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When the digital classroom meets the parents

Wed, 2014-09-24 13:52

The modern classroom is packed with digital technology that can record students’ academic performance in real time, as well as keep track of their attendance, assignments and more. All that data isn't just changing the classroom and the job of teachers. It's changing the role of parents, who are being asked to do more to keep up and keep tabs on their kids.

On a recent night at High Tech Los Angeles, a charter high school in Van Nuys, California, a group of parents got a lesson in just what that means. One of them was Nooneh Kradjain, who has two sons at the high school, and was busy scribbling notes. She said she was struck by how much things have changed since she was in school. “My parents just looked at the report card when it came home and said ‘good job, let’s go out to dinner.”

These days, being a school parent is more like a part-time job.

With so much access to information about their kids’ academic performance, parents are expected to be up on what’s happening. It’s on them now to know if their kids may be headed off track after flubbing a test or missing a homework assignment.

Mat McClenahan is a teacher at High Tech Los Angeles. He says the school needs parents as allies. “What we’re trying to do is develop learners who have the right habits to be successful in college and be successful in the workplace,” he says. “And that means to be on top of the workflow.”

McClenahan says he’s not trying to turn parents into surveillance machines, and they should resist the urge themselves. “The parents often feel like they have to be on top of everything that’s going on,” he says. “We have parents that check their child’s grades several times a day.”

Even if parents don’t go overboard, all the focus on grades and scores worries Alfie Kohn, who has written several books on parenting and education, including "The Myth of the Spoiled Child" says parents"are often asked to become the enforcer of the schools agenda.” “The more schools are encouraging parents to think about grades and tests and homework assignments, the more danger there is that meaningful learning will be eclipsed," he says.

And all that keeping up and keeping track can do a number on parents, too.

Kathy Gadany, who also attended the meeting for parents, has a freshman at High Tech Los Angeles.  “Oh, Lord,” she said. "Now, I have to keep an eye on my kids much more so over the internet instead of just nagging them for their homework.”

And, then, there are the objects of all this attention: the kids. Nooneh Kradjain, the mother whose parents used to take her out to dinner after a good report card, says her kids have asked her to trust them enough not to check their grades all the time.

She says she gets their point of view, but she also understands the lure of micro-managing a child’s education today.

“It’s a lot more competitive and there’s a lot more at stake,” she says and, trust or not, she’s not going to give up all of her digital oversight.

Kradjain is still going to log in to the school’s college-application program, to make sure her older son gets all his paperwork in on time.

Amazon Studios head on taking charge in a new TV age

Wed, 2014-09-24 13:34


Amazon will debut its new series “Transparent” on Friday, releasing all ten episodes to Amazon Prime subscribers at the same time.

It's a dramedy created Jill Soloway of "Six Feet Under" that follows an American family after they find out their father, played by Jeffrey Tambor, is a transgender woman. Critics are calling it Amazon's breakout hit and even the best new show of the fall. 

Roy Price runs Amazon Studios, the online retailer's original content arm, and he’s quick to say that “Transparent” and their other series make Amazon Prime more desirable to users.  

Price says it’s a good time to be in the television industry. That's where the quality is right now, he says, and great shows can engage viewers more than movies can.

“This is a really exciting space. A lot of people are investing and innovating,” he says. Here are three ways Price thinks TV will change in the next 25 years:

Everything inconvenient is going to be innovated away

Navigating all your options will get way easier, for example. Scrolling through hundreds of channels just doesn't make sense anymore.

“I’m literally scrolling through — 'Oh, there's channel 572,'" he says. "I think we can do better.”

It will work on your time

With the exception of sports and other live events, Price says tuning in at an appointed time or on a show in progress is antiquated.

“It should start when you start," he says. "You should be the boss ... not the schedule.”

You'll get logical suggestions for the next show to watch

Amazon is awash with data. Amazon Studios' "pilot season" is crowd-sourced, allowing viewers to pick which shows they want to see made. From television to books to toasters, Amazon is able to suggest new stuff users might like.

But there's one caveat: “One of the riskiest paths in entertainment is to be derivative and try to do the same thing," Price says. "That is the path to failure.”

ISIS and the future of the Tomahawk missile

Wed, 2014-09-24 13:22

At the United Nations, President Obama referred to the extremist group ISIS as a "network of death” on Wednesday. As part of the effort to dismantle it, the U.S. deployed a trusted weapon this week, launching more than 40 Tomahawk cruise missiles at targets in Syria.

That could be good news for a weapon on the budgetary chopping block. By best estimates, the U.S. has about 4,000 Tomahawk missiles in its inventory. Or they did, until this week.

Todd Harrison, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, says Tomahawks are launched from ships or submarines, and can fly 1,000 miles to their targets.

“It has wings that fold out and a jet engine that turns on and it powers it like an airplane,” he says.

Raytheon makes the Tomahawks, which cost the military more than $1 million each.

“We had been buying them at a rate of almost 200 per year,” says Harrison, adding that the Department of Defense proposed phasing out Tomahawk purchases in its most recent budget request. The idea is to find the next-generation replacement.

“In 2016 and beyond, they had zeroed out that budget line,” says Harrison, “indicating they don’t plan to buy any more Tomahawk cruise missiles.”

Mackenzie Eaglen, a defense and military analyst at the American Enterprise Institute, says some members of Congress had already wanted to extend the Tomahawk program, including lawmakers on key committees. She says this new campaign against ISIS could convince more lawmakers that’s necessary.

“The caveat for ending the program next year, by the Navy, was always that there would be no unanticipated events that would drain current stockpiles of Tomahawks before a new missile is ready,” she says.

Forty-plus missiles hardly drains the stockpile. But Gordon Adams, an International Relations professor at American University, agrees the product line could well be extended.

That’s good news for Raytheon.

“For any contractor that is making ammunition or building a piece of equipment that’s being used in the campaign against ISIS,” he says, “the campaign against ISIS is good news about the near term future of that program.”

Not to mention for the company behind it. 

More unmarried Americans, thanks to economic woes

Wed, 2014-09-24 13:12

The number of American's who've always been single and plan never to marry is at an all time high, according to the Pew Research Center.

On the theory that having a job is an important feature in a future spouse, here's the slice of the data that makes it a Marketplace thing: Fifty years ago there were 139 single young men with jobs for every 100 single young women.

Now, there are 91 single men with jobs for every 100 single women.

Wal-Mart: From 'low prices' to fast banking

Wed, 2014-09-24 13:11

Is there anything Wal-Mart doesn’t want to sell you? The country’s biggest retailer has announced it will offer low-cost checking accounts to anybody 18 and older.

Wal-Mart is partnering with Green Dot, best known for prepaid debit cards.  Wal-Mart says many of its customers are looking for an alternative to high fees at traditional banks.  

“GoBank” is a mobile checking account with no overdraft fees, no bounced check fees and no minimum balance requirement. Wal-Mart has tried to obtain a banking license but bank regulators have rejected the idea. 

Mike Moebs, CEO of the economic research firm Moebs Services, says by partnering with a bank like Green Dot, Wal-Mart can still get a slice of that business.  “Wal-Mart has already done this with check cashing and with money orders and with money transfers and they’ve done it very, very successfully,” says Moebs.

 Moebs expects Wal-Mart to get a cut of the so-called “swipe fee” every time a customer uses GoBank’s debit card. Wal-Mart declined to comment on its financial arrangement with Green Dot.

It does say it’ll be quick to sign up for an account. Daniel Eckert, Wal-Mart vice president of financial services, says customers can literally sign up with a smartphone app “in the parking lot.”  Apparently that “always low prices” thing is now also “always fast banking.” 

Here's how we'll cut down on greenhouse gases

Wed, 2014-09-24 09:11

This is Climate Week in New York City. About 300,000 people marched to call attention to global warming on Sunday. On Tuesday, at the United Nations, President Obama and more than 100 heads of state gathered to push for a low-carbon future, to combat global warming. The balance of the week is conferences and public events up and down Manhattan.

But let's be honest: Raise your hand if you have climate fatigue. Again with the parts per billion, the Arctic shelf, the guilt.

Business types in New York are trying to change the way we talk about climate change. So we will, too. Make it less about selflessness and altruism. More about investments, markets and, dare we say, greed.
 
So you may have asked yourself: What can I do on climate change? Bike to work? Eat locally grown food?
 
"When people ask me that question, and they do, my response is always the same," says Robert Stavins, an environmental economist at Harvard. Be prepared: his answer stings.
 
"What you will be able to accomplish or contribute through your solo actions," he says, "is so small it is lost in the noise."
 
The problem is too big. Stavins says you need scale, preferably for the lowest possible cost, to reduce the amount of carbon going into the atmosphere. Environmental bang for the buck.
 
One big bang is coal power: That's 44 percent of world emissions right there. Cleaner alternatives are solar, wind and natural gas.
 
"One of the most important opportunities for reducing CO2 emissions is to make sure that gas is replacing coal in electricity generation," says Helge Lund, president and CEO of Statoil, the Norwegian energy giant.
 
But in order to speed it up, Lund says, "You have a significantly higher CO2 price."

That's the "buck" part. Here's the idea: Fossil fuels pollute. So policymakers can take that environmental cost and add it to the price of fossil energy. That is, raise the price. That makes low-carbon technology more competitive.
 
Which ones would deploy? Natural gas? LED lights? Solar? Coal plants that bury emissions underground? Stavins says governments don't have to pick. Investors and customers will.
 
"That's the virtue of a carbon pricing mechanism," he says. "It will automatically draw to the fore those technologies, those practices which are lowest cost."
 
For instance, if solar is the cheapest, best option for household power, consumers will pick that. Solar-panel seller IKEA thinks they will. Here's President and CEO Peter Agnefjall.
 
"I think we'll halve the installed cost over the next 10 years of solar," he says. "So it's great sense to do it today. It will be unthinkable not to do it in 10 years' time."
 
Could he be wrong? Perhaps more money will pick wind energy. In certain places, it's cheaper, says Michael Liebreich of Bloomberg New Energy Finance.
 
"So if you look at the Great Plains in the U.S., you look at Brazil," Liebreich says. "You look at Australia, you look at India, you look at China. If you want really cheap electrical power, you build a wind farm now."

Now, on the other hand, he says, "You've got some very expensive technologies people would like to believe are part of the solution. Offshore wind is being done, but it's expensive. But then you can go up to wave power and then, always, on transportation, fuel cells."
 
Of course, down the road fuel cells may get cheaper. But the point is, customers and investors have no interest in overpaying. With a carbon price, the low-cost, low-CO2 products win. An efficient, shall we say cheapskate, road to a low-carbon future.

Tech pumps cash into DC, for what?

Wed, 2014-09-24 08:08

For years, tech companies ignored Washington. But Washington wasn’t about to ignore them. 

A few years ago Congress debated some big bills on internet policy, and Silicon Valley wasn’t at the table.

So tech companies opened D.C. headquarters, and started lobbying. 

Two years ago web giants like Google, Amazon and Facebook joined forces to create a new trade group, The Internet Association.

Michael Beckerman is the association’s president and CEO. 

He showed me around their sleek, new Washington office and explained why he’s here.

“That’s my job," he says. "To help build relationships and bridge the gap between our industry and Congress.”

That gap makes it hard for tech to gain traction in Washington. 

Part of the problem? It takes time to build relationships on Capitol Hill, and tech is new to the K Street lobby game. 

Also, the tech industry wants quick movement on huge issues, like immigration and patent reform.

Back in Silicon Valley, they can’t understand what’s taking so long.

“In the Internet world and Silicon Valley, people see a problem and they find a way to solve it but that’s not always how Washington works,” Beckerman says.

No, it’s not. So Beckerman and his chief lobbyist, Gina Woodworth make regular trips to Capitol Hill. 

The day I meet up with them, they’re off to Congressman Paul Ryan’s (R-WI) office.

Of course, we take an Uber SUV to Capitol Hill.

They're going to Ryan's office to talk about trade legislation.    

“The last time they drafted a trade bill was in 2002," says Gina Woodworth. "In 2002 a lot of our companies weren’t even created and we weren’t really an active stakeholder at that time. But now we are.”

And they have the cash to prove it.

“Spending by the tech sector has more than tripled since 1998,” says Sheila Krumholz,  executive director at the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks lobbyists' spending in Washington.

Krumholz says the tech lobby budget went from $40 million in the late 90s, to more than $140 million last year. 

And she says Silicon Valley is on track to spend at least that much this year.  

Today, tech is the fourth biggest spender on lobbying in Washington.

“What they get for all this lobbying is not clear,” says Anthony Corrado, a professor of  government at Colby College. “Even on a very narrow issue like immigration reform and a modification of visa policy to allow more engineers in, for example, they can’t get any action.”

What’s worse, Corrado says, sometimes tech companies lobby on different sides of an issue, like net neutrality. 

Which pits the companies that built the pipes of the internet against the users of those pipes.

Corrado says there’s a clear winner here. And it’s not the tech lobby.

“Members of Congress are more than happy to have tech industry lobbying on both sides of an issue because it makes it much easier for them to solicit campaign contributions,” he says.

Corrado calls it a fundraising bonanza. Welcome to Washington, Silicon Valley.

PODCAST: Paula Deen goes digital

Wed, 2014-09-24 03:00

First up, it may only be September, but we're getting our first holiday retail forecasts. These offer a glimpse into what analysts think we'll be spending this holiday season, and perhaps more importantly, reflect how we're feeling about the state of the economy. Plus, we've reporting this week on the Obama Administration's new crackdown on inversions. But what about what you might consider an "inversion" at the state level: moving headquarters across state lines to get a tax break. In those cases, it's often the government that's doing the bidding. And Southern cook Paula Deen is trying to make a comeback, launching a new online network of cooking shows today. Deen was one of the biggest names in food television until offensive remarks she made off screen became public last year. Her show was then canceled and she was dropped by sponsors. We take a look at her attempts to rebuild her brand.

#Scandal heads to #Twitter

Wed, 2014-09-24 02:00

Even if you don't watch the wildly popular television drama Scandal, you'd probably know of its popularity if you spent some time poking around Twitter. Aside from a huge television audience, the show is a favorite of the blue bird. With the season premiere coming Thursday of this week, we talked with Darby Stanchfield, better known as Abby Whelan on Scandal. And for the record, she has her very own hashtag: #SassyAbby.

Tell me about the community of Scandal fans on Twitter.

They’ve named themselves Gladiators. They’re super passionate. They’re smart. They’re funny. There’s not a thing that doesn’t get by them.

What’s an example of something that fans have caught that surprised you?

I used to have this signature coffee mug that I would use in my scenes, and one time I grabbed one of the company mugs that was in the kitchen area, and I think someone was like, “Wait a minute, where’s Abby’s mug that matches her hair?” Granted, every single series regular, and usually the creator, we’re all live-tweeting, whether we’re on set or we’re not working or at home.

Part of the contract.

You know it’s not, actually. We’re not paid to do it. Actually, Kerry Washington–it was her idea–and she talked to [series creator Shonda Rhimes] about it, and Shonda sent out this email that said we all needed to sign up on Twitter. We all did it, because our boss was asking us to, but it ended up being the most effective, grass-roots way to help the audience discover this crazy political drama called Scandal.

You have your own hashtag, #SASSYABBY.

One of the ways that I differentiate myself from the other cast-mates is I basically go into character during the live tweeting. And the way you know is I put my caps lock on and I just make snarky comments from Abby’s point of view.

How has the way that you think about being an actor changed because of Twitter? And how is your understanding of your own character shaped by the technology around you, even when you’re not on the set?

Twitter almost has the effect of a live theater event. You have an immediate interaction with the audience. You know when something lands and when it’s funny. When I’m on Twitter, there’s a visceral reaction immediately with the flood of tweets that come in about any given moment in my performance. And it’s as close as you can get to live theater with a television show. But in terms of my creative process or how I think about my character, I would say that’s still very traditional. I have my point of view, and I always find a way to love my character and tell that story.

Paula Deen buys back rights to her Food Network show

Wed, 2014-09-24 02:00

Southern cook Paula Deen is attempting a comeback by launching a new online cooking network on Wednesday.

Deen was one of the biggest names in food television until racist remarks she made off screen became public last year. As a result, the Food Network cut ties with her and she was dropped by sponsors. 

But before her racist remarks, Paula Deen was best known for her artery-clogging recipes, like the Lady’s Brunch Burger: a burger paddy stacked with a fried egg and bacon, sandwiched between two glazed donuts for buns. She gleefully described it as “over the top – even for me!”

Viewers eager for access to Deen’s old shows with said gems, plus some new content, can sign up to pay $8 to $10 a month for access to her new online network, launched by her Paula Deen Ventures with the backing of private investment firm Najafi Companies.

“About 15 percent of Americans do look up recipes online,” says Jerry Power, with the USC Marshall School of Business, adding the cook book market is also sizable. “So it’s a fairly stable and good sized market that she’s going after.”

But getting people to subscribe—controversy aside—could be a tough sell, since there’s already so many free sources of cooking shows and recipes, says Max Dawson, director of national television and video for Frank N. Magid Associates.

“Paula Deen’s audience, the sort of people who really love her, they’re not early adopters,” explains Dawson. “They’re not experimenting with new content distribution paradigms.”

Those who do could pay a similar amount for service like Netflix and getting lots more variety.

Paula Deen is far from the first celeb to start her own website. Here's a few other examples:

Preserve

Created—or "edited"—by Blake Lively, Preserve is like Etsy run through an Instagram filter and marketed to a much higher income tax bracket. It's structured like a lifestyle magazine and proceeds go to Lively's charity.

Funny or Die

Will Ferrell and Adam McKay's video site has expanded into a media empire. Its big hits like "Billy on the Street" and "Drunk History" have been adapted for TV, and "Between Two Ferns" won an Emmy after an appearance from President Barack Obama.

Goop

Gwenyth Paltrow's lifestyle site also boasts recipes, a store and a blog, which made the news in March when Paltrow and Coldplay frontman Chris Martin used the site to announce their "Conscious Uncoupling" (some call that a divorce).

Sarah Palin Channel

Another subscription service, the Sarah Palin Channel charges $9.95 a month or $99.95 for the year, but you view a national debt ticker and a countdown of Obama's days left in office for free.

Hello Giggles

Zooey Deschanel's site offers entertainment and lifestyle writing aimed at women, but everyone can enjoy their various live feeds of kittens, puppies, cicadas, owls and more.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misspelled Paula Deen's name in the headline. The text has been corrected.

Smart and Final goes public

Wed, 2014-09-24 02:00

The west coast grocery chain Smart and Final aims to raise $100 million in an IPO today. The company plans to expand a line of stores that combine elements of warehouse-club outlets and traditional grocery stores; something like Costco without appliances or membership fees. The company wants to grab a piece of a business that's changing dramatically, and getting more competitive.

Once upon a time, we bought groceries in supermarkets. Then came Walmart, which is now the nation’s biggest grocer. And then came everybody else; Whole Foods and Trader Joe's, for example.

"If you look at the past ten years, conventional supermarkets have lost almost 15 percent market share to all these other channels," says Phil Lempert, editor of Supermarket Guru. "Whether it’s drug chains—and if you take a look at CVS and Walgreens, they're building stores that are 50 percent food—we’ve got dollar stores, we’ve got warehouse clubs, we’ve got almost everybody who wants to sell food. Even folks like Bed Bath and Beyond."

Now, Amazon and Uber want to deliver your bananas and milk. So, what makes Smart & Final think consumers need yet another place to buy groceries?

"That’s a really hard circle to square," says William McKitterick, a retail analyst with Ibis World. "It seems like all the signs are pointing toward this being a terrible industry to enter."

Even so, everyone wants in. And McKitterick won’t rule out the idea that there’s room for Smart & Final in a highly-fragmented sector.

Paula Dean buys back rights to her Food Network show

Wed, 2014-09-24 02:00

Southern cook Paula Deen is attempting a comeback by launching a new online cooking network on Wednesday.

Deen was one of the biggest names in food television until racist remarks she made off screen became public last year. As a result, the Food Network cut ties with her and she was dropped by sponsors. 

But before her racist remarks, Paula Deen was best known for her artery-clogging recipes, like the Lady’s Brunch Burger: a burger paddy stacked with a fried egg and bacon, sandwiched between two glazed donuts for buns. She gleefully described it as “over the top – even for me!”

Viewers eager for access to Deen’s old shows with said gems, plus some new content, can sign up to pay $8 to $10 a month for access to her new online network, launched by her Paula Deen Ventures with the backing of private investment firm Najafi Companies.

“About 15 percent of Americans do look up recipes online,” says Jerry Power, with the USC Marshall School of Business, adding the cook book market is also sizable. “So it’s a fairly stable and good sized market that she’s going after.”

But getting people to subscribe—controversy aside—could be a tough sell, since there’s already so many free sources of cooking shows and recipes, says Max Dawson, director of national television and video for Frank N. Magid Associates.

“Paula Deen’s audience, the sort of people who really love her, they’re not early adopters,” explains Dawson. “They’re not experimenting with new content distribution paradigms.”

Those who do could pay a similar amount for service like Netflix and getting lots more variety.

Paula Deen is far from the first celeb to start her own website. Here's a few other examples:

Preserve

Created—or "edited"—by Blake Lively, Preserve is like Etsy run through an Instagram filter and marketed to a much higher income tax bracket. It's structured like a lifestyle magazine and proceeds go to Lively's charity.

Funny or Die

Will Ferrell and Adam McKay's video site has expanded into a media empire. Its big hits like "Billy on the Street" and "Drunk History" have been adapted for TV, and "Between Two Ferns" won an Emmy after an appearance from President Barack Obama.

Goop

Gwenyth Paltrow's lifestyle site also boasts recipes, a store and a blog, which made the news in March when Paltrow and Coldplay frontman Chris Martin used the site to announce their "Conscious Uncoupling" (some call that a divorce).

Sarah Palin Channel

Another subscription service, the Sarah Palin Channel charges $9.95 a month or $99.95 for the year, but you view a national debt ticker and a countdown of Obama's days left in office for free.

Hello Giggles

Zooey Deschanel's site offers entertainment and lifestyle writing aimed at women, but everyone can enjoy their various live feeds of kittens, puppies, cicadas, owls and more.

The interstate tax break battle

Wed, 2014-09-24 01:30

Since 1962, Forbes Magazine has been headquartered on 5th Avenue in New York City, behind a limestone facade with Ionic columns. But by the end of the year, it's moving a twenty-minute train ride away to a glass tower in Jersey City.  

For decades, companies in New York City have moved offices across the Hudson River, to the city that has been dubbed New York's "sixth borough."

"You can look not too far away and see Manhattan, you’re on the water, and the rent’s a lot lower," says Gordon MacInnes, president of local policy watchdog New Jersey Policy Perspective. 

For many of those companies, there has been another, bonus factor: Tax breaks. Forbes has been approved for $27 million in tax credits by New Jersey's Economic Development Authority. It's a small example of a growing practice in the state, which has pledged tax incentives of $1.6 billion in the last ten months—more than in the first ten years of the millennium. 

"It’s the only thing that New Jersey’s doing to crawl out of the great recession," says MacInnes. "And so if this is the only thing you have, do a lot of it."

New Jersey's incentive programs have meant a spate of calls from New York City businesses to Lee Winter, director of incentives at Grant Thornton LLP. "There’s a certain back and forth, but right now I’d say New Jersey is winning that battle," says Winter.

But how does bringing a company from New York City to Jersey City affect the regional economy? 

"No one thinks in terms of the region, they just think of their state," says Winter. "So, you know, if a company moves from New York to New Jersey, those really are new jobs—to New Jersey."

While this interstate arms race isn't new, the recession made it more fierce according to Greg LeRoy of Good Jobs First, a long-time monitor and critic of tax incentives. 

"States and cities are spending more than $70 billion a year for economic development, and that number’s been steadily up in recent years," says LeRoy. "There’s less money available to build infrastructure, to retrain workers, to keep classroom sizes small. Those are things that benefit all employers. And instead we’re putting lots of eggs in a few corporate baskets."

Seth Pinsky, former president of the New York City Economic Development Corporation, defends the use of tax incentives for specific projects, such as grocery delivery company FreshDirect, which was granted  more than $100 million by his agency. But he also says they were "not the optimal form of government investment," and emphasized instead the important of long-term investment in workforce training, infrastructure and basic research.

"Tax incentives are easy to explain to people," he says. "They’re easy to explain to businesses. They're appealing to politicians. Long term investments are harder. Unless and until the American public itself starts thinking long term again, it’s going to be hard to turn economic development officials back towards thinking long term as well."

General Motors adds insult to injury for Detroit

Tue, 2014-09-23 13:54

General Motors is trying to re-establish the luxury bona fides of the Cadillac brand, by moving Cadillac's global headquarters to New York next year.

High end consumers in a global city – it makes sense. Still, one wonders what Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac – the guy who founded the City of Detroit – would think if he were still around.

NIH gives $10.1 million for gender-balanced research

Tue, 2014-09-23 13:53

The National Institutes of Health want to end a long-standing bias in biomedical research, towards men. It turns out when researchers do what are called pre-clinical studies, most of the time they’re using male animals and male cells. Today the NIH announced that it has awarded an extra $10 million to help bring more balance into the lab.

Researchers have long preferred male animals and cells, partly because they thought the female menstrual cycle introduced too much variability. That’s not true, says Janine Austin Clayton, director of the Office of Research on Women’s Health at the NIH. This additional funding encourages researchers to study both sexes, she says.

“We’re really looking to transform how science is done, and in order for us to do that, we have to help scientists understand the methods and the benefits of studying both sexes,” Clayton says.

By not studying both sexes, Clayton says we may be missing out on discoveries that could help both men and women. One grant will help look at why women have higher rates of Alzheimer’s disease, for example. Other studies will look at sex differences in stroke, lung disease and alcohol abuse.

But is $10 million enough to change science?

“It will hopefully spill over,” says Kathryn Sandberg, director the Center for the Study of Sex Differences in Health, Aging and Disease at Georgetown University. Researchers will present their work at meetings, and others may become interested, she says.

“I think it’s a good first step,” Sandberg says.

The money won’t just bring more female subjects into the mix. Sarah D’Orazio, an associate professor at the University of Kentucky, has a grant from the NIH to study the immune response in mice to the bacterium Listeria monocytogenes. The extra $100,000 in supplemental funding will help her buy male mice. Each one costs $24, she says, plus shipping and lodging.

“They’re very well cared for here at the University of Kentucky. So I have, basically, a hotel bill that I have to pay for the mice while they’re here during our experiment,” she says.

D’Orazio says she had done small studies with both males and females in the past.

“We had an observation all along that female mice were much more susceptible to the infection, and we just didn’t really have the funding to follow up on that observation,” D’Orazio says.

If she can prove there is a difference, D’Orazio says she could get more funding to study why and develop treatments to help women.

Making the inversion game harder to play

Tue, 2014-09-23 13:52

The Treasury Department has announced that it's going to change tax rules to curb corporate inversions - deals that let U.S. companies move their headquarters overseas, and avoid U.S. taxes. 

The new rules would keep companies from playing one of their favorite inversion games:  hopscotch.

Here's how you play: say you’re a U.S. company with a foreign subsidiary. The subsidiary earned loads of money. But you don’t want to bring it back to the U.S., where you’d have to pay taxes on it.  So the subsidiary loans the money to a foreign parent you create through an inversion.

“They hopscotch over their U.S. parent," says Lee Sheppard, contributing editor to the journal Tax Notes. "That’s why it’s called hopscotch."

Sheppard says the new Treasury rules would make hopscotching illegal. And you can’t play skinny down anymore, either.  That’s a way to shrink a U.S. company’s share in a foreign firm created through an inversion. 

“I think these rules will be effective at stopping some of the abuses of the past," says Steven Rosenthal, a senior fellow at the Urban/Brookings Tax Policy Center. “The question, though, is,  how effective they will be at stopping potentially new abuses.”

Especially since Treasury hasn’t banned all of the inversion games. Take earnings stripping. That’s where a U.S. company takes out a big loan from the foreign parent it creates in an inversion, and gets to write off the debt payments.  

Still, Treasury is making inversions more complicated.

“A lot of transactions that might have been relatively easy are now going to have to be analyzed much more carefully,” says Ryan Dudley, a partner at the accounting firm,  Friedman LLP.

In fact, some of the big inversions announced lately may not go through now, because Treasury says the new rules are effective immediately.  So if you’ve announced a big inversion deal, but haven’t completed it, you may have to find a new game to play. 

Student loan default rates don't tell the whole story

Tue, 2014-09-23 13:30

This week, the U.S. Department of Education will release data on the percentage of borrowers who have defaulted on federal student loans over the last three years. Schools with high rates of default face consequences.

There are new standards. According to Nick Hillman, an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Education, a college doesn’t want its default rate to hit 40 percent a year, or 30 percent over three years:  “They eventually could lose access to not just their student loans, but also Pell Grants and other types of federal aid, which can rack up to millions of dollars, depending on the institution.”

If a school is worried about its default rate, Hillman says, that institution will try hard to lower it. “There’s a lot of gaming that can happen, and just really weak incentives and penalties involved with current policies,” he says. Schools can push students to ask for forbearance, or defer payments.

According to Thomas Weko, a managing researcher in the American Institutes for Research’s education program, “Not that many institutions fail to meet this test.” After the government released the last data set on default rates, it penalized eight schools out of some 6,000.  Weko says a school that is worried about its default rate can hire consultants for tracking borrowers who are at risk of default, “doing sort of briefings and trainings with students.” A college that can’t lower its default rate, Weko adds, definitely has problems navigating the federal financial aid system.

“It’s like knowing where the speed camera is, and still getting it wrong,” he jokes.

According to Jacob Gross, a professor in the University of Louisville’s College of Education and Human Development, this highlights a bigger issue. “I think a real important part of this debate is whose fault is default,” he says.

Is default the student’s burden? Or the institution’s? And the federal government doesn’t always consider a would-be borrowers’ credit risk the way private lenders can.

'Black-ish' is a sitcom unafraid of big questions

Tue, 2014-09-23 12:43

“black-ish” is being hailed for bringing new ideas to the family sitcom landscape, but it's all very familiar for creator Kenya Barris.

“My wife is a doctor, we have five kids. We kind of came from humble beginnings and pulled ourselves up," Barris says. "[Then we] looked around at who our kids were, looked around at our friends’ kids, and kept having that same conversation over and over: We didn't really recognize the life that they were living compared to the life we were living."

That closely resembles the premise of "black-ish," which stars Anthony Anderson as a successful marketing executive who's worried his family — his four children, his wife (a doctor) and his father — have lost sight of their roots.

"Black-ish" also stars Tracee Ellis Ross and Laurence Fishburne. Larry Wilmore helped craft the first season before leaving for his own Comedy Central show.

Wilmore says he was on board as soon as he read the first page of the script. "black-ish" tackled race as a social issue, putting it at the center of the plot, not the sidebar.

"There was content on this show that I felt hadn't been on television in a long time," Wilmore says. "And the fact that he was so honest about race: It wasn’t a family that happened to be black.”

The show, which debuts Wednesday on ABC, has already drawn praise for the way it handles nuances of race, class and identity. TV critic Alan Sepinwall wrote that "black-ish" has a smart, defined point-of-view while still achieving the sitcom ideal of "mak[ing] the universal specific and the specific universal." NPR called it one of the fall's best new shows and the A.V. Club wrote that "Black-ish" refreshingly brings more perspectives and ideas to prime time, instead of just "'diversity' for diversity's sake."

For more on "black-ish," listen to Kai's conversation with Barris and Wilmore in the audio player above.

Tungsten: just try and smash it

Tue, 2014-09-23 11:43

The BBC’s Justin Rowlatt has a series exploring the economy through the elements – yes, those elements.

So tungsten is not the most famous element on the table. But you do know it well.

"Tungsten has two incredibly useful properties," says Rowlatt.  "It's very dense and very strong."

Since tungsten is unlikely to break or smash, you probably use it to cut through hard things.

"The only substance harder than tungsten are diamonds," says Rowlatt.

Listen to the full conversation in the audio player above.

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