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Frack that! Oil tries to own a word that rallies critics

Wed, 2014-10-08 12:10

Few industries have bigger branding issues than the oil industry with fracking.

Not least of those issues: The word itself, which is short for hydraulic fracturing and near in sound to a four-letter word that's taboo on the radio. Activists have long exploited that connection — the Natural Resources Defense Council’s page on drilling is headlined "Don’t get fracked!" — and industry PR types have advised against using the term at all.

Pennsylvania has been a particularly hot battleground. Drilling has exploded, and so has opposition to the oil and gas wells popping up all over the state — and the pollution and truck traffic they create. 

In the heat of election season, an industry group there has introduced an ad that touts fracking’s contribution to jobs and lower energy costs — and which, in its punch-line, makes an effort to reclaim the word.

"Fracking’s a good word," says a middle-aged man collecting his mail. "Fracking’s a good word," says a woman on her front porch. "Fracking rocks," says a teenage girl on an elliptical machine. 

The ad started running in late September, commissioned by the Marcellus Shale Coalition, the beginning of a larger campaign called “Rock solid for PA." 

"Some people will try to use that word in a negative connotation," says the group's president, David Spigelmyer. "All we’re trying to do is shine a light on the fact that there’s a lot of good that comes out of that technology. That’s all."

David Masur has noticed the ads. He's director of PennEnvironment, a non-profit that opposes fracking.  "It’s been highly entertaining," he says.

He thinks it means he and his allies are winning in the court of public opinion. "There’s something funny," he says, "when companies like Exxon Mobil and Shell and Halliburton and BP are saying, ‘Man, we’re just getting creamed by the local non-profit group.’"

But maybe it could work? It did for Obamacare.

"Obamacare is very interesting," says Tim Calkins, author of “Defending Your Brand” and a marketing professor at Northwestern University.  "It did start out as an attack on the program, and now supporters use it just the same as everybody else. In a way, it’s actually very smart."

However, Obamacare had a charismatic, witty spokesman who could get on TV, for free, whenever he wanted. 

Without that, says Calkins, "it's going to take a lot of money, if you're going to get in front of people and get them to re-think a word," he says. "Especially when you've got a word that has such deep-set associations around it."

He gives the industry credit for trying. "I don't know if this initiative is going to work," he says, "but at least they're looking at it, and taking action, and they've certainly got to do that."

A car with no driver. What could go wrong?

Wed, 2014-10-08 11:56

Wouldn’t it be nice to own a self-driving car? You could skip all of the traffic, read the newspaper and drink a latte on the way to work every morning.

Although, self-driving cars might be the next big thing in Silicon Valley, you won't seem them on roads for another decade or so, says Marketplace Tech host Ben Johnson. There's still a lot of work to make them street-ready, and right now they come with a hefty price tag: about $320,000.

"Your average American family can apparently afford to spend maybe about twenty grand on a car, so cost is a problem," Johnson says.

Google's self-driving cars have some GPS problems, but programming the software to respond to changing, unpredictable driving conditions is another issue.

"Software is really good at dealing with stuff that it’s been designed to deal with," Johnson says. "It’s way harder for you to design software to deal with data that it has not predicted yet."

The jobs mismatch

Wed, 2014-10-08 11:56

Jobs are out there – so why is it taking employers so long to fill them?

"The key reason is that there’s a mismatch in the jobs market going on,” says Robert Johnson, Director of Economic Analysis at Morningstar.

Like trying to pair plaid with polka dots — there are many patterns to follow. First, while there are jobs, some are part time and workers may be holding out for the real deal of a full-time gig. Next,  some industries may be looking for skilled workers who don’t exist.

“There definitely is a shortage in the labor market right now – everybody is experiencing it in construction," says Kristen Ripmaster, sales and operations manager at Constructionjobs.com. There are jobs on the site says Ripmaster, but applications are down or nonexistent.

Construction, notes Ripmaster, took a hit during the downturn and so the flow of young people choosing to go into the industry stopped. Furthermore, anyone still in the market is already working because of the boom in the industry.

But Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy research, has another take on the mismatch. “It doesn’t seem that skills are the issue,” he says.

The biggest disconnect, he says, between available jobs and how long it takes to fill them, is in the retail and restaurant industries.

"It’s a little hard to believe that the reason restaurants and retail stores have all these openings that are going unfilled, is because they can’t find qualified workers," Baker says.

DiceHoldings, a company that tracks how long it takes to fill jobs, says both employers and workers have been getting pickier about what they want – which makes it harder to find a match.

But if employers need workers, Baker says, they’ll have to begin offering higher salaries.

"We all understand that if you want a really good quarterback, you’re willing to pay $20 million a year to get a really good quarterback" he says. "And you’ll get a really good quarterback."

IMF offers mixed economic picture, all eyes on Europe

Wed, 2014-10-08 11:52

The IMF has revised its view of global economic growth prospects: It’s a mixed picture, leaning towards poor.

The U.S. will have grown 2.2 percent by the end of this year, the IMF says. That's not stunning, but still 0.5 percent higher than the fund’s previous prediction.  The U.S. is expected to grow 3.1 percent in 2015.

The IMF reduced its prediction for growth in Europe from 1.1 percent to a mere 0.8 percent.  Europe is still struggling with an 11.5 percent unemployment rate (the U.S. rate is 5.9 percent).  The continent is precariously close to deflation - a form of economic stagnation that can last decades, as it did in Japan.

China’s growth is slowing and will continue to slow, says the IMF.  It will decelerate from 7.7 percent growth in 2013 to 7.4 percent in 2014 and 7.1 percent in 2015. 

“The U.S. is the one eyed man in the country of the blind,” says Jacob Kirkegaard, senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics.  “The U.S. is the only one that seems to be turning in the other direction.”

Kirkegaard credits both the aggressive response of the U.S. Federal Reserve and the underlying “flexibility and dynamism” of the U.S. economy: “The U.S. is an economy that is able to absorb shocks far more rapidly than certainly the European countries but also Japan and it is an economy where simple entrepreneurship plays a much bigger role.”

“The U.S. is once again the rudder that’s going to keep the world steered in the right direction I hope,” says Ross DeVol, Chief Research Officer at the Milken Institute. The rising dollar and increasing consumer appetite in the U.S. will spur the export sectors of other economies around the world.

The modest success of the U.S. may also pose a challenge to the rest of the world. When the U.S. was in crisis, investors shifted money to developing and emerging economies. Now that the U.S. is getting back on its feet and interest rates may rise in 2015, the reverse is happening, says Stephen Kaplan, assistant professor of international affairs at George Washington University.

“It might be more difficult for governments and firms abroad to borrow in an environment where more capital is going to be dedicated to the United States,” he says.

The larger source of concern for many economists however is the situation in Europe.

“Europe is avoiding a technical recession but will get so close to one that you won’t know the difference,” says DeVol. “The global cycle is out of balance.” 

Europe not growing at all, or very slowly, is not good for anyone in the world, says Matthew Slaughter, professor at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth.

Europe all together has the largest economy in the world. A weak Europe is less likely to import from the U.S. or China which is also slowing down. Slaughter says its problems – like an 11.5 percent unemployment rate and a not fully resolved sovereign debt problem – run deep.

“Those problems have been layered on top of what for many countries, even before the crisis, was this no growth in population, slow productivity growth environment they were already in,” Slaughter says.

Demographically, Europe is aging, Slaughter continued: “In many countries the labor force growth will be zero and there’s not much inflow of immigration so that dynamism from a young and growing population is not there.”

The European policy response to the recession has not been as aggressive or effective as responses elsewhere in the world. 

“The combination of fiscal and monetary policy has just been too firm,” says Peter Fisher, senior fellow at the Center for Global Business and Government at Dartmouth.  “It’s partly because they’ve been fighting a multiple front war – they’ve had to hold the euro together in addition to stimulating economy and that’s both a political challenge and an economic one.”

The IMF says Europe has a 38 percent chance of slipping into a recession again, double the odds in April.

CDC's Ebola workers find funding is strapped

Wed, 2014-10-08 10:41

The death Wednesday of the Dallas Ebola patient Thomas Eric Duncan underscores the high stakes around controlling the spread of the disease. To that point, the federal government has announced it would soon screen air travelers coming from West Africa to see if they have temperatures.

Separately, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more than 1,000 people working around the world to contain Ebola. On-the-ground work involves risk and problem solving, where staff must do everything from collecting blood samples, to tracking the sick, to hiring workers to pick up the dead. 

It’s a difficult job, says Dr. Bridgette Gleason, who turned 30 this week. Gleason says she’s seen tragedy every day since Sept. 13, the day she arrived in Sierra Leone.

“Being surrounded by death, it’s obviously overwhelming if you really focus on that,” she says. “To really make a difference you have to focus on what you can do.”

That attitude gives a sense of the men and women who parachute into these communicable disease hot spots. Staffers are expert trouble-shooters. But with the Ebola spreading in West Africa, CDC folks like Peter Kilmarx – who is leading the operation in Sierra Leone — must do something outside the norm: think about budgets.

“We are not fully meeting the demand and it’s stressful. It’s a very challenging situation,” he says.

For the past 20 years, CDC field staff has depended on the non-profit CDC Foundation for money when it would otherwise take too long going through bureaucratic channels at the agency.

The outbreak has gotten so big so fast, so that’s changed.

“There is simply not enough money at this time to meet the needs that CDC is sending our way,” says the Foundation's executive director, Charlie Stokes.

Stokes understands putting a crimp in this financial lifeline is actually a matter of life and death. That’s why the foundation launched an emergency fund back in August to address Ebola.

“We initially thought $30 million would be enough," he says. "What we are seeing in terms of needs in the field tells me it’s going to be considerably more than that.”

To put that figure in perspective, that’s what the foundation spends on all of its programs in a year. Stokes estimates Ebola needs $50 million alone.

If the foundation falls short, Stokes knows he’ll have to level with the CDC docs.

“We are either going to have the money and send it, or we are going to have to say, 'you are going to have to prioritize,'” he says.

Stokes admits it’s easy to feel overmatched by this epidemic, but – much like Gleason in Sierra Leone –he says he’s going to focus on what he can do. 

Steel's slow, grinding growth

Wed, 2014-10-08 10:08

The economy is growing at 4 percent per year. Unemployment is down. But that's not always how the economy feels, day to day.

Lisa Goldenberg is the president of Delaware Steel Company of Pennsylvania, where she has a front-row seat to how the economic outlook is making life easier — or harder — for businesses. In a July interview, Goldenberg lamented that things weren't going as well as she had hoped. She has that same grinding sense of progress today.

"We should have had a stronger September. We're doing okay, but okay isn't good enough. It's a struggle," Goldenberg says.

The bright spots: construction, energy and cars.

"For the steel business, construction is a good thing," Goldenberg says. "People go out, they need washers and dryers made out of steel."

But are things better than July? No, she says. People have a little more money to spend, but not enough to pay off debts from the past few years. And definitely not enough savings to buy a house.

"It's painful to live through slow, even, deliberate growth," Goldenberg says. But even so, "it's the best way, in my opinion, to build a solid economy."

Why we tip more than we used to

Wed, 2014-10-08 09:00

Tipping can be a contentious issue in the U.S., especially in light of the debate over raising the minimum wage. Whether tipped employees should even be paid minimum wage is still a question up for debate in most states.

With the hardships of low-wage workers on their mind, consumers might be compelled to increase the percentage of their gratuity in instances like dining in a restaurant. Concerns over low wages might be the reason why, percentage-wise, we tip more compared to past decades.

Or is it some other economic reason tied to the rise or fall of food prices? Does the average diner even pay attention to those factors?

Looking at historical data on the U.S., there does seem to be a general rise in how big of a percentage people tip, says Mike Lynn, a marketing professor and expert in tipping behavior at Cornell University School of Hotel Administration.

“If you look at etiquette books, going back pretty far, etiquette books were recommending 15 percent tips,” Lynn says, “But there was a survey by Leo Crespi in Public Opinion Quarterly in 1947, and what was clear was that people were tipping 10 percent on average in restaurants.”

Other etiquette books reinforced the 10 percent norm for tipping as well.

An excerpt from \"The itching palm; a study of the habit of tipping in America,\" an anti-tipping etiquette book published in 1916.

William R. Scott/The Penn publishing company of Philadelphia via California Digital Library

The rise of tipping to a more 15 percent standard may have more to do with how the tipper wants to be perceived, Lynn says.

“My theory is that some people tip as a positional good. To get ahead of others,” Lynn says, “They want better service than other people get. They want the server to look up to them and respect them more. They tip to get out ahead of others, and once some people do that, it puts pressure on everybody else.”

Lynn cautions that his theory is based more on his own observations rather than hard evidence on tipping, which is difficult to come by, but he does say there is evidence that tipping is more common in countries that are more status-oriented.

Lynn also says we shouldn’t totally discount people who say they do tip to rectify what they see as unfair wage practices for servers, in which they are paid below the state minimum wage. He also points out that in states like California, where tipped employees do make at least the state minimum wage, tipping rates aren’t significantly lower than in states with different policies.

The numbers for October 8, 2014

Wed, 2014-10-08 08:14

Five U.S. airports will begin screening passengers arriving from West Africa for Ebola starting this weekend. Kennedy International will be the first, the New York Times reported, followed by O'Hare, Washington Dulles, Hartsfield-Jackson and Newark Liberty international airports.

The announcement comes right after the death of Thomas Eric Duncan, the first person to be diagnosed with Ebola in the U.S. since the outbreak began, on Wednesday morning.

In other news, the Fed minutes are expected later today, along with the usual combing for clues about interest rate hikes. In the meantime, here are the other numbers we're watching Wednesday:

25 minutes

That's how long one employee says he waited, unpaid, to be screened for stolen merchandise following a 12-hour shift at an Amazon fulfillment center. Jesse Busk sued the staffing agency that placed him in the job, Bloomberg reported, and several other suits against Amazon followed. The allegations will be heard by the Supreme Court Wednesday.

5

Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, LinkedIn and Facebook all compromised with the Justice Department in January over disclosing details of government requests to the public. Those firms are now able to give some more general information about data requests that were previously confidential. Twitter argues the remaining restrictions infringe on its First Amendment rights, the Washington Post reported, and the tech company is suing the government.

$27 billion

Netflix's estimated market cap, making its recent deals for a "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" sequel and four Adam Sandler movies seem downright affordable to a streaming service that already spends $3 billion on content annually. Those numbers come from a Variety analysis of Netflix's recent push to the big screen, which posits big theater chains might be forced to get on board with the streaming model... or go the way of Blockbuster.

Why water conservation doesn't mean lower water rates

Wed, 2014-10-08 05:27

Tap water is still one of the cheapest things you can buy these days.

Of course, out West many households have to conserve water because of a drought. In other parts of the country, folks are using less water not only because they want to conserve, but also because appliances are way more efficient than they used to be. Still, many of those folks are finding that no matter how much water they save, their water rates still go up. They’re using less water, but paying more per gallon.

Why? Put simply, when water consumption drops, so do the main revenue streams for water and sewer agencies. But whether you use one drop of water or a thousand gallons, utilities still bear the cost of cleaning it and sending it to you. Those costs are mounting.

To get a quick sense of the success of passive household conservation, just walk into a store that sells toilets.

“We’re looking at a couple of models here,” says Sean Jones as we walk down through the Home Depot in Gaithersburg, Maryland. “American Standard, Glacier and we have Kohler.”

Twenty toilets in a gleaming row, and when all of them flush, they flush low-flow. Decades ago, toilets used five to seven gallons of water per flush. Now, every toilet here uses far less, to meet EPA criteria.

Jones says now it's “1.28 gallons of water flushes per flush."

It’s not just toilets, though the EPA says toilets are the main source of residential water use. Decades of federal standards have created a new normal: water efficient dishwashers, shower heads and washing machines that save thousands of gallons a year.

Water and wastewater utilities also urged conservation, including the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission, or WSSC, in Maryland.

“We’ve had a 30-plus year message of conserve, conserve, conserve,” says West Laurel resident and WSSC customer Melissa Daston.

So, that’s just what she did.

“I’ve replaced all of my toilets to low-flow toilets,” says Daston, the past-president of her local civic assocation. “I save up all my dishes until I have a full load. I have stopped watering my lawn years years and years ago.”

The list goes on. If Daston’s water use has fallen, however, her water rates have not. She doesn’t find her bill unreasonable – and she’s not complaining – but, she’s noticed.

“They’ve gone up,” she says. “Point blank, they’ve gone up year, after year, after year, after year.”

In fact, WSSC’s acting CFO Chris Cullinan says rates have gone up about 95 percent (on a compounded basis) over the last ten years. That’s far higher than the rate of inflation.

The reason? WSSC is producing less water than it did twenty years ago, even though it’s added more than 70,000 customer accounts. Again, because of fixed costs, the less water people use, the more these public utilities have to charge for it.

“We make money when we sell water,” Cullinan says. “That’s our primary revenue source. And so while from an environmental standpoint conservation is certainly one of our objectives, from a business standpoint it certainly presents some challenges.”

The biggest challenge is aging infrastructure. WSSC has about 5,600 miles of water pipes and almost as many sewer pipes. 

“It’s from New York to LA and back, within a service area encompassing two counties,” Cullinan says.

He says decades of improper infrastructure investment mean it’s now time to catch up and do reactive maintenance. The utility is under court order to fix sewer overflows, which Cullinan says will cost about $1.4 billion.

The head of the American Water Works Association says rate increases like the ones in Maryland are happening across the nation, as decreased water use collides with the financial burden posed by buried infrastructure.

“Those pipes were put into ground anywhere from 70 to 100 years ago,” says AWWA’s CEO David LaFrance. “There’s massive needs for replacements. We estimate that over the next 25 years it’s a trillion dollar problem.”

The solution won’t all come in the form of rate hikes.

Like other utilities, WSSC wants to stabilize rate increases by charging higher fees. It has proposed a revamped account maintenance fee, which would include an infrastructure investment charge. It’s also proposed a changed customer affordability program, which requires state approval.

The utility sees recalibrated fees as a more stable, equitable way for all users to fund the infrastructure that brings them water and takes away waste.

Small users like Melissa Daston worry increased fees hurt the biggest conservers the most.

PODCAST: Laying transatlantic sea cables

Wed, 2014-10-08 03:00

We often have to go through security to get into work, but in some occupations this takes a while. Question: Are workers entitled to get paid for time spent doing the required screening? The issue is before the Supreme Court this morning. And the Federal Reserve reported yesterday that while credit card borrowing fell in August, consumers borrowed more through car loans and student loans, driving borrowing up overall. The burden of student loans on young people, age 20 through 29, is much heavier than it was for that age group a decade ago. Plus, the private company Space X with entrepreneur Elon Musk at the helm is spending this fall pushing for clearance to compete for satellite launching contracts. Now it's Boeing and Lockheed who get a lot of support from Russia for the rockets. But when it comes to communications, satellites are not the only way to go. Bjarni Thovardarson is CEO of a company called Hibernia Networks. As we speak, he's got a huge infrastructure project underway to link New York and London via Nova Scotia that's both cutting-edge and and old-school at the same time. 

The heavy burden of student loans

Wed, 2014-10-08 02:00

According to a new report from TransUnion, the burden of student loans on young people, ages 20 through 29, is much heavier than it was for that age group a decade ago. Charlie Wise, a vice president at TransUnion, looks at what is called the “consumer loan wallet” – how debt shakes out.

“Certainly, that student loan piece is a much, much larger share of that overall wallet,” he says. “In fact, it has nearly tripled between 2005 and 2014.”

On average, a twentysomething today has about $25,000 in student loan debt. That is up about $10,000 from 2005. Older borrowers are also carrying more student loan debt, in part because they co-signed loans with kids and grandkids.

Mortgages are down, as a percentage of young American’s debt. “If you were to look at that as a graphic, a bar chart, you would essentially see that the decline in mortgages is almost exactly matched by the increase in the student loan piece,” Wise explains.

There are several reasons for that. According to Brent Ambrose, the Smeal Professor of Risk Management at Penn State University, “lenders have been tightening underwriting standards; so, it is more difficult to get a mortgage now.”

Today’s twentysomethings may have learned a thing or two from the downturn. Less of their debt is credit card debt.

A farmers market at your front door

Wed, 2014-10-08 02:00

Rob Spiro is the co-founder of Good Eggs, a Brooklyn startup that brings the local farmers market to your front door.

In order to deal with the demands of an inherently unpredictable food environment, the company is putting together a software engineering team that not only builds a website where you can shop for food, but sophisticated logistic systems throughout its locations.

Good Eggs is currently providing services to Los Angeles, Brooklyn, New Orleans, and the San Francisco Bay Area. And as Spiro points out, "If you look at the market in any given city, the inventory is 100% different." Which is why the company has designed small "Foodhubs," each one with their own unique supply chain.

Being able to centralize activity will help local farmers compete with industry giants. Spiro says the ultimate goal is to have 1,000 Foodhub's located around the world, serving 10,000 food producers, and millions of customers.

Click the media player above to hear Rob Spiro in conversation with Marketplace Tech host Ben Johnson.

Stock buybacks could be good for investors

Wed, 2014-10-08 02:00

The financial press has been sounding alarms over a trend toward more buybacks of stock by big, publicly traded companies. Stories in the Economist, the Wall Street Journal, and now Bloomberg have warned that corporations may be buying back too much stock with an eye to pushing up the price, at the expense of investment in their businesses. 

Michael Mauboussin, head of global financial strategies for Credit Suisse, takes a different view. He doesn’t think more buybacks means less investment.

"When you buy back stock, it’s not like the money disappears," he says. "It’s going back to investors, who themselves are re-investing it."   

So even if the company isn’t investing in its own business, shareholders can invest in somebody else’s.

That sounds like a great idea to Aswath Damodaran, who teaches corporate finance at NYU’s Stern School of Business. When he looks at the biggest companies buying back the most stock—companies like Microsoft, Hewlett Packard, IBM—he sees a pattern.

"I mean you look at that list," he says, "and every single one of them, you look at the last decade, have a history of destroying value— of investing in things where they have nothing to show for it 5 years out, 10 years out.  I look at that list, and I say: Thank God for buybacks."

In other words, if a company doesn’t have great ideas to invest in these days, then giving money back to shareholders could be the right thing to do. And the market may thank it with a higher stock price.

GM just issued its seventh recall... since Thursday

Tue, 2014-10-07 13:16

GM issued another recall this morning — its seventh since Thursday.

This one was for a bad transmission in about 7,600 Chevy Caprice police cars.

In total, the Wall Street Journal reported that GM has issued 75 recalls this year for more than 30 million cars.

When celebrities take over the fashion world

Tue, 2014-10-07 12:29

Celebrities have been selling fashion for just about as long as "fashion" has been a thing. According to fashion columnist Teri Agins, author of the new book "Hijacking the Runway: How Celebrities Are Stealing the Spotlight from Fashion Designers," the line between "selling" and "creating" keeps getting more fluid.

"Celebrities have actually taken over, and they actually now have their own brands. So they're actually competing with designers," said Agins.

Agins says the celebrity takeover of the fashion industry is a great way for said celebrities to monetize their brands and expand into a demographic that major designers overlook. A large part of the success of that strategy, she says, is being able to relate to the consumer, as Jessica Simpson did back in 2004. After her new line of jeans didn't sell terribly well, she launched a shoe line with the backing of Nine West founder Vince Camuto - ultimately creating a a billion-dollar business.

"It was a confluence of a lot of things," said Agins. "Even though she wasn't famous for being a singer or an actress - she was more famous for her relationships with Tony Romo,  and she had problems with her weight - that actually made her very relatable to consumers, because all women have either had problems with weight, or with relationships, and then she had the clothes that went with her look."

The strategy worked, and is causing fashion designers to rethink the way they design their clothes, says Agins.

"Last week in Paris, the Kardashians basically took over. Nobody remembers what was on the shelves at Chanel or Lanvin, we all just remember Kimye and the little daughter sitting in the front row at all these shows. This is a modern way to market," she said.

Listen to the full interview in the audio player above.

The first electric cars weren't 'manly' enough

Tue, 2014-10-07 11:59

Today's energy world continues to be dominated by fossil fuels in cars, in planes and in power plants. One reason is that crude oil used as a transportation fuel packs an awful lot of energy in a tiny package. It's a concept known as "energy density," and it helps us understand why crude became king over time.

In the last four centuries, humans have gone through several so-called "energy transitions." Each step up has involved a superior product in terms of energy density – in other words, concentrated energy in smaller and smaller packages.

Let's start in 16th and 17th century Holland. The Dutch burned something called peat, which is moss, very dead moss. Peat played a big role in human development, says historian John McNeill of Georgetown University.

"They burned it in energy-intensive industries," he said. "Beer brewing. Glass making. Sugar refining."

Peat, though, doesn't burn as long or as hot as what came later: Coal.

In the late 18th and 19th centuries, coal-powered steam engines took ships and trains farther. Coal also brought new industrial possibilities, like turning iron ore into steel.

"Coal has an energy density [worth] a couple of multiples of wood, charcoal, peat," McNeil said." You can't, for example, do metallurgical work with a peat flame. You can't get it hot enough. Coal, you can.

Then, oil was found. Once again, the new fuel offered a higher energy payload for its size and weight. Ever since, oil-based gasoline and jet fuel have dominated much of our energy lives.

Because of carbon pollution, of course, some car drivers instead are driving on electric batteries, which by energy density, are an inferior product. But history shows technology doesn't always equal destiny.

Let's go to 1900. The Old Car Festival at the Henry Ford Museum in Michigan is America's longest-running antique car show.

There are plenty of gas-powered cars from that era. There's also a 1902 car that runs on steam... 

 

..and an electric car from 1903...

Yes, electric cars go back that far, and they are so quiet you can't hear them over the noise of the festival.

So why did electric vehicles lose out a century ago? It's probably not for the reasons you'd think.

Curator Matt Anderson of the Ford Museum says electrics weren't manly enough for the times.

"Electrics were thought to be the ideal 'women's car,' if you will," he said. "You don't have to crank it, so it doesn't require as much physical strength to get it running and operating. They're much cleaner than a gasoline automobile, they don't emit the kind of fumes or exhaust we associate with those cars."

Which sounds great. Except consumers back then didn't want that. They wanted a messy adventure machine.

"It made noise, it broke down," David Kirsch, an automotive historian at the University of Maryland, said of the gas-powered car.

"It was relatively easy to fix," he said. "So a man could take his girlfriend out into the woods and do what they will. And if he were very lucky the vehicle might break in a way that he could fix it."

Masculinity, displayed.

Kirsch's point is that culture becomes an important wild-card in technology history. It was back then, and could be going forward in ways we can't predict.

Today, with car sharing, Uber, Zipcar-ing and more automated driving, the nature of travel is slowly changing. Like a century ago, new people are placing new bets on rival fuels. And energy density may not necessarily be the deciding factor this time, either.

Why you may not know if your data has been hacked

Tue, 2014-10-07 11:52

The latest data breach was a big one. Hackers got into JPMorgan’s computer network, and the bank says that has put 76 million households and 7 million small businesses at risk. 

Because it is a public company, JPMorgan is required by law to tell federal regulators about anything that could affect its share price, and that is what it did. JPMorgan notified the Securities and Exchange Commission last Thursday. But other companies don’t have to notify the government when their servers get hit.

When it comes to data breaches, the U.S. has a confusing patchwork of laws. It may surprise you there is no overarching federal law.

“From the very beginning of digital technologies and the Internet, the federal government took the view of 'keep its hands off,'” says Fred H. Cate, who heads the Center for Applied Cybersecurity Research at Indiana University.

So, the states stepped in. California was the first to pass a data breach notification law. It has been on the books there since 2003. Forty-six states followed, along with Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia, and each one has a different law with different requirements.

“I think that everyone assumed that once you got a bunch of conflicting state laws, congress would step in and provide some clarity by providing a single federal law,” says Cate.

That hasn’t happened. Proposals have been held up in Congress, and an executive order President Barack Obama signed last year is voluntary.

Tina Ayiotis, who teaches law at The George Washington University, says after a string of high-profile attacks at Home Depot, Target and JPMorgan, we are starting to suffer from “breach fatigue.”

“At this point, the pain is not enough to really make it so that it becomes a priority,” she says.

What could change that, says David W. Opderbeck, a professor at Seton Hall University School of Law, is a cyber-attack on infrastructure, “like a power grid or a water supply, or the markets shut down for a few days.”

“When that kind of thing happens, then maybe we’ll see some action,” he says.

Until then, the action continues to be at the state level, keeping lawyers, consultants and compliance officers busy, and consumers confused.

'Twin Peaks' is just the latest cult TV comeback

Tue, 2014-10-07 11:20

Not to be outdone by Netflix's latest volley in the Screen Wars, Showtime gave its own surprise announcement Monday. The network will air new episodes of "Twin Peaks" in 2016, a full 25 years after ABC pulled the plug.

The move is unusual in some ways — typically only war horses like "Dallas" come back back after that long of a break — but it's far from the first cult hit to get a second chance on a new network. In fact, with the rise of premium channels and streaming services, it has become a low-risk way attract an audience — albeit with mixed success. Here are four more recent revivals and how they did.

Arrested Development

Probably the highest-profile resurrection on this list, if only because the fourth season of "Arrested Development" become the "Detox" of groundbreaking sitcoms. Before Fox canceled the show, its characters dropped references to HBO, Showtime and a potential movie. The rumors churned for seven years before Netflix released 15 new episodes all at once in 2013.

The new "Arrested Development" played with the binge-able format by focusing on one or two characters per episode and slowly revealing the plot as their storylines intersected. Some critics loved this puzzle box style of storytelling, but others were lukewarm, even calling the season a "noble failure." But that hasn't stopped even more speculation about a fifth season.

Friday Night Lights

After successfully adapting the nonfiction book "Friday Night Lights" into a movie, Peter Berg developed a TV version that would let him explore more ideas left out of the movie. But after a successful first season and a panned, shark-jumping second, the show was on the chopping block at NBC.

DirecTV swooped in, offering to help bankroll more episodes, which would air first on satellite, then later on broadcast. NBC agreed, and the show bounced back for three more critically-acclaimed seasons. DirecTV also brought back the Glenn Close legal drama "Damages," but only "Friday Night Lights" has gone down as an all-time classic.

The Killing

Against all odds, "The Killing" was actually brought back from cancellation twice. After huge success with "Mad Men" and "Breaking Bad," AMC tried adapting the Danish series "Forbrydelsen" in 2011. The dreary crime drama started strong but lost viewers quickly, limping into a second season before being canceled.

After renegotiating contracts, AMC resurrected the show for a third season last summer before canceling it again. Netflix picked "The Killing" back up for an abbreviated final season in August, but most critics weren't interested by then. The streaming service did something similar with Cartoon Network's "Star Wars: The Clone Wars" this spring, giving the show a send-off after Lucasfilm's sale ended the series abruptly.

'Twin Peaks' is just the latest cult classic to come back to life

Tue, 2014-10-07 11:20

Not to be outdone by Netflix's latest volley in the Screen Wars, Showtime gave its own surprise announcement Monday. The network will air new episodes of "Twin Peaks" in 2016, a full 25 years after ABC pulled the plug.

The move is unusual in some ways — typically only war horses like "Dallas" come back back after that long of a break — but it's far from the first cult hit to get a second chance on a new network. In fact, with the rise of premium channels and streaming services, it has become a low-risk way attract an audience — albeit with mixed success. Here are four more recent revivals and how they did.

Arrested Development

Probably the highest-profile resurrection on this list, if only because the fourth season of "Arrested Development" become the "Detox" of groundbreaking sitcoms. Before Fox canceled the show, its characters dropped references to HBO, Showtime and a potential movie. The rumors churned for seven years before Netflix released 15 new episodes all at once in 2013.

The new "Arrested Development" played with the binge-able format by focusing on one or two characters per episode and slowly revealing the plot as their storylines intersected. Some critics loved this puzzle box style of storytelling, but others were lukewarm, even calling the season a "noble failure." But that hasn't stopped even more speculation about a fifth season.

Friday Night Lights

After successfully adapting the nonfiction book "Friday Night Lights" into a movie, Peter Berg developed a TV version that would let him explore more ideas left out of the movie. But after a successful first season and a panned, shark-jumping second, the show was on the chopping block at NBC.

DirecTV swooped in, offering to help bankroll more episodes, which would air first on satellite, then later on broadcast. NBC agreed, and the show bounced back for three more critically-acclaimed seasons. DirecTV also brought back the Glenn Close legal drama "Damages," but only "Friday Night Lights" has gone down as an all-time classic.

The Killing

Against all odds, "The Killing" was actually brought back from cancellation twice. After huge success with "Mad Men" and "Breaking Bad," AMC tried adapting the Danish series "Forbrydelsen" in 2011. The dreary crime drama started strong but lost viewers quickly, limping into a second season before being canceled.

After renegotiating contracts, AMC resurrected the show for a third season last summer before canceling it again. Netflix picked "The Killing" back up for an abbreviated final season in August, but most critics weren't interested by then. The streaming service did something similar with Cartoon Network's "Star Wars: The Clone Wars" this spring, giving the show a send-off after Lucasfilm's sale ended the series abruptly.

Why education tech needs to get student privacy right

Tue, 2014-10-07 11:14

Like everything else these days, education runs on data. Our kids data.

Every digital move they make in school, on homework websites, and apps can be tracked. And it's not always clear where that information is going or how companies are using it.

Parents want better protections; the multi-billion dollar education technology industry wants to keep growing.

So today some big name ed-tech providers announced a voluntary privacy pledge.  It says ed tech companies won't sell a kid's data. They won't use it to target specific ads to specific kids.

"We are aware that policy makers and education leaders and parents are looking at this issue," said  Mark Schneiderman with the Software & Information Industry Association, "this is the industry effort to show that industry is aware of those questions."

At least part of the industry.

Microsoft, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Amplify and several other companies have signed the pledge. Notably absent on the list are classroom giants like Google, Apple and Pearson.  
"Thankfully for Houghton Mifflin, we’ve been 100% in alignment with the pledge and all the different parts inside the pledge document," said Bill Bowman, Vice President of Information Security for the education company.

Same story for Amplify—and the rest of the pledges.  They’re already doing all these things.

So what’s the point?

"You can look at this glass half full,  or glass half empty," said Joni Lupovitz, Vice President of Policy for the advocacy group Common Sense Media.

She says its good for an industry to adopt a list of best practices. It might pressure ed-tech companies that aren’t protecting student data to do more.

There's also the glass half empty bit. "A lot of this they will be required to do under California law," said Lupovitz "And, it's a private pledge, it doesn’t have the same teeth or enforcement."

Lupovitz the industry needs the trust of parents and teachers.

It’s the only way to keep the booming industry booming and bring the real promise of tech to the classroom.

 

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