a skinny lineup for those seeking a lighter, healthier pie.

“In fact there are now two billion ways you can customize your pizza,” Walsh says.

Walsh says customers want flavor adventure. Why not let them play mad scientist with each pie?

“Pizza is America’s favorite food, we thought it made sense to bring new flavor experiences to pizza,” she says.

But two billion customization options is overkill, says Rich Duprey. He writes about fast-casual dining for The Motley Fool, and he's a former pizza deliveryman.

Duprey says Pizza Hut needed to sprinkle in a little spice, but not drop in the whole spice bottle.

“Sales 101 says keep it simple,” he says. “A confused mind always says no.”  

To keep out chaos behind the counter, Pizza Hut undertook its biggest training endeavor ever. Walsh is confident the plethora of new options won’t slow down service or delivery.

“We’ve been working on [rebranding] for a year,” Walsh says.

The new menu will be up in 6,000 Pizza Hut stores Wednesday.

Baby, It's Cold Outside: All 50 States Hit 32 Degrees

NPR News - Tue, 2014-11-18 09:42

Yep, even Hawaii, where Mauna Kea, a dormant volcano reaching 13,800 feet above sea level, was below freezing.

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The Many Stories Behind Double-Eyelid Surgery

NPR News - Tue, 2014-11-18 08:18

The procedure to give people with single eyelids a crease above their lashes often provokes controversy. Kat Chow steps past the debate over whether people should do it to get at the "why."

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Once Tolerated, Westerners Are Now Targeted By Radical Islamists

NPR News - Tue, 2014-11-18 08:12

The kidnapping and killing of Westerners isn't a new phenomenon in the Middle East. But the last time around, it stopped after just a few years. This time there's no end in sight.

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