National News

Run Run Shaw, Kung Fu Movie Pioneer, Dies

NPR News - Tue, 2014-01-07 07:59

The Hong Kong movie mogul's films included 1972's Five Fingers of Death, which was a kung fu classic. With his brother Ronnie, Shaw produced more than 1,000 films over five decades. He also helped produce some American films, including Blade Runner. Later, he became a prominent philanthropist.

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First Batch Of Chemical Weapons Material Shipped Out Of Syria

NPR News - Tue, 2014-01-07 07:57

A U.N. official said a Danish commercial vessel carrying the cache is now in international waters, waiting on another batch.

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U.N. Suspends Counting Deaths In Syria's Civil War

NPR News - Tue, 2014-01-07 07:55

The U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights says it can't verify its sources and so will leave the figure at 100,000, where it stood in July.

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Senate paves way for jobless benefits extension

Marketplace - American Public Media - Tue, 2014-01-07 06:45

Now that the Senate has narrowly voted, 60 to 37, to take up a three-month extension of unemployment benefits, it likely sets the stage for the bill's Senate passage later this week. House Republicans have said they'd consider the idea, but only if the cost of the extended benefits is offset.

Deals like that are common in Washington, but that doesn't mean the savings always materialize as promised. 

“There’s a con going on,” says economist Donald Marron. 

Marron is a former economic adviser for George W. Bush, now at the Urban Institute.  He says Congress isn’t a bunch of cons, but he says its budget deals are pretty gimmicky, like when Congress ignores a program’s long-term costs, focusing instead only on short-term revenues.

“So they’ll show up and they’ll appear to be helping to pay for whatever the program is you want to pursue, but it still means in the long run that we’re going to lose money," Marron explains.

Now you see it.  Now you don’t.  That short-term thinking leads leads to itty-bitty deals, like the Senate’s proposed emergency unemployment extension, which would only last three months. 

“If it’s only for three months you can sort of slide it under the rug and you don’t have to pay for it," says Henrietta Treyz, a budget expert at Height Analytics.

Just don’t look under the rug.  Some Washington wonks say these kinds of games are inevitable right now.  Harry Holzer, who teaches public policy at Georgetown, says with some in Congress vowing to take huge bites out of the deficit, normal budget negotiations just aren’t possible.    

"It often has to be a bit of a shell game to square with their very severe rhetoric on fiscal austerity right now,” he says.

Dennis Rodman Defends North Korean 'Basketball Diplomacy'

NPR News - Tue, 2014-01-07 06:39

In a combative interview with CNN, the former NBA star implies that imprisoned American businessman Kenneth Bae, sentenced in May to 15 years' hard labor, is guilty of trying to overthrow the regime of Kim Jong Un.

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Deaths Are Bitter Reminder Of Cold Snap's Dangers

NPR News - Tue, 2014-01-07 06:37

Bitterly cold temperatures and storms have already caused at least 15 deaths in recent days. Authorities remind everyone that it's important to be prepared and to stay inside if you can. That advice may seem obvious, but people do continue to take risks.

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JPMorgan Chase To Pay $1.7 Billion To Madoff Victims

NPR News - Tue, 2014-01-07 06:32

The bank will be criminally charged with two violations of the Bank Secrecy Act, but will receive a deferred prosecution under the agreement.

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Skier Lindsey Vonn Will Miss Winter Olympics Due To Injury

NPR News - Tue, 2014-01-07 06:04

A dominant downhill skier, Vonn has been trying to recover from a knee injury. "But the reality has sunk in that my knee is just too unstable to compete at this level," she announced Tuesday.

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To Make Healthier Choices, Color-Code Your Food (Green Means Go!)

NPR News - Tue, 2014-01-07 05:26

Could a little red circle help you skip the comfort food this winter and maybe drop a few pounds? Doctors from Massachusetts General Hospital think so. They put traffic-light labels on their cafeteria's menu to signal the healthfulness of dishes. The colorful cues helped improve eating habits even two years later.

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Don't worry, bee happy?

Marketplace - American Public Media - Tue, 2014-01-07 05:17

Beekeepers and honey producers both launch annual meetings today.

It’s a grim time to be in the bee business as American honeybees are dying at an alarming rate due to what’s called colony collapse disorder. No one is certain what’s behind the collapse, but the problem has become so severe it’s gotten the attention of big business.

You can see heightened concern just by looking who is coming to the American Honey Producer Association conference this week. President Randy Verhoek says ten years ago their annual conference was intimate.

"We’d get in different beekeepers to speak, different scientists from the universities," he says. But with the decline of honeybees, the guest list has grown.

"We’re going to have Bayer, Dow, Monsanto," he says.

Producers worry as honey sales this year are expected at no more than $280 million, $30 million down from last year, and are concerned about certain new pesticides and herbicides. There’s also concern farmers are quickly wiping out plants that bees need for foraging as land gets converted for corn and soybeans.

University of Illinois Professor May Berenbaum says the more widely-attended meeting shows as the bee problem worsens, cooperation improves. "We really should take a lead from the bees. If anybody has figured out how to work cooperatively, it’s the honeybee," she says.

Considering that honeybee health threatens the pollination of billions of dollars worth of crops every year, Berenbaum says she’s optimistic.

Senate Votes To Move Ahead On Extending Unemployment Benefits

NPR News - Tue, 2014-01-07 05:13

In a 60-37 vote, the measure passes a key procedural hurdle, moving a three-month extension of benefits to 1.3 million Americans closer to passage.

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Conflict minerals disclosure rule heads to court

Marketplace - American Public Media - Tue, 2014-01-07 05:04

Today, a federal appeals court hears arguments against a rule requiring companies to start reporting conflict minerals in their products. These minerals are mined in and around the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), and used by armed groups to fund a conflict that’s killed millions.

Critics say the rule is onerous and may have unintended consequences.

Tin, tantalum, tungsten, and gold are the minerals in question. They help you send texts. They make your phone vibrate. They are deeply embedded in our electronic lives and the supply chains of thousands of companies.

Sasha Lezhnev is a senior policy analyst with the Enough Project. He says some companies are enthusiastically rooting out conflict minerals.

“I just traveled with Intel, with Motorola Solutions and a couple of other companies to Congo, and we were identifying mines that they can start sourcing from in a clean manner,” he says.

But some industry groups say compliance is too costly and complex. J. Peter Pham is the director of the Atlantic Council's Africa Center. He worries the rule has an unwanted side effect.

“Because of the reporting requirements and the burden put on global companies, they’ve simply chosen not to do business with any companies in the DRC,” he says.

Pham says that’s driving many of the region’s individual miners out of work.

Under the rule, which is part of the Dodd-Frank Act, there’s actually no penalty for using conflict minerals. The only damage is to brand reputation.

Can startups succeed outside Silicon Valley?

Marketplace - American Public Media - Tue, 2014-01-07 04:55

In a recent article in the Harvard Business Review online, investor and tech executive Max Wessel argued forcefully that entrepreneurs should think twice about starting their companies anyplace other than a major center for venture capital and high-tech talent on the East or West Coast.

“Don’t build your startup outside of a superhub—a well-established ecosystem with funding, talent, and the ability for liquidity events to happen quite seamlessly,” Wessel explained in a recent interview.

Wessel argues that a budding entrepreneur will only be able to find enough angel and VC funding, professional support (everything from computer programmers, to lawyers and bankers who can support an IPO), and big companies that can acquire smaller companies, in three places—New York, Boston and Silicon Valley.

The Kauffman Foundation released a study in mid-2013 identifying the top twenty-five metro areas for high-tech startup density, and found San Jose, California and Cambridge, Massachusetts ranking just behind Boulder and Fort Collins, Colorado, in the top slots. Also in the top tier: Seattle, Washington; Raleigh, North Carolina; Huntsville, Alabama; and Salt Lake City and Provo, Utah.

“If you look in those minor markets, the number of acquirers who could buy your business, the number of professional services firms that could help your business get to that point of IPO, they’re all much less common,” says Wessel. “And that creates a real impediment to taking a fledgling startup ecosystem and making it a full-blown success story.”

Brad Feld, author of the book “Startup Communities: Building an Entrepreneurial Ecosystem in your City,” strongly disagrees.

“I think it’s unbelievably myopic to say the only place you can build your company is Silicon Valley or City X,” says Feld, who cofounded the Foundry Group early-stage VC fund as well as the Techstars mentorship and accelerator program for entrepreneurs. “It goes against the law of systems dynamics--if everyone goes to a certain place to do a certain thing, you’re not going to have increasing returns forever. You should decide where to live your life, and then build your life around that.”

Feld asks: “Can you have successful companies in other geographies that are significant successes? The answer is, of course, because there are many of them. Not so long ago the statement was made that you shouldn’t start a company anywhere other than Silicon Valley. Boston and New York weren’t on that list.”

Feld points out that he and other entrepreneurs have made the college town of Boulder, Colorado, the runaway leader nationwide for startups-per-capita, according to the Kauffman Foundation’s research.

Another place ranking high on that list: central Utah.

All along the Wasatch Range, from Provo, Utah, north to Salt Lake City, a warren of startups feeds off legacy tech companies like Novell and Ancestry.com.

In a gleaming Provo office suite is Qualtrics. Its 350 employees crunch masses of market and customer data for corporate and university clients.

Ryan Smith is CEO—in 2012, his firm landed $70 million in venture capital from two Silicon Valley funds (Sequoia and Accel). But Smith says being far from Silicon Valley has actually been good for growth. Investors weren’t throwing money at the company early on--before it had significant revenue or customers--so his team had to create products customers actually wanted to buy—right away.

“We were bootstrapped for ten years, basically,” says Smith. “What we killed is what we could eat. You’ve got to be extremely scrappy. Some of the most innovative times at Qualtrics have been when our back was up against the wall and we had to make payroll. And every employee had to count and contribute to the bottom line.”

Other Utah entrepreneurs say employees are more loyal here—not itching to jump ship every few months for a higher salary or the dream of a quick, profitable exit.

“At some point you start to get diseconomies of too much cluster,” says Gavin Christensen, founder of Kickstart, a Salt Lake City-based seed investment fund. “You get a labor force that becomes very disloyal,” he says of Silicon Valley. “They’re always looking for the next opportunity, getting paid more, the startup that’s a little hotter.”

Investor and writer Max Wessel concedes a startup entrepreneur might find some of the funding and talent they need in places like Boulder or Salt Lake City. But otherwise—“any entrepreneur who’s looking at building a new business might be better off moving.”

First story in the series:

The best hope for U.S. job growth to take off in coming years might be through entrepreneurship. While it’s true that startups fail at a high rate, when they succeed, they can be engines for rapid job growth, often in highly skilled jobs that pay above-average wages. Metropolitan areas that are centers of startup activity also tend to have lower unemployment than the national average.

The startup scene is intense in Silicon Valley, Boston and New York, of course. Those are hubs of university research, where a lot of venture capital firms are based, as well as tech companies that have already made it big (providing talent, investment capital from stock options and exits, and spin-off ideas).

But according to research published in August 2013 by the Kauffman Foundation, a think tank based in Kansas City, some of the most active metro areas for startup-generation are farther off the beaten path. In the report, Salt Lake City and Provo, Utah, ranked No. 11 and No. 12 for information-technology startups-per-capita in the country. Just ahead of them ranked places like Cambridge, Mass., and North Carolina’s Research Triangle.

So, what’s so special about the urban corridor in Central Utah that’s helping it jump ahead in the startup race?

To find out, I first head to a startup called Power Practical. It’s based in an old warehouse in Salt Lake City. David Toledo, 25, is the co-founder—he greets me in faded cords and a work shirt.

“This project started in a basement,” Toledo explains, “and then moved to a slightly larger basement. And then from 300 square feet after our ($126,000) Kickstarter project, we expanded to 1,500 square feet, which is this production facility we’re standing in right now. We actually remodeled this place—there was no insulation, we built all the stairs. That’s what we do, we build stuff here.”

What half-a-dozen guys—also in work shirts—are building on tool benches is cooking pots that double as cellphone-or-computer-chargers. The Power Pot is designed for campers who want to use their camera or GPS in the wilderness (even if they’re out of cell-tower range), or for emergency workers when the power goes out.

Here’s how it works: You fill the pot with water or whatever you’re heating up, put it on top of a camping stove, campfire or hot coals. Then, plug your device-of-choice into an insulated cord that snakes out from the Power Pot's handle.

“As the heat goes through the thermo-electrics into the water, that’s where you get the power from,” explains Toledo.

The basic technology came out of engineering research Toledo and his colleagues did at the University of Utah. Two years since its launch, Power Practical has 15 employees, $750,000 in seed funding, and almost $1 million in sales. Toledo says some months, the business is profitable. Power Practical is also launching new products for testing and maximizing power flow through electronic chargers to computers, smartphones and other devices.

Utah has plenty of other startups doing outdoor-oriented tech-gear. The business cluster is actively promoted by state economic development officials, and fits with the mountains and world-class skiing.

“I’m an eagle scout,” says Toledo. “What we do with our free time is go adventuring, camping, hiking, backpacking. Standard of living is really high.”

The cost of living, meanwhile, is pretty low.

So, Utah’s secret weapon Number 1 is location. It’s a place to which people want to come, and in which they can afford to stay. Meaning, entrepreneurs can afford to hire them, and might not have to outbid a rival startup trying to poach their talent.

Utah’s secret weapon Number 2 is talent. It’s been built up by older Utah tech companies, such as WordPerfect and Ancestry.com. Local universities also play a big role. Brigham Young, the largest Mormon university in the country, has a robust entrepreneurship program. The University of Utah ranks up with MIT for commercializing lab research, according to the Association of University Technology Managers.

At the other end of Utah’s startup-corridor, about 40 miles south of Salt Lake City along I-15, is the city of Provo, tucked against the foothills of the Wasatch Range.

Provo is home to BYU, which helped back a new startup incubator called Camp 4. It's housed in an old candy factory, across the street from a railroad station, with dramatic views of the mountains just to the east. The name of the family that founded the candy company in the late 1800s was actually 'Startup.'

Inside, the décor is funky industrial—distressed wooden floors, exposed beams, huge casement windows, flip-charts, work stations, high-speed internet.

I met Sean Huntington here. He’s 27, originally from Mesa, Arizona, studying photography down the road at Brigham Young. Only most of the time he’s here at the startup incubator, working the phone, testing software. He’s “living the startup life,” he says. “It’s all-consuming, not taking a paycheck home, and just trying to survive with whatever means necessary.”

Huntington’s been developing a smartphone app that sells merchandise during a concert—fan-stuff like t-shirts, headshots, and CDs. “It’s a digital merch booth for live events,” he explains, “a tool for artists to reach their fans in the moment they’re most likely to buy, which is during the concert.” By gathering information about customers who make purchases, the app can help an artist with future marketing and fan loyalty.

“The project’s called Vicci,” he says. I ask if it's spelled the Latin way? No, he says. “We’re doing that startup thing where you spell things incorrectly and try to be cool. We are gearing up for the Donny and Marie Osmond Christmas tour.”

The Osmonds are still a popular act, and the family is from nearby. In fact, in the late 2000s, they performed top hits backed by the world-famous Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

The Osmonds are emblematic of Mormon business success, which constitutes the third and final secret weapon I identified as contributing to Utah’s strength as an emerging startup hub. There are Mormon values, like self-reliance and hard work. And these are reinforced by the mission, in which many young Mormons travel far from home to proselytize door-to-door (mission is typically two years for young men and eighteen months for young women).

Joel Ragar is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS). He went on mission to Seattle, came back to Utah to go to university, and launched a startup for golf software called ForeUp. He says harsh words, doors slammed in his face, even the occasional gun pulled on him as he approached, were all par for the course on mission.

“I’ve had more rejections in the amount of two years than probably most people,” Ragar says. “Rejection is a huge thing you learn to overcome and to not take it personally. In our software today, I do a lot of sales and I’m rejected a lot, too.”

Gavin Christensen, who went on his LDS mission to Norway and eventually came back to Salt Lake City to found the Kickstart Seed Fund (with approximately $34 million invested in local startups and growth-stage companies) says the experience was invaluable.

“What Utah has in spades is entrepreneurial drive, and a lot of that comes from the culture here, which has a lot to do with the church, and a lot to do with kids like us serving missions at young ages,” says Christensen. “It was hard, it was a crucible you pass through and you learn what hard work’s about. I look back and think: starting a seed fund has not been nearly as hard as the mission was.”

Maxwell Wessel is an investor based in Washington, D.C., who’s written a series of blog posts about the startup economy for the Harvard Business Review. He agrees with Christensen that Mormonism matters.

“It is very meaningful,” says Wessel. “There is nothing quite like the drive and approach they have to building a business.”

Wessel has argued provocatively that it is hard for startups to succeed outside the traditional startup hubs such as Silicon Valley, Cambridge and New York. He doubts they can find the talent and funding they need. But he thinks Utah might be different.

“I think Salt Lake City is a very interesting market with an extensive amount of venture capital flowing in,” says Wessel. “So it might be the anomaly.”

That's as long as people with talent and drive keep settling down here, after they’ve seen the wide world beyond.

Hang In There Another Day Or So — Warmer Air Is Coming

NPR News - Tue, 2014-01-07 04:45

While bone-chilling temperatures remain across much of the nation, there are some fun (and safe) things to do. Morning Edition is asking for photos about what some very cool folks are up to.

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London's Cheeky Skyscrapers

NPR News - Tue, 2014-01-07 03:57

London's most modern skyscrapers have their formal names. But they are also given irreverent nicknames like "The Cheese Grater" and "The Prawn."

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Florida State Wins A Thriller To Take College Championship

NPR News - Tue, 2014-01-07 03:45

A wild final 4 1/2 minutes was capped by Florida State's winning touchdown that came with just 13 seconds left in the game. So the much-debated Bowl Championship Series system ends with a great game.

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The Secret Burglary That Exposed J. Edgar Hoover's FBI

NPR News - Mon, 2014-01-06 23:58

A new book reveals details of the historic 1971 burglary of an FBI office in Media, Pa. The theft of documents exposed domestic surveillance abuses committed by J. Edgar Hoover's FBI. The bureau never solved the case. Now, for the first time in four decades, the people behind the burglary have told their story.

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Sunday Assembly: A Church For The Godless Picks Up Steam

NPR News - Mon, 2014-01-06 23:57

There's little talk of God at "Sunday Assembly," but you will find community, music and skepticism. There are now almost 30 congregations in several countries, offering what the British founders of the movement call "the best bits of church, but with no religion and awesome pop songs."

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Florida St. Beats Auburn 34-31 In Last BCS Championship Game

NPR News - Mon, 2014-01-06 21:27

Jameis Winston threw a 13-yard touchdown pass to Kelvin Benjamin with 13 seconds left and No. 1 Florida State beat No. 2 Auburn 34-31 to win the last BCS national championship game on Monday night.

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Texas Hires Coach Charlie Strong, And History Is Close At Hand

NPR News - Mon, 2014-01-06 17:57

As he moves from Louisville to Austin, Strong becomes the first black coach of a men's team at Texas. For some, his hiring brings to mind how things have changed at a school that, during the 1960s, fielded teams made up of only white players.

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