National News

The tech challenges of hurricane season

Marketplace - American Public Media - Tue, 2014-05-27 01:17

This week is Hurricane Awareness Week, which precedes the official start of the hurricane season.

While storms like Hurricane Sandy are still unusual, protecting populated coastal areas like New York City is a technological challenge.

"In the last 150 years, the sea level has risen 45 centimeters in New York," said Portland State University's Stefan Talke.

Talke said that may not sound like much, but the result is any storm that hits today is nearly a foot and half higher than it was during the mid 1800s.

One short term solution is to move sensitive tech equipment and electrical boxes out of basements, or build houses several feet off the ground.

Another technology that might help is a deployable flood barrier.

Philip Orton, a professor at the Stevens Institute of Technology, said it's a temporary structure built to help protect the city.

"It just gets deployed when there's a storm coming. It's unpopular to some people because there can be human error if it's not deployed correctly."

No Sign Of 3 Men Missing In Colorado Slide

NPR News - Tue, 2014-05-27 00:42

Rescue teams failed to find any sign Monday of three men missing after a ridge saturated with rain collapsed, sending mud sliding for 3 miles in a remote part of western Colorado.

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Tornado Hits North Dakota Oil Workers Camp

NPR News - Tue, 2014-05-27 00:40

A tornado struck a workers camp in North Dakota's oil patch on Monday, injuring nine people and destroying at least eight trailers where workers had been living, an emergency management official said.

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Gunmen Kill U.S. Doctor From Minority In Pakistan

NPR News - Tue, 2014-05-27 00:31

Gunmen in Pakistan shot dead a visiting American cardiologist from the minority Ahmadi sect in front of his wife and son on Monday, police said. The family arrived 2 days ago from their home in Ohio.

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Beirut's Holiday Inn: Once Chic, Then Battered, Still Contested

NPR News - Mon, 2014-05-26 23:28

The Holiday Inn was a landmark that towered over glittering Beirut in the 1970s. The Lebanese civil war ravaged the city and the hotel. The debate over the hotel's carcass carries on to this day.

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Frustrated By The Affordable Care Act, One Family Opts Out

NPR News - Mon, 2014-05-26 23:27

Many new plans created under Obamacare have consumers and doctors scrambling to figure out which providers accept which plans, and what services are covered.

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How Health Insurance Exchanges Are Like Flea Markets

NPR News - Mon, 2014-05-26 23:25

To know if taxpayers got good value in setting up the health care exchanges we need to see what happens in the next few years, economists say. Will buyers and sellers keep coming?

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Lack Of Affordable Housing Puts The Squeeze On Poor Families

NPR News - Mon, 2014-05-26 23:23

They are being pushed out of the rental market in fast-growing cities like Washington, D.C. Many end up spending most of their income on housing, living in substandard housing, or homeless.

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States Consider Bills To Crack Down On Workplace Bullies

NPR News - Mon, 2014-05-26 23:23

About a dozen states across the country are taking up laws to give workers legal protections against workplace abuse, though critics say it's impossible to legislate against somebody being a jerk.

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How Soviet Kitchens Became Hotbeds Of Dissent And Culture

NPR News - Mon, 2014-05-26 23:22

After Stalin's death, people in the Soviet Union could begin to debate politics again without fear of repression. This "thawing" took place in private kitchens, where music and art flourished, too.

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What the heck does ETF stand for? An explainer

Marketplace - American Public Media - Mon, 2014-05-26 22:32

Anyone can invest in exchange-traded funds. That's the beauty of them: they're dead simple in concept and dead easy to use.

But they're also like matches: they're so simple that a toddler can use them, and there's a real risk of getting burned.

I'm not saying that retail investors who buy ETFs are toddlers – although, let's be honest, most of us could use some supervision or advice when we make investment decisions – but I do think many investors are lulled into a false sense of security by the apparent simplicity of the ETF model.

Part of the problem is that ETFs look a lot like one of the most easily understood investments out there: the company share.

Just like a company share, an ETF is listed on an exchange; just like a company share, the ETF rises and falls depending on investors view of the fund; and just like a company share, you can trade in and out of an ETF any time.

But just because they look easy to understand, doesn't mean they are. ETFs are often a lot more complicated than company shares. For one thing, as Forbes columnist Rick Ferri points out, there are several kinds of ETFs. Depending on how your ETF is structured, you may be taking on a lot more risk than you think you are, and you may be treated differently by the taxman.

And ETFs can go into some dangerous territory.

One of the great lures of ETF investing to retail investors is our ability to gain exposure to a market that would otherwise be closed to us, or at least difficult to access. ETFs allow us to make bets on commodities like gold and palladium without having to buy the actual product or leave the comfort of our den.

They also allow us to wager on the health of corporations via the credit derivatives market. That's right, the kind of wildly complicated investment that helped drag the financial system to its knees is now open to you and I via the magic of ETFs.

Most normal people have no idea how a credit default swap works. So, for most of us, investing in an ETF of CDS is highly risky. It's true that most people won't invest in this kind of fund – the letters CDS will probably have the same effect on retail investors as a sign that says "Warning! Land mines!" – but the same rules apply for all ETFs: if you don't understand the stuff that's in the fund, you'd be wise not to buy the shares.

After all, if you have no idea what you're investing in, you're a whole lot more likely to get burned.

Military Plans To Test Brain Implants To Fight Mental Disorders

NPR News - Mon, 2014-05-26 22:07

The research project would place electronic devices in the brain in an attempt to combat post-traumatic stress, depression and other problems that have plagued many veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan.

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Pfizer Drops $119 Billion Bid For AstraZeneca

NPR News - Mon, 2014-05-26 21:36

Pharmaceutical giant Pfizer has been circling its smaller rival for months. AstraZeneca has rejected every offer saying Pfizer undervalues the company, and that it wants to remain independent.

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A Simple, Elegant Invention That Draws Water From Air

NPR News - Mon, 2014-05-26 18:06

The WarkaWater is shaped like a vase and looks like an art exhibit. By gathering condensation, it's providing water to Ethiopian villages and could be a solution for thirsty communities worldwide.

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Seven tips for first time home buyers

Marketplace - American Public Media - Mon, 2014-05-26 14:10

It can be discouraging for a first time home-buyer out there right now. High prices and a lot of cash buyers can make the process of finding and buying a new home for the first time fairly frustrating. Here are some tips from RealtyTrac’s Daren Blomquist.

1. Have your financing in place: be pre-qualified and pre-approved for a loan so you are ready to move quickly.

2. Don’t make your offer contingent on financing or inspection (even though you are getting financing). This is happening a lot in competitive markets like Seattle. It’s a bit risky though, because if for some reason the deal fell through, you could lose your earnest money.

3. Write a love letter! Seriously, write a letter to the seller of the house. Try to explain why you really need this house, connect with the seller on an emotional level.

4. Brace yourself. You’re not gonna get the first house you put an offer on. You’re going to be making many offers, and you should be prepared to for this. Fight buyer fatigue.

5. Go where the cash buyers aren’t. Co-ops in NYC, for example, or homes that need more rehab than usual.

6. Find sellers before the cash buyers do. Look at unlisted bank-owned homes, pre-foreclosures, or just knock on doors to find out who’s going to sell soon.

7. If you can’t beat them join them. Some people have found crowd-funding works, where they pool money with friends and family to purchase a home with cash. You can also use a self-directed IRA, a type of retirement account you can use to buy with cash.

Where have all the first time home buyers gone?

Marketplace - American Public Media - Mon, 2014-05-26 13:59

For about six months, Kevin Erspamer has been looking to buy his first home, in Brooklyn. “We’ve looked at 30 places at least,” he says.

His verdict? “We’re holding off for now.”

Him and would-be first-time homeowners across the country. 

At one point, first-time home buyers accounted for 50 percent of all home sales. Right now, they’re 29 percent.  And that number is pretty much where we were four years ago. Even counting the fact we are in a post-bubble, post-recession recovery, “first-time home buyers are down 20-25 percent from where they would normally be in the market,” says Chris Mayer, Paul Milstein Professor of Real Estate at the Columbia School of Business.   

In Erspamer’s case, prices have been high, for starters – sometimes rising 30 percent in just the time he’s been looking. Another problem he’s run into is the all-cash offer.

“You go, the open houses are completely full, and then the guy is like, we’ve had a number of offers over asking price, including all cash offers,” he recalls. “It makes you feel a little discouraged, like why would they ever accept my offer with financing if they have an all-cash offer.”

In the first quarter of 2014, 43 percent of U.S. residential property sales were all cash. 

“That’s the highest number we’ve ever seen and it’s really an astounding number,” says Daren Blomquist, vice president of RealtyTrac.

So who are these people who can lay down cash?

“Investors – just regular investors, as well as a new breed of investors entering this market, what we call institutional investors backed by hedge funds,” Blomquist says.

In some markets, foreign buyers looking for a place to park cash are an issue. Florida, California, Arizona, Texas, and New York account for 61 percent of international home purchases, according to the National Association of Realtors.  But there’s also a significant domestic competitor, says Blomquist.

“You also have retirees who in some cases are selling their homes in other parts of the country, and because they have built up equity they have cash to go buy a place in Florida,” where they can downsize.

While it might seem easy to blame Wall Street, the foreigners, and Grandma, there’s more going on.

“In a sense its crowding out, but it’s really just a reflection of the challenges that younger households are having coming into the market to buy a first home,” Mayer says.

There’s less inventory and more demand, which has pushed prices higher than many first-time buyers are comfortable with. Replenishing that inventory will “take some time because that’s going to require home builders building more homes and current homeowners who own a price deciding they have sufficient equity to sell their home and move up,” says Mayer. “That’s another missing piece – the move-up buyers,” he adds.

Mortgage lenders are still extremely fearful of lending to anyone without the most pristine credit. “Until very recently, the last couple weeks, if you were a lender for Fannie or Freddie, and the borrower missed any payment in the first 36 months, you’re facing the potential of having to buy that loan back from Fannie or Freddie.” 

Student loans are crowding out first time homebuyers’ ability to buy as well. “People with student loan debt, historically, have also been more likely to have a mortgage,” says Mayer. “Which meant they were able to buy a home. That has switched to the point that people with student loans today are less likely to have a mortgage. So it looks like student loan debt is pushing back the age of first time home purchase for many people.”

And don’t forget that the Federal Housing Authority now charges much higher default insurance premiums, meaning consumers can’t turn to the government for the same kind of support as in the past. “In typical years, the FHA’s share of the first-time home buyer market has been as high as 60 to 70 percent, it’s dropped to the 30 percent range,” says Malcolm Hollensteiner, director of retail lending  sales and production at TD Bank.

In the short term, these factors don’t appear to be changing much.

“Until that first-time homebuyer regains confidence and becomes more active in the marketplace, we’re going to continue to have a very soft housing recovery,” Hollensteiner says.

Celebrating 100 Years Of Ham Radio

NPR News - Mon, 2014-05-26 12:59

This will be a special year for the hundreds of enthusiasts who converge annually on W1AW, a small station in Newington, Conn., known as "the mecca of ham radio," to broadcast around the globe.

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Who's Using The Data Mined From Students?

NPR News - Mon, 2014-05-26 12:59

Information tracked by educational software can be of great help to teachers. But as Politico's Stephanie Simon explains, private companies can also monetize the data by selling it to marketers.

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On Memorial Day, Revisiting Stories Of The Fallen In Afghanistan

NPR News - Mon, 2014-05-26 12:59

At Arlington National Cemetery, President Obama honored the sacrifices of those who died while serving in the military. We remember the stories of some of those who died in America's longest war.

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What We Know About The Man Behind The Isla Vista Killings

NPR News - Mon, 2014-05-26 12:59

Scott Gold, senior writer for The Los Angeles Times discusses Elliot Rodger, the man who police say went on a stabbing and shooting rampage in Isla Vista, Calif., last week before killing himself.

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