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Excerpt: 'Law of the Jungle'

Tue, 2014-09-30 12:03

Deep in the jungle of Ecuador, after a steep climb over the Andes and into the rainforest, oil executives struck gold. Well, more oil anyway. This was back in the 1960s. Texaco was drilling wells in Colombia and had reason to believe there was plenty more petroleum to the South. The boom that followed brought airports, roads, jobs and a middle class that hadn't really existed before in Ecuador.

But the oil company — Texaco then, now a part of Chevron — did everything fast and cheap.

Waste was dumped straight into unlined oil pits. Water used in oil production was left untreated on the surface of rivers. Although the Ecuadorian government noticed, no officials came from Quito to supervise.

The long-term damage to the community prompted an environmental lawsuit that lasted more than two decades. In the process, the pursuit of justice turned an initially well-intentioned lawyer named Steven Donziger into a green celebrity, and later, a Machiavellian figure.

Paul Barrett has documented the bad behavior all the way around, and wrote about it in his new book, "The Law of the Jungle." 

Listen to the full interview in the audio player above.

Chapter One

SURVEILLANCE

The lawyer Steven Donziger stepped out onto 104th Street. He looked west toward Riverside Park and east toward Broadway. The dark sedans had been tailing him for at least a month now. They followed him for blocks at a time, slowing when he slowed, stop­ping when he stopped, their passengers watching his every move.

Donziger lived on a quiet block on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. He worked from home, a two-bedroom apartment he shared with his wife, their five-year-old son, and a cocker spaniel. Photographs and artwork from Latin America adorned the apart­ment. Documents in cardboard boxes surrounded the dining table. In the narrow foyer, stacks of stapled legal filings competed for space with a mud-spattered mountain bike.

On this morning in the spring of 2012, Donziger had wheeled the bicycle down the hall to the elevator and across the marble-floored lobby. Fifty years old, he dressed like a graduate student, in jeans, unironed button-down shirt, and tattered jacket.

“Cómo estás?” he asked the doorman as they bumped fists.

“Bien, muy bien, señor.”

Then Donziger had emerged from the building and, as was his habit, searched for the dark sedans. Six-foot-four and powerfully built, he would not have been difficult to track. Sometimes, in ad­dition to the cars, he thought he saw men on foot, pretending to peer into store windows if he looked their way.

Donziger began pedaling toward Ocean Grill, a seafood res­taurant where he did business over lunch. As he approached the corner, he glanced over his shoulder in time to see the large car pull out of its parking space and fall in behind him. He didn’t fear actual physical harm. The company was too smart, he thought, to turn him into a martyr. It wanted to distract him, intimidate him.

He despised his corporate foes: their money, their influence, their cynical disrespect for his clients in the Amazonian rain for­est of northeastern Ecuador. The company would never willingly pay what it owed. Its lawyers and lobbyists had said as much. Now they were coming after him, making it personal. He’d written down license plate numbers, but the police weren’t interested. Every day people killed each other in New York. What did he expect the police to do about cars that might or might not have been following him?

The surveillance wasn’t his main worry. A year earlier, in Feb­ruary 2011, the company had sued him. The 193-page suit, filed under the federal antiracketeering statute, alleged that he had ginned up fraudulent evidence as part of a conspiracy to extort the company. A federal judge had taken the accusations seriously. The judge forced him to turn over his hard drives, e‑mail, and boxes of documents. Donziger had said some truly dumb things—he admit­ted that much—and now they were public. His bravado sounded in­criminating, he also acknowledged, especially if it was taken out of context. He’d cut a few corners, used tactics they didn’t teach back at Harvard Law School. He could lose his law license. Conceivably, the U.S. Attorney’s Office could bring criminal charges.

The company, as Donziger saw it, fought dirty; he fought back in kind. Slugging it out, he’d pulled off something amazing. His ragtag team had gone to a provincial Ecuadorian courtroom and won a judgment that mighty Texaco had ruined the lives of thousands of farmers and Amazon tribesmen. Because of him, a tiny third-world nation had spoken truth to power. Donziger had pressed the case for nearly twenty years now, beginning as the most junior member of the plaintiffs’ legal team and ultimately rising to field commander. Before going after Texaco (which was acquired in 2001 by Chevron), he’d never brought even a slip-and-fall suit. That he’d survived this long must have shocked the oil company and its lawyers. No wonder they were branding him a racketeer and prying into his personal life.

He was not alone, though. Impressed by the potential for gar­gantuan legal fees, Patton Boggs, a tough corporate law firm, had joined Donziger. Together, they were seeking liens against refin­eries, terminals, and tankers worldwide. He’d retained a famous white-collar defense attorney to represent him in the racketeering suit. The Amazon pollution case had been featured on 60 Minutes and in the New York Times, Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, and Bloom­berg Businessweek. In 2009, it was the subject of an acclaimed docu­mentary that played at the Sundance Film Festival. A rock star in green-activism circles, Donziger had received support from Bianca Jagger, Sting, and Sting’s wife, the actress Trudie Styler. He had given Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie a private tour of the oil zone in Ecuador.

“I cannot believe what we have accomplished,” Donziger had written in private notes several years earlier, during a flight to Ecuador. “I cannot wait to get off the plane and see my fellow soldiers—often the only people I feel who get me. I want to look in their eyes and see if they understand the enormity of what this team has accomplished.” He had gone toe-to-toe with one of the most powerful multinationals in the world and won the largest pollution verdict in history: $19 billion. That was billion with a “b,” real money by anyone’s standard. If he could survive the venge­ful countersuit and collect the judgment, the Ecuador case would, in Donziger’s expansive estimation, create a precedent benefitting “millions of persons victimized by human rights abuses commit­ted by multinational corporations pursuing economic gain.” And it would make him a very wealthy man.

Arriving at the Ocean Grill, he slowed his bicycle. The surveil­lance sedan—Wait, were there two of them?—kept cruising south. Donziger chained his bike to a no parking sign and shrugged off his backpack. The spy cars disappeared in traffic. He knew they would circle back. They always did.

Netflix grabs rights to 'Crouching Tiger' sequel

Tue, 2014-09-30 11:10

A new battle in the war for our eyeballs has just been scheduled for August 28, 2015. The Weinstein Company announced a deal to release the sequel to the hit art-house martial arts film "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" simultaneously in Imax movie theaters and on Netflix. 

It's a shot across the bow of the major movie theater chains — Regal, AMC and Cinemark — who control most of the theaters in the United States and demand an exclusive, 90-day "window" before their films move to smaller screens on television or online.

"Anything that starts to erode or challenge the 90-day window could be disaster for them," says Sam Craig, director of the Entertainment, Media and Technology program at NYU. According to Craig, if just 10 percent of theatergoers stayed home, it would mean a loss of more than a billion dollars in ticket sales. 

"No one has approached us to license this made-for-video sequel in the U.S. or China, so one must assume the screens Imax committed are in science centers and aquariums," says an AMC Theatres statement.

Other movies have attempted to debut online and in theaters, but this deal is the first to include Netflix, and the first to include a film that could have just as easily debuted in theaters, according to BTIG media analyst Rich Greenfield. "I think if movie studios see the success of what Netflix and Imax do, I think others will follow," says Greenfield.

If they do, theaters will only be able to differentiate on the basis of the theatergoing experience — something they've been attempting to do for years. Regal Cinemas ran trailers in which action films gradually shrank to a small rectangle in the middle of the big screen, while a narrator intoned: "If you want action this big you can’t have a screen this small."  But consumers with smartphones increasingly watch videos even on the smallest of screens, and hardware options have arguably made home viewing more theatrical. 

"The exhibitors are right: It is a different experience," Craig says. "But you get a lot of people that have 60-inch HD screens and surround sound, and maybe they would be just as happy watching it at home."

The 'blackout rule' is out because football is more popular than it used to be

Tue, 2014-09-30 10:53

In a unanimous five-to-zero vote, the Federal Communications Commission decided to eliminate the blackout rule. Since 1975, the regulation barred cable and satellite television from airing local sporting events when the team failed to sell enough tickets to fill their stadium. The National Football League has defended the rule for many years, calling it a tool to ensure a large attendance at the games.

Kenneth Shropshire, director of the Wharton Sports Business Initiative, talked with David Gura about the move. Listen to the full conversation in the audio player above.

Marriage of convenience becomes divorce of necessity

Tue, 2014-09-30 10:52

EBay and PayPal are going their separate ways. It’s an amicable parting though. 

They don’t need each other like they used to. PayPal is getting fewer and fewer new users from eBay — 25–30 percent today, dropping to 15 percent three years from now, CEO John Donahoe told CNBC. Ebay needs some flexibility as it tries to grow its share of e-commerce. 

Activist investor Carl Icahn launched a high-profile campaign to split the companies nine months ago, heckling eBay’s leadership and preparing to insert board members of his choosing. He was rebuffed in the short term, but eBay has clearly come around. 

“We are happy that eBay’s board and management have acted responsibly concerning the separation — perhaps a little later than they should have, but earlier than we expected,” Icahn wrote in a statement

“They have to grudgingly admit he is right,” says Paul Sweeney, senior media analyst for Bloomberg Intelligence.

PayPal wants to be the way everyone pays for everything: online and at the store. But so does Square, Softcard, Google and now Apple Pay

“The eBay folks and PayPal folks looked around the marketplace [and] they saw a market that’s continuing to change rapidly and continuing to get more competitive,” says Sweeney.

If PayPal has to consider eBay every time it makes a decision, it’s going to get tied down.  

“They also recognize they were potentially missing out on other business opportunities by being part of the bigger company,” Sweeney says. “By being a stand-alone company they can be a little more nimble, innovative, and perhaps pursue new opportunities.”

There is enormous money at stake. Proximity payments — paying for things using your phone — are blowing up, says eMarketer analyst Bryan Yeager. 

“This year we expect proximity payments to reach $3.5 billion — doubling over last year,” Yeager says. “We expect it to next year reach $8.59 billion, and by the end of 2018 hitting a little more than $118 billion.”

Even so, Yeager says that’s a drop in the bucket when you consider how much money gets put on credit cards.  

EBay also needs to free up cash to work on its own issues; there’s competition from Amazon and maybe even Alibaba. Mergers and acquisitions may even be in eBay’s future, the CEO hinted to CNBC. 

The companies will split late next year. But they’ll still be friends.

eBay and PayPal split

Tue, 2014-09-30 08:00

What a difference eight months makes.  

Just last January, eBay President and CEO John Donahoe told analysts in a big conference call, “We and the board believe the best way to drive long-term shareholder value is to keep eBay and PayPal together.” 

But here's what Donahoe said in a different statement Tuesday morning, announcing that eBay will spin off PayPal into a separate, publicly traded company: “However, a thorough strategic review with our board shows that keeping eBay and PayPal together beyond 2015 clearly becomes less advantageous to each business strategically and competitively. The industry landscape is changing, and each business faces different competitive opportunities and challenges."

So, what’s changed? Well, there's been continuing pressure from activist shareholders like Carl Icahn. He’s said all along that PayPal could make more money if it were separated from eBay. Icahn thinks Ebay had a conflict of interest that held back PayPal’s growth. 

We can start seeing if Icahn’s right when PayPal becomes a stand-alone stock of its own. That’ll be after an initial public offering sometime later next year.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

FCC dumps blackout rule

Tue, 2014-09-30 07:30

The Federal Communications Commission voted this morning to eliminate the controversial blackout rule. The rule, which mainly applies to NFL games, says if 85 percent of tickets aren’t sold, teams can prevent local broadcasts of games. 

If NFL teams decided to impose the rule for a game, free local TV couldn’t broadcast it. The rule further said cable and satellite TV couldn’t air it locally, either.

The NFL didn't want the blackout rule eliminated. It has said that without the rule, it could just move all its games to cable, putting them out of reach of low income fans who can’t afford cable. 

“The NFL is doing a lot of posturing here,” says Andrew Zimbalist, a sports economist at Smith College. He says NFL teams can still tell broadcasters and cable outlets to black out games. It doesn’t need the FCC to do that. “The NFL can still negotiate to black out the game whenever there’s a deficiency in attendance. So we’re unlikely to see any appreciable effect here.”

And, Zimbalist says, if the NFL did try to move all its games onto cable, it would violate a law called the Sports Broadcasting Act, which was designed to keep games on TV.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The numbers for September 30, 2014

Tue, 2014-09-30 07:25

Six people have hopped the White House fence so far this year. The latest incident — in which the intruder reportedly blew through at least five layers of security before he was caught — put Secret Service Director Julia Pierson under fire at a congressional hearing Monday. Lawmakers were also livid after the Washington Post reported the Secret Service was slow to respond when shots were fired at the White House in 2011. Pierson took full responsibility for the problems and pledged to review Secret Service procedure.

Here's what we're reading — and the numbers we're watching — Tuesday.

41 percent

The predicted drop in revenue for utilities if solar power gets just 10 percent of the market. Rooftop solar panels are getting cheaper all the time, although they only account for 0.4 percent of the energy produced in the U.S. now. Because 43 states have "net metering" laws allowing solar users to sell their excess energy back to electric companies, Vox reported, the proliferation of rooftop panels could put utilities in a "death spiral."

$7.2 billion

That's how much PayPal made in the past year, and their revenue is rising faster than parent company eBay's has. The company announced Monday it would spin off PayPal into its own company, Business Insider reports. EBay acquired the online payment system for $1.5 billion in 2002, and these days PayPal claims to facilitate one out of every six dollars spent online.

0

As of last week, there are precisely zero Saturday morning cartoon programming blocks on TV. The last one, the CW's "Vortexx," aired for the last time on Saturday. The marathons, once a staple of American childhood and the ideal pairing with sugary cereals, were killed by a combination of FCC regulation and the spread of cable. /Film has a nice look back at the various cartoon blocks from the '80s and the commercials that aired with them.

PODCAST: Think of it as a conscious uncoupling

Tue, 2014-09-30 07:00

EBay decides it's time for PayPal to be pushed back out of the nest: There's news this morning that the auction company eBay will spin off its payment system, PayPal. Plus, tomorrow is the first of October, one year since the rollout of Healthcare.gov, and the texture of health care in America is changing. For instance, there's been disruption in the old pattern of health care providers sending bills and the insurance companies paying their portion. Now, some insurers are tying what they pay to how well the doctors, hospitals and labs are doing their jobs. And call it social and environmental investing, call it impact investing, applying our personal values to our portfolios is not a new idea. One big example in the 1980s was college students forcing their universities to sell their stakes in companies that did business with apartheid South Africa. But now some influential countries have come together to recommend that governments help impact investing become an even more powerful force for making the world a better place. 

Push for IUDs comes from many sides

Tue, 2014-09-30 02:30

Last year, drugmaker Bayer introduced the first new IUD in 13 years. And this week, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) updated its guidelines to say long-acting reversible contraceptives, including IUDs, should be the first line of defense to prevent teen pregnancies.

It's been a long road for the IUD. It’s been some 40 years since the Dalkon Shield hit the market. The intrauterine contraceptive device was one of many IUDs at the time, but it is still remembered decades later as a spectacular disaster. 

Many women developed pelvic inflammatory disease from the device, which had not been vetted by the FDA. The Shield also had a high failure rate, leading to infections, miscarriages and death.  

The Dalkon Shield was pulled off the market, and a federally funded study in 1981 said IUDs were dangerous. 

Some two decades later, when Jenna Sauers, then in her late teens, went to her doctor asking for an IUD as an alternative form of contraception to taking pills with hormones, her doctor would not prescribe it. She tried a second doctor, and then a third who, she recalled, told her: “That’s only an option for women who have completed their families.” 

“The damage done was the perception that all IUDs are dangerous,” says Dr. Jill Schwartz, medical director at CONRAD, an organization that focuses on reproductive health research.

Sauers, who is now 28, finally succeeded after visiting yet another doctor. 

“I do think that everybody should have the choice. I think they can be a great option, especially for people who, for whatever reason, don’t like taking hormonal birth control,” Sauers says. 

Sauers is confident that her IUD poses little risk, because in the last few decades more research has shown that it was the faulty design of the Shield, not IUDs themselves, that was dangerous. Still, it has taken some time to undo the damage done by the Dalkon Shield. In the 1990s, new research came out that called into question the 1981 study condemning all IUDs. In 2012, the New England Journal of Medicine published a study saying IUDs are 20 times more effective than birth-control pills, the patch or the vaginal ring. 

“In the intervening 40 years, there’s been increasing scrutiny and increasing requirements by the FDA and other organizations,” says Dr. Mary Ott, one of the co-authors of the new AAP guidelines for teenage girls. “All the modern devices have at least a decade of safety and effectiveness data in the United States, and 20 years or more internationally.” 

Ott says IUDs are now so safe that teenage girls face more health dangers from complications from pregnancy than they do from the IUDs themselves. 

“It’s been not only drug companies, it’s academics, it’s the whole community” that’s been behind the effort to make IUDs more available, says Schwartz. 

World health groups and nonprofits have also been a part of that effort, with Planned Parenthood launching a nationwide educational campaign last year. 

When you die, who gets your digital assets?

Tue, 2014-09-30 02:00

John Ajemian was riding his bike on a perfect sunny day in the Boston suburbs in 2006 when he was struck and killed by a car. He was 43.

“After his death, we wanted to plan a memorial service,” says Marianne Ajemian, John’s sister and one of the executors of his estate. “And he kept all his correspondence and records on his email account.”

In addition to his contacts, Marianne wanted the financial records and correspondence it might hold. But the provider refused to give the family access to the account, so she’s suing them. The case is ongoing.

“If you have a diary, if you have letters, your personal representatives are entitled to see that,” she argues.

As people store increasing amounts of information online in email, social media and cloud storage accounts, what happens to those digital accounts has become a more pressing issue. A recent study by MacAfee found that the average person has $35,000 in digital assets stored online or on their devices. 

This summer, the Uniform Law Commission, a group that writes laws for states, drafted legislation that would give executors or other personal representatives access to digital accounts when someone dies. Delaware became the first state to pass a version of it last month, joining only a handful of states that already have more limited laws.

“Essentially, what we’re trying to do is allow the fiduciary to have access, unless the account holder didn’t want a fiduciary to have access,” says Suzanne Walsh, an estate lawyer who helped draft the ULC’s proposed legislation.

“In the old days when I began practicing law, we worked with file cabinets and paper documents,” she explains. “Yesterday’s filing cabinet is now a laptop or a computer or even a phone. Because of that, the nature of our work has changed when we’re administering an estate or assisting an incapable person.”

Balancing access and privacy can be complicated, though.

“There are sometimes third parties who have communicated with the deceased person who expect those communications to remain private,” says Jim Halpert, the general counsel of the State Privacy and Security Coalition, which represents Facebook, Google, Yahoo and others on issues like this. “[They] don’t expect somebody that they don’t know, and in some cases a person the deceased didn’t even know, to be going through the communications.”

People may not want their family reading their emails, he says, though the law commission’s version provides the option to opt out of access.

Moreover, many service providers worry that state laws granting access are in conflict with existing federal laws.

Currently, companies have varying policies about what happens when an account holder dies. For example, Yahoo says in its terms of service that accounts can’t transfer after death, but a spokesperson says the company will give access if the deceased lays out their explicit permissions in their will. Google lets people chose whether their info should be shared or deleted if they die. Facebook gives family members the option to close the account or "memorialize" it, which preserves the photos and posts already visible on the account, but doesn't give access to private messages. 

Halpert says another solution would be to give access to logs that list senders and receivers, but not the contents of emails.

For Marianne Ajemian, that’s not enough.

“John was a writer,” she says. “And so whatever was in that email account could have been very important to us.”

Until she gets into the account, she says she doesn’t know what she might be missing — and how much sentimental or financial value it could hold.

How insurers are adjusting payment to medical providers

Tue, 2014-09-30 02:00

Commercial insurers are ditching or at least tweaking the way they pay medical providers, according to a report out Tuesday from the group Catalyst for Payment Reform.

For years, commercial insurers as well as state and federal governments have paid doctors and hospitals under what’s called fee-for-service. To many in the health care world, fee-for-service is seen as one of the key drivers behind the run-up in health care costs, because it offers a financial incentive to provide extra services that may not be needed.

“I believe fee-for-service generates a lot of waste, and overuse of health care services can be not just wasteful, but harmful,” says Harvard Health Economics professor Meredith Rosenthal.

Rosenthal says, based on her research, alternatives to fee-for-service can reduce the volume of services by as much as 20 percent. Rosenthal is quick to add that there’s no great evidence yet on the effectiveness of any of the alternatives.

“How to design a payment system to obtain the best value for money and value in health care is a very complicated question. And that’s where we are really learning,” she says.

So what options are out there?

Here’s a list of four payment methods starting with the most traditional, presented with the caveat that these brief descriptions are intended for those of us who aren’t health care wonks.

Fee-for-Service: A payment model in which providers get paid for specific tests, services or procedures.

It's the granddaddy of payment models and a scourge for many health reformers.

Pay for Performance: A payment model in which on top of the usual fees providers are paid, they can earn extra money for meeting certain health care quality goals or other performance targets, like increased efficiency.

In its report, Catalyst for Payment Reform says this is by far the most popular reform this year. You can think of it as health care reform with training wheels.

Shared Risk: A payment method in which providers accept some financial liability if they spend over a targeted budget. If they go under budget, providers keep a portion of the savings.

A classic intermediate step that carries risk and reward; sort of reform with a safety net. It's not very common.

Full Capitation/Global Payment: A fixed payment to providers for care they give over a set time period, like one month or a year, no matter how much care the patient utilizes.

This is the most aggressive payment method, where providers keep all the savings and eat all costs that go above the fixed payment. Some see this as medical providers taking on the role of insurer.

Playing matchmaker in Silicon Valley

Mon, 2014-09-29 15:49

Online dating is a billion dollar industry, and one in three Americans met their match through websites or dating apps. But algorithms don’t always work for everyone, even in Silicon Valley.

Michael Ralston is a software designer and a client of Linx Dating, a boutique matchmaking service in Palo Alto. There’s a lot that he likes about online dating — the time to craft thoughtful responses, multitasking while chatting with someone — but he wasn’t having much luck.

So he tried Linx.

When Ralston joined the matchmaking service his wardrobe was the typical Silicon Valley uniform: jeans and T-shirts. Amy Andersen and Michael Norman of Linx dating took him shopping, got him a haircut and figured out what Michael needed to become more dateable. It is full service, top to bottom.

“Dinner reservations and recommendations, sedan booking should they not want to drive for the date,” Andersen lists some of Linx’s many services. “Shopping for some proper hand towels, making sure the refrigerator is stocked with some decent wine.” Andersen takes clients ballroom dancing to work on rhythm and letting go.

Linx counter-intuitively brings "Fiddler on the Roof"-style matchmaking to the most connected Valley in the world, but business is booming. Andersen charges up to $100,000 for tailored matchmaking services.

Andersen hit on the idea for Linx one night during a dinner date. She is a strikingly beautiful and charming Stanford grad, yet her date kept looking over her shoulder.

“So I called him on it,” she says.  “I said, ‘What are you doing?’ and he literally said ‘The BBD’. And I said ‘The whatah, whatah, huh?’ and he said ‘the Bigger Better Deal.’”

The “Bigger, Better Deal” is a Silicon Valley anxiety disorder in-which one can’t stop searching for the next hot start-up. Andersen realized that the sheer number of singles online creates a kind of dating BBD.

“The grass is always greener,” Andersen says, “there has to be someone else who’s just a little more interesting, or a little more of a better match.”

A third of Americans agree that online dating’s masses make it hard to pick just one. But if you do win the electronic love lottery, studies show online couples have higher satisfaction and lower divorce rates. So Linx offers a blend—a large enough pool to find deep matches, but not so many that clients get stuck in choice paralysis. Andersen also works with each client individually, zeroing in on their romantic pitfalls.

Her client Michael Ralston is smart, interesting and very sweet, but his weaknesses are confidence and real time communication with women. So Andersen gently hammers away at these challenges. 

She runs Ralston through a mock version of the pre-date phone call.

“Ring,” Ralston says, holding his hand like a phone to his ear.

“Hello?,” Andersen replies.

“Hi Amy, this is Michael….  Amy from Linx gave me your number.”

“Oh hi Michael! How was your workday?”

“Um, pretty good. So…” Ralston stumbles, blushing.

“Tell me about it, tell me about your workday,” Andersen says.

Ralston gives up and breaks down laughing.

Andersen drops character and says, “What were you feeling right then when I said, ‘How was your day?’”

“I was like “Oh no!” to be honest,” Ralston says.

They practice the call several times until Ralston is able to go off script and be more spontaneous.

Life lessons, wardrobe make-overs, mock dates.  All this costs Ralston over ten grand. But does he think it’s worth the price?

“I’ve always been socially awkward and I think I’m less so now,” he says. “It is expensive.  But from one point of view, the answer to that question is—is it going to work?”

High-end matchmakers often say they successfully match up eighty to ninety percent of their clients. But what successful match means is harder to pin down.

Silicon: Imagine life without glass

Mon, 2014-09-29 11:49

For the next installment in the BBC’s Justin Rowlatt's microscopic look at the economy: the silicon revolution.

Not only is silicon one of the major components in computer chips, but it’s also found in your windows, mirrors and wine glasses.

"Silicon is the basis of glass," Rowlatt says. "We think of the silicon revolution being computers. But actually one of the very early technological revolutions was glass."

Listen to the full conversation in the audio player above.

 

This is a generic brand video

Mon, 2014-09-29 10:10

It's the ad that comes before the YouTube video you're trying to watch: a hopeful message from a company trying to sell you on its brand and outlook, usually with no shortage of inspirational imagery and plenty of metaphors.

Kendra Eash captured the language and tone brands use in a piece for McSweeneys.

Listen to the story in the player above with an active imagination (or watch the video) to see what she's talking about.

'Breaking Bad' and Albuquerque: One year later

Mon, 2014-09-29 10:06

AMC's critically acclaimed series "Breaking Bad," created by Vince Gilligan, ran its very last episode one year ago. The show takes place in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and although production has stopped, the town continues to experience an economic boom. Even tourism rates grew exponentially.

In 2013, New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez signed what was called the "Breaking Bad bill" into law, a film incentive that increases subsidies for television crews from 25 percent to 30 percent in some areas of expenditure. The law increases New Mexico's rebate for series television production to 30 percent of a producer's total qualified spend in the state.

"We actually see people that will come here specifically to go and see the sites," says Albuquerque mayor Richard Berry. "I have been as far as Beijing where people have asked me about 'Breaking Bad,' so, yeah, it surely has put us on the map internationally."

Another positive outcome was the number of jobs the show produced. Actors and television producers weren’t the only ones to benefit job-wise from filming, Berry says.

"It’s electricians, the lumber yard selling lumber, and it is craft, and it is the local places that rent their businesses out to film," says Berry. "It really hits our economy from top to bottom."

"Breaking Bad" has a spinoff show called "Better Call Saul," also created by Gilligan, and also set in Albuquerque. It is scheduled to premiere in February 2015.

The show has already been picked up for a second season.

 "When 'Breaking Bad' filmed here, almost $70 million came into our economy," says Berry. "We think that 'Better Call Saul' is going to be another great opportunity for us."

Is that Thai food genuine? Ask a robot.

Mon, 2014-09-29 09:36

This story, found in the pages of the New York Times, when you think about it, is a thing of pure genius.

Scientists in Thailand are set to unveil a robot that will be able to tell whether Thai food is actually genuine Thai food.

Proper proportions, the right taste — you get the idea.

The possibilities, honestly, are endless...testing Mexican food, Chinese, Indian.

Of course, it's entirely possible we Americans have just come to prefer "fake" ethnic food.

The battle over which company has your number

Mon, 2014-09-29 09:30

Telecom security, consumer privacy and the tension that lies therein is a hot topic. In the spotlight on Capitol Hill right now? Negotiations over a federal contract for which company will route phone calls.  

Once upon a time, if you switched phone carriers, you had to switch your telephone number. In 1997, Congress said you can keep your number even if you switch, said Ahmed Ghappour, a law professor at UC Hastings.

“And so that resulted in a great deal of confusion,” Ghappour said.

He said that’s because, before that law, each phone service provider was awarded blocks of numbers. If the police wanted to tap a number, they would know which company to go to. But once you could keep your number, that system was gone.

So the government contracted a company named Neustar to keep track of all phone numbers. Also, every time you make a call, it's Neustar that routes your call to the right carrier.

“It’s essentially a central pathway for all calls to and from telephone lines that utilize U.S. telecom services,” Ghappour said.

Now Neustar might lose the contract to Ericsson, which is based in Sweden. Neustar says this would be bad for national security, said Jonathan Mayer, a fellow at Stanford's Center for International Security and Cooperation.

“It certainly is a legitimate concern that the company that routes calls is in position to know a fair amount about law enforcement and intelligence investigations,” Mayer said.

For example, a hostile country could break in and see that law enforcement is asking about the phone numbers of its spies.

Christopher Soghoian, a technologist at the ACLU, said an American-based company can’t protect data any better than one in based in Europe.

“The security community doesn’t know how to build a system that allows access to one party but keeps others out,” Soghoian said.

Soghoian said the only way to keep data out of the hands of the bad guys is to secure it from everybody — even law enforcement. 

Is Facebook's new ad tool a game changer?

Mon, 2014-09-29 09:28

Facebook is rolling out an advertising tool today that the company claims will be a real game changer. It wants to merge data from its over 1 billion active monthly users with their travels across the Internet on computers and mobile phones alike.

The end result is that advertisers can use the tool to buy ads outside of Facebook.

Currently, there’s a black hole between people’s internet use on smartphones and computers, says Nate Elliott, an analyst at Forrester Research.

“So you can target people who like the New York Yankees on the PC, you target people who like the New York Yankees on a phone, but you’re never quite sure, today, if you’re catching the same people on both of those platforms,” he explains.

Facebook’s Atlas service wants to close that gap and let advertisers better measure whether their ads were effective.

But Elliott cautions that Facebook’s announcement is short on details about how Atlas works.

“Today they’ve presented us with some nicely packaged sausage, but they haven’t told us much about how the sausage is being made,” Elliott says.

If the service is as good as the company claims, Karen North, a professor of digital social media at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School, says it could help Facebook better compete in its ad wars with Google.

“Where Facebook has struggled in the past is that people don’t go to Facebook to buy things,” she says. “So now they’re deciding, 'Well maybe the whole Facebook ad idea isn’t the right answer.' Maybe it’s, ‘We’ll just be the place to come to buy ads for wherever you are.’”

A couple of years ago, Facebook watchers were bemoaning its lack of a mobile strategy. So this is fast progress, says Roger Kay, president of Endpoint Technologies Associates.

But it may elevate the privacy concerns many users already have with Facebook.

“If it’s done well, you will notice it,” says Kay. “Because what you’ll find is the creepy effect; that you’ll visit a site and then you’ll go somewhere else and notice an ad for something that seems to be related to that site you just visited. “

Facebook declined an interview request for this story, but the company has said it won’t give advertisers identifying information about users.

Just lots and lots of data.

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