National News

Colleges To Students: Don't Trash Those Dorm Castoffs, Donate!

NPR News - Mon, 2015-05-25 04:03

As college students leave for the summer, many just throw away what they can't fit in the car for the ride home. But some schools are trying to find a new home for those campus castoffs.

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Funeral home fraud rose in 2014, FTC probe finds

Marketplace - American Public Media - Mon, 2015-05-25 03:00

Every year, the Federal Trade Commission conducts an undercover investigation to make sure funeral homes are following the FTC’s funeral rule to give customers a price list immediately and to not sell unnecessary, unwanted services.

The idea is for consumers “to be able to take a deep breath and look at a document that says, 'This is what I’m going to pay,' " says Lois Greisman, who heads the FTC’s funeral enforcement. " 'Can I really afford this?' ”

Greisman says in 2014, about a quarter of the funeral homes the FTC investigated broke the rule. 

“It’s certainly higher than we would like to see it,” says T. Scott Gilligan, general counsel for the National Funeral Directors Association. “It’s a complicated rule. It’s very easy to slip up. And the problem is, you’re only as good as your worst staff member.”

Funeral homes face fines of up to $16,000 per rule violation, but they can avoid fines by enrolling in a training program run by the funeral directors association.

PODCAST: Show me the money, airlines

Marketplace - American Public Media - Mon, 2015-05-25 03:00

Asian stocks spring while most of the world's stock takes a breather. More on that. Plus, lower fuel prices have translated into huge savings for airline companies. Very little of those savings are being passed along to customers. So, what are the airlines doing with all of that money? And on a quest to invent a smart smoker, a Harvard engineering class is partnering with Williams Sonoma. We check in on their results.

Your funeral home may be ripping you off

Marketplace - American Public Media - Mon, 2015-05-25 03:00

Every year, the Federal Trade Commission, or FTC, does an undercover investigation, to make sure funeral homes are following the FTC’s funeral rule. 

They're supposed to give customers a price list immediately, and they're not supposed to sell unnecessary services.

The idea is for consumers, “to be able to take a deep breath and look at a document that says, 'This is what I’m going to pay,'" says Lois Greisman, who heads the FTC’s funeral enforcement. "'Can I really afford this?'”

Greisman says in 2014, about a quarter of the funeral homes the FTC investigated broke the rule. 

“It’s certainly higher than we would like to see it,” says T. Scott Gilligan, general counsel for the National Funeral Directors Association. “It’s a complicated rule. It’s very easy to slip up.  And the problem is, you’re only as good as your worst staff member.”

Funeral homes face fines of up to $16,000 per rule violation. 

They can avoid fines by enrolling in a training program run by the funeral directors association.

Cheaper fuel, cheaper flights. But not for you.

Marketplace - American Public Media - Mon, 2015-05-25 02:00

A gallon of jet fuel will cost you around $1.66 a gallon these days. That’s down 40 percent from what it was this time last year.

For airlines, which bought more than 16 billion gallons of fuel in 2014, we're talking about a savings of possibly around $22 billion, says Samuel Engel, who manages the aviation practice at ICF International. In 2012, fuel represented 31 percent of global airline costs, and this year it’s around 25 percent. Fuel isn’t the airlines’ only cost, but it’s their largest.

If you were hoping to see some of that savings in the form of cheaper tickets, get in line. Your group isn’t boarding yet.

“There are some complicating factors to consider,” says Sanjay Nanda, senior vice president at Sabre Airline Solutions. “Many airlines hedge on fuel.”

That is, they buy it in advance at locked-in prices. It saves them from rapid spikes in fuel, but also keeps them from taking full advantage of price declines. About 25 percent of airline fuel was hedged this way, according IFC International. “So I’d say most airlines have benefitted but some more than others,” says Nanda.

Still, they’re clearly saving billions. Where is it going?

“They’re putting that money back into the business in the form of new planes, new services – larger bins, new wifi,” says Jean Medina with Airlines for America, an airline industry group. “Our members will be taking effectively one new airline delivery every day.” U.S. airlines also have $60 billion in debt that needs servicing as well, says Medina.

Another priority group for fuel savings, at least for some airlines, is labor. “Delta, a couple months ago, made the largest profit-sharing payout in history to their workers,” says IFC International’s Samuel Engel. Any labor union with a contract to renegotiate will also likely take a keen interest in fuel cost savings if they’re sustained.

So what about those fare prices?

“As fuel prices come down, it starts to allow airlines to operate more routes, and it allows them to compete against each other and offer discounts,” says Engel. “But it’s not immediate. It doesn’t happen until the competitive dynamic plays out.”

And oil prices come and go, says Sabre’s Nanda. So for airlines, “prices are more tied to supply and demand,” he says.

Supply has increased, according to the Airlines Reporting Corp. “There’s been a 6 percent rise in available seats,” says Chuck Thackston, a managing director at ARC. Airlines are managing to fit more people on each plane, whether by increasing the number of seats or purchasing larger capacity models. “Airlines are competing to fill those additional seats,” he says.

ARC says it’s this supply increase that is affecting fares. “Travel within the United States is largely flat year over year,” says Thackston. “The past several years have seen airfares increasing, and we now see those fares leveling off and going down very slightly for summer travel.”

Summer airfare to Europe has declined by about 3 percent, with some destinations seeing particularly stark drops. Fares to Kona, Hawaii, fell 12.7 percent. Trips to Belgrade, Serbia, are 24.3 percent lower on average. 

Airfare to New York as a domestic destination increased 9.3 percent, and international fares to Berlin increased 10.2 percent.  

So, no, lower fuel prices won't mean a big dip in airfare just yet.  

At Harvard, even the meat smoker is smart

Marketplace - American Public Media - Mon, 2015-05-25 02:00

On a quest to invent a smart smoker, a Harvard engineering class is partnering with Williams-Sonoma. Over the last few months, junior-year engineering students have smoked more than 200 pounds of brisket. The result? Well, as a self-admitted meat lover, I figured the only way to really know was to take a bite.

It wasn't hard to find the class. The mesquite aroma led me right to teaching assistant Peyton Nesmith. The Alabama native is tending a 300 pound, black, hour glass shaped ceramic smoker. The contraption is covered with wires, gadgets and gizmos.

An up-close look at the brisket Nesmith is cooking. (Eliza Grinnell/Harvard SEAS) 

Nesmith gave me the low down, “This brisket’s been cooking since 3 a.m. We probably have a few hours left on it. This is our typical routine. Our cadence of our battle rhythm as our adviser would say.”

That adviser is Professor Kevin Kit Parker. He’s not just an academic—he’s a towering Army Lt. Colonel in the reserves. With, he says, a Southerner's passion for barbecue.

“I was walking around the parking lot of the Memphis Liberty Bowl looking at all these contraptions that people were smoking barbecue in. And I'm thinking none of these things looks the same. And that means we haven't reduced our knowledge of barbecue down to a fundamental set of laws about how to do barbecue right.”

Parker proudly displays the Harvard smoker. (Eliza Grinnell/Harvard SEAS)

Parker says he vetted his ideas with culinary experts,“I talked to some classically trained chefs. They said no one’s done this. No one’s ever taken a scientific approach to barbecue, to smoking."

Parker teaches bioengineering and applied physics at Harvard. So he decided to give his students a real-world assignment. First he introduced them to a client, the high-end consumer retailer Williams-Sonoma. The job: come up with the perfect smoker. After five long, snowy months the data is in. It’s game day.

Students present the design and physics of the Harvard smoker to class-client Williams-Sonoma. (Eliza Grinnell/Harvard SEAS)

The students work up to the last minute to showcase the final product. A parade of guests checks it out in a fancy auditorium in one of Harvard’s engineering buildings. Professors, chefs and top brass from Williams-Sonoma pack the room. 

The students rock. 

All 16 play a part in explaining the smoker’s intricacies using Parker’s mantra—design, build and test. From the unusual shape of the smoker to a smartphone app that keeps you up to date on what temperature the meat is at and if you need to make any adjustments. As he chews, Williams-Sonoma’s Pat Connolly rates the Harvard smoker against other smokers out there.

“If you look at the color you get a much more consistent color here. If you look at the moisture the moisture is fantastic compared to the competition.”

Connolly says the trademarked, patent pending, app wielding, BBIQ smart smoker just might have the right stuff. And make the leap from the classroom to a future Memorial Day celebration.

Members of the Harvard community, representatives from Williams-Sonoma and local celebrity chefs enjoy brisket prepared in the Harvard smoker by students of the class "Engineering Problem Solving and Design Project." (Eliza Grinnell/Harvard SEAS)

Late springs warms up housing

Marketplace - American Public Media - Mon, 2015-05-25 02:00

Spring and summer are often a hopeful time for anyone involved in the housing economy. Houses show well; potential buyers go looking; homebuilders are building.

Bad winter weather in early 2015 made for a poor start to the year for housing. But figures for April suggest the housing economy might finally be on the rebound. “Improvement in housing really has been a missing piece to this recovery,” says Michael Baele, managing director of U.S. Bank’s wealth management division. “And we are encouraged to see some better numbers.”

Here are some key recent housing indicators:

• Housing starts rose 20 percent in April. (U.S. Census)
• Permits were up 10 percent in April. (U.S. Census)
• New home sales have increased from 434,000 units (annualized) in Q3 2014, to 513,000 units in Q1 2015. (U.S. Census)
• Existing home sales fell 3.3 percent in April. (National Association of Realtors)
• The one-month supply of homes rose by 0.7 to 5.3 months in April. (National Association of Realtors)
• The median price of a single-family home rise 10 percent from April 2014 to April 2015. (National Association of Realtors)
• Construction payrolls were up by 45,000 in April. Year-over-year, construction employment has increased by 280,000. (Bureau of Labor Statistics)

The oil economy, as measured in hot dogs and U-Hauls

Marketplace - American Public Media - Mon, 2015-05-25 01:57

You can learn a lot about the economy in Williston, North Dakota, based on Mitch Petrasek’s recent hot dog consumption. 

When I met him in March outside the U-Haul where he was working in Williston, the capital of the state’s oil patch, he had eight dogs lined up on a grill.

“I'll eat two now, two for dinner and two for breakfast,” he says. The remaining two, he says, would be offered to his boss.

Petrasek’s diet includes a few other things, like power bars and granola bars — the kind of stuff that didn't need to be warmed up or refrigerated.

“That's the worst thing off living in a car is the eating situation," he explains.

Petrasek was living out of his car even though he was making nearly $18 an hour at U-Haul. That’s not entirely surprising for a place like Williston. The oil boom pushed wages sky high. Ditto for rents.

“I could pay $1,000 to stay in a crappy apartment with someone or I could save a $1,000 in my bank account,” Petrasek says.

But the economic forces pushing him to sleep in what he called his “house-car” were shifting right under his nose. Petrasek's boss at the Williston U-Haul, Brian Way, says it was getting hard to maintain a decent inventory of moving trucks. A slowdown in the oil patch meant people were renting trucks to leave town.

“The issue now that I see it is that we just don't have many people moving in,” says Way. “We used to have two or three a day, where now we have two or three a week.”

That was at the end of March. Since then, the picture hasn't brightened much for the oil industry. The number of drilling rigs in North Dakota has dropped further to about 80 today.

When I called the U-Haul for an update, I learned neither Petrasek nor Way worked there anymore. Both had transferred to another facility in Fargo, North Dakota, on the other side of the state. Petrasek just moved a couple weeks ago. He says the situation in Williston hadn’t changed much since we last spoke.

“Oh yeah, there [are] still way more people going out than coming in,” he says.

He says he’s making a lower hourly wage now in Fargo, but he can afford housing. He and Brian Way are now roommates, and Petrasek says he's expanded his diet far beyond hot dogs.

The oil economy, as measured in hotdogs and U-Hauls

Marketplace - American Public Media - Mon, 2015-05-25 01:57

You can learn a lot about the economy in Williston, N.D., based on Mitch Petrasek’s recent hotdog consumption. 

When I met him in March outside the U-Haul where he was working in Williston, the capital of the state’s oil patch, he had eight dogs lined up on a grill.

“I'll eat two now, two for dinner and two for breakfast,” he says. The remaining two, he says, would be offered to his boss.

Petrasek’s diet did include a few other things, like power bars and granola bars — the kind of stuff that didn't need to be warmed up or refrigerated.

“That's the worst thing off living in a car is the eating situation," he explains.

Petrasek was living out of his car even though he was making nearly $18 an hour at U-Haul. That’s not entirely surprising for a place like Williston. The oil boom pushed wages sky high. Ditto for rents.

“I could pay $1,000 to stay in a crappy apartment with someone or I could save a $1,000 in my bank account,” Petrasek says.

But the economic forces pushing him to sleep in what he called his “house-car” were shifting right under his nose. Petrasek's boss at the Williston U-Haul, Brian Way, says it was getting hard to maintain a decent inventory of moving trucks. A slowdown in the oil patch meant people were renting trucks to leave town.

“The issue now that I see it is that we just don't have many people moving in,” says Way. “We used to have two or three a day, where now we have two or three a week.”

That was at the end of March. Since then, the picture hasn't brightened much for the oil industry. The number of drilling rigs in North Dakota has dropped further, to about 80 today.

When I called the U-Haul for an update, I learned neither Petrasek nor Way worked there anymore. Both had gotten transferred to another facility in Fargo, N.D., on the other side of the state. Petrasek just moved a couple weeks ago. He says the situation in Williston hadn’t changed much since we last spoke.

“Oh yeah there's still way more people going out than coming in,” he says.

He says he’s making a lower hourly wage now in Fargo. But he can afford housing. He and Brian Way are now roommates. And Petrasek says he's expanded his diet far beyond hot dogs.

An Island Wonders: Why Are The Sharks Attacking So Often?

NPR News - Mon, 2015-05-25 00:29

The Indian Ocean island of Reunion has had 16 shark attacks, seven of them fatal since 2011. It's a sharp rise from previous years and Australia is the only country with more deaths during this span.

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Trying To Organize A Marathon, An Arab-Israeli Woman Runs Into Opposition

NPR News - Sun, 2015-05-24 23:59

Conservatives in Tira pushed back hard at the idea of women and men running together in a public race. Someone went so far as to shoot at race organizer Haneen Radi's car. For now, the run is off.

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It's Not Rude: These Portraits Of Wounded Vets Are Meant To Be Stared At

NPR News - Sun, 2015-05-24 23:43

Photographer David Jay says, "I take these pictures so that we can look; we can see what we're not supposed to see. And we need to see them because we created them."

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On Memorial Day, Learning The Story Behind The Markers

NPR News - Sun, 2015-05-24 23:39

In a Boston neighborhood, WBUR's Steve Brown seeks out the story of a Marine honored by one of the many markers throughout the city that commemorates sacrifice in war.

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Multiple Sclerosis Patients Stressed Out By Soaring Drug Costs

NPR News - Sun, 2015-05-24 23:37

The cost of medication to treat multiple sclerosis has risen much faster than inflation, even for older drugs. Patients and insurers say manufacturers' subsidy programs have helped, but not enough.

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Juan Pablo Montoya Wins Second Indy 500

NPR News - Sun, 2015-05-24 22:01

Juan Pablo Montoya held off fellow Team Penske racer Will Power to win the Indianapolis 500 on Sunday. He first won at the Brickyard 15 years ago. Power finished second.

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Capitol Police: Pressure Cooker In Suspicious Vehicle Destroyed

NPR News - Sun, 2015-05-24 20:49

A bomb squad destroyed a pressure cooker found in a "suspicious" vehicle left unattended Sunday on the National Mall and the vehicle's owner was arrested, a U.S. Capitol Police spokeswoman said.

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Soaking Rains In Texas and Oklahoma Wash Away Homes, Kill 2 People

NPR News - Sun, 2015-05-24 16:28

Record rainfall was wreaking havoc across a swath of Texas and the Midwest on Sunday, causing flash floods in normally dry riverbeds, spawning tornadoes and forcing at least 2,000 people to flee.

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In New England, Recognizing A Little Known History Of Slavery

NPR News - Sun, 2015-05-24 14:21

A burial ground including the remains of 18th century African slaves was uncovered in 2003 in Portsmouth, N.H. Over Memorial Day weekend, the city dedicated the grave site as a special memorial park.

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A Home Air Quality Monitor That Can Be Checked Out From The Library

NPR News - Sun, 2015-05-24 14:03

In polluted Pittsburgh, a new device from a local university helps residents assess indoor air. It's not the only monitor on the market — but is the only one available to borrow from a public library.

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Long-Time Actress And Comedian Anne Meara Dies

NPR News - Sun, 2015-05-24 13:51

Meara, who was married to Jerry Stiller and mom to Ben Stiller, had roles on Rhoda, Alf, Sex and the City and The King of Queens.

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