National / International News

Machine learns to play video games

BBC - Wed, 2015-02-25 09:00
A machine inspired by the human brain has learned how to play 49 classic Atari video games - a step towards self-thinking robots, scientists say.

TJMaxx and Marshalls set to increase minimum wage

Marketplace - American Public Media - Wed, 2015-02-25 08:59

TJX — the retail conglomerate including TJMaxx, Marshalls, HomeGoods and Sierra Trading Post — announced in its Q4/full-year earnings report that it will boost pay for its lowest-wage associates to $9 per hour in June. Minimum base pay for full- and part-time workers will rise to $10 per hour for employees with at least six months tenure sometime in 2016. The announcement comes on the heels of similar base-wage-hike plans announced in recent months by Walmart, Starbucks and The Gap.

Orthodox economic theory says this is what should be happening to wages in a tightening labor market. Strong, steady job growth and gradually falling unemployment should make employers compete harder to find and keep workers.

“I think the tightening labor market, combined with public pressure, combined with the bandwagon effect, is driving what we’re seeing,” says Linda Barrington, executive director of Cornell University’s Institute for Compensation Studies.

Barrington points out that if employers were experiencing a significantly tighter labor market though, wages would be rising across the board—at multiple income levels, and in multiple occupations and labor sectors. Instead, inflation-adjusted (real) wages have not risen in recent years. A recent study by the Economic Policy Institute found that real wages fell or were stagnant in 2014 in all income percentiles, except the bottom 10 percent of wage-earners. Wages for that income-decile rose 1.3 percent in 2014, because, EPI says, eighteen states raised their minimum wage above the federal minimum  wage, which has been $7.25 per hour since 2009.

Arun Ivatury at the National Employment Law Project believes pressure by labor and consumer advocates is mostly what’s driving these wage increases. But they also make good business sense.

“Part of your business strategy is to have people who work for you who consumers like to interact with, and who represent your business well," says Ivatury. "And you’re going to have to pay a little better, especially as the labor market tightens.” 

Disparity in minimum pay between retail and service employers could induce some employees to chase a slightly higher paycheck, which could in turn increase competition for workers, and drive wages higher across service industries. But workers we spoke with were not inclined to switch jobs for a small increment in pay.

“No, I won’t jump on the bandwagon at T.J. Maxx just because they make more,” says Roderick Livingston, a 27-year-old fast-food worker who is employed part-time at both Taco Bell and McDonald’s in St. Petersburg, Florida. He makes the state's minimum wage of $8.05 per hour. “Where I am now I like my job, as far as my manager and everything. I don’t feel like the grass would be greener on the other side. But how come we can’t make $9-an-hour at a fast-food restaurant?”

Livingston is active in the movement pushing for a $15/hour minimum wage for fast-food workers, which has included strikes and other labor actions. He pays child support for two young children, and says he tries to send money to his parents in Georgia when he can.

Lisa Pietro, 57, works 32 to 39 hours per week at a Walmart in Winterhaven, Florida. She earns $8.95 per hour stocking produce, and says the increased take-home pay from Walmart’s planned new minimum wage of $9 per hour will mostly go to pay her taxes. But the increase to $10 per hour in 2016 will make a material difference to her.

“That’s groceries,” she says. Pietro is active in the Our Walmart campaign by labor and consumer groups to push for higher pay and better schedules for Walmart workers.

Pietro says she has little choice about where to work and could not easily chase a higher wage at another retailer. She can’t afford a car or gasoline, she says, so she walks to work at Walmart, 1.5 miles from her home. She says there aren’t other potential employers she could work for, within walking distance of her home.

Sir Cliff Richard inquiry 'expanded'

BBC - Wed, 2015-02-25 08:57
An historical sex offence inquiry into singer Sir Cliff Richard has "increased significantly in size" and involves "more than one allegation", police say.

Toronto Police Try To Uncover Riddle Of Mystery Tunnel

NPR News - Wed, 2015-02-25 08:48

Police are asking for public's help to discover who built a large tunnel in north Toronto. The discovery, ahead of this summer's Pan American and Parapan Am Games, is fueling security concerns.

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In pictures: Vintage Nasa photographs for sale

BBC - Wed, 2015-02-25 08:37
A collection of vintage Nasa photos is set for auction

Is Greek honeymoon over for PM Tsipras?

BBC - Wed, 2015-02-25 08:33
Mark Lowen asks whether or not the Greek love affair with Alexis Tsipras will continue after the compromises accepted with Greece's creditors.

Supreme Court Sides With Fisherman In Case Of The Missing Fish

NPR News - Wed, 2015-02-25 08:32

At issue was whether the discarding after a raid of undersized red grouper violated the Sarbanes-Oxley Act. The justices said the law, passed in the wake of the Enron scandal, didn't apply to fish.

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Balloons mistaken for IS propaganda

BBC - Wed, 2015-02-25 08:31
Police in Sweden ask for 21st birthday balloons to be taken down after they are mistaken for Islamic State propaganda.

Rep. Boehner: House Has 'Done Its Job' On Homeland Security Funding

NPR News - Wed, 2015-02-25 08:15

House Speaker John Boehner says he's waiting for the Senate to act to stave off a shutdown for the Department of Homeland Security, which is slated to run out of money Friday.

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Workers Sue Daimler Trucks In Oregon, Alleging Racial Discrimination

NPR News - Wed, 2015-02-25 08:10

The African-American plaintiffs say they were threatened with violence and harassed by white co-workers at a Daimler Trucks plant in Portland.

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Explaining deflation: Why falling prices can be bad news

Marketplace - American Public Media - Wed, 2015-02-25 08:07

It must be hard enough for European financial leaders to sleep through the night lately, chances are they've been haunted by the particular specter of deflation. To see how deflation can terrorize an economy, they only have to look southwards a few miles to Greece, where prices have been falling for coming on two years now.

So what if prices have to fall? Isn't that a good thing? Stuff gets cheaper and that means people can buy more of it, right? 

Well, yes, that is right ... at first. If prices fall a wee bit, it can be stimulative to the economy because people often do shop more, and spend the money they save. But falling prices are a bit like cliff jumps: A small drop can be fun, but if the cliff is too high and you fall too far too quickly, you crash.

If people think prices will keep falling, they stop buying. Why buy something at a 10 percent discount if it'll be 20 percent off next week? And 50 percent off in a month? If people stop buying, inventories build up and retailers stop ordering from manufacturers who have to slow down production and lay people off. Then, those jobless folks stop shopping, and the sight of rising unemployment numbers immediately makes people more conservative, which means they shop less. And if people stop buying ... can you see the negative spiral?

The next thing that happens is people who do have cash start hoarding it. And not in banks — they don't trust the banks to not fail — so they keep their money at home. Now, money isn't making its way through the system at all, it's not being spent in stores and it's not being lent by banks. Companies can't grow, and the economy stalls out.

But the spiral doesn't stop, deflation keeps gnawing the heart out of the economy, hollowing it out to the point of collapse.

Warren Buffett eats like a six-year-old

Marketplace - American Public Media - Wed, 2015-02-25 08:05

Warren Buffett is about to issue his 50th annual letter to investors in his holding company, Berkshire Hathaway.

Mr. Buffett's observations are always a highlight of the financial year, but fun fact: Despite being 84 years of age and one of the richest men in the world, he apparently eats like a six-year-old.

He has five Cokes a day — sometimes, they're Cherry Cokes. He also indulges in Utz's Potato Stix. And for breakfast? Chocolate ice cream.

Russell ban stands as appeal fails

BBC - Wed, 2015-02-25 08:05
Scotland fly-half Finn Russell will miss Saturday's Six Nations match against Italy after failing to overturn a suspension.

Ebola kills man who helped orphans

BBC - Wed, 2015-02-25 08:01
A Sierra Leonean who worked with children orphaned by Ebola in the West African state dies of the disease himself.

How to improve education for juvenile offenders

Marketplace - American Public Media - Wed, 2015-02-25 08:00

On any given day, 60,000 kids are in secure juvenile justice facilities around the country. Thousands more pass through the system each year. Many of these kids are already failing in school — or are far behind when they come into the system — and many end up in even worse shape academically when they leave.  

Late last year, the Department of Education and Department of Justice issued guidance urging states to make education a top priority for kids who are locked up. David Domenici directs the non-profit Center for Educational Excellence in Alternative Settings. He spoke to Marketplace's senior education and technology reporter, Adriene Hill. 

Adriene Hill: Why is the federal government making education in juvenile facilities a priority now?

David DominiciA lot of people in the country are starting to question our criminal justice system, why are so many people locked up … and without giving them some chance to be successful when they return, isn't that sort of morally wrong, and isn't just economically stupid? The juvenile justice system is a part of that awakening.

AH: What kinds of changes are we talking about?

DD: Most important, the federal government wants kids who are locked up to have the same sort of educational opportunities that their non-incarcerated peers do.

President Obama has made it really clear through his My Brother’s Keeper initiative and otherwise he and the federal government care about kids of color, and poor kids of all races, and we can’t forget about them and throw them away. An overwhelming disproportionate number of kids of color are locked up.

AH: Why are so many facilities doing a poor job when it comes to education?

DD: In about half the facilities, the agency itself runs its own education program, and in some cases that works well. But in many cases they are large human services bureaucracies, they don’t have systems in place the educational reform movement has shown are critical to making schools work, so there are no standards for what high-performing schools look like.

Many teachers under those systems aren't held accountable to the same teacher evaluation standards that the states have put out, same with the principals. The system is an amorphous blob inside of a youth service agency or corrections agency.

The other half are run by local school districts … and in some places, like Utah, that works great because the school districts really care, and the state office of education is really on them, so it’s a great team. But in other cases it doesn't work, because you’re running this big school district … it’s just nearly impossible for you to prioritize what goes on in those little schools. So who ends up there mostly? Your worst teachers.

AH: What would it cost to improve education in secure facilities?

DD: Money is really important, but it’s not necessarily the key issue. The way we hold ourselves accountable so we can deliver these kids the education they need, that doesn't necessarily require more money, it requires a radical change in philosophy. You have to approach this saying, ‘I believe this 16-year-old deserves a great education, the same education my teenager gets or the neighbor’s teenager gets.’ That’s about everybody walking into the building, putting everything aside, and saying, ‘My No. 1 job is to help this kid get a really terrific education.’ That dollar investment produces many-fold times its cost when that kid goes out and gets his high school diploma.

AH: How do you balance educational improvements with safety and security?

DD: It is a totally artificial construct to say, ‘We can either give kids the high-quality, high-engagement individualized education, or keep places safe and secure.’ It’s a totally false dynamic.

The safest, most secure facilities in the country are the ones that have thoughtful, pro-social disciplinary practices that are built around positive youth development and not built around punitive discipline practices, that almost inevitably lead you to break the law around special education law.

What is not a technology solution is to take young people who are already behind and stick them at a computer and tell them to use a very non-robust online curriculum for six hours a day, where they … don’t learn anything. Technology can be an incredible lever that supports the transformation of education in youth facilities. It isn't the answer alone.

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Man is injured in Armagh explosion

BBC - Wed, 2015-02-25 07:53
Police say a man is injured following an explosion in Crossmaglen, south Armagh.

India urges calm on deadly swine flu

BBC - Wed, 2015-02-25 07:53
The Indian health minister urges the public not to panic as the number of deaths so far this year from swine flu passes 900 from 16,000 cases.

Quiz: Climbing the college ladder

Marketplace - American Public Media - Wed, 2015-02-25 07:52

More than a quarter of students who started at a community college in 2008 earned a degree from a different school within six years, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

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'Taser mistake' victim backs review

BBC - Wed, 2015-02-25 07:45
A blind man who was shot with a stun gun when his white stick was mistaken for a sword backs calls for a review into the use of Tasers.

Power station may close in a year

BBC - Wed, 2015-02-25 07:37
Longannet power station faces the threat of closure within a year unless the cost of connecting it to the national grid is reduced, BBC Scotland understands.