National News

PODCAST: Now playing in digital

Marketplace - American Public Media - Thu, 2014-08-14 03:00

Some not so great economic news out of Europe: gross domestic product is out for the second quarter, and across the board, economic growth was flat in the Eurozone. Germany, Europe's largest economy, contracted in the second quarter. But some say the future is already looking better. Plus, many companies have wellness programs that encourage workers to exercise or manage conditions such as diabetes. But the workplace has lagged in dealing with mental health issues. More on addressing employee well-being beyond physical conditions. And when you catch a new movie at the multiplex, chances are it's digital projection technology-- that means no scratched frames or dropped dialog. But digital is proving a tough sell to smaller theaters who can't afford the high cost of converting screens

 

End of the reel for old-school movie film?

Marketplace - American Public Media - Thu, 2014-08-14 02:00

Film snakes around the projection booth of the Parkway Discount Cinema in Warner Robins, Georgia. Theater manager Alicia Bowers is in the booth. She has a love/hate relationship with film these days.

“Run too fast and it will throw the film to the ground,” Bowers says, “or if they’re moving it from one platter to another – if they drop it, it’s a big pile of mess.”

By contrast, a digital blockbuster is delivered on a six-inch by four-inch hard drive. When you drop it, there’s a thud, but no mess.

The Parkway’s run is coming to an end this summer. It’s closing, rather than converting to digital.

Bill Stembler, CEO of the Georgia Theater Company, says the reason is pretty simple: “It’s questionable whether you could recover your investment. It’s something like $50,000 to $70,000 a screen to convert to digital.”

Stembler says when you do the math for a 16-screen multiplex, you get the picture.

Luckily, the movie studios have a solution. They offer theaters a subsidy called Virtual Print Fees. Every time you buy a ticket at the multiplex at what the studios call full price, the studios pay to help retire a piece of the theater’s digital debt.

“The film companies are basically paying for about 80 to 85 percent of our cost to be digital,” Stembler says.

But this equation doesn’t work for discount screens. The studios take about a 60 percent cut out of every ticket sold. At full ticket price, that adds up. It doesn’t work at the dollar theater.

“They don’t care about the discount theaters,” Stembler says.

So how do Virtual Print Fees work at your local arthouse theater? Sara Beresford is a board member at Ciné, an independent theater in Athens, GA. She says the arthouse is a different beast.

“I think for a lot of the arthouse cinema operators there were too many strings attached to that agreement,” Stembler says.

Remember, Virtual Print Fees come with studio demands about which movies will be shown. Arthouse operators like their independence.

Back at the Parkway Discount Cinema, Alicia Bowers has reset the film for the next show.

“You know, it’s rewarding to get it up on the screen and seeing it play... it’s definitely a nostalgic feeling. It moves, it bounces,” Bowers says.

But film lovers only have a little time left to indulge that nostalgia. One studio, Paramount, no longer distributes film prints at all.

Is Wal-Mart rethinking its business approach?

Marketplace - American Public Media - Thu, 2014-08-14 02:00

Thursday is a busy day for Wal-Mart. The retail giant is playing host to this year's U.S. Manufacturing Summit in Denver, and the company reports its second quarter earnings. Between slower store traffic and dwindling sales, analysts aren't optimistic. But the company has a plan.  

When you think of social responsibility in the corporate world, Wal-Mart is not the first company that comes to mind. The company is working on initiatives from cutting the amount of water in detergent to partnering with women-owned businesses.

"I think certainly PR's gotta be part of it, right? I mean, I don't think it's all altruism," says Peter Mueller, an analyst at Forrester Research. "So if they pull it off, it will look good for them, right?" 

And after years of bad press over employee relations, that could be a smart move, says Steven Brown, who teaches marketing at the University of Houston.

"It's kind of in tune with the zeitgeist in corporate America where corporations increasingly realize that their employees need to identify with a good employer who does good for them as employees and also for their community at large," Brown says.

The challenge, he says, is doing good while continuing to make a profit. And, Brown says, getting the skeptics to buy it.   

Web cookies to track apps

Marketplace - American Public Media - Thu, 2014-08-14 02:00

Google is busy rolling out a new kind of web tracking cookie to give the company an even deeper insight into individual online browsing habits. So what's so special about how this cookie crumbles?

“Google is introducing a way to track you on your mobile apps,” says Will Oremus of Slate.

The company is already adept at tracking users on the open web, but more and more web browsing is done through apps on their phone, which are not subject to Google’s web tracking cookies. This makes it harder for it to deploy targeted advertisements.

With this new technology, Google is trying to is link the cookies on the web with the anonymous trackers that already log activity through apps.

Why that backache could really be all in your head

Marketplace - American Public Media - Thu, 2014-08-14 02:00

Ever take a day off from work and tell your boss you needed a sick day, when what you really needed was a mental health day?

Deborah Jacobs, an HR professional who sits on the advisory council of the Disability Management Employer Coalition, says you're not alone.

"We had a lot of employees that have physical disabilities, but we find out as we're looking into their cases that they also have a mental behavioral health issue going on at the same time," she says.

"Behavioral health” – essentially a mash-up of mental and physical health – is getting more attention in the workplace, Jacobs says.

A report from Employers Health says that workers miss more days of work and are less productive due to mental illness than chronic conditions such as high blood pressure and even back pain.

Pamela Warren is doctor of psychology and a University of Illinois faculty member. She says depression, for instance, may cause physical ailments that can result in disability or employee absence.

"Over time and actually pretty early in my practice, what I started seeing were individuals who they focused on the reported work issues, but found they couldn't or wouldn't go to work," she says.

According to some estimates, this is costing employers upwards of $100 billion dollars.

 

 

Reporter's Notebook: A Not-So-Grand Tour Of Ethiopia's Top Hospital

NPR News - Thu, 2014-08-14 01:02

The reporter asks the nurse what the hospital needs. The nurse says, "If you don't help me, why do you ask me?" Welcome to Black Lion, said to be the country's best hospital.

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Min Headroom: Pop artificial intelligence t 30

Marketplace - American Public Media - Thu, 2014-08-14 01:00

For some reason, the 1984-born TV icon Max Headroom came up in conversation this week, and I immediately went down a very deep YouTube rabbit hole. Headroom was the star of a British sci-fi movie and TV show, talk show host and music video jockey, a David Letterman interviewee, and one of many Coke-hawking celebrities.

He was also one 0f the earliest forms of fictionalized artificial intelligence (along with the "Flight of the Navigator" spaceship and C-3PO) that I came in contact with as a kid. I am four years older than Max, but I wasn't even really conscious of him as a kind of AI. What I could discern: his glitchy and pitch-shifted vocal delivery, as well as his backdrop, was computer generated. Or at least it was meant to look that way. I was kind of scared of him. He yelled a lot and twitched and the lined walls of his rotating digital box of a room seemed weirdly prison-like. Here's an example. 

 

Kind of scary, right? The character's origin story is scary, too. In the 1985 television show, a TV reporter named Edison Carter has a bad accident after discovering a dubious television company's experiments and then gets his brain dumped into a computer program. The whiz-kid who does the dump tells a bad-guy network executive, "I could make a memory dump of his synaptic circuits...the brain is only a binary computer. A series of on-off switches. That's the basis of my computer generated people program." An interesting line to hear the same month IBM unveiled computer chips that mimic brain functions.

As a way to understand what was happening with lots of technologies in the 1980s, Headroom is a fascinating example in pop culture. While tape decks were first giving way to CD players, while popular music was featuring more synthesizers and digital drum sounds over their acoustic forbears, Headroom was also straddling the analogue-digital world. The rotating block that served to house Max's disembodied head was apparently first created with analogue animation technique, and later replaced with computer graphics. Max himself couldn't be made by a computer yet, so instead he was portrayed by the actor Matt Frewer and a ton of makeup. Max's visage also appeared in one of the strangest and most significant US cases of broadcast signal hijacking to date. Doubly strange because the intro to the show's first episode has network engineers talking about "intermittent loss" in a network link of some kind. 

I think what's most interesting to me about Max is how people in the 1980s were imagining AI, and how the character and the production compares to our current AI projects. These days a lot of our artificial intelligence work is embedded in faceless, voiceless algorithms and machine learning, while other forms, like Google Now and Siri -- whose inventors are right now working on a more powerful kind of AI -- are not disembodied heads but disembodied voices. Like a lot of the future we imagined in the past, Max delivers an entertaining picture. Definitely a 1980s picture. But is he as weird as his AI successors? 

Young Migrants May Request Asylum, But It's Hard To Get

NPR News - Thu, 2014-08-14 00:30

Amid the emotional debate over the surge in unaccompanied minors from Central America, some migrants will be given refugee status while others can try for asylum.

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Who Gets First Dibs On Transplanted Liver? Rules May Change

NPR News - Wed, 2014-08-13 23:34

Location, location, location too often trumps medical need, some doctors say. But another solution to making the distribution of scarce organs fairer worries some transplant surgeons and patients.

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North Korea Fires Missiles Off Coast As Pope Lands in Seoul

NPR News - Wed, 2014-08-13 19:36

Upcoming U.S.-South Korean military exercises, which the north frequently protests, may also have inspired the show of belligerence, reports NPR's Jason Strother.

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In Tense Ferguson, Mo., 2 Reporters Caught In Arrests

NPR News - Wed, 2014-08-13 17:52

When SWAT officers swept through a McDonald's restaurant, they arrested not just locals, but journalists working for The Washington Post and The Huffington Post, The Associated Press reports.

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Tiger Woods Won't Play In Ryder Cup, Will Rest Back Until December

NPR News - Wed, 2014-08-13 17:04

The golfer says on his website that his trainer and doctors have urged him not to play or practice for the next several months.

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What's a viral cause worth?

Marketplace - American Public Media - Wed, 2014-08-13 16:14

The Ice Bucket Challenge is enjoying significant social media success and raking in donations for ALS research, but it's hardly the first viral challenge for a cause.

Do these stunts actually raise any money, or are they hollow slacktivism? Here's a look at a few social media campaigns for good and how they worked out financially:

#nomakeupselfie: $8 million

If this raises cash or awareness, cool. #nomakeupselfie @CR_UK I donated here http://t.co/5hHvAQ3vKZ boys? Your turn! pic.twitter.com/YdUQ94G1yW

— suzi perry (@suziperry) March 21, 2014

Not unlike the Ice Bucket challenge, this fundraiser leveraged an unrelated, but highly clickable hook into some real money. Cancer Research UK didn't start the #nomakeupselfie trend — that was author Laura Lippman, for reasons unrelated to cancer — but the craze evolved into an awareness campaign and the organization rode the wave to about $8 million in donations.

Sarah Palin and Planned Parenthood: $800,000

(Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

In an age of hashtags and viral videos, a political email chain still has some power. During the 2008 presidential election, an email circulated encouraging donations to Planned Parenthood in the name of anti-abortion vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin. The Internet loves irony, so contributions poured in.

Kony 2012: $32 million

Kony 2012 made more money than the others on this list, but it's tough to call it a success. Invisible Children's viral video and awareness campaign spread blindingly fast, gathering up tens of millions of views almost overnight.

The backlash was immediate and came from all sides. Critics went after the video's accuracy, the group's finances and the campaign's motivations. Kony 2012's director had an ugly public meltdown and the effort's big "Cover the Light" event flopped. A recent profile found Invisible Children still struggling and looking for a new direction.

#OnlyGoodThings: $?

This effort is impossible to quantify, but it's notable because it was created in reaction to another viral stunt. "NekNominate" challenges involve filming oneself chugging a drink and then challenging others to do the same.

One YouTuber flipped the script on his own nomination, encouraging others to perform good deeds instead, like giving away sandwich while inspirational music plays. The trend got some traction, but failed to catch on the way #NekNominate did.

Hagel: Rescue Mission On Iraq's Mount Sinjar Less Likely

NPR News - Wed, 2014-08-13 15:41

A U.S. assessment team sent to the mountain concluded there were far fewer Yazidi refugees stranded there than previously thought, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said.

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Death By Salt? New Study Finds Too Much Sodium Is A Global Killer

NPR News - Wed, 2014-08-13 15:02

It's not just Americans who are oversalted. A new study reports that sodium takes a global toll, attributing 1.65 million deaths from cardiovascular disease to sodium consumption.

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Shifting Climate Has North Dakota Farmers Swapping Wheat For Corn

NPR News - Wed, 2014-08-13 14:30

Projections suggest that climate change will hurt agriculture in most parts of the world. But some areas of the U.S. could actually see a benefit as corn production moves farther north.

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City-Run Gas Station Makes Waves In Southeastern Kentucky

NPR News - Wed, 2014-08-13 13:23

A gas station in Somerset, Ky., was opened recently by city officials as a way to try to lower gas prices. Critics call it a socialist move and say government competition isn't fair to local firms.

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Shaking up earthquake warning systems

Marketplace - American Public Media - Wed, 2014-08-13 13:10

A few seconds of warning before a major earthquake could save lives.

That’s why California legislators passed a bill last year asking officials to set up a seismic early warning system.

The law also requires this system to be a public and private venture, but working out the details of that arrangement hasn't been easy.

One of the businesses looking to help build an early warning network is Seismic Warning Systems, based in Scotts Valley. The company has already set up sensors in certain locations, including more than a dozen fire stations and a transit company in the Coachella Valley, as marked below.

Blake Goetz at Seismic Warning Systems said the company's quake alert tool relies on sensors about the size of paperback novels.

"They’re bolted about a foot off the floor in a bearing wall," he said, showing off the system at a Palm Springs fire station.

Those sensors can detect an earthquake seconds before the serious shaking begins. Goetz says within that brief window of time, the system does three things automatically: "It opens the doors, it turns on the lights and it activates the radio system."

When that happens, a robotic voice calls out over the loudspeakers, repeating the phrase "seismic event detected."

This kind of automated response is crucial for fire departments near the San Andreas Fault.

For instance, if the garage doors are closed when the shaking starts, they may get jammed. That happened four years ago to a station in Calexico, Goetz said.

"They had to extricate themselves," he said. "Meanwhile, there were fires and floods and damage all around their city, and they couldn't get out of the station."

In hopes of preventing that from happening again, Imperial County secured a $250,000 grant and hired Seismic Warning Systems to set up a network there as well. Below is an image of where the company plans to install those systems, marked in yellow.

Rocky Saunders, a sales representative for SWS, said the company has cracked the code on quakes.

"We can detect, analyze and warn of a dangerous earthquake in less than one second," he said.

The sensors work by detecting subtle vibrations called P-waves, which occur just as a quake starts and travel at the speed of sound. They reach the surface before the more damaging S-waves that follow.

It’s that gap of time between the P-waves and S-waves that allow a warning system to do its thing. Saunders said the sensor can even determine the size of the impeding quake.

"We essentially are listening and detecting and analyzing the DNA, if you will, of the earthquake," he said.

Saunders claimed that the SWS instruments are faster than anything else on the market, including a system designed by the U.S. Geological Survey that works in a similar manner.

While the SWS system currently uses sensors and automated systems in buildings, the USGS network relies on hundreds of sensors around the state installed near major faults. Below is an image of the sensors for that network in Southern California.

 

 

But it's still a prototype. It would require $38 million to build out and $16 million a year to maintain.

Saunders said his company plans to install its own sensors near faults using investor capital. The company will then simply sell early warning subscriptions for about $100 a month.

"So that’s the difference," Saudners said. "We do not require an investment from the state of California, and then there is a public benefit at a very, very inexpensive cost."

While the USGS system may cost more, the agency said the system also does more in terms of gathering seismic data and analyzing quake risks. And Seismic Warning Systems still needs to secure more private funding to build its statewide network.

Regardless of the approach, the state wants both systems linked together. But the USGS’ Elizabeth Cochran said that’s easier said than done. "Our concern is that it’s not clear exactly how their system is functioning and whether it’s functioning in the way that they claim it is," she said.

She pointed out that Seismic Warning Systems won’t divulge the details behind its technology. The company said that information is a trade secret. And while the two sides have met numerous times, they haven’t found a way to get past that.

"It’s kind of a turf war, and that’s kind of bothersome," said Gary McGavin, a professor of architecture at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, and a former member of the California Seismic Safety Commission.

McGavin thinks the USGS isn’t used to having competition when it comes to statewide early warning, and he thinks the agency isn't keen on sharing that spotlight.

But, he added, a system relying solely on a private company is risky, too, since private businesses are more susceptible to lawsuits than public agencies.

Either way, he thinks California desperately needs an early warning system and that the two sides should come together to help make that happen.

"And I’m just flabbergasted that there’s so much balking at getting this going," McGavin said.

According to state law, California has until January 2016 to get a warning system in place.

People still use AOL. It's true.

Marketplace - American Public Media - Wed, 2014-08-13 13:02

Data culled from AOL's earnings report last week revealed that the company still has 2.3 million subscribers, which is interesting in and of itself.

But even more interesting is that subscription. For $59.88 a year you can get their baseline plan which includes, among other things, unlimited dial-up service — the only way to get online in a lot of rural areas.

It also includes two free wills from Hyatt Legal planning and — just to drive their target demographic point home — an AARP membership.

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