National / International News

Service Info: It's like Yelp...but for refugees

Marketplace - American Public Media - Mon, 2015-04-27 13:04

In its work providing relief for refugees around the world, the International Rescue Committee has two daunting crises on its hands at the moment: the European migrant crisis and the situation in Syria.

IRC President and CEO David Miliband says in the aftermath of the latest tragedy involving migrants at sea, “European attention has been dragged back to what is a problem that hasn’t just occurred in the last three weeks. Obviously (those events) — 700, 800, a thousand people dying in the space of two days — refocused attention.”

He says the options in Northern Africa are limited, causing many people to move to Europe for a better life. Miliband believes that Europeans are not standing together on the issue — “Italians and Greeks are being expected to handle it on their own more or less, rather than as a united European response,” he says.

When he speaks to high level officials about getting Europe to join forces on the migrant issue, he says he often gets three responses: That they regret the end of the Mare Nostrum program last November, led by the Italian Navy, which saved thousands of migrant lives at sea. That it's very tough to tackle this issue at the source. And that the EU’s bandwidth is stretched as it is dealing with the euro crisis and the Ukraine confrontation with Russia.

As for hands on work, the IRC currently has over 2,000 workers in Syria and in neighboring countries focusing on health, education, and on some protection for women and girls. It's releasing a new website for refugees to find out about, and rate, resources to ease the transition to life a new country. “The refugees from Syria are educated people; they are tech-savvy people. Until now, there’s been no proper tech platform for them to find out what services are available to them. The IRC and US government are creating, for the first time, a kind of "Yelp for refugees" in Lebanon,” says Miliband.

The platform is called Service Info and will allow refugees to add comments on services, like, “This supermarket treated me well. This hospital treated me well.” That kind of feedback will improve the quality of services, as well as broadcast the services that are available, he says. 

Currently Service Info is being piloted in Lebanon, a country of 5 million people — with 1.5  million of those who are refugees. It's the equivalent of Germany’s population moving to America.

Miliband left politics to take the position as CEO at IRC. Of this shift, he says, “I feel I’m helping people whose lives are affected by breakdown of politics, because what is a civil war other than the failure of politics? Now I’m out of politics. I’m at the other end of the telescope. What I always say to people is that the humanitarian sector can stanch the dying, but it takes politics to stop the killing and you need both.”

Chipotle Says Adios To GMOs, As Food Industry Strips Away Ingredients

NPR News - Mon, 2015-04-27 13:04

Chipotle's move is the latest example of the food industry ditching ingredients, as consumers demand a say in what's in their dinner. Some of these ingredients are more questionable than others.

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Chipotle goes GMO-free, except for the meat

Marketplace - American Public Media - Mon, 2015-04-27 13:00

Chipotle has proudly announced that its menu is now entirely free of genetically-modified organisms, the result of a two-year effort. To get enough GMO-free cooking oil — in this case, sunflower-seed oil — the company had to recruit a North Dakota supplier to plant acres of non-GMO sunflowers.

However, the project has not reduced the Chipotle menu’s “GMO footprint” to zero. Far from it.  

Most genetically-modified crops end up as food for animals, including the cows, chickens and pigs that end up in Chipotle burritos. Those animals mostly eat corn and soybeans, which overwhelmingly come from genetically modified seeds.

Rounding up a supply of animals raised on a GMO-free diet "would be very, very difficult to do, short of going to organic meat," company spokesman Chris Arnold says. "And if we wanted to make that switch, you’ve got another tremendous price premium and an enormous supply constraint."

Chipotle already has problems with supply. The chain maintains “humane treatment” standards for the animals that end up in its burrito bowls — but it can’t always get enough. Right now, that means no carnitas at some Chipotles.

Organic meat would be a much tougher problem. Catherine Greene, an economist with the United States Department of Agriculture, calls the supply of organic beef "extremely limited." 

As in, last time USDA ran the numbers, in 2011, it was 0.3 percent.

Even when demand goes up and price follows, supply doesn't immediately follow that. Farmers have to use organic practices for three years before they can sell the product as organic.

"That’s a pretty long time to commit to using organic production systems without tapping into the organic premium," Green says.

That’s a big disincentive, and when farmers do switch, there’s a long lag: the three-year transition period, plus the two years or more it takes to actually raise a cow for slaughter.

Meanwhile, the corn chips and tortillas at Chipotle are reliably GMO-free.

Why in the world do airlines overbook tickets?

Marketplace - American Public Media - Mon, 2015-04-27 13:00

As part of our I’ve Always Wondered series, we answer questions and explain some of the economic mysteries brought to our attention by our listeners. Here, we turn to a question from Lamonte Freerks, who asks “I would like to know why airlines see the need to overbook planes, thus at times bumping paid passengers.”  Marketplace’s Sabri Ben-Achour wondered the same thing recently.

Destination: Irony. Temperature at destination: Cruel

The irony was not lost on Danielle Sharp as the announcement came on over the loudspeaker at 5:30 a.m. at Newark airport.

“United, Flight 3454, is now boarding.”

Danielle Sharp was most definitely not boarding. Though paid and checked in for a trip to Oklahoma, her ticket had also been sold to someone else.

“The flight is overbooked, so we’re just sitting here waiting. The flight is leaving in 15 minutes and we’re just stuck here,” she says when reached at the airport. “It’s really stressful and aggravating. I got here at 3 a.m. for a 6 o'clock flight.”

Why would an airline do this? How hard is it to count the number of seats on a plane and not sell more than that?

“I have no idea,” Sharp says, resigned. “But it’s obvious they care more about their money than they care about us, 'cause they wouldn’t inconvenience us like this. It’s about a buck.”

Yes … and no. 

Why do they do it?

“Contrary to what popular perception may be, airlines are not evil,” says Samuel Engel, who leads the Aviation Practice at consulting firm ICF international. It’s not an accident that airlines overbook their flights, and it boils down to one simple reason: “Some passengers don’t show up.”

In fact, some passengers are almost always not going to show up. 

“So if you know that’s going to be the case, you’re setting yourself up for flying with empty seats and wasting them,” says Engel.

But wait, if people don’t show up, aren't the airlines then just selling the same seat twice and making gobs of money off of the poor jerks who are left behind when people actually do all show up?

No, says Engel, because the airlines “don’t get revenue for a seat that goes empty.”  It’s true someone has paid for that seat, but in most cases that person will end up being given a free flight by the airline to accommodate them if they were just running late, for example.

“Some passengers will just not show up because they didn’t want to take the trip, but more cases than not, they arrived at the airport 15 minutes late 'cause there was traffic and they missed their flight and the airline is going to accommodate them on another flight.” 

The guessing game

So if airlines didn’t overbook, they would lose money, so they actually put a lot of effort and money into guessing exactly how many people won’t show up on a given flight. 

“Virtually all airlines these days have fairly sophisticated revenue management systems,” says Peter Belobaba, a research scientist at the International Center for Air Transportation at MIT. Revenue management system means really complicated computer models. 

These models predict a lot of things: how many seats should the airline sell for cheaper to people who buy earlier? How many can it get away with setting aside in order to charge higher prices for last-minute business travelers? How many people won’t show up? In the event everyone with a ticket does show up, how many people will accept a voucher for free miles in order to take a different flight?

For the no-show predictions, “those systems have large historical databases of no-show rates on previous departures of the same time of day and in the same markets, used to build forecasts,” says Belobaba.

With the advent of big data, airlines can feed even more information into their models.

“People returning from a long weekend are more likely to show up as compared to people who are starting their trip for business. How long ago you bought your ticket, has it been ticketed, those all can be correlated with no show behavior,” says Belobaba.

The cutting edge models, says ICF International’s Samuel Engel, also take into account the competing fares at any given moment from competitor airlines. If every airline is eyeing what one another is doing, things can get quite complicated.

“It’s a field of very happy geeks mired in the data balancing the statistics and economics trying to make better decisions,” says Engel.

They are actually pretty good at guessing

It turns out, those models work pretty well.

“If you look back, you’ll see the U.S. airline industry has reduced the denied boarding rate almost in half in the last 15 years,” says Engel. “In 1999, 0.2 percent of passengers were denied boarding. Last year, it was under 0.1 percent.  And only 1/10th of those were 'involuntarily denied boarding,' where passengers did not choose to take a different flight” in exchange for a voucher or incentive.

United Airlines, whose flight Danielle Sharp was bumped off of, says much of the 1/10th of 1/10th of one percent of involuntary denied boarding is due to grounded planes and not overbooking. The outliers usually occur when there is an unexpected disruption, like weather, a problem at an airport, or some other factor.

Maybe it’s a good thing

Many analysts argue that overbooking keeps ticket prices down.    

“If you look historically when airlines were running with half their seats empty, fares were much much higher than they were today,” says Engel. “The nice way to look at all this is, the more effectively airlines can fill their seats and generate revenue with the seats they have, the better it is for all of us.”

Well, not all of us. 

“I’m tired, I want to take a nap, and we’re stuck here,” says Danielle Sharp, still stranded.

While customers who voluntarily give up their seat in exchange for a ticket voucher are, all things equal, usually happy about it, customers who don’t volunteer and are forcibly bumped from a flight are not.  

So in those cases, the airlines pay up — in cash. Government regulations actually require them to (you can see how they’re calculated here).  

As Sharp waited in front of the desk in front of the gate she would have boarded on, the ticketing agent entered a few keystrokes into her computer with confident finality, and turned to Sharp with a resolution.

“We’ve got you on another flight later today, and you’re getting $1,100.”

Consternation transmogrified into joy, and Sharp burst out into laughter. Oklahoma must have seemed very far away indeed.

“Thank you lord! That is a blessing!”

Remittances play a big role in Nepal's economy

Marketplace - American Public Media - Mon, 2015-04-27 13:00
Roughly 30 percent of Nepal's GDP comes in the form of remittances, money sent home by Nepalese working abroad.

Personal remittances, received (% of GDP)widgetContext = { "url": "", "width": 600, "height": 225, "widgetid": "web_widget_iframe_aa0e17da47b3e93c1ee29e1e7a38f643" };Data from World Bank

Every day, around 1,000 Nepalese board flights for countries in the Gulf, North Africa and Asia; others go overland to India. They find jobs, most often, in construction or the services sector. And then, many send money home.

Dilip Ratha is the manager of the Migration and Remittances unit at the World Bank.  He says remittances are crucial.

"At the very poor level," he explains, "it is really a lifeline that provides people with food, with shelter and with education and business investments."

Remittances have helped reduce Nepal's poverty rate, but there is a possible downside to so many young, able-bodied men working outside of the country.  When it is time to rebuild damaged and destroyed homes and businesses, some analysts suggest Nepal may face a shortage of labor. On the other hand, money being sent home to the country will now be all that much more important.

What Corinthian Colleges' failure means at for-profits

Marketplace - American Public Media - Mon, 2015-04-27 13:00

Corinthian Colleges Inc. announced Monday it would close all of its colleges and cease operations. The for-profit college operator's closing is the end of a long struggle between federal authorities and the for-profit college industry, which has been accused of profiting from student loan debt.

Corinthian had high prices and its degrees sometimes left students with high debt, but few job prospects. And the school recruited poorer students — those most likely to qualify for federal financial aid, says Christine Lindstrom, Higher Education Program Director of the U.S. Public Interests Research Group. 

"Colleges like Corinthian have been violating the spirit of federal aid programs for at least a decade, if not more," Lindstom says.

Lindstrom says Corinthian received roughly $1.4 billion each year in federal money through its students' financial aid packages. 

Corinthian's troubles took a turn for the worse in June 2014 when the government put a 21-day hold on its funds after the school failed to provide proof it wasn't inflating its job placement statistics. That forced the company to begin to cut back its operations. 

But even as Corinthian crumbled under federal pressure, other for-profit colleges and universities began to change some of their practices. A proposed "gainful employment" rule, currently held up in court by lawyers for the lobby representing for-profit colleges, would jeopardize for-profit colleges' access to federal money if graduates used more than a certain percentage of their income to service their student debt.

"Colleges have, in anticipation of it going into effect, already made changes to end some of their worst performing programs," explained Pauline Abernathy, vice president of the Institute for College Access and Success. 

If the regulation goes into effect in July as planned, it would mean that for-profit schools would have to ensure that graduates find well-paying jobs to offset large amounts of college debt.

The White House unveils its new china

Marketplace - American Public Media - Mon, 2015-04-27 13:00

The guy who runs the world's third-largest economy, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan, is in Washington today for talks with the President and a speech to Congress.

There's a state dinner Tuesday night at which the White House will unveil the new state china service — that's china, small-c, as in fancy dishes.

The description of the china from the White House's protocol office:

"A fluted band of the Kailua Blue color, framed by a textured gold rim and a simple gilt inner line, appears on all pieces of the service except the service and dinner plates.

A similar fluted band of color — in a matte gold finish — was selected for the wide rim of the large service plate. This plate is related to the gold-rimmed service plates acquired in 1955 by the Eisenhowers, to supplement the 1951 Truman state service, and the service plates in the 2000 White House Bicentennial service, now referred to as the Clinton State Service."

The White House Historical Association picked up the tab, total price not disclosed, but the Bush Administration's state china cost $493,000.

Sizzling summer nights: Working in a bacon factory

Marketplace - American Public Media - Mon, 2015-04-27 13:00

Do you remember your first job? It might have been radically different from the career you ended up with.

Rita Carbonari works in the development office of a liberal arts college, but in the early 1970s she worked the night shift in a bacon packing factory.

“My friends and I would go to the beach every day, and about 3 o’clock in the afternoon, I’d go home, take off my bathing suit, put on a big heavy sweatshirt, warm pants and I’d spend the rest of the evening in a refrigerated bacon packing factory,” she says.

Carbonari worked her way up to being a weigher, where she controlled the speed of the line.

One day while she was working on the line, a chunk of bacon got caught in the slicer. It was tough to see just how large the machete-like blade was.

“I was poking my finger in there trying to get that bacon out of the way, and one of the supervisors came up and asked what I was doing," Carbonari says. "And he said, ‘Oh, well this is what happened when I did that.’ He held up his hand and he only had three fingers!”

She never poked her fingers into the slicer again.

Colorado cinema gunman 'was sane'

BBC - Mon, 2015-04-27 12:59
A man who shot and killed 12 people in a cinema in 2012 was found sane by two experts immediately following the attack, prosecutors say.

Bournemouth 3-0 Bolton Wanderers

BBC - Mon, 2015-04-27 12:53
Bournemouth all but seal their Premier League place as they go three points and 19 goals clear of Middlesbrough with one game left.

Rare Spitfire sale could fetch £2.5m

BBC - Mon, 2015-04-27 12:49
A rare RAF Spitfire once flown by a Great Escape veteran and painstakingly restored over five years could fetch millions of pounds for charity.

Google offers cash to Europe's media

BBC - Mon, 2015-04-27 12:49
Google pledges €150m to support news organisations' efforts to earn money from their online coverage.

The Largest For-Profit College Shutdown In History

NPR News - Mon, 2015-04-27 12:48

Students say goodbye to Corinthian Colleges ... but not necessarily to their debt.

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Apple returns more cash to investors

BBC - Mon, 2015-04-27 12:47
Technology giant Apple reports profits of $13.6bn for the first three months of 2015, and details plans to return more money to investors.

Police injured in Baltimore protests

BBC - Mon, 2015-04-27 12:47
Seven officers in Baltimore have been injured and one is "unresponsive" as protests have turned violent, a police spokesman says.

Bucket collections to Premier League

BBC - Mon, 2015-04-27 12:44
Bournemouth in the Premier League? We chart the remarkable rise of a club who were minutes from liquidation seven years ago.

Seven Baltimore Police Officers Hurt In Clashes With Protesters

NPR News - Mon, 2015-04-27 12:38

Television images showed protesters throwing rocks and other objects at a line of police officers in one Baltimore neighborhood.

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Gloucester fined for ineligible player

BBC - Mon, 2015-04-27 12:29
Gloucester are fined and handed a two-point suspended points deduction for using an ineligible player in a Premiership match.

For Europe-Bound Migrants, Desperation Outweighs Risks

NPR News - Mon, 2015-04-27 12:12

At a charity center in Sicily, survivors of the dangerous sea crossings from Libya to Italy face legal and economic limbo and a frosty welcome. But it's still better than the places they fled.

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VIDEO: Nate Silver's election forecast

BBC - Mon, 2015-04-27 12:00
Statistician Nate Silver tells Panorama reporter Richard Bacon about his prediction for the General Election.