National News

Is there a better way to find answers than 'Googling'?

Marketplace - American Public Media - Tue, 2014-05-13 07:47

There is a TV screen in Kartik Ramakrishnan's office that displays an endless loop of questions. He is the COO of Ask.com, which you may remember from the early '90s as the search engine Ask Jeeves. One question scrolling over his screen reads, “What causes hiccups?”

That, Ramakrishnan says, is a question everyone has either wondered about or been asked. Ask.com is hoping it can be the go-to place for the answer. We'll give you the answer about hiccups later. First though, some history.

In the early days of the web, Google crushed competitors in the search engine market and established itself as the entry point for the internet. Ramakrishnan talks ruefully about scars from Google's thorough lashing. After some soul-searching, Ask.com decided to refocus.

“We are the granddaddy of going to ask the world how to answer questions,” Ramakrishnan says. So the company decided it should re-brand itself as a question-and-answer site. Ask.com may be the granddaddy, but there are plenty of upstarts.

Social networks, search engines, and new apps are trying various strategies to answer your questions. At the same time, all of them have one big question to answer for themselves. If someone wants to know something, why shouldn't they just Google it? Ramakrishnan is quick to point out, “there is not one way in which you can actually come up with answers to peoples' questions.”

Google's search engine framework has limitations that are being exploited by a new wave of companies. For instance, with Google you can't use your phone to pose a question with a picture. You also can't ask for responses from experts or friends.

Venture capitalists think these approaches have the potential to make some money. The website Quora is a good example. It operates kind of like a social network. Users can post questions, write answers, and vote up responses they like. Venture capitalists recently poured an additional $80 million of investment into the site.

Quora has found an essentially free way to generate content. Like Wikipedia, it is all written by users, like Alon Amit. He says, “I can't stand seeing an answer or someone needing an answer that I have and not responding.” Quora encourages users to produce answers by acknowledging top writers and fostering social interactions.

Quora currently has no revenue stream, and it relies on the social network for its content. If that network falls apart, so does the site. Venture capitalist Josh Elman says an investor might take the risk with a company like this because they believe there is a, "fundamental behavior that is happening in the product that someone will pay for.”

Plus, there is a fallback plan. Even if Quora's content, data, or interactions cannot be leveraged somehow in the future, the company could always just put up advertising on the site.

Elman is putting his money where his mouth is—not in Quora, but in the company called Jelly. His firm, Greylock Partners, has invested in the new mobile question-and-answer app.

Jelly allows people to take a picture on their phone and use it to ask a question. Imagine, Elman says, someone has an emergency with a leaky pipe. The person snaps a picture of it, and asks what's wrong. A nearby plumber replies with a solution. Elman believes this kind of connection could one day generate revenue.“I think that there are just so many questions that aren't just easily answered by a three or four word search, because the answer isn't always on a website,” he says, “the answer might be in somebody's head.”

Quora and Jelly are taking two different approaches to answering questions, and in the end, they yield different results. Quora provides opinion and community, while on the other hand, Jelly provides solutions to local problems. While they both deal with questions, their users are seeking fundamentally different results. Ramakrishnan thinks that's the key to this whole business: understanding what users are really asking for. And that's no easy task.

Ramakrishna says over the years we have all become so “Googlized,” that we expect to prod the Internet with a few keywords and get results. He thinks of these keywords as under-formed questions that need to be fleshed out. Does the user want concise information? Opinion and community? Maybe all the person needs is a good local plumber. He says “our angle on this is, 'Lets do a better job at helping the user craft and formulate what those questions themselves might be.'”

Ask.com throws a wide net for answers. They give search results, peer-written responses, even content they pay to produce. But not everyone is pleased.Computer scientist Jerry Feldman is a particularly harsh critic. "The notion that either an automated system or some social networking system will be a reliable source of information about everything you want to know is very unlikely," he says. People aren't even that good at figuring out what other people want, Feldman argues, so it's an extremely difficult task for a computer.

But there is money to be made even without all the answers. Companies just need to figure out what it is their users want, and find some way to reliably deliver it.

By the way, Ask.com can tell you what causes hiccups. It's a lot of things: carbonated beverages, an irritated diaphragm, alcohol.

As for why we get them? Well, some things we still don't have a good answer for.

Employers May Start Paying You To Buy Health Insurance

NPR News - Tue, 2014-05-13 07:32

It costs a lot for companies to buy health insurance, so the idea of giving employees money to buy their own coverage has a lot of appeal. But it might end up being more expensive for workers.

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Texas Set For First Execution Since Oklahoma's Botched Attempt

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

Defense attorneys for Robert Campbell want his execution delayed, but Texas says its single-drug execution method has been proven effective and efficient.

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PODCAST: The shoppers who never showed

Marketplace - American Public Media - Tue, 2014-05-13 06:50

Forecasters were expecting a spike in retail sales during April. The government said there was nothing of the kind. Retail sales last month rose just a tenth of a percent, with consumers proceeding cautiously, despite warmer weather. Taking out volatile spending on cars, gasoline and food, so-called "core" retail sales fell slightly. Not exactly a boom in the making.

Meanwhile, economic data from China covering April suggested across the board weakness in economic activity there -- from output to investment to consumption -- all missing the expectations of experts. These are leading to renewed calls for Beijing to ease up on its efforts to rein in its bubbly credit markets.  Marketplace regular Christopher Low, the chief economist at FTN Financial in New York is traveling in Hong Kong and joins us to discuss.

Representatives from Vallejo, California are visiting the White House Tuesday to talk about "participatory budgeting," a unique democratic process where residents propose and choose city-funded projects. Residents in this small San Francisco Bay Area city voted-in participatory budgeting after the city went through a bankruptcy in 2008. A small portion of the city's overall budget is allocated to the process, made available through a sales tax. This year, residents have $2.4 million to work with.

 

Christopher Columbus Ship The Santa Maria May Have Been Found

NPR News - Tue, 2014-05-13 06:43

The ship sank in 1492 after hitting reefs off the Haitian coast. Undersea explorer Barry Clifford says he's working with Haiti's government to carry out an archaeological excavation of the wreck.

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Resveratrol May Not Be The Elixir In Red Wine And Chocolate

NPR News - Tue, 2014-05-13 06:06

Red wine and chocolate may be good for you, but it's likely not from the resveratrol. A study finds that the antioxidant had no influence on longevity, cancer, heart disease or inflammation levels.

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Group Says There's 'Strong Evidence' Syrian Regime Used Chemical Weapons

NPR News - Tue, 2014-05-13 05:16

Meanwhile, a defector has handed the U.S. government 11,000 pictures the opposition says shows systematic torture. France is pushing for President Bashar Assad to be tried for war crimes.

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Book News: Each Page Of 'A Drinkable Book' Kills Bacteria In Drinking Water

NPR News - Tue, 2014-05-13 05:03

A "Drinkable Book" can be used to treat drinking water. Also: a new book claims to know the identity of the Zodiac Killer; why all books about Africa use the same cover image.

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Google Must Delete Personal Data When Asked, European Court Says

NPR News - Tue, 2014-05-13 04:43

The case started when a Spanish man was irked that a 1998 notice about his home being repossessed was still online. Privacy advocates are welcoming a win for the "right to be forgotten."

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New book tells of China's modern awakening

Marketplace - American Public Media - Tue, 2014-05-13 04:12

If someone forced you to name the biggest economic and social transformation of the last 35 years, what would you say? The internet, probably.

But what about China, where more than half a billion people have moved up from poverty? Like so much good writing about vast topics, New Yorker writer Evan Osnos tells it from the grassroots.

Osnos' new book, Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth and Faith in the New China is out today. Click the above audio player to listen to our discussion.

New books tells of China's modern awakening

Marketplace - American Public Media - Tue, 2014-05-13 04:12

If someone forced you to name the biggest economic and social transformation of the last 35 years, what would you say? The internet, probably.

But what about China, where more than half a billion people have moved up from poverty? Like so much good writing about vast topics, New Yorker writer Evan Osnos tells it from the grassroots.

Osnos' new book, Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth and Faith in the New China is out today. Click the above audio player to listen to our discussion.

Former Israeli Leader Ehud Olmert Gets 6-Year Prison Term For Bribery

NPR News - Tue, 2014-05-13 03:28

In the first criminal conviction of a former Israeli prime minister, Ehud Olmert is punished for taking bribes related to a real estate deal. His sentence also includes a fine of $290,000.

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Nigerian Woman Spots Her Daughter In Boko Haram Video

NPR News - Tue, 2014-05-13 03:11

The video released by extremist group Boko Haram on Monday shows more than 100 abducted girls. Officials say they are open to negotiate.

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Coming Soon To Your TV: Campaign Ads Targeted At You

NPR News - Tue, 2014-05-13 02:52

Soon, you could be watching political ads based on your television viewing habits and the information the political parties have collected about your gender, party registration and voting habits.

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In Caustic Nebraska Senate Race, GOP Battle Lines Are Blurred

NPR News - Tue, 2014-05-13 02:52

In Tuesday's Senate GOP primary, there's little ideological difference between the top candidates, and no one can lay exclusive claim to tea party support.

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Weak retail sales and the danger of discounts

Marketplace - American Public Media - Tue, 2014-05-13 02:50

(Story updated Tuesday, May 13, 2014; 9 am P.T.)

A new report shows that April's retail sales increased 0.1 percent. That's a surprisingly weak report -- and follows a strong showing in March, when sales jumped 1.1 percent.

That followed dismal sales numbers earlier in the year, attributed to the nasty winter weather that kept shoppers in many states indoors. Syracuse University retail professor Amanda Nicholson says retailers she talks to are "much more hopeful. People are actually smiling occasionally because the warmth brings people out."

But nice weather only goes so far in making the sale. Many who follow the retail market are concerned that stores are being forced to aggressively slash prices.

"To get people enticed, it seems to take a lot more effort than it used to," says Morningstar economic analysis director Bob Johnson.

Now we all love deals, but stores having to resort to massive sales can signal troubling news about shoppers' lives. If consumers aren't buying until they see a 50 percent off tag, that could mean they're still hurting financially.

If consumer hesitancy affects retailers' bottom lines, stores could cut back on hiring, expanding and investing, affecting the larger economy.

Some retailers may be smiling a little bit more often as they enjoy the sunshine, but there will need to be several months of sustained retail strength before those grins become widespread.

Retail numbers and the danger of discounts

Marketplace - American Public Media - Tue, 2014-05-13 02:50

UPDATE, 8:30AM ET April 15, 2014: A new report shows that U.S. April retail sales increased 0.1%.

Original story:

April's retail numbers could follow a strong showing in March, when sales jumped 1.1 percent.

That followed dismal sales numbers earlier in the year, attributed to the nasty winter weather that kept shoppers in many states indoors. Syracuse University retail professor Amanda Nicholson says retailers she talks to are "much more hopeful. People are actually smiling occasionally because the warmth brings people out."

But nice weather only goes so far in making the sale. Many who follow the retail market are concerned that stores are being forced to aggressively slash prices.

"To get people enticed, it seems to take a lot more effort than it used to," says Morningstar economic analysis director Bob Johnson.

Now we all love deals, but stores having to resort to massive sales can signal troubling news about shoppers' lives. If consumers aren't buying until they see a 50 percent off tag, that could mean they're still hurting financially.

If consumer hesitancy affects retailers' bottom lines, stores could cut back on hiring, expanding and investing, affecting the larger economy.

Some retailers may be smiling a little bit more often as they enjoy the sunshine, but there will need to be several months of sustained retail strength before those grins become widespread.

Pinterest starts selling Pins to business

Marketplace - American Public Media - Tue, 2014-05-13 02:45

Pinterest, the social media site where people build collections, said this weekit will start taking paid ads for the first time. They're called "Promoted Pins," and look a lot like the other content on the site.

With millions of users, will this be Pinterest's golden ticket? For a company valued at nearly $4 billion, but still not making money, selling ads is a smart move, says Noah Abelson, CEO of Shareroot, which works with brands to promote themselves on Pinterest.

"You express yourself through what you're interested in," Abelson says.

And because Pinterest is about interests, he says, "It's very, very easy for a brand to be a part of that conversation."

General Mills, Target, and Banana Republic are among the companies buying promoted pins. The price could be more than $1 million, depending on how many people the ads reach. Pinterest has tens of millions of users.

"So if you're a cosmetics company or a fashion company, it could be very, very effective to advertise on Pinterest," says Karsten Weide an analyst with IDC. On the other hand, he says Pinterest has a limited audience: mostly younger women, with kids.

'Participatory budgeting' goes to the White House

Marketplace - American Public Media - Tue, 2014-05-13 02:40

Representatives from Vallejo, California are visiting the White House Tuesday to talk about "participatory budgeting," a unique democratic process where residents propose and choose city-funded projects.

Residents in this small San Francisco Bay Area city voted-in participatory budgeting after the city went through a bankruptcy in 2008. A small portion of the city's overall budget is allocated to the process, made available through a sales tax. This year, residents have $2.4 million to work with.

That pot of money has sparked ideas. On a weekday evening in February, about 60 residents broke up into small groups at Glen Cove elementary school for a brainstorming session. They proposed everything from more street lighting to a day-use center for the homeless. One 28-year old resident proposed an outdoor fitness center.

"Similar to Venice Beach, like a 'muscle beach' type, but at the waterfront," says Vincent Trujillo.

Other Vallejo residents want a public bank, more ice cream trucks and meditation classes to end student truancy.

"Often participatory budget events are quite cathartic," says Alea Gage, an administrative analyst at the city manager's office who acts as a liaison for the participatory budging process.

Gage says residents may even have fun while getting closer to government.

"At our final [brainstorming] assembly... we had Motown tunes on, and we even got some of our city council members to boogey a little bit," says Gage.

Vallejo residents are now in the process of wittling down 620 ideas. The projects go for a city-wide vote in October after nine months of work shopping. Last year, potholes and street repair got the most city-wide votes.

"Potholes represent a basic level of service, and they indicate quality of life," says Gage.

But participatory budgeting is not just repairing streets. City Manager Dan Keen says it's also restoring confidence.

"What we earned was some good will, from... a segment of the community that 'the city cares about us, they want to know what we have to say, and when we give them our feedback, they followed through and they did what we asked,'" says Keen.

Keen says at first, he didn't believe residents would show up for something as mundane as city budgeting.

"I was dead wrong about that," he says.

One city council member says residents need to use the process or they might lose it. Less than 600 people showed up for the brainstorming sessions.

The challenge for them is fitting their imagination inside city limits.

A canary in the coal mine... and in your Mac

Marketplace - American Public Media - Tue, 2014-05-13 01:00

Canaries can be useful creatures. Coal miners used to bring them into the mines as a warning sign of methane or carbon monoxide. A dead canary meant the miners needed to get out of there pronto.

Now a clever loophole in the rules regarding NSA requests for information is letting companies warn their customers in the same way a little yellow bird might signal trouble. 

It's called a "warrant canary", and several major companies like Apple have already used it in their "transparency reports."

The idea is that while the NSA can enforce rules on companies to not tell their customers when their information has been acquired, it is still within a company's rights to tell their customers what they haven't been asked. If a transparency report gets released without a statement saying that the NSA has not requested information, then a customer can infer that the request has been made.

The idea originated from a public library that posted a sign on its door each day saying that the Government had not yet asked for any information on the patrons. The insinuation was that if ever the library did not post the sign, it meant that the NSA had made a request.

According to Jonathan Zittrain, Professor of Law at Harvard and co-founder of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society, it's not only a clever way to let customers know if their information may have been acquired by the NSA, but also a way for the private sector to agitate Government agencies on the issues involved in privacy.

"To mix my fowl, it’s a game of chicken played with a warrant canary. Under the first amendment, it may well be much more dicey for the government to insist that a company lie rather than to tell a company it may not speak."

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