National News

The discount that links big tobacco to the military

Marketplace - American Public Media - Wed, 2014-10-01 02:00

Before he retired from the Navy Dental Corps, Dr. Larry Williams used to help sailors quit using tobacco. One reason he says they start smoking, chewing or dipping is peer pressure.

"The imagery, the socialization, the context of being able to be with people your own age and talk about things" is key, he says. But tobacco use trumps rank, and users can end up crowded together, forced to forget protocol for the tiniest of whiles.

"It’s the one opportunity you have," Williams says, "in the smoke deck, or the smoking area, that you can go as an E3 and stand next to an E6 and talk to them and learn things that other people might not be able to pick up."

Members of the military use tobacco more than civilians. Depending on the division and age groups you look within, Williams says, usage rates can be as high as 32 percent. In the military, tobacco can be hard to avoid. Take one of Williams' colleagues, a sailor working in a medical clinic, who alerted Williams that he was about to start smoking.

“I looked over at him and said, 'why?' And he said, 'Well, everybody else in the office smokes, and when the senior chief goes outside to smoke, they all go with him and they leave me behind to take care of all the work in the office.'”

Williams was raised on a tobacco farm. It was the experience of seeing relatives die from tobacco-related illnesses, like emphysema, lung disease and cancer, that steered him to his eventual career, he says. He's now a consultant to the National Development and Research Institute looking at the effectiveness of tobacco policy and cessation programs in the military.

Tobacco use, notes Williams, harms the health and readiness of troops and costs taxpayers billions.

“If you’re a smoker, your hospital stays are 20 percent longer," he says. "You have a double risk of postoperative infection from any surgery that you have.”

The defense department spends $1.6 billion a year on tobacco-related expenses, like treating chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

A discounted risk

Despite the numbers, members of the military get discounts on all kinds of products at military base stores, including tobacco—which the military sells a lot of. In the last year numbers were available, the Army and Air Force sold just under $400 million worth.

A new provision in next year’s spending bill for the Defense Department would eliminate that discount.

Williams says he also wants the discount ended. However, he says, doing so could be difficult.

“The profits from tobacco sales on the base—those are used by MWR—morale, welfare and recreation. It helps pay for the day care centers. It helps pay for the gymnasiums, for the clubs,” he says. So "any sale of tobacco is sort of a benefit. And that’s one of the things we need to remove—is any association between profits from items that cause health issues should be removed and that money come from another source."  

The military has been struggling for years with how to address tobacco, but it keeps getting caught up in politics, says Erika Sward, assistant vice president for national advocacy at the American Lung Association. Sward calls the problem the "iron triangle."

"When the military has tried to do something," she says, "Congress has stopped them because of tobacco industry’s lobby and pressure."

"There’s a law that prohibits the Veteran’s Administration from making its hospitals tobacco-free," she says. "There's a constant back-and-forth between the tobacco industry and Capitol Hill."

Sen. Richard Durbin, chairman of the Senate Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, included a provision in next year’s Defense Department spending bill that would end the military’s discount on tobacco products. He notes that, according to DOD policy, tobacco may only be discounted 5 percent.

But via an emailed statement he said, "In practice, these discounts are much greater. A study comparing cigarette prices at 145 military retail stores and their nearest Walmart found that the average discount on Marlboro Red brand cigarettes was 25.4 percent."

Will removing discounts change habits?

When tobacco is cheap, people buy more.

"We know that one of the greatest ways to reduce tobacco use across the board," says Sward, "is to increase the price. But when the military is subsidizing the cost of tobacco use, or undercutting local prices, as a result it means that cheaper tobacco products are more available and more people are likely to use them among military personnel."

An amendment to the spending bill, introduced by California Rep. Duncan Hunter, would prevent restrictions on sales of any products currently in stock at base stores, including tobacco.

Hunter declined an interview request, as did all but a few of the 53 of the 62-member Armed Services Committee who voted in favor of the amendment, effectively opting to continue the discount on tobacco. 

Southern Mississippi Rep. Steven Palazzo, who served for eight years in the Marine Corps Reserves, and a member of the Armed Services Committee, cast his vote with the majority.

“What’s next? Are they going to not allow you to eat a cheeseburger?" he questioned. "Hey, caffeine is bad for you so no more coffee? No more Krispy Kreme doughnuts? You’re talking about a lance corporal in the United States Marine Corp that just got through two weeks of hellacious fighting—seeing his buddies basically blown to pieces in front of him in Fallujah and he wants to come back to the fort operating base and have a cigarette?"

Palazzo says he knows ending the discount isn't the same as removing tobacco products from base stores altogether, but he says doing away with the discount would represent "a slippery slope."

Besides, he says, why single out one product? Especially given the kind of work that soldiers do.

"The availability of tobacco products in a combat zone is not the threat. The threat is the bullets coming from the enemy," he says. "But you know, we’re not going to ban war, so why would we ban tobacco products for our military?"

A question Senate isn't currently facing. However, the issue of the military’s discount on tobacco products is expected to come before legislators this fall.

Counting students in order to count up funding

Marketplace - American Public Media - Wed, 2014-10-01 02:00

Students in suburban Denver plan to walk out of school on Wednesday in an act of civil disobedience. One of the reasons is to protest a proposal that would, among other things, de-emphasize civil disobedience from their history curriculum.  

If the students wanted to make a point, they couldn’t have picked a more significant day to do it. That’s because every year on October 1, Colorado schools count up the students who show up in order to figure out how much state funding each school district will get.  

One school principal went on Facebook to ask students to show up to class on so-called “count day,” because anywhere from $4,000 to $6,000 in per-pupil funding from Colorado state is on the line. 

“In the past, school districts have done everything they can to get kids to attend” on count day, says Michael Smith with the Denver-based national group Education Commission on the States. “So, they’ll have pizza for free, or they’ll have activities. They will send out notices to families.” 

Nationwide, about half of school district budgets come from state funding. But only a minority of states use a single count day. It’s attractive because it requires less paperwork. But Jane Urschel of the Colorado Association of School Boards says her members want a different method. 

“Years ago, we had two count days," she says. "So, it’s been an issue whether this is the best way. We know we need to make better policy on that” Urschel says. 

Among other options is to count up the average number of students in school during the whole year, which is the most popular option among states. 

Which month is National Month Month?

Marketplace - American Public Media - Wed, 2014-10-01 02:00

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. It's also National Physical Therapy Month, National Pharmacists Month, Down Syndrome Awareness Month and more than a dozen others. Other months of the year are similarly crowded. One online calendar lists more than 30 “months” for May alone. 

How do all these months get scheduled?

It may have escaped your notice that October was Lupus Awareness Month. That’s “was,” past tense.

Lupus Month is now in May, but in 1994, when Duane Peters started working for the Lupus Foundation of America, it was October.

"We noticed that over the years the month became very crowded," says Peters, who is now the organization's senior communications director.

He won’t say breast cancer was the only big competitor, but that disease did lock up a lot of corporate support, which created awkward conversations.

"Certainly it would behoove us," he says, "not to put a company in that position where they say, 'Gee whiz, we already do something for breast cancer. We like lupus, we want to support it, but... '" 

In 2003, the Lupus Foundation started looking seriously at May. It took years: first to decide, then to switch.

Other months are more straightforward. I asked Pam Paladin, who runs marketing for the American Association of Orthodontists, why October was National Orthodontic Health Month.

"As it turns out, the week following Halloween is generally the busiest week for orthodontists for emergency appointments," she says.

Caramel apples — not so kind to braces. Be aware.

But what about all those commemorative days?

Sure, you'll spend October being aware of all sorts of stuff, but if you're wishing there were more to commemorate in a more arbitrary way, the month is full of many obscure holidays. In fact, you could spend every single day in October celebrating something. Some of these days are more official than others, but no matter. We assembled the list with some help from Marketplace's professional datebook-er Michelle Philippe, who also reminded us that October is American Cheese Month.

October 1 —World Vegetarian Day and National Fire Pup Day

October 9 — Leif Erikson Day

October 13 — National Kick Butt Day. Not to be confused with the anti-smoking Kick Butts day. Also happens to be Columbus Day.

October 16 — Take your Parents to Lunch Day and National Feral Cat Day

October 24 —National Food Day, kind of a catch-all. Not to be confused with...

October 25 —National Greasy Food Day

October 31 — National Breadstix Day. There's conflicting information on this one, but you should probably give your trick-or-treaters bread anyway.



Discovering hidden languages in centuries-old writing

Marketplace - American Public Media - Wed, 2014-10-01 02:00

If you were around during the '80s, you probably remember the Indiana Jones movies—the swashbuckling archaeologist traveled the world digging up ancient treasures.

If you were to go looking for a real-life, present-day Indiana Jones, you might get someone like Michael Toth. He travels with his teams around the world using modern technology—lasers, high-tech cameras—to unearth treasure. It's centuries-old writing that appears in very faint form on manuscripts called palimpsests. Along the way, they've discovered everything from lost languages to some very mysterious fingerprints. 

You’re not discovering ancient manuscripts; you’re working to read what’s buried in them. Tell me a little about the work you do.

We work on a range of manuscripts—the earliest copy of Archimedes work, David Livingston’s diaries—and we use spectral imaging to reveal that text which is not seen by the naked eye.

Why isn’t that text visible? We’re talking about two different layers of writing here, right?

That is correct. It’s usually on parchment. And they’re written initially with an ink made out of the galls of oak trees, and that’s been scraped off and overwritten. And in doing so, it’s preserved that text underneath it.

And the process you use is something called spectral imaging. Tell me about that and what kind of technology is involved in that.

So we shine lights on the object to bring out that ink which responds best to, say, the ultraviolet in the case of iron gall, or a modern carbon black ink in the infrared.

You and I met in the Sinai Desert, when you were working at Saint Catherine’s Monastery to look at some of the ancient manuscripts that have been held in the library there for over 1,000 years. Tell me a little about the work you’ve done at Saint Catherine’s and some of the things you found.

Some are historical texts. Some are medical or mathematical texts. We’re still assessing what is underneath this rich trove and, ultimately, are going to make this available to the world.

Do you have a favorite moment of discovery?

Oh, yes. The work on Abraham Lincoln’s draft of the Gettysburg Address. And as we were imaging it, at the bottom, on a blank part of the paper, the ultraviolet light came on and there’s gemlike glow at the bottom. And we said, “Hey, we’ve gotta look at this,” and we saw a thumbprint. And then on the back three fingerprints. As if someone was holding that paper, which is folded in thirds, as if it’s in a coat pocket, had held it up to read.

And is it Abraham Lincoln’s fingerprints?

We don’t know. We know there’s enough of the whorls and loops to be able to assess the fingerprint. But of course there was no FBI fingerprint lab, much less West Virginia back then. So they are working with various forensics experts to try to assess that compared to other documents.

Kansas City Wins Exciting Wild Card Game Over Athletics

NPR News - Tue, 2014-09-30 21:16

It took 12 innings, but the Kansas City Royals won the American League Wild Card game over the Oakland Athletics 9-8.

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Kurds Retake Syria-Iraq Border Crossing As U.K. Begins Bombing

NPR News - Tue, 2014-09-30 20:11

Rabia, which Islamic State militants had held since this summer, was reclaimed by peshmerga fighters in a bloody urban battle. But ISIS fighters advanced on the Syria-Turkey border despite airstrikes.

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There is going to be a 'Tetris' movie

Marketplace - American Public Media - Tue, 2014-09-30 15:36

This is about a movie that is, as they say, coming soon to a theater near you.

If that music doesn't provoke a Pavlovian response that sends you running for your old Game Boy, let us get to the point: There will be a Tetris movie.

The head of the company making the movie, Threshold Entertainment, also made the "Mortal Kombat" series.

But in case you're wondering how a game that's all about bricks will translate to the big screen, Henk Rogers, managing director of The Tetris Company, says: "There's much more to Tetris than simply clearing lines." The Tetris Company owns the rights to the game that debuted three decades ago.

"We have a story behind Tetris," Threshold's Larry Kasanoff promises, adding it'll be "a very big, epic sci-fi movie."

About bricks.

Mexico Pays To Help Its Citizens Avoid Deportation From The U.S.

NPR News - Tue, 2014-09-30 14:39

Applying to the program for immigrants illegally brought to the U.S. as children provides a work permit and prevents deportation, but costs $465. Mexico is helping some of its citizens with that cost.

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FCC Votes To Eliminate Sports Blackout Rules

NPR News - Tue, 2014-09-30 14:22

Unfortunately for sports fans, the rules aren't expected to change much, as the NFL could still negotiate blackout rules through contracts with broadcasters. It does, however, end FCC protection.

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Where Activists See Gray, Albuquerque Police See Black And White

NPR News - Tue, 2014-09-30 13:48

If a suspect threatens officers, police say they have a right to defend themselves. But a Justice Department report said the police in Albuquerque have used force unnecessarily; two ex-officers agree.

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First U.S. Case Of Ebola Confirmed In Dallas

NPR News - Tue, 2014-09-30 13:42

A man who flew to the U.S. from Liberia has tested positive for Ebola. He was not sick on the plane, but developed symptoms later. He is currently in isolation at a hospital in Dallas.

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New York Boosts Pay For Thousands With Hourly Wage Hike

NPR News - Tue, 2014-09-30 13:31

Mayor Bill de Blasio signed an executive order Tuesday that raises the hourly rate from under $11.90 to $13.13 an hour for thousands of fast-food and retail workers.

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Your phone knows where you are. So do marketers

Marketplace - American Public Media - Tue, 2014-09-30 13:26

People who buy used trucks rarely go to toy stores. Customers of KFC also frequent Home Depot, Nissan dealerships and museums. Latinos are 43 percent less likely to shop at Whole Foods than the average person.

These are conclusions made by the consumer behavior analytics company PlaceIQ, derived from tracking people on their smartphones.

Over the years, companies have developed surveys to gather data on people inside their homes — things like demographics, income and automobile ownership. But the outside world has remained largely a black box. Now, smartphones allow companies like PlaceIQ to not only uncover what people do in the real world, but also connect it back to traditional data gathered from homes.

PlaceIQ CEO Duncan McCall says: “We use location as foundation to essentially hang data from.”

In other words, location becomes the glue holding together a rich digital profile.

To better track mobile users, PlaceIQ has built a new map of America. The company has broken down the country into 100-meter-by-100-meter tiles. Inside each one, PlaceIQ notes where mobile users go and what they do. “We can see their journey across our map of the world,” McCall says, “and now we can build very rich behavioral profiles.”

The company can tell who shops at Wal-Mart frequently, who travels for business, who likes fine dining or who works a particular job. Since PlaceIQ can see where mobile users live, it can tie this real-world behavior to traditionally gathered info like demographics, income and even TV-viewing habits. McCall says linking all this data lets companies see relationships. They can connect information — PlaceIQ gets TV data from the company Rentrack — with their physical behaviors in the world. That means companies can start to predict what people will do based on something like what they watch. And that is a powerful tool for advertisers. 

So, in case you're wondering, does PlaceIQ know exactly who you are? No, McCall says. The data is currently anonymous, and furthermore, McCall says he doesn't even want to know your identity. That would raise privacy concerns, and, well, it's not the point. With a rich digital profile, PlaceIQ doesn't need to know who you are in order to predict what you'll do and help companies sell you things.

Sanjog Misra is a professor of marketing at the UCLA Anderson School of Management. He says digital data “is going to change the way we market our products.” It will alter things like how companies develop products and display them in stores. Companies can now send personalized ads to individual users at an exact time and place. For instance, Misra says companies may advertise to customers when they are entering a supermarket but not while they are sitting at home.

Advertisers have been dreaming of individually tailored, one-to-one marketing for years. The ability to know exactly where you are is even better than they hoped.  

But according to Jeffery Chester, “It has a very, very dark side.” Chester is with the Center for Digital Democracy. He says collecting all this data is an invasion of privacy.  And there's another problem, he says — one that is less obvious and even more alarming: discrimination.

Chester says this kind of hyperlocal behavioral analysis allows for a new form of redlining. Chester says customers won't be treated differently because of where they live, but instead because of their digital data. Chester says digital data is already being used to determine how we are treated — whether we get perks like coupon codes and free shipping, or if we have to pay full price. In the future, who knows what it will impact, he says — maybe credit card rates and loan accessibility.

Chester wonders if this is the future we would like to have. “Do we want to live in a society where every movement we make, every decision we embrace is collected and analyzed and decisions are made about it?”

Well, we do give apps the right to track us. We can stop them by turning off the location services feature on our phones. But without it, some apps won't work.  

Duncan McCall from PlaceIQ says it's foolish to try to hide from tech. He says we cannot avoid the potential threats of innovation by “trying to play whack-a-mole with technology, because you'll always lose that, because it will always evolve.”  

McCall and Chester do agree on one thing: The only way to prevent discrimination and control our privacy is through regulation.

BRAIN Initiative Bets on Wearable Scanners, Laser-Controlled Cells

NPR News - Tue, 2014-09-30 13:06

A wearable PET scanner and lasers that could control individual brain circuits are among the projects funded by a $46 million federal effort to accelerate research on the human brain.

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EBay Spins Off PayPal Into Fast-Changing World Of Mobile Payments

NPR News - Tue, 2014-09-30 13:01

Commerce and payments are splitting up. Ebay is breaking away from PayPal and its payments operation will turn into a separate, publicly traded company.

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Cribbing from the Netflix playbook

Marketplace - American Public Media - Tue, 2014-09-30 12:30

Netflix dominates streaming media in a lot of ways. It has 50 million subscribers, some well-regarded original series, enough clout to go toe-to-toe with the likes of Comcast and Verizon and it accounts for a jaw-dropping 34 percent of web traffic. 

Netflix may have a virtual monopoly, but there are plenty of competitors lining up. Amazon, Hulu, Playstation Network, Xbox, Yahoo and others are all throwing around a lot of money to break in to original programming.

"The problem is, at a certain point, there's going to be too many of these services and they're not going to be able to sustain themselves," television critic Alan Sepinwall says.

An expensive cable bundle helps all channels subsidize each other, he says, but "There's no equivalent of that for streaming, and I don't think there will be."

Here's the recipe Netflix's competitors are following to try to break in to this hot new market.

Step 1: Don't wait for the audience to find to you

How can people watch your shiny, new original content if they don't know about your service? That's not really a problem for streaming-centric companies like Netflix and Hulu, but for other established brands it's a surprisingly tough nut to crack.

"Most of the time when I go to Amazon it's just listing 'Here are items you've viewed, maybe you should order those!'" Sepinwall says. "So you don't inherently think of Amazon as a streaming business. Whereas with Netflix, that's the only reason you go."

In fact, a study from earlier this year showed about a third of Amazon Prime customers have never used the video streaming service included in their membership.

Yahoo's Screen service has faced similar problems. At TechCrunch Disrupt, CEO Marissa Mayer noted that Yahoo had produced 86 different series over the past year, "none of whom you've ever heard about because it was sort of a failed branding exercise."

Only "Burning Love" — a "Bachelor" parody with literally dozens of big names attached — got any traction, and Yahoo Screen kept lagging behind until it suddenly made headlines in July.

Step 2: Buy yourself some credibility

Cult hit "Community" had barely hung on at NBC over five seasons of firings, re-hirings, behind-the-scenes drama, cast changes and sinking ratings before finally being canceled. But "Community" was exactly what Yahoo needed.

"The more players there are, the more you need to do something big to sort of stand out and seem like you belong on that same playing field," says Vox culture editor Todd Vanderwerff. "I think a lot of this is just purchasing credibility."

It's the same reason Netflix resurrected Fox's "Arrested Development" last year. A niche flop on traditional TV could be a huge hit for a new company if the audience is willing to follow.

There are a few other ways to close the credibility gap, too. Amazon paid through the nose this spring for the right to stream old HBO shows, and Hulu has built up a respectable catalog of foreign shows along with a just-announced Stephen King adaptation.

Even the mighty Netflix is still buying credibility, especially as it changes strategy. The service brought back three canceled shows this year, and Netflix is set to release its first original feature film — a sequel to "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" — the same day it's released in IMAX theaters.

Step 3: Make a word-of-mouth hit (and stack the deck with a good gimmick)

It's tough to make a hit from scratch, but there are a couple of ways to tip the odds.

Sepinwall points to "House of Cards." The show isn't that good, he says, but gets by because it looks like a so-called prestige cable drama — the way it's shot, the antihero, the high-profile cast — and people like binge-watching it.

"I remember when 'House of Cards' season one was released ... I would watch my Twitter feed and it turned into a race," he says. "Even if [the show] is not that great, but it has some sense of forward momentum, it becomes easy to go forward and you feel like [you're] on the ground floor of something special."

When the show's second season debuted on Netflix all at once, the explosion of social media conversation seemed to prove the show's success. Netflix doesn't make its streaming numbers public, Sepinwall notes, so it's impossible to know how many people actually watched.

Amazon has turned to crowd-sourcing, letting subscribers see user-submitted pilots and vote on their favorites. The process has its flaws, both critics said, but after a few tries Amazon may have its first big hit in "Transparent," which debuted over the weekend to rapturous reviews.

Step 4: Wait for the industry to shake out

Vanderwerff compared streaming to the early days of home video, predicting we'll see a lot of media companies come and go or change hands as the industry adjusts.

"I really think we're on the precipice of everyone in Hollywood trying to get in this game, and it's going to come down to the same companies you've always heard of."

The player to watch is HBO. Their streaming service is still bundled with cable, but when they break from that model and embrace streaming, Vanderwerff says, many more companies will follow.

Streaming services are still tied to traditional TV in other ways. They have no restrictions on time or content, but they don't stray far from what the networks are offering.

"There's no reason an episode has to be 30 or 60 minutes," Vanderwerff says. "That is an artificial constraint placed on us by the early gods of television that we have now evolved past, we just haven't realized it yet." 

The full possibilities of streaming TV — the niche ideas, the crowd-sourcing, the binging and more — might not come to fruition until the format has become more standardized, and that could take some mergers and acquisitions.

Contractor With Criminal History And Gun Was Allowed On Elevator With Obama

NPR News - Tue, 2014-09-30 12:30

The security lapse happened when President Obama visited the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. The incident continues to raise questions about the Secret Service's efficacy.

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Preventing Worker Burnout Can Boost The Bottom Line

NPR News - Tue, 2014-09-30 12:12

Weary employees could need more than just time off to re-energize. Some employers have ditched the time cards, let workers set their own schedules or allow them to rotate jobs to prevent burnout.

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How One Chauffeur Took Down A Corrupt Brazilian Politician

NPR News - Tue, 2014-09-30 12:08

Antonio Cavalcante helped get a candidate for governor barred after showing that the politician had embezzled millions of dollars while he was a state legislator.

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