National News

Supreme Court considers retirement plan lawsuits

Marketplace - American Public Media - Tue, 2015-02-24 03:00

The U.S. Supreme Court is scheduled to hear oral arguments Tuesday about a case that centers on whether there should be a six-year time limit on being able to sue a company over its oversight of funds it offers in a retirement plan. The question has pitted the AARP, the U.S. Solicitor General and others against groups representing employers and the financial industry.

"The people who run these plans have a legitimate interest in saying: look you can't sue us for 20 years of damage," says Norman Stein, a professor at Drexel University who is an expert on laws surrounding employee benefits and pensions.

But employers are arguing that that six-year limit should apply not to damages, but to when a fund was introduced into a company's retirement plan. That would limit the number of funds subject to lawsuits.

PODCAST: A state of the art tunnel

Marketplace - American Public Media - Tue, 2015-02-24 03:00

Market players are focused on key testimony about interest rates and jobs that starts this morning. More on that. Plus, Comcast stock is up a bit after the cable and media content company reported fourth quarter profits up from a year earlier. This a few weeks before federal regulators are scheduled to decide whether to allow a merger with Time Warner Cable. And underground water and drain pipes in America are often state of the art ... if we were living in 1915. Money to replace and upgrade has been in short supply. But in the nation's capital, the utilities are embarking on a $2.6 billion dollar remedy in the form of a tunnel.

Under D.C., a new tunnel almost no one will see

Marketplace - American Public Media - Tue, 2015-02-24 02:05

Reporter's Notebook:

My water tunnel tour starts at 7 a.m. Come early, the media relations person for the utility DC Water tells me, it's a 35-minute train ride to the tunnel face. The tunnel boring machine has already chewed through more than three miles of earth, in what will eventually be a colossal, 13-mile network under the District of Columbia.

The visit begins like an oil rig tour: Safety talk. Helmet. Earplugs. Safety glasses. Boots. "Tuck in your pants," DC Water construction director Chris Varellan says. It can be messy down there.

Scott Tong in center. Chris Varellan to right (construction director, DC Water). Ray Hashimee, assistant resident engineer, EPC Consulting to the left.

Andy Le, DC Water

It turns out the tunnel-making machine, a German-made industrial digger, has a name: Ladybird. These machines are commissioned like ships, I'm told. Each machine has a name, always female. In this case, the namesake is a former First Lady, Lady Bird Johnson, who campaigned for cleaner rivers in the 1960's and reportedly pressured her husband, Lyndon B. Johnson, to declare D.C.'s putrid Potomac River a "national disgrace."

Follow Ladybird's progress here:

<br />

Why construct a mega-tunnel no one will ever see? The point is to catch rainwater from big storms, and give the water somewhere to go. Right now, when a big storm hits, the water drains into the sewer pipe system. That's how it was designed. The sewer and storm water systems are one.

DC Water CEO George Hawkins picks up the story there:

 

David Kidd

"All of that storm water rushes into the storm drain and goes into the pipe. And almost no matter how big it is, they fill ... the choice by design was an overflow to rivers,” says Hawkins.

Here's George Hawkins talking about the DC Clean River Project:

You mean, right now raw sewage goes straight into the rivers, I ask? Hawkins nods. Eww. The completed tunnel give the sewer/rainwater cocktail a different place to go, a place to be stored and treated rather than dumped straight into rivers.

The elevator buzzes. Down we go, 16 floors to the tunnel. By now, the staggering dimensions come into focus. This is no crawl-through-it tunnel. Twenty-three feet in diameter, it's roughly the size of a Metro train tunnel. That allows for enough water in the biggest of storms, over the next 100 years. This is an infrastructure project to last generations. "The Roman aqueduct," Hawkins declares.

The train comes to pick us up, and off we go in the dark. Twenty minutes in, I'm told we're 80 feet below the bottom of the Potomac River. I exhale slowly. It's actually quite warm inside, maybe 55 degrees compared with 30 on the outside. It's somewhat lighted, and I'm told in an emergency there are rudimentary facilities available. The only thing missing, really, is a cellular signal. Fifteen minutes later, we reach Ladybird, boring away. Here is what she looks like, in a model.

Scott Tong

At the tunnel face, our party exits and walks a few steps along the tunnel wall. Verellan points out each white-colored tunnel section as we pass. Ladybird digs in six-foot increments. Then each section is immediately reinforced by a concrete, cylindrical retaining wall to keep it in place. On today's newest, cleanest section, a construction worker spray paints @marketplace public radio on the wall to mark the occasion.

The Marketplace twitter handle on the wall of the D.C. tunnel.

Scott Tong

It's a shrewd PR move. Later in the day, I email a picture of the spray-painted panel to my Sustainability Desk colleagues, suggesting we have a permanent spot in D.C. infrastructure lore. I don't realize until the next morning that this "I was here" moment will likely wash away when the first storm hits the tunnel.

Our group approaches the backside of Ladybird, the only part I can see. The boring machine is longer than a football field; regular folks like reporters can't enter (her cockpit is pressurized). At this point, a half-dozen workers install the newest concrete ring to the tunnel. Work will go on like this, every day, until the project's anticipated finish date of 2018. That's when this tunnel will open for storm/sewer water business.

What will become of D.C.'s rivers, the Potomac and Anacostia? The aspiration is for them to be clean enough to be "swimmable and fishable," Hawkins says. This is not his goal, but rather a mandated requirement of the EPA under the 1972 Clean Water Act.

Swimmable? Fishable? My wife's cousin rows regularly on the Anacostia and has told us of televisions floating by. One article mentioned a cow's head. If you've lived here long enough, chances are you've heard the joke about the Anacostia: it's so dirty you can walk across and leave footprints. Then there's LBJ's description of the Potomac as disgraceful. We'll see.

Nationwide, though, a slow process is underway of cleaning up urban waterways. This is more than an environmental thing. A downtown river is now viewed by development types as a high-end economic hub, a place for high-rises, ballparks and walking trails.

"Think about where we were in the late 60s, where we literally had rivers on fire in Cleveland," says Matt Ries, chief technical officer of the nonprofit Water Environment Federation. Now "we could talk about Chicago that used to have along the Chicago River all kinds of warehouses that are all being converted into high price condos. You have San Antonio with its river walk. You look at the inner harbor of Baltimore. People want to be by the water. There's something inherent in our DNA that attracts us to water. Why do people go to the beach every summer?"

Matt Ries, chief technical officer, Water Environment Federation.

Scott Tong

"Think about where we were in the late 60s, where we literally had rivers on fire in Cleveland,” says Matt Ries, chief technical officer, Water Environment Federation.

Here's Matt Ries talking about rivers as an economic resource for cities:

This tunnel project is ambitious, impressive, and expensive. The projected pricetag is $2.6 billion. Some of the funding comes from a rare 100-year bond issuance. Some will come from ratepayers, who have already seen monthly rates doubled to more than $80 a month in the last six years.

To the angry ratepayers, Hawkins offers this defense: you can spend the public's money on storm water emergencies after the fact. Or you can get ahead and fund preventive efforts like this one. "Either way," Hawkins says, "you pay."

 

#NPRreads: If You've Got 2016 Winners Penciled In, Think Again

NPR News - Tue, 2015-02-24 02:03

Political scientists say it won't be all the political tussling that will predict a new president in 2016. Instead, look at the economy.

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Zen and the art of coding

Marketplace - American Public Media - Tue, 2015-02-24 02:00

Shawnee is 14. She didn't know anything about coding before she was sent to Wyoming Girls’ School in Sheridan, roughly five months ago. 

Then, she took her first coding class. When it was over, she started another class — online — in her free time. The school is a secure juvenile justice facility, working to bring better technology into its classrooms.

Here’s her account of how she became a coding convert:

I didn't particularly like computers. I didn't like technology. I was just that teenager who texted all the time and who was talking on the phone all the time. I didn't really bother to find out how things work.

So when I first started coding, I thought “This is weird,” because I don’t usually like this stuff. Then our class did Hour of Code, [a one-hour introduction to computer science, teaching anyone who wants to participate the basics]. And I knew I needed to know more about it. I asked my teacher to give me some paper. I was takin' notes.

My grandma always told me that if you’re doing something you love, you’re at peace with yourself. And when I think about coding, and do coding, I’m at peace with myself.

Sometimes I get really stressed out, with all the things that are going on in my life. And when I code I realize it helps me think about that, and not about the things I can’t change. It also reminds me that there are things I can change, and that even when it’s hard to overcome obstacles, you can.

After her first coding class at Wyoming Girls' School, Shawnee discovered her hidden passion for the work.

Photo by Justin Sheely

People have asked me what you want to do when you grow up, and I used to say, “I don’t know, get rich quick somehow, I guess.” And now, with coding, I feel like I can have a steady job and a job that I have a passion for. And people always ask me, “What about retirement, and what if you turn 60 and want to retire and live out in the field somewhere and have a family and stuff?” and I always tell them, that when you’re doing something you have a passion for, it’s not going to matter whether it includes retirement or not, because you’re gonna want to do it forever.

To hear more of Shawnee's story, click the audio player above.

Click here to share your thoughts on this story.
Email us at learningcurve@marketplace.org or send us a tweet @LearningCurveEd

Zen and the art of coding

Marketplace - American Public Media - Tue, 2015-02-24 02:00

Shawnee is 14. She didn't know anything about coding before she was sent to Wyoming Girls’ School in Sheridan, Wy., roughly five months ago.

Then, she took her first coding class. When it was over, she started another class — online — in her free time.

Here’s her account of how she became a coding convert:

I didn't particularly like computers. I didn't like technology. I was just that teenager who texted all the time and who was talking on the phone all the time. I didn't really bother to find out how things work. So when I first started coding, I thought “This is weird,” because I don’t usually like this stuff. Then our class did Hour of Code, [a one-hour introduction to computer science, teaching anyone who wants to participate the basics]. And I knew I needed to know more about it. I asked my teacher to give me some paper. I was takin' notes.

My grandma always told me that if you’re doing something you love, you’re at peace with yourself. And when I think about coding, and do coding, I’m at peace with myself.

Sometimes I get really stressed out, with all the things that are going on in my life. And when I code I realize it helps me think about that, and not about the things I can’t change. It also reminds me that there are things I can change, and that even when it’s hard to overcome obstacles, you can.

After her first coding class at Wyoming Girls' School, Shawnee discovered her hidden passion for the work.

Photo by Justin Sheely

People have asked me what you want to do when you grow up, and I used to say, “I don’t know, get rich quick somehow, I guess.” And now, with coding, I feel like I can have a steady job and a job that I have a passion for. And people always ask me, “What about retirement, and what if you turn 60 and want to retire and live out in the field somewhere and have a family and stuff?” and I always tell them, that when you’re doing something you have a passion for, it’s not going to matter whether it includes retirement or not, because you’re gonna want to do it forever.

To hear more of Shawnee's story, click the audio player above.

Click here to share your thoughts on this story.
Email us at learningcurve@marketplace.org or send us a tweet @LearningCurveEd

Unlocking the digital classroom for kids in lock up

Marketplace - American Public Media - Tue, 2015-02-24 02:00

Technology has become an integral part of education. Students are increasingly learning with help from laptops, iPads and other digital technology. Schools are embracing blended classrooms, which mix traditional and online learning.

But technology presents unique hurdles for the juvenile justice system, which has been reluctant to introduce computers and the internet into secure facilities.

Since 2013, San Diego County has been confronting the challenges of introducing laptops — and digital learning — into its juvenile justice facilities.

On Tuesday, Feb. 24, Marketplace takes a look at the surprising results. Check back then for the full story.

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The Comcast merger with Time Warner isn't a sure thing

Marketplace - American Public Media - Tue, 2015-02-24 02:00

Last February, when Comcast announced it was buying Time Warner Cable, federal approval of the merger didn't seem like a major hurdle. The two biggest cable companies said their merger wouldn’t reduce competition — and wouldn’t result in higher rates —  because geographically, they served different markets.

However, as the Federal Communications Commission prepares to rule on the merger in late March, investors seem to think the deal may fall through. Time Warner's stock has been trading at prices below the amount Comcast has offered to pay.

"There’s a lot changing in how people consume media," says Amy Yong, an analyst with Macquarie Group. "And that’s why it’s become a lot more contentious than a lot of people originally anticipated."

She means cord-cutting — getting video on the Internet instead of over cable TV — has started to look more like a reality. For instance, HBO announced last fall that it would soon offer a stand-alone online service, no cable package required.

That prospect raises new questions about Comcast and Time-Warner, companies that sell both cable TV and broadband services. As broadband providers, might they choke out cord-cutting services to protect their TV business?

The FCC has started looking at new regulations to prevent just that, including a proposal to regulate broadband services as a utility.

"The actions that we've seen may suggest a mindset that is more concerned about competition in broadband, and simply less hospitable to further mergers in this sector," says Kevin Werbach, a Wharton School professor and former counsel to the FCC.

The FCC's concern might spell trouble for the Comcast merger. 

However, Jeff Wlodarczak, CEO of Pivotal Research Group, thinks Comcast's interests in selling broadband services, and the FCC's interests in protecting video services like Netflix or the new HBO service, line up just fine.

"Cable has no real interest right now in doing anything that makes Netflix less attractive," says Wlodaczak. "Netflix consumes massive amounts of bandwidth." And as a broadband provider, Comcast wants to sell more bandwidth, not less.

Who should have the key to your messages?

Marketplace - American Public Media - Tue, 2015-02-24 02:00

Remember when UK Prime Minister, David Cameron, said that he wanted to pass a law that would compel messaging apps to provide a backdoor for security agencies? That would, in effect, ban encrypted software that has no key. President Barack Obama agreed with him.  

In response to that proposal, Jonathan Zittrain, a professor of internet law at Harvard University, wrote an open letter to Cameron, explaining why he thinks it’s a “very bad idea.”

It’s one thing to try and regulate WhastApp, says Zittrain, because the government knows  where Facebook “lives,” and the Silicon Valley company has assets that could be seized.

But what happens when someone produces the next wildly popular messaging app? What if that someone happens to be, as Zittrain wrote in his letter, “two caffeine-fueled university sophomores?” They would be pretty hard to regulate, or even find, according to him.

“You’re kind of stuck, which means you have to go double or nothing,” says Zittrain. “You now have to try to regulate the entire app ecosystem.”  

Even if that were to work, which he doubts, he believes the price is not worth the reward. The way he sees it, it’s similar to a rule that would allow the police to walk into people's homes without a warrant and look around to make sure everything is fine.

“That might well reduce crime, but it’s just not something that a free society would tolerate,” says Zittrain.

 

Gas prices inch up as refinery strike continues

Marketplace - American Public Media - Tue, 2015-02-24 02:00

The nation’s largest refinery strike in decades continues. The United Steelworkers’ strike began on the first of February and has now expanded to 12 facilities, including the nation’s largest oil refinery in Port Arthur, Texas. The union is striking over the use of contract workers and worker safety, among other issues.  

Since the strike started, average gasoline prices have risen modestly. Most of the affected oil refineries are still running, staffed by managers and most likely, some contractors. Shell Oil is the leading oil company negotiator in the labor dispute.

Click the media player above to hear more.

Why water should cost a lot more

Marketplace - American Public Media - Tue, 2015-02-24 02:00

In today’s markets, the price for water does not follow typical supply and demand considerations and does not reflect water scarcity. In many high-growth regions of the world, the price of water is actually inverse to its scarcity. The disconnect between market price and risk makes it hard to substantiate the business case to invest in water conservation strategies. It also encourages growth in regions where water is scarce – and therefore where growth will be least sustainable.

In many major cities shown on the infographic, the price businesses pay for water is much less than its full value. Cities like San Francisco and Los Angeles, for example, have a risk premium 2 ½ to 4 times higher than the current price of water. Looking ahead, this risk is also expected to grow over the next ten years as populations grow and the demand for water grows. For cities like Las Vegas, Dallas, or Phoenix, whose populations and economies are forecasted to grow significantly, water scarcity presents a significant risk to businesses vitality and profitability. 

Data provided by Trucost and Ecolab.

Uber's valuation is surging

Marketplace - American Public Media - Tue, 2015-02-24 01:30
.925

That's the Austin, Texas metro area's "economic segregation index," and it's the highest of the country's big cities. Two researchers from the University of Toronto devised the metric, the Washington Post reported, which shows how likely residents with disparate income, education and occupation are to live in separate neighborhoods.

$1.49

That's how much a cubic metre of water costs businesses in Los Angeles. That's pretty cheap, especially considering that when you factor in water scarcity and the likelihood of drought, it should cost more like $5.97. And L.A. isn't the only city where water costs beer prices for champagne tastes. It's a problem across the U.S.

$2.6 billion

Speaking of water, it will cost Washington D.C. an estimated $2.6 billion to complete an underground tunnel system that can handle excess water when storms hit. Right now, flooding water can only go into sewage pipes, creating a cocktail of rain and raw sewage that ends up flowing directly into the rivers. With the new pipe system, the mixture will have a place to go to be stored and treated. And for those who scoff at the price tag, some would argue that its better to pay preventative costs to handle flooding rather than deal with the damage after the fact.

$41 billion

Uber's valuation as of its latest round of fundraising, more than double what it was worth in June. The Verge has an interactive graphic showing just how far the the tech start-up bubble has expanded, with valuations and fundraising for the biggest companies on a spectacular rise in the last year alone.

$1.087 billion

The global box office gross of "Transformers: Age of Extinction," which was set in the U.S. but featured an explosive climax in Hong Kong. That diversity in setting — or having no Earth-bound setting at all — defined global box office winners in 2014, according to an analysis by CityLab.

8 regions

Napa Valley may soon be sour grapes. Over at Bloomberg, they've profiled 8 regions which are up-and-coming in the wine industry. Thanks to factors like changing tastes and climate change, places like Tokaj, Hungary and the Republic of Georgia are producing bottles worth uncorking.

'Weird' Fern Shows The Power Of Interspecies Sex

NPR News - Mon, 2015-02-23 23:52

Two species of fern that diverged 60 million years ago are as evolutionarily distant as, say, elephants and manatees. Nonetheless, the two species recently produced a hybrid, say astounded botanists.

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Army Corps Project Pits Farmland Against Flood Threat

NPR News - Mon, 2015-02-23 23:51

A levee project would cordon off lucrative farmland along the Mississippi River in southeast Missouri. But small towns in Illinois say that puts them at risk of flooding while protecting rich farmers.

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Analysts Fear A Prolonged Drop In Oil Will Hurt Oklahoma's Banks

NPR News - Mon, 2015-02-23 23:50

Oklahoma oil is expensive to produce, so the sharp drop in prices has forced many drilling companies to cut jobs. If prices stay low, the pain could spread to the banks that finance the oil industry.

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In LA, Missing Kindergarten Is A Big Deal

NPR News - Mon, 2015-02-23 23:48

Research shows that missing school in the crucial early days of school leads to problems later on. In Los Angeles, educators are working to raise kindergarten attendance.

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How Do You Market To Millennials?

NPR News - Mon, 2015-02-23 23:46

Young people between the ages of 18 and 35 spend hundreds of millions of dollars a year. NPR asked some in this group how brands and corporations can get their attention.

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Washington State County Unsure If It Can Take Wave Of North Dakota Crude

NPR News - Mon, 2015-02-23 23:42

Once a booming timber area, Grays Harbor County is the site of three proposed oil terminals. The local fishing industry sees the uptick in oil movement as a big risk, with limited economic benefits.

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As Homeland Security Steps Up Cybercrime Fight, Tech Industry Wary

NPR News - Mon, 2015-02-23 23:37

The Department of Homeland Security, an agency repeatedly criticized for internal mismanagement and bloat, is the cornerstone of the new White House initiative to fight cybercrime.

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'American Horror Story' Cast Member Ben Woolf Dies At 34

NPR News - Mon, 2015-02-23 21:32

Ben Woolf died Monday after being injured in a street accident, a spokesman said. The 4-foot-4 actor was hit by the side mirror of a passing vehicle on an LA-area street last week.

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