Marketplace - American Public Media

Daylight Savings, a thing that exists for no discernable reason

Mon, 2015-03-09 07:56

Even though it's nice to have the sun out later in the day, there's not much evidence that Daylight Savings Time actually cuts down on electricity use.

Via Quartz:

"Another bit of research zeroed in on a natural experiment built around the US state of Indiana, which until 2006 had a patchwork approach to daylight saving time in which some counties participated and others didn’t. The researchers looked at electricity demand for counties that didn’t have daylight saving time for 30 years, and then started in 2006. The results?

We find that the overall DST effect on electricity consumption runs counter to conventional wisdom: DST results in a 1-percent overall increase in residential electricity demand, and the effect is highly statistically significant."

But still, it being darker early is kinda depressing.

Is it time for the Apple Watch?

Mon, 2015-03-09 07:56

Apple CEO Tim Cook took the stage March 9 in the company’s live-streamed ‘Spring Forward’ event in San Francisco, to show off new products and unveil updates of existing products.

Cook announced an exclusive partnership between Apple TV and HBO – just in time for the new season of ‘Game of Thrones.’ He also touted a slimmer, meaner Macbook. But it was the eagerly awaited Apple Watch that was the star of the show. In stores in April, the device will show text messages and emails, help users track fitness and health, and allow watch-to-watch communication. The watch goes on sale (preorder, and to try in stores) on April 10. The basic aluminum Apple Watch Sport is priced from $349 (38 mm version) to $399 (42mm). A steel version ranges from $549-$1,099. The gold Apple Watch Edition starts at $10,000.

Stephen Lam/Getty Images

Apple is widely credited with shaking up traditional brick-and-mortar retail in America with its sleek, cutting-edge stores. Many are in prime downtown locations -- sparkling, airy glass cubes with soaring ceilings and a fluid open-plan inside. Salespeople greet customers at the entrance and wander the floor conducting transactions and providing technical assistance. There is no fixed spatial hierarchy for locating cash registers, customer service, and inventory for sale.

But it’s not a retail style or layout that necessarily lends itself to showcasing and selling fashion accessories like watches — even if they sport all the mobile technology Apple has to offer.

“Watch stores are very luxurious places,” says Ian Sherr, executive editor at CNET News. He says Apple faces a challenge: “If you’re going to sell a watch for $10,000, how are you going to attract that kind of customer into your store?” 

Typically, Apple stores only carry a few devices and models—with a few size and case-color-variations. Customers spend their time test-driving the technology, trying out apps and features, discussing memory and screen-size and processing speed with salespeople. But for watch sales, says Sherr, “people will want to try different watch bands, different sizes, so that’s going to change how the retail experience works.”

Apple is entering a market that’s struggling. Smart-watches from competitors including Pebble, LG, and Samsung haven’t been huge sellers so far. Analyst James McQuivey at Forrester Research believes Apple will have an edge with consumers, though, and could drive widespread adoption of the small wearable mobile devices. “You really aren’t going to believe a fashion piece for thousands of dollars from some of these other watch makers, the way you will from Apple,” says McQuivey. He believes Apple’s long history of design innovation — in both physical devices, and the user-interface — could encourage consumers to at least try an Apple Watch.

McQuivey doesn’t think Apple will try to compete for traditional luxury consumers and watch connoiseurs, even with its new $10,000-plus gold offering. “That Rolex buyer wants to go into a dealer, they want to have a personal conversation over a cherrywood desk,” says McQuivey. “What Apple is going to do is steal the next Rolex buyer, the one that’s 27 or 33 today.” That's a consumer who is likely already comfortable with Apple’s retail style and stores.

Sherr and McQuivey agree that Apple-store layouts and displays will likely be revamped to showcase the new smart-watches as fashion accessories. Apple recently hired the former CEO of luxury brand Burberry,  Angela Ahrendts, to run its brick-and-mortar and online stores; analysts believe one reason for bringing Ahrendts on was to get ready to promote and sell the Apple Watch. James McQuivey predicts store employees will be encouraged to adopt a new script, and to temper their characteristic low-key straight-talking advice-giving: “They’ll get those Apple in-store salespeople to say ‘Well, while you’re here, just try this on. Oh, it looks great on you.’”

The 'good news, bad news' behind stock buybacks

Mon, 2015-03-09 07:56

General Motors has about $25 billion in cash, and on Monday, it announced it’ll send $5 billion of that to shareholders by buying back stocks; it’ll send another $5 billion back to investors by paying out more in dividends. 

Why? 

Well, it’s got to do something with extra cash. Some investors argue: Why not give it to us?

“Companies have been hoarding cash ever since the financial crisis, and one main reason for this is companies are spooked,” says Damien Park, managing partner of Hedge Fund Solutions. “As a result, there is more cash on corporate balance sheets today than ever before.” 

Large piles of cash tend to invite some investors to complain — loudly.  They might say they aren’t getting enough return on their investment, or that the company’s not spending wisely. In General Motors’ case, one hedge fund backed investor Harry J. Wilson, who was preparing to acquire a seat on GM’s board of directors to push his agenda for returning cash to shareholders.   

“One of the ways the company responds to this,” says Steven Davidoff Solomon, professor of law at UC Berkeley School of Law, “is to say, 'Look, we’re trying to help our shareholders, we’ll give them back some cash.'” 

In a nutshell: Please shut up and here’s some money.

The stock buyback has several advantages. It reduces the number of shares floating around, and so each remaining share becomes more valuable in principal. 

“Buybacks boost earnings per share and so ... you can get a better stock price,” says Hedge Fund Solutions’ Damien Park.  

Returning money to shareholders via buybacks is often preferred over dividends. Dividends are taxed twice, once as income for the company, and again as income for the individual receiving the dividend. Moreover, once a company commits to boosting dividends, if there is ever a time in the future when the company wants to return dividends to previous levels, investors will view it very negatively.

The downside of using cash to buy back stocks is ... you’re using cash to buy back stocks.  

“The other angle on this is that companies could be doing other things with the cash,” says Ed Clissold, U.S. Market Strategist at Ned Davis Research. Like saving it for the next economic crisis or spending it to grow the company, “...expanding their plants, hiring more workers, paying them more and filtering it through to the economy.”

In a sluggish economy firms may not see growth as possible. Thus buybacks are a vote, says Clissold, that a company doesn’t see many opportunities out there to invest in. 

Drawing the line between contributions and bribes

Mon, 2015-03-09 07:56

Members of Congress give campaign donors special access, at least according to what Berkeley Ph.D. student Josh Kalla found in a 2013 study (pdf).

“We went into the study trying to see, does money lead to unequal political outcomes?” Kalla says.

Kalla sent emails to almost 200 members of Congress, from real constituents, requesting a meeting. Half were identified as donors, and they were much more likely to get a meeting.

“Yeah, it was about a three-fold increase, I believe,” he says.

Next, Kalla wants to study whether political contributions actually influence legislation. When it comes to a bribery investigation, a number of factors are considered.

“I think timing can be a factor,” says Richard Briffault, a professor of legislation at Columbia Law School.

As in, did a member of Congress get a political donation right before or after voting on a bill? Was there a quid pro quo?

“There have been undercover deals, outright handshakes," Briffault says."Sometimes it’s provable, but in other situations it’s a lot grayer.”

Donors know how to exploit the gray areas. Larry Noble, now senior counsel at the Campaign Legal Center, once worked as a private attorney advising clients on how to make legal political donations.

“When you’re making a political contribution, never discuss an issue," he says. "What that means as a practical matter is the contribution is made, and then the lobbying takes place the next day.”

Then, according to Noble, the lobbyist can simply say the conversation was an exercise of free speech.

PODCAST: A six year bull market

Mon, 2015-03-09 03:00

The bull market turns six. Low interest rates as engineered by the Federal Reserve, economic recovery, and yes, innovation itself has fueled, as of today, a six year-long bull runs for the stock market. More on that. Plus, a look at what happens when you let robots make content choices. Proctor and Gamble and Anheuser-Busch are in damage control mode after their automated advertisements appeared to be sponsoring Youtube videos from ISIS. And more on today's job seekers, especially college students getting set to jump into the market with both feet.

Disputing bad credit is about to get a whole lot easier

Mon, 2015-03-09 02:00

The nation’s three biggest credit reporting companies—Experian, TransUnion, and Equifax—are changing the way they collect and report the credit scores.

The changes involves the way bureaus handle credit-rating disputes, as well as how they report unpaid medical bills.

The settlement with New York State’s attorney general, comes amid claims that credit errors were costing Americans millions in increased premiums.

The big three credit agencies handle the credit scores of more than 200 million Americans.

Under the Fair Credit Reporting Act, all credit error claims are entitled to a “reasonable investigation.”

In practice however, that wasn’t happening. Chi Chi Wu is a staff attorney at the National Consumer Law Center. She says the bureaus will now be required to investigate every error claim independently.

"Not just rely on what the creditor or debt collector says, but actually examine the dispute independently to determine if it’s the creditor that's right or the consumer that's right," says Wu.

The settlement will also implement a mandatory 180-day waiting period for reporting health-care related debt, which is increasingly common.

"A lot of times when someone gets a bill, there's going to be a dispute, especially given how insure companies are creating more and more complex plans with respect to co-insurance, copays, deductibles, etc." says University of Maryland Law Professor Frank Pasquale.

According to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, roughly half of all credit rating disputes involve unpaid medical bills.

Many of the changes detailed in the settlement will be implemented in over the next six to 39 months.

SXSW by the numbers

Mon, 2015-03-09 02:00

This week, Marketplace heads down South to SXSW, the Austin-based conference and festival that spans film, music, and technology. We'll kick off our coverage with SXSWedu, a four day event looking at where innovation meets education. Then, it's on to SXSW Interactive, where some of the greatest minds in tech converge to talk about trends in the industry and to preview some of their newest wares. But before we get started on our breakfast tacos, here's a look at the numbers behind SXSW.

Click the media player above to hear more about SXSWedu and the future of the classroom.

SXSW by the numbers:

5 years old

This year, SXSWedu turns 5 years old. While just 800 people attended the first 'edu' conference and festival, last year's conference saw 5,933 participants from 35 different countries. Since 2012, attendance has tripled.

32,798

That's how many people attended the SXSW Interactive conference in 2014. Participants came from 82 different countries, and had 1,100 panels to choose from.

2,136,236

That's the total number of SXSW mentions on social media during the week of SXSW Interactive 2014 alone. Among the top trending topics were Edward Snowden, Lady Gaga, and the NSA.

60,450 room nights

2014 saw 13,990 individual hotel reservations in Austin by SXSW attendees. All told, that adds up to 60,450 room nights. And that doesn't even account for bookings on Airbnb, which the service claims reached 11,000 SXSW-related bookings.

$315.3 million

SXSW brings a lot of people, and therefore a lot of money, into Austin. By the festival's estimate, $315.3 million was pumped into the city's economy during last year's festival.

370

SXSW is more than just panels and expos ... it's also parties. Side parties, to be specific. And this year's festival has a lot of them: 370 side parties ranging from a pet adoption happy hour to a karaoke night for tech lovers.

2015 college graduates face best job market in years

Mon, 2015-03-09 02:00

The job market has been steadily improving over the past few years and is now better than it’s been since the Great Recession for young college-educated entrants into the workforce. This is evident in the internship- and job-search situation today’s college students face:

• Hiring of college graduates this year (2014-15) will be up by 16 percent over last year. The leading sectors are: information services (up 51 percent), finance and insurance (31 percent), business and scientific services (24 percent), government (24 percent), manufacturing (17 percent) and nonprofits (16 percent), according to a survey by Michigan State University.
• More than half of employers are offering signing bonuses for new college-graduate hires, the highest percentage in five years, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE).
• Engineering graduates will earn the highest average starting salary among all graduates in 2015, at $63,000 (petroleum engineers top out among engineering bachelor's degree recipients, at $80,600). The lowest-paid BA recipients, in humanities, will average $45,000 to start (NACE).

At a “Life After College” event for upperclassmen and their families at the University of Portland, alumni from the past decade were on stage sharing their experiences and advice. Many of them hit the job market in the Great Recession.

The alumni speakers told the soon-to-be-graduates in a packed auditorium that even as the job market improves, they will still need to keep ‘upping’ their game to succeed. Jessica Whittaker graduated in the early 2000s and has mapped out a successful career in communications and marketing at a leading sportswear company in Portland. She often sits down for information interviews with young alumni.

“That basic Times New Roman resume, it really doesn’t cut it anymore,” says Whitaker. “You really need an infographic resume, a full portfiolio, a website, and if you have one, a short video talking about who you are and what your brand statement is.”

Junior Elizabeth MacNamara is a business major, and she’s feeling reasonably confident about the job market. She’s lining up an internship for the summer at a major regional retailer. “My goal is to get into a job immediately that I’m really happy with,” MacNamara says, “and to be able to stay there and move throughout the company.”

It’s not very likely: average job tenure is declining in America, and today’s young people will likely switch jobs every three or four years on average, says Dan Finnigan at recruiting website Jobvite.

Working for multiple employers early in her career suits fellow business major Kelsea Orren, though: “I honestly think I’ll probably jump around. You usually start pretty low in a company, so building your resume and getting higher jobs in other companies is more what I’m looking for.”

Management professor Peter Cappelli, director of the Human Resources program at the Wharton School, says it's true that employers are working harder to find qualified employees than in the past seven or eight years. That’s a clear effect of the economy improving. But Cappelli says employers are not yet doubling down on salary or benefits to land and keep the best candidates. 

“It’s cheaper and smarter,” says Cappelli, “to spend your initial efforts with greater recruiting, before you start having to raise your pay or raise your perks.”

Cappelli says the labor market is still not tight like it was in the late 1990s when unemployment fell to 4 percent and no one who could work stayed on the sidelines. Today, he says, employers remain very selective in their hiring. Many will still hold out for the perfect candidate, even if it means leaving positions vacant for a while. He says employers want to find someone who already knows the job, has meaningful experience, and won’t need a lot of training before delivering to the bottom line. And, unless the job candidate is in one of a few high-demand professions—such as engineering or computer science—they had better be willing to take the salary that's offered.

Google’s new Googley Office

Mon, 2015-03-09 02:00

A Ringling Brothers circus on steroids. That’s how Will Oremus, a senior technology writer at Slate, describes Google’s recently unveiled blueprint for its new headquarters in Mountain View, California.

“The whole thing will just be as Googley as you might imagine,” says Oremus, who looked over the plans recently. By that he means a series of dome-like structures made of transparent glass, modular offices with roofs that can be moved, bike paths, creeks and plenty of greenery.

Fitness, of course, is a huge part of Google’s work culture, and that too finds a place in these plans. Oremus remembers seeing a schematic of a group of people practicing yoga. "They have the sweeping view of the bay,” he says. “It’s like they are on display to the entire world. Just showing how fit and healthy and really utopian Google employees’ lives are.”

The reason Google and other Silicon Valley companies invest so much in what their offices look or feel like, Oremus says, is they want this to be their employees’ “first home.”

“It’s just a way to try and wring as much productivity out of these employees as they can,” says Oremus. All these perks that come with the job are also selling points, he adds, given the current demand for engineers and developers in Silicon Valley.

But the city of Mountain View is not buying into Google’s “utopian” headquarters that easily. Community leaders have already expressed concerns over what this new development will do the suburban city.

“These cities have seen what happens with this tech boom and bust cycle,” says Oremus.

That is, when it goes bust, the city if left with built up office space, and a depressed economy. And, when things are going great, they have to deal with the rising property prices and the increased activity—including traffic—that a company this large would bring.

Oremus thinks the city of Mountain View won’t give up without getting some concession out of Google.

“I don't think you’ll end up seeing quite the utopian vision Google has come to reality in Mountain View,” he says.

Cybersecurity bill splits companies

Mon, 2015-03-09 02:00

A new Senate cybersecurity bill would make it easier for companies to share information on cyberattacks with the federal government. 

“I think it has to be done in a way that does respect the privacy and trust of the users,” says Marc Rotenberg, Executive Director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center.

Rotenberg is especially concerned because any customer information companies shared with the Department Of Homeland Security would also go to the NSA. 

“If I’m using Google search or Facebook I don’t think my information should be going to the NSA,” he says.

This is a big problem for tech companies like Google.

“For some companies that have a lot of internet users, it would be really hard to get behind this bill,” says Gregory Nojeim, senior counsel at the Center for Democracy and Technology.

But other firms that don’t interact so directly with the public like the Senate bill. Among them? Defense contractor Lockheed Martin. It signed onto a letter sent to lawmakers last week, in support of the bill.

Ads shown before YouTube ISIS video

Mon, 2015-03-09 02:00

Procter & Gamble and Anheuser-Busch are in damage control mode after ads from those companies appeared before an ISIS video on YouTube.

YouTube has 300 hours of content uploaded to its site per minute. So the process that links ads to certain videos on the Google owned site is automated.  

“Google’s very good at figuring out what you’re interested in even if you don’t realize it,” says Andrew Stephen, who teaches marketing at the University of Pittsburgh. 

Except when it’s not, like in this instance. The algorithms YouTube uses are complicated, but basically they figure out who’s watching certain videos, and slap on ads for things these people might like. 

Ari Lightman, who teaches digital media and marketing at Carnegie Mellon University says a company like P&G spends a lot of money cultivating this wholesome family-friendly image.

“And then to have it next to ISIS is just very contrary to what they’re trying to go after,” he says. But when you’re dealing with huge amounts of data, he says, these things are bound to happen.

SXSW by the numbers

Mon, 2015-03-09 02:00

This week, Marketplace heads down South to SXSW, the Austin-based conference and festival that spans film, music, and technology. We'll kick off our coverage with SXSWedu, a four day event looking at where innovation meets education. Then, it's on to SXSW Interactive, where some of the greatest minds in tech converge to talk about trends in the industry and to preview some of their newest wares. But before we get started on our breakfast tacos, here's a look at the numbers behind SXSW.

SXSW by the numbers:

5 years old

This year, SXSWedu turns 5 years old. While just 800 people attended the first 'edu' conference and festival, last year's conference saw 5,933 participants from 35 different countries. Since 2012, attendance has tripled.

32,798

That's how many people attended the SXSW Interactive conference in 2014. Participants came from 82 different countries, and had 1,100 panels to choose from.

2,136,236

That's the total number of SXSW mentions on social media during the week of SXSW Interactive 2014 alone. Among the top trending topics were Edward Snowden, Lady Gaga, and the NSA.

60,450 room nights

2014 saw 13,990 individual hotel reservations in Austin by SXSW attendees. All told, that adds up to 60,450 room nights. And that doesn't even account for bookings on Airbnb, which the service claims reached 11,000 SXSW-related bookings.

$315.3 million

SXSW brings a lot of people, and therefore a lot of money, into Austin. By the festival's estimate, $315.3 million was pumped into the city's economy during last year's festival.

370

SXSW is more than just panels and expos ... it's also parties. Side parties, to be specific. And this year's festival has a lot of them: 370 side parties ranging from a pet adoption happy hour to a karaoke night for tech lovers.

Grease, griddles and gravy: 24 hours straight as a Waffle House grill operator

Fri, 2015-03-06 14:18

Feel like going “all the way” tonight? At diner-chain the Waffle House, that means you ordered something along the lines of poutine made in the South: Hash browns smothered in cheese, jalapeños and oh so much more.

This is just some of the lingo devised by Waffle House staff to keep the restaurant running like a well-oiled — err, greased — machine. Life at the griddle of the Waffle House is far from glamorous, but that didn't stop Bon Appétit restaurant and drinks editor — and Waffle House aficionado — Andrew Knowlton from trying his hand behind the counter of one in Atlanta, Georgia for 24 hours straight.

Brian Finke/ Bon Appetit

His piece, “What It’s Like to Work at the Waffle House for 24 Hours Straight” appears in Bon Appétit.

“It was a steep, steep learning curve,” says Knowlton. “The line cooks never see a ticket — it gets yelled out by the waiters. Then they take various condiments, whether it’s ketchup or grape jelly and where they put it on the plate … immediately identifies what the plate is that the grill operator needs to cook. I fumbled my way through that.”

The Waffle House is an American staple, with over 1,700 restaurants peppered across 25 states. A native Southerner, Knowlton is a bit of a Waffle House new convert; he was 17 years old when he first experienced the magic of the ‘House. Once he tried it, he was hooked. Fast-forward a few years and Knowlton found himself on the other side of the order window serving up nosh for hungry — and sometimes drunk — diners.

Brian Finke/ Bon Appetit

At the end of the long shift, Knowlton says he walked away with one lesson: “Being a gentleman and a professional costs you nothing… Smile, have a good time … most of the people coming through are good people … a few bad ones come in, but that’s kinda life anyway, and it’s how you roll with it."

In shale country, a boom in quiet

Fri, 2015-03-06 12:15

Carroll County, in eastern Ohio, was the original bird’s-eye for Utica shale gas development in the state.  Trucks with Texas license plates now jam the roads alongside Amish buggies. Farmers are fixing up their houses as money from mineral leases rolls in.

But for Frank Brothers, the price is too high.

“As you can see, that’s what’s coming right at our door,” Brothers says, nearly yelling to be heard above the continuous, grating hum emanating from a nearby gas compressor station.

It’s something you’d expect to hear inside a factory, not in a residential urban neighborhood – and less in a rural township like this one.

But even though their house sits on 21 forested acres, the Brothers family has been cooped up indoors with the windows closed since last March. That’s when the energy company Blue Racer Midstream started the huge engines of its compressor station across the street. They’ve run pretty much 24/7 since.

“They’re you’re hitting 87,” Brothers says, holding up a decibel meter at his front property line. It’s hard to have a conversation from just a few feet apart.

Compressors are needed about every 50 to 100 miles along pipelines to help move gas through them.

They’re always loud, but this situation is rare – energy companies do usually shield the neighbors. And that’s what’s pushing what you might call a "silent boom" accompanying the oil and gas bonanza – a boom in noise abatement. 

Companies say business took off with development of the Barnett Shale in the mid-to-late 2000s, as oil and gas companies were rushing to pull gold out of the ground under Fort Worth, Texas.

“Noise became a front-burner issue for them, because the sweet spot of the shale was literally underneath some of the more densely populated areas,” says Murray Stacy, vice president of Shreveport-based Sound Fighter Systems.

Stacy says energy companies improvised their own solutions at first, but soon realized they needed expert help. At the peak of Barnett development, 80 percent of Sound Fighters’ business came from the shale gas industry, he says. It’s still about 60 percent. 

The demand for noise control in the Utica and Marcellus shales drew Canadian company Noise Solutions to open a branch in western Pennsylvania.

“It was a growth of about 100 percent,” says Tyler Mose, the company’s business development engineer, as he stands on the busy production floor of the plant in Sharon. He shows off 15-inch-thick sound-absorbing walls, and explains that everything is custom-built to address specific sound frequencies.

Then he takes me outside to show me what his company can do.

He leads me across the snow to a little building, designed for loud equipment. One side is open, and another is walled off by a series of panels, a few inches thick and about a foot and a half deep.

From inside the building, it’s like you’re looking through open window blinds. The panels are made of perforated sheet metal and sound-absorbing insulation.

Mose crouches inside, looks out at me through the slats, and starts talking. Even though he’s only three or four feet away, I pick up only the faintest hints of his voice. Mostly, I watch his mouth move and hear nothing. It’s kind of amazing.

That kind of technology can reduce compressor noise from factory-floor level, like in Frank Brothers’ yard, to a low hum, about what you’d expect if you lived in an urban neighborhood.

In fact, when I stand about eight feet outside a noise-suppressing building housing a compressor station in Canton, Ohio, the sound is similar to the highway traffic I hear from my neighborhood in Cleveland.

Dominion East Ohio owns this station, and John Schniegenberg is the company’s principal engineer. He says the effect isn’t cheap.

“We’re probably talking in excess of a quarter million dollars,” for noise abatement at the $6 million facility, he says.

But that has bought much better relations with the neighbors.

Even with low oil prices, professional noise fighters are confident. Sound regulations are tightening. And gas producers profit on volume, so they’re always trying to move more gas, faster. That means stronger – and louder – compressors.

Noise Solutions’ CEO Scott MacDonald says his role is to referee.

“We help to ensure harmony between the industry and the community,” he says.

That doesn’t guarantee communities will embrace oil and gas development. But it might lower the volume on a little part of the debate.

Don't even think about sledding on Capitol Hill

Fri, 2015-03-06 10:07

Perhaps you've seen photos of kids sledding on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., since the federal government and schools were closed on Thursday.

But, did you know they were breaking the law?

"No person shall coast or slide a sled within Capitol Grounds." Also, kite-flying and tricycles are prohibited. http://t.co/PrvShwSyKA

— David Gura (@davidgura) March 5, 2015
It's true. From the Capitol Grounds Regulations, courtesy of the architect of the capitol's office: "No person shall coast or slide a sled within Capitol Grounds."

Bah ... humbug.

ISIS supporters have about 46,000 accounts on Twitter

Fri, 2015-03-06 09:33

According to a paper from the Brookings Institution, there are about 46,000 Twitter accounts out there being used by ISIS supporters.

And they're pretty active, too.

Those accounts had an average of a thousand followers each, which is way higher than your average non-ISIS-related Twitter user.

Fun fact Friday: A lot of business buzz

Fri, 2015-03-06 09:28

Kai talked to Nela Richardson of Redfin and John Carney of the Wall Street Journal today to discuss the week that was. But what else happened this week at Marketplace?

Fun Fact: Without bees, it would be tough to produce almonds.

On Monday, we visited a farm in California's Central Valley and uncovered the buzzy business behind growing almonds. The answer? Traveling bees. Commercial bees, the unsung heroes of the nut business Fun Fact: 75 percent of the $30 billion in military aid awarded to Israel by the Bush administration in 2007 will ultimately come back to the United States.

Political tensions were high when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressed congress on Tuesday. Not to worry, more than half of what the U.S. gives in military aid to Israel is returned to the U.S. in the form of armaments purchased from American defense contractors. Taking stock of U.S. aid to Israel Fun Fact:There will be around half a billion middle-class consumers in China five years from now. 

The private-equity industry is coming of age in China, and has been doing so for the past 20 years. Chinese investors are banking on the country's growing middle class and their sky-rocketing purchasing power. The buying power of the Chinese middle class Fun Fact: You can buy an antique brass clock from The New York Times store for $6,500.

The New York Times's retail shop had a recent makeover, further differentiating it from the online stores of other media outlets. Here's a comparison between its gift shop and NPR's wares. The New York Times picks up where SkyMall left off Fun Fact: The world's second largest economy announced a new growth target of 7 percent on Thursday.

Despite a growing middle class, China's progress is slowing a bit — though the U.S. and other established countries would be pleased to have China's growth rate. What a 7 percent growth rate could look like

The science – and the cost – behind weight loss

Fri, 2015-03-06 09:04

Obesity and related complications cost Americans roughly $150 billion per year in health care spending. And there’s still no silver bullet for treating obesity. Diet, exercise and surgery all work to a point, but these methods are plagued by relapses. It’s hard for most obese people to lose weight and keep it off.

But a new device approved by the FDA last year will attack obesity in a novel way. VBLOC therapy, which is delivered by the “Maestro system,” is essentially a pacemaker for the stomach. It is implanted under the skin, and ledes connect to the vagus nerve.

Mark Knudson, founder and president of Enteromedics, developed the technique. He said he realized that controlling hunger could be an integral part of obesity treatment.

“We tried to develop a way to treat a disease that affects millions of people in the U.S. without having to alter their anatomy or make them have to completely change everything that they eat,” he explained.

For some people, he said, combatting their obesity is a constant struggle – even at the grocery store.

“Can I go into a store and just buy the five items I want, or am I going to end up filling up my grocery cart and taking it all home?” he asked.

VBLOC sends signals to the stomach branch of the vagus nerve during waking hours. The electrical pulses interrupt the complex neurological process of hunger and, in essence, allow people who are obese to feel full. That makes it easier to decide not to eat.

Erica Roy-Nyline struggled with obesity for years. The 48-year-old health care worker from St. Paul, Minn., signed up for a trial of the treatment because diet and other weight loss methods hadn’t worked.

For the first year after she had the device implanted, she lost about five pounds.

“The one thing I said to myself is: ‘I will not go backwards. I will not gain weight on this thing,’” she said.

But after a year, researchers told her that she was in the placebo group – her device hadn’t actually been turned on. After it was turned on, she quickly dropped 30 pounds – half of her total weight loss goal.

“It’s just night and day,” Roy-Nyline said. “I couldn’t believe that sense of fullness and sense of satisfaction when I was done eating. I thought through… I don’t think I’ve ever really had that feeling.”

Her weight loss has been so dramatic that she’s thinking of going off her blood pressure medication. That’s because losing even a small amount of weight helps to improve obesity comorbidities, or related health complications.

If all this sounds like the silver bullet in the treatment of obesity, there’s a catch: the cost. The device’s cost isn’t officially set yet, but Enteromedics says it will be approximately $15,000 – and that does not include the costs of surgery and followup.

Melissa Martinson, president of the health economics consulting firm Technomics Research, says insurance companies might not rush to cover the treatment, even if it is highly effective.

“A lot of times insurance companies will claim they don’t consider cost when they make coverage decisions,” she said. “But most health economists and most people who work in the field don’t think that’s literally true.”

Aside from cost, insurers will consider safety and efficacy before approving something like VBLOC for people who are obese. Martinson says that defibrillating pacemakers, which are now common, faced similar hurdles when they were released.

And as for efficacy, that may be the toughest hurdle. William Dietz, director of the Redstone Center at George Washington University’s Milken Institute of Public Health, says obesity treatments have always struggled when it comes to maintaining weight loss. It’s still unknown if VBLOC’s effects will sustain over time or whether they will diminish.

“People are losing weight all the time, they just can’t sustain that weight loss,” Dietz said. “So we know the types of therapy available need to be long term.”

But the benefit of even a slight reduction in obesity has impacts on health. A five to 10 percent loss of excess weight can start to reverse high blood pressure, diabetes and other comorbidities.

Why Apple is replacing AT&T in the Dow

Fri, 2015-03-06 08:56

After the market closes on March 18, 2015, Apple will replace AT&T as one of the 30 blue-chip stocks that make up the Dow Jones Industrial Average. It will not make waves in the financial markets, because relatively little money is actually invested in funds pegged to this index. But it's nonetheless a sign of a sea change in the American economy. 

The composition of the Dow is decided by a committee of five, led by committee chair David Blitzer. He says the decision to change the index started not with Apple or AT&T but with Visa. The company split its stock, reducing its share price, and because the Dow is simply an average of companies' share prices, this unbalanced the portfolio. To rebalance it, since Visa is classified as a tech company, Blitzer says they had to ad another tech company.

"Apple is everybody's obvious choice," Blitzer says. "Nobody even thought about arguing against Apple." 

Adding Apple required removing another company, and Blitzer says he and his partners picked AT&T because they needed to reduce the index's share of telecommunications companies, and the index also includes Verizon.

But Jim Angel, associate professor of finance at the McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University, says it's also a sign of AT&T's declining significance, and the rise of the "iCompany."

Roger Kay, president of Endpoint Technologies Associates, adds that Apple, unlike Google or Facebook, has a long track record of making and selling tangible products.

Another oil train derails, as new rules approach

Fri, 2015-03-06 08:56

For the third time in three weeks, a train carrying crude oil derailed. This time, 21 cars derailed in western Illinois. No injuries or water pollution have been reported, but the incidents are turning up the pressure on federal regulators to craft new rules that accommodate both the petroleum boom and public safety.

Federal rules are due in May. A chief area of debate is tank cars. Industry prefers a revamped version of an existing model, known as CPC-1232. But that type of rail car, specifically one without a safety "jacket," leaked the last two incidents.

"The unjacketed 1232's seem increasingly likely to be part of the phase-out based on the recent events," says analyst Kevin Book of Clear View Energy Partners.

Book expects stricter rules in general, ones that go farther than industry would like. Yet the regulatory conversation does not go far enough for Sean Dixon of the New York nonprofit Riverkeeper. He cites oil train speed limits. The currently acceptable limit is 40 miles per hour.

"We've seen seen accident after accident happen below 40 miles an hour," Dixon says. "Below 20 miles per hour in many cases."

Also not on the regulatory table, critics say: track standards, bridge safety, and oil train accident insurance. Right now, a giant accident would not be fully covered by insurance, so the public would hold the financial bag.

 

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