National News

The Alibaba Effect: How China's eBay Transformed Village Economics

NPR News - Wed, 2014-09-10 23:21

At first, Sun Han made a staggering 100 percent profit margin on his furniture. Soon everyone in his village was opening a furniture factory — and didn't need to raise pigs anymore.

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As Visible Villain, Islamic State Alters U.S. Political Calculus

NPR News - Wed, 2014-09-10 19:43

For the first time since the killing of Osama bin Laden, the U.S. president has a symbolic figure to rail against — one potent enough to rally the country around.

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NFL: Ex-FBI Chief Will Investigate How League Handled Rice Evidence

NPR News - Wed, 2014-09-10 14:46

A report from the AP quotes an unnamed law enforcement official saying police had sent a video to the NFL that showed Rice punching his then-fiancee.

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Obama Says U.S. Will 'Take Out' Islamic State 'Wherever They Exist'

NPR News - Wed, 2014-09-10 14:32

Signaling a broadening of the American offensive to date, the president said he would not hesitate to order strikes inside Syria. "If you threaten America, you will find no safe haven," Obama warned.

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Preserving Black History, Americans Care For National Treasures At Home

NPR News - Wed, 2014-09-10 14:25

The relics of African-American families help tell the story of America, the Smithsonian says. Museum experts are traveling the country to help identify and care for items of cultural significance.

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Nepal Struggles To Help Villages Washed Away In Floods

NPR News - Wed, 2014-09-10 13:55

Thousands of families are living in schools, empty buildings and open fields after massive flooding. Although there's money to help, many are still without food, water and a dry place to sleep.

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Overdraft charges and fees aren't as profitable as they used to be

Marketplace - American Public Media - Wed, 2014-09-10 13:54

The commercial banking industry made $32.5 billion in fees last year, according to data from the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. But the banking industry isn't making as much off overdraft charges and other fees as it used to. 

“The banks are making lots of money on their fees, but it’s significantly less than it was a handful of years ago,” says Jefferson Harralson, associate director of research at the investment banking firm Keefe, Bruyette & Wood.

In 2009, banks made almost $8 billion more in fees. 

Harralson says financial regulation played a big role. "There’s been new rules to limit when you bounce a check," he says. "If you go slightly below zero, you don’t bounce now.”

Banks also don’t charge as much for debit card transactions these days.

But not everyone agree that banks are making that much less.

“The perception is there’s been this massive decline in service charges. I don’t think that’s been the case. I think the growth has slowed down,” says Christoper Marinac, a research analysts at FIG Partners. “What’s happening is that banks are finding other ways to make fee income.”

Analysts say that’s why some banks have scaled back on things like free checking accounts.

Richard Hunt, CEO of the Consumer Banking Association, argues some financial regulation was needed. But he says Congress went too far when it decided how much banks can charge for services.

“Yes, we’re in the business of making money. Yes, we should charge for our services, as long as it is reasonable and transparent," Hunt says.

In other words, bank fees are here to stay.

How to grow lettuce and fish indoors, all year long

Marketplace - American Public Media - Wed, 2014-09-10 13:42

Tony Beran is standing in the kitchen at the Lake Avenue Restaurant in Duluth, Minnesota, with a head of romaine lettuce in one hand and a clump of curly lettuce in the other. 

"They're beautiful," he says.

Beran's the executive chef, and one thing he likes about these bunches of lettuce is how clean they are. "They're grown aquaponically instead of in dirt," he says. "Which is wonderful in the kitchen. It's less labor for us."

Another thing he likes about this lettuce is that it was grown just up the road. The restaurant features local ingredients, and Beran serves locally grown lettuce all year, which is a bit of a trick in a place like Duluth. Last winter, the temperature was below zero 23 days in a row.

But it's always warm in the greenhouse at Victus Farms, where Beran's lettuce came from. It's about an hour's drive from Duluth in a little mining town called Silver Bay.

"These are all our babies," says Mike Mageau, as he shows off his latest lettuce crop. He runs the place, and he's an unlikely looking farmer. He's wearing cargo shorts and a backwards ball cap and he's barefoot. He's an unlikely looking professor, too, but that's his job: professor of geography at the University of Minnesota Duluth. He runs a program in environment and sustainability, and this indoor farm is a research project.

Universities and private businesses across the country are experimenting with aquaponics.

"It's kind of fun," Mageau says. "It's like the electric car. It's almost a race to come up with the method or the model that really works well."

Most of Mageau's lettuce is floating. Each plant is stuck into a hole in an inch-and-a-half-thick sheet of polystyrene foam. The foam rafts float in pools in the greenhouse, and the lettuce roots dangle through the foam into the water.

The fish live in a neighboring room. They're tilapia, and they swim in nine round plastic tanks, each one about six feet tall. Waste from the fish gets pumped over to fertilize the plants in the greenhouse, and some of the pools in the greenhouse grow algae and duckweed that come back into this room to feed the fish. 

"Which means you grow fish and plants sort of in concert, one living off the other," Mageau says.

Two years into the project, Victus Farms sells all the fish and vegetables it can produce to local restaurants and stores. Now the goal is to get more efficient.

Mageau and his crew built floor-to-ceiling racks made of PVC pipe, an idea they got online and spent six months refining. Each rack looks sort of like a ladder. On the horizontal pipes, they drill holes in the top and stick a plant in each hole. Then they run nutrient-rich water from the fish tanks through the pipes, bathing the roots of the plants.

"It's all trial and error," Mageau says. "You know, 'I wonder if we can grow tomatoes in four-inch pipe?' Yes! You try it, and it works! I mean, look at these tomatoes, there's millions of them."

One wall of the greenhouse is covered with ripening tomatoes and strawberries growing out of white, plastic pipes. And the fruit looks good. 

Mageau's banking on this vertical gardening scheme for the future. It will let them make use of some of the empty vertical space, and it will allow them to move the fish into the ponds in the greenhouse, making the second room for fish unnecessary.

"Then we can grow probably 10 times the plants per unit surface area, which means our greenhouse needs to be one-tenth the size, " Mageau says.

He wants to pilot a small, hyperefficient version of Victus. 

"Every small town could have one or two or three of them," he says. "And the food could literally be produced in the backyard of the restaurants or whatever."

Mageau says aquaponic operations will never replace farming in dirt, but they could give a big boost to the amount of local food that's available, especially in places with short growing seasons.

The Victus building cost about $2 million, but Mageau thinks a self-sustaining version could be built for a small fraction of that. It really could be built in someone's yard.

So that's what he's doing next.

Mageau's right-hand man at Victus is Baylor Radtke, a former student. The two of them pooled their money and on their own they're building a much smaller and simpler fish and vegetable operation in Radtke's yard in Duluth.

"The whole point of it is to allow people to grow as much as we did in that $2 million facility in a facility that costs under $100,000," Radtke says.

The cost has come out way under. Radtke and Mageau say the new operation will take only $20,000 to build because they're doing all the labor. The annual energy costs will be comparable to a single-family house, and they're cutting those even further with solar panels on the roof of the greenhouse.

They figure they'll bring in $50,000 in the first year, from a building the size of a four-car garage, about 24-by-52 feet. They plan to be completely up and running by this fall. 

If it works in northern Minnesota, they say, imagine how well it could work someplace warm. Like Iowa.

Want the new iPhone 6? How about a new carrier too?

Marketplace - American Public Media - Wed, 2014-09-10 13:41

With the announcement of Apple’s new iPhone 6 Tuesday came a flurry of new cell phone plans from carriers hoping to capitalize on consumers’ excitement about a new device.

“The carriers are really looking to take advantage of marketing blitz that comes with a new Apple product,” said Weston Henderek, with NPD Group. “So, they’re all looking to come out with some of a catch to really grab a consumer’s attention.”

Sprint is being particularly aggressive, offering a plan for unlimited service at a discount when customers lease the phone. With this “iPhone for life” plan, Sprint will also give out upgrades every two years, similar to a car lease.

Smartphone plans are a highly competitive market for carriers, says Ramon Llamas, the research manager for IDC’s mobile phones team.

"Mobile phone subscriber growth is leveling off," he says. "Without much more green space to grow into, it’s a game of, ‘How do we steal customers from the other guy?’"

Following a move by T-Mobile a few years ago, many companies are dropping plans that force customers into a multi-year contract. They’re also increasingly abandoning the subsidies that heavily discount the phone but tend to come with higher monthly fees.

“The cost of service has been separated from the cost of a handset,” says Colin Gibbs, with GigaOm Research, though some companies, including Verizon, still sell subsidized handsets with a contract.

Bottom line, if you want the new iPhone, there’s lots of companies competing to sell it to you.

Leaked photos = a quarter-billion page views for Reddit

Marketplace - American Public Media - Wed, 2014-09-10 13:41

Remember those photos stolen from celebrities' iCloud accounts that wound up on the Web last week?

Well, links to those pictures showed up on Reddit. According to Wired, "In just six days Reddit earned enough money... to power its servers for roughly a month."

The money came about through the sale of memberships. However, it's likely the site made even more from ads.

Wired says those photos, in total, led to a quarter-billion page views on Reddit in the full week it took for the site to ban them.

How the ACA has affected employer-based coverage

Marketplace - American Public Media - Wed, 2014-09-10 13:41

We’ve heard for years about how the Affordable Care Act — Obamacare — could make it near impossible for businesses to keep offering health coverage to their workers.

Well, the Kaiser Family Foundation’s annual employer health benefits survey — which is widely considered a benchmark in the health care industry — came out Wednesday. Like everybody else, Kaiser Family Foundation Vice President Gary Claxton wanted to know: Did the new health care law upend employer-based health insurance, the market where 150 million Americans get their coverage?

“The first read for 2014 is that the ACA has had no real impact on premiums, nor did it lead to employers not to offer coverage,” he says.

You read right: No ACA-inspired premium spike.

Instead, there has been a modest 3 percent increase. Nearly the same number of employers are offering coverage; nearly the same number of workers are enrolling.

A critical question the survey doesn’t answer, however, is whether employers have begun cutting hours. Starting next year, people working 30 hours a week at firms with 100 employees or more must be offered insurance or face a penalty. 

While Kaiser’s Year 2 survey may come to a different conclusion, the bottom line to this year’s report is that the ACA has had a small impact on employers... with one possible exception: “There is no doubt that the Affordable Care Act’s exchanges have brought a lot of attention to the concept of retail health insurance,” says PricewaterhouseCooper’s Ceci Connolly.

Connolly says there’s something executives like about the exchange concept that the ACA has popularized. (If you aren’t familiar with exchanges, think Travelocity for health insurance.) The consulting firm Accenture predicts private exchange enrollment will top public enrollment by 2018.

Rosemarie Day with Day Health Strategies says more and more Americans are becoming smarter health care consumers.

“That’s kind of the notion of exchanges, is that you have to put something in to get something out. It’s not a benefit that’s just handed to you,” she says.

Day likens this potential shift to when companies moved away from pensions and towards 401k contributions. For workers, it meant more choice, and more responsibility.

What a $6 billion anti-terrorist campaign amounts to

Marketplace - American Public Media - Wed, 2014-09-10 13:41

Among the defense-contractor set, there’s an expectation that the war against extremist group the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria will cost an extra $6 billion next year. That would pay for things like warplanes, drones for surveillance, listening to enemy phone calls and training rebels.

The corporate winners among defense contractors include familiar names. “Boeing and Raytheon make smart munitions,” says Guggenheim Securities aerospace and defense policy analyst Roman Schweizer. “Lockheed Martin or ATK are certainly also in the mix. Northrup Grumman and General Atomics are the two primary drone manufacturers.”

For context, this is war on the cheap. Put the $6 billion estimate next to a defense and war budget of around $560 billion, and it’s a rounding error. Or, consider the price of one laser-guided JDAM smart bomb dropped on an ISIS target.

“The unit price of those is $25,000–$40,000,” says Byron Callan of Capital Alpha Partners. “Now, that’s the price of a car. But in the context of companies that may have revenues of anywhere from $25–80 billion, you have to drop an awful lot of those to really start impacting the bottom line.”

The bigger impact of all this may be political. The current budget environment of strict spending caps — remember the term “sequestration”? — squeezes all contractors. But now, with a new enemy, the appetite for spending on war could grow.

“I think the calculus may be starting to change,” says Yair Reiner of the investment firm Oppenheimer. “With the rise of ISIS, Americans — and I think not just the political class — may be willing to contemplate intervention.”

Further on, winning this fight could mean winning the peace: soldiers, body protection and armored vehicles. Down the road, if the mission creeps, that would be real money.


From a defense perspective, $6 billion could seem like chump change, but this graphic by Marketplace's Marlena Chertock puts the number in perspective:

Souls Tumbling In The Light

NPR News - Wed, 2014-09-10 13:30

Every fall, birds head south and, around Sept. 11, New York sends two beams into the sky. When birds and lights collide, that could mean trouble — but New York is surprisingly gentle.

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Underneath Stonehenge, 'A Map Of What Was There In The Past'

NPR News - Wed, 2014-09-10 13:26

Researchers from Birmingham University used high-tech equipment to map 17 ritual monuments in the area. That's in addition to the iconic circle of stones that has stood there for thousands of years.

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Suicides Rise In Middle-Aged Men, And Older Men Remain At Risk

NPR News - Wed, 2014-09-10 12:50

Researchers don't know why middle-aged men are increasingly likely to kill themselves. But they say it shows that efforts to reduce the toll of suicide should be focused on men.

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Cell carriers are getting creative with phone plans

Marketplace - American Public Media - Wed, 2014-09-10 12:40

The iPhone release schedule has grown pretty predictable over the past seven years. Usually, the latest phone goes on sale for $199 with a two-year contract, the old model’s price gets cut in half to $99 and the (now ancient) model from two years ago is thrown in the trash offered for free.

But as Apple has started introducing multiple phones each year and the smartphone market becomes more competitive, that pricing structure has been upended. At its announcement yesterday, Apple provided an offer similar to those in previous years: With a two-year contract, you can get an iPhone 6 for $199 or the larger iPhone 6 Plus for $299.

On Wednesday morning, as the reality distortion field cleared, major carriers were all clamoring to buy old iPhones and get a leg up on each other with some interesting deals.

Let’s take a look at what carriers are offering as of Wednesday afternoon:

Sprint: An iPhone for "life"

The cost: $70/month for a new phone every two years


Sprint wants you to lease a phone like you would a car, with no money down and an extra $20 per month on top of their $50 unlimited plan. Every two years you can trade up for the new iPhone “for life.”

(Or as long as iPhones actually exist — keep in mind the original iPod was discontinued Tuesday after 13 years.)

All of this means you’ll pay $480 for a phone every two years, and if you break it, you buy it. If you don’t want to lease, you can still buy the iPhone 6 from Sprint for $199, with that same unlimited plan costing $85 per month.

Overall, the lease is cheapest in the short-term, but the long-haul winner is Sprint. Plus, if you own your phone, the company is already offering to buy it back for up to $300, claiming to match any other buyback offers. If they keep that up, leasing is really a bad deal.


Cost: Matching trade-ins plus an extra $50; $50–80/month for plans


The self-proclaimed “un-carrier” — which also insists on calling smartphones “superphones” — is also offering to match any of its competitor’s trade-in offers, but it’ll throw in another $50.

That said, T-Mobile’s plans are more expensive, with their $50 plan capping 4G LTE use at one gigabyte. Getting everything unlimited will cost about $80.


Cost: Trade in a phone and a get an iPhone 6 for free; $60/month for a plan


The most straightforward deal comes from Verizon, who will give you an iPhone 6 for free when you trade-in your old phone and sign a two-year contract. So there’s no opportunity to make a little extra money off your trade-in, but there’s also no haggling or pitting other carriers (or “un-carriers”) against eachother.

The other compromise is that while Verizon’s single-line plan is pretty cheap at $60, they’ll cap your data no matter what.

Overall, each plan will end up costing almost the same over two years, depending on your data needs, and with nearly everyone (including Wal-Mart and Target) offering comparable trade-ins, the whole thing ends up being a wash.

Welcome to the hypercompetitive world of superphone smartphone shopping.

Boosting student achievement with video games

Marketplace - American Public Media - Wed, 2014-09-10 12:40

Hey, teachers, do you have low-performing students who have trouble paying attention? The solution could be video games.

That’s according to a survey of nearly 700 teachers* who use games in the classroom, conducted by the Games and Learning Publishing Council. (Potential self-interest noted). Forty-seven percent of teachers said that low-performing students were the main beneficiaries of gaming in the classroom, and 28 percent said students with emotional or behavioral issues benefited most.

Also from the survey of teachers:

  • 55 percent use gaming in the classroom at least once a week; 9 percent use it daily.
  • 55 percent said the games were most valuable as motivators of low-performing students and special education students.
  • 30 percent have students use games individually; 20 percent have kids work in small groups; and 17 percent play as a class.
  • Teachers rely most on other teachers for game recommendations.
  • Why aren’t more teachers using games?  Most cited not enough time. But cost and lack of tech resources were also popular answers.
  • The Games and Learning Publishing Council  is a coalition of game developers, industry leaders, investors, scholars and education experts focused on expanding game-based learning.

The survey doesn't make game recommendations, but one blogger and teacher recently listed his favorite options here. There is an even longer list at the website.  

Among the options that appear on both lists is Minecraft, a game that has more than a few teacher devotees. A whole library of Minecraft-based learning games created by enthusiastic educators can be found here.

*CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misstated the number of teachers who took the survey. Nearly 700 teachers participated. The text has been corrected.

A New Brand Of Paul Gains Support In Iowa

NPR News - Wed, 2014-09-10 12:30

Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul has already made significant inroads in Iowa as he explores a presidential bid. Supporters say it's because he builds on his father's work but stays his own person.

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This Is Your Brain. This Is Your Brain On Music.

NPR News - Wed, 2014-09-10 12:28

A new study suggests that learning to play a musical instrument helps improve the brain's ability to process language. That means music lessons could give kids from low-income communities a big boost.

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