Marketplace - American Public Media

Let's Roomba!

Fri, 2015-07-24 09:45

Robots are coming! Do they save you money? Or time? Are they intelligent? Where are they filling in the gaps, and when are they not good enough?

What would you never trust a robot to do?

We want to hear your stories. Send us an email or reach us on Twitter, @MarketplaceWKND

How do robots collide with your life?

Fri, 2015-07-24 09:45

Robots are coming! Do they save you money? Or time? Are they intelligent? Where are they filling in the gaps, and when are they not good enough?

What would you never trust a robot to do?

We want to hear your stories. Send us an email, or reach us on Twitter, @MarketplaceWKND

The economics of a Los Angeles homeless shelter

Fri, 2015-07-24 09:23

In the basic pyramid of human needs, shelter is right at the bottom. It is a building block of who we are and how we protect ourselves, our families and our societies.

In the past two years, homelessness in and around Los Angeles has gone up by 12 percent, driven largely by unemployment, high rents and low wages. The city council recently passed controversial ordinances to crack down on street encampments. 

Marketplace Weekend visited the Downtown Women's shelter this week in L.A.'s Skid Row, where a lot of homeless people gather. The center offers help with housing and daytime drop-in programs. Lizzie O'Leary spoke with Amy Turk, the chief programs officer there, to find out what it's like to run a shelter.

Russian native finds asylum in Los Angeles

Fri, 2015-07-24 08:25

Daniyar Aynitdinov came to the U.S. from Russia on a work and travel program six years ago. At the time, he was studying to be a petroleum engineer at Gubkin Russian State University of Oil and Gas. Aynitdinov is gay, and in the past few years Russia has instituted laws curtailing rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. He was granted asylum this year.

He's settled now in a rented room in the Silver Lake neighborhood of Los Angeles. He spoke to Marketplace Weekend from his room, where he reads from a diary he kept before he came to the U.S. He writes that he had high hopes of becoming an actor in Los Angeles. Now, years later, he's performing in Hollywood.

Click the media player above to hear Daniyar's full story.

Housing is up and down, but mostly up

Fri, 2015-07-24 07:00

With summer, the housing market has been warming up. According to the National Association of Realtors, existing home sales were up 3.2 percent in June, on top of strong sales in April and May, to a level not seen since early 2007. June’s new home sales figures were disappointing, with sales down 6.8 percent month-to-month.

Overall, though, it’s been a good first half of 2015 for housing, according to research firm RealtyTrac’s mid-year market report. In fact, the housing market has hit multiple benchmarks not seen since the housing crisis in the late 2000s, including: most homes and condos sold; most price appreciation; and fewest foreclosures and distressed properties sold.

RealtyTrac Vice President Daren Blomquist says investors (often paying cash for distressed properties) are exiting the market, making more room for regular folks trying to buy a home to live in.

“More buyers using low down-payment loans are coming back, and that includes the traditional first-time buyers who've never bought a home, and it also includes the boomerang buyers,” Blomquist says. “They're people who lost their home during the last housing crisis. They're coming back to the market, and typically they're going to use a low down-payment loan as well, because they're not moving up, they don't have equity to bring to the table.”

Blomquist says these buyers are taking advantage of favorable loan products now available from the Federal Housing Administration, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. But he says the rise in buyers without a lot of cash or equity to plow into a home purchase shouldn’t pose a danger to the economy, since mortgage underwriting standards, as well as employment and income verification have been tightened substantially since the housing crash.

Blomquist says home builders may see promise in the improving sale and price trends, and in coming months he predicts they’ll be breaking ground on more single-family homes and condos. Thus far in the recovery, the hottest market for builders has been multi-unit rental properties.

But Blomquist says the market recovery, though broad-based, is still tentative. “I think this market is still very interest-rate sensitive and fragile,” Blomquist says, “and if we see interest rates go up, the kind of boom we were seeing in the first half of the year could quickly disintegrate,” as homes become less affordable with higher interest payments. 

Mortgage rates are low right now, averaging just over 4 percent for a fixed-rate, 30-year home loan. But borrowing costs could start rising as the Federal Reserve tightens interest-rate policy.

PODCAST: Housing sales for June

Fri, 2015-07-24 03:00

The June report for new home sales is out today - we'll talk about what to expect. Plus, we'll talk about what to make of recent movement in the Chinese stock market. And President Obama arrives in Kenya on Friday for a three-day visit. It's his first trip to the country where his father was born since he was elected. The visit is bringing a mini-economic boost for some Kenyans.

Affordable housing for teachers in short supply

Fri, 2015-07-24 02:00

Jennifer Marlar teaches seventh grade language arts at Jackson Hole Middle School in Jackson, Wyoming, but she doesn’t live anywhere near the tourist town’s shopping district or ski area.

“It just makes the most sense, financially,” Marlar says.

Instead, she commutes one hour — over a sometimes-treacherous mountain pass — from her home in Driggs, Idaho.

“It’s brutal,” says Marlar. “And that hour feels like eternity.”

Marlar makes $70,000 a year. That’s well above the national average teacher salary of $56,000, but it’s not enough to buy a home in Jackson, a swanky resort town south of Yellowstone National Park. The median home price there is nearly $1 million. So, when Marlar’s daughter Aniston starts preschool in Idaho, she’ll likely leave her job in Jackson.

“I’ll probably have to resign there and try to get work on this side so that I can be a part of my community that I live in,” Marlar says.

Renting or buying a place to live is becoming less affordable across much of the country. That’s hit low-income Americans hardest, but increasingly, it also means middle-income earners that hold key jobs — like teachers — can’t afford to live where they work. It’s a problem facing all high-cost communities: big cities, wealthy suburbs, and tiny resort towns like Jackson.

Teacher Jess Tuchscherer works in Jackson and lives here in a converted barn. The tour of his place only takes a few seconds.

“Well, this is the living room, kitchen, bathroom and bedroom — and that’s really it,” says Tuchscherer. “It’s not very big.”

Tuchscherer rents the barn for about $1,000 a month. He loves his job and the winter recreation opportunities here, but knows this isn’t a long-term gig.

“I can’t buy a home here, so therefore I can’t really stay here,” Tuchscherer says. “It’s great, but I can’t raise a family in this house.”

This is a huge problem here. That’s why Jackson just put up its first-ever affordable housing units for teachers.

“If we fail to house the people that work here, then we will not have a quality workforce, we will not have a quality system of education, and we will suffer in all respects,” says Anne Cresswell, of the Jackson Hole Community Housing Trust, which partnered with the school district to build the homes.

The three-bedroom homes were sold to local educators for $403,000 each, but were appraised at closer to $650,000. Cresswell’s group has developed similar housing for hospital workers and national park employees.

“Affordable housing is as basic to the essential infrastructure in Jackson Hole, Wyoming as any other road, water or sewer project is,” Cresswell says.

It’s a solution communities from Baltimore to Los Angeles are trying out. A National Housing Conference report shows teachers can’t afford median-priced homes in one-third of the 200 metro areas it surveyed.

“That can really put communities at a disadvantage for attracting high quality teachers, nurses or police officers who are unwilling to remain committed to extremely long commutes,” says Janet Viveiros, senior research associate at the National Housing Conference.

And, in many communities, the problem is only getting worse.

“There’s not enough affordable housing as there is and many communities are losing the affordable housing that already exists,” Viveiros says.

Bringing teaching talent to high-cost communities is hard, and will get even harder in the future. The National Education Association says half of the country’s teachers will likely retire in the next five to seven years.

Kenyans hope to cash in on Obama visit

Fri, 2015-07-24 02:00

During his first trip to the country as president, Barack Obama is expected to discuss ways to fight regional terrorism with Kenya’s leaders and speak at the “Global Entrepreneurship Summit” in the capital, Nairobi.

Kenyan businesses are prepping for his visit, and that of the thousands of diplomats and conference-goers expected to descend on Nairobi for the summit.
 
“I’ve been having so many many clients coming in,” says David Meeriah of Nairobi’s Capital Limo Services. He says his fleet of luxury cars is fully booked, and  he’ll make enough in the next few days to pay salaries for the next three months.  

Kenyan tour operators like Hamadi Durogi of Wildcat Adventure Safaris are banking on those who won’t go home right away.

"We’ve seen like a 40 percent increase in business and also in inquiries," he says. His company, like many others, offers an "Obama Safari" with a stop in the hometown of the President’s father.

Smaller vendors are flooding the capital with Obama-themed t-shirts, hats, and posters. They’re hoping the his visit will bring back tourists frightened away by recent terrorist attacks.

“Since the President of the United States is going to be here," says Durogi, "it’s going to be proof enough that Kenya is very very safe.”

He, and others in Kenya's tourism industry, are hoping the economic boost will last long after the President’s departure.

Kenyans hope to cash in on Obama visit

Fri, 2015-07-24 02:00

During his first trip to the country as president, Barack Obama is expected to discuss ways to fight regional terrorism with Kenya’s leaders and speak at the “Global Entrepreneurship Summit” in the capital, Nairobi.

Kenyan businesses are prepping for his visit, and that of the thousands of diplomats and conference-goers expected to descend on Nairobi for the summit.
 
“I’ve been having so many many clients coming in,” says David Meeriah of Nairobi’s Capital Limo Services. He says his fleet of luxury cars is fully booked, and  he’ll make enough in the next few days to pay salaries for the next three months.  

Kenyan tour operators like Hamadi Durogi of Wildcat Adventure Safaris are banking on those who won’t go home right away.

"We’ve seen like a 40 percent increase in business and also in inquiries," he says. His company, like many others, offers an "Obama Safari" with a stop in the hometown of the President’s father.

Smaller vendors are flooding the capital with Obama-themed t-shirts, hats, and posters. They’re hoping the his visit will bring back tourists frightened away by recent terrorist attacks.

“Since the President of the United States is going to be here," says Durogi, "it’s going to be proof enough that Kenya is very very safe.”

He, and others in Kenya's tourism industry, are hoping the economic boost will last long after the President’s departure.

UN says Syria donors aren't paying their pledges

Fri, 2015-07-24 02:00

Syria’s civil war is now four years old, and there is no end in sight. A variety of international efforts to halt the bloodshed have stymied some of the world’s most seasoned diplomats.

One group of people losing out most from this grinding war are Syria’s refugees. Of the millions displaced by the war, about 4 million people have left Syria entirely. Most of them have fled to Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan.

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees says that it’s again facing its recurring problem: donors don’t pay what they promise

UNHCR has only received about $1 billion of the nearly $5 billion it needs to provide basic assistance to Syrian refugees.

“Our income keeps growing but the problem is our needs keep mushrooming,” says Melissa Fleming, chief spokesperson for UNHCR.

She says only 23 percent of this year’s funding goal has been delivered so far. And winter is coming.

A quarter of the people who have fled Syria live in tiny Lebanon, which per capita has the highest number of Syrian refugees — today, a quarter of its population.

“It is always the case that funding received does not match the needs on the ground,” says Dana Sleiman, spokesperson for UNHCR in Beirut.

Sleiman says UNHCR proceeds with its plans whether the funding is there or not, because they have no choice. “If and when funding does not come through, the repercussions are severe,” she explains.

So severe that more and more Syrian refugees are again risking their lives on sea voyages to Europe.

Game over for Hollywood video game tie-ins

Fri, 2015-07-24 02:00

Pixels, a film debuting this weekend, features a rag tag team of gamers fighting against giant arcade game characters, like Pac-Man, who are attacking planet earth. And along with the movie, there are two free apps based on the flick where you can essentially play Pac-Man, Centipede, and Frogger.

This summer also saw a $50 Jurassic World console video game using the Lego game brand. So, why all the video game spin-offs of Hollywood movies? Marketplace's Molly Wood talks with Adrienne Hill about these video game tie-ins ... and their spectacular failures.

Click the media player above to hear more.

According to Hill, we've had video game tie-ins "almost as long as we've had video games. Back in the arcade days, even." However, Hill says, "a lot of these games have been average or really bad." 

One such game was the ET game for the Atari 2600. It was so bad, it's credited with being part of the reason the industry tanked in the 80's. Jon-Paul Dyson, the director of the International Center for the History of Electronic Games at the Stong Museum of Play, reveals the story behind the ET game:

"The developer Howard Scott Warshaw had only about a month to translate this movie into a console game for the Atari 2600, which was the most popular video game console of the time. And it was really an impossible task. It was the story of this alien trying to make his way home. There was not really the battles or other things people knew how to make for video games at the time"

The disaster of the ET game reveals a lot about why movie tie-in games still struggle. Hill explains that the "developers don’t have enough time to work in these games. They often don't have the budget that a really good game requires because these things don't ever sell great." Also to blame? The games often seem more like a marketing ploy than an attempt at making a quality game. 

With video games becoming more cinematic than ever and movies using graphics to create virtual worlds, it might be game over for video game tie-ins.

UNHCR says Syria donors aren't paying their pledges

Fri, 2015-07-24 02:00

Syria’s civil war is now four years old, and there is no end in sight. A variety of international efforts to halt the bloodshed have stymied some of the world’s most seasoned diplomats.

One group of people losing out most from this grinding war are Syria’s refugees. Of the millions displaced by the war, about four million people have left Syria entirely. Most of them have fled to Lebanon, Turkey, and Jordan.

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees says that it’s again facing its recurring problem: donors don’t pay what they promise

UNHCR has only received about $1 billion of the nearly $5 billion it needs to provide basic assistance to Syrian refugees.

“Our income keeps growing but the problem is our needs keep mushrooming,” says Melissa Fleming, chief spokesperson for UNHCR.

She says only 23 percent of this year’s funding goal has been delivered so far. And winter is coming.

A quarter of the people who have fled Syria live in tiny Lebanon, which per capita has the highest number of Syrian refugees — today, a quarter of its population.

“It is always the case that funding received does not match the needs on the ground,” says Dana Sleiman, spokesperson for UNHCR in Beirut.

Sleiman says UNHCR proceeds with their plans whether the funding is there or not, because they have no choice. “If and when funding does not come through the repercussions are severe,” she explains.

So severe that more and more Syrian refugees are again risking their lives on sea voyages to Europe.

States wavering on standards for renewable energy

Fri, 2015-07-24 02:00

Renewable Portfolio Standards are standards that tell utilities how much of their electricity has to come from renewable sources. Roughly 30 states have such guidelines. Back when many of these standards were put in place, they were seen as a way to hedge against the uncertainty of fossil fuels.

Now, thanks to the ready availability of natural gas, some states are considering freezing, rolling back or eliminating renewable standards altogether.

Michigan utilities met the state's standard this year, generating 10 percent of their electricity from renewable sources. Now, to reduce carbon emissions, some people in the state want to see the bar raised to 20 percent or higher, but paying for it remains controversial.

“What we found is that doubling our RPS would add about $1.70 per month for a typical consumer,” says Jeremiah Johnson, a professor at the School of Natural Resources at the University of Michigan.

According to his research, the cost per household to double Michigan’s RPS is relatively small, as is the cost to industry, say for example, a car company.

“A Ford that was manufactured solely in Michigan, the cost of that doubling would be less than $10 per car," he says. "So, it’s not zero but it’s very small in the scope of the cost of an automobile."

But raising rates just isn’t something utilities like to do. DTE Energy, Michigan’s largest utility, has lobbied hard in the state legislature to freeze Michigan’s RPS in place.

“You know, we count pennies," says Dave Harwood, DTE’s director of renewable energy. "So when you're talking about three dollars, that's a big deal to us, to put that on a customer bill.”

“Can Michigan do more than 10 percent? Yeah, they can, and we will be doing more as we comply with future federal regulations on carbon emissions,” Harwood says.

Harwood notes that DTE is already moving to meet stricter federal standards for power plants, and adding state mandates on top of the federal guidelines that isn’t necessary.

Eliminating RPS targets has become key focus among conservative groups, such as the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC.

“It's the position of ALEC that renewable energy deployment and use should expand according to customer demand,” says John Eick, ALEC's director of energy, environment and agriculture.

Legislation bearing ALEC’s influence has been voted on by legislatures in Kansas, Texas, Ohio and North Carolina. Meanwhile California’s Governor Jerry Brown, drew headlines for his plan to increase California’s standard to 50 percent.

 

Monsnoozin’

Fri, 2015-07-24 02:00

This week, Actuality stays up past our bedtime to meet a man who slept just 4.5 hours a night for an entire year — and thrived. Then, we get soaked by the world's most economically important weather phenomenon. Plus, a Kazakh sleeping mystery.

You shoes, you lose

Fri, 2015-07-24 01:59
1.4 million

That's how many vehicles Fiat Chrysler has recalled in response to a Wired article detailing how hackers were able to successfully infiltrate a Jeep Cherokee. As BuzzFeed reports, the company says no real life hacking has occurred — the recall is a precaution now that the flaw has been revealed.

64,000

Speaking of cars, that's how many Outlander Sport utility vehicles were manufactured at Mitsubishi's American factory in Normal, Illinois, last year. That's below its capacity of 122,000 cars. As the Wall Street Journal writes, it's part of the reason Mitsubishi has decided to shut down production in the United States.

$4 billion

That's the disparity between how much is needed and how much has been raised for providing basic assistance to Syrian refugees, according to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. It's part of a problem the office routinely sees: donors who don't pay what they promise.

$1 million

That's the median home price in Jackson, Wyoming, a resort town south of Yellow Stone National Park. Unfortunately, that prices out many teachers from home ownership. Jennifer Marlar, a high school teacher in Jackson, has to drive more than an hour from where she lives to her job. When it comes time to put her own child through school, she's accepted that she'll have to find work elsewhere. This lack of affordable housing is causing issues for schools trying to recruit and retain talented teachers.

And here's a longer read to enjoy over the weekend:

45 million

That's how many shoes TOMS claims to have donated through its one-for-one charity model: you buy a pair of shoes, another pair gets donated to a person in need. The popularity of the business model has spawned a number of similar companies that sell everything from glasses to "period-proof" panties. But as Vox points out, studies have shown that this kind of giving can have a negative effect and may not be the most substantial way to help those in need.

Silicon Tally: Kickstarting the Smithsonian

Fri, 2015-07-24 01:59

It's time for Silicon Tally! How well have you kept up with the week in tech news? 

This week, we're joined by Tom Merritt, host of the Daily Tech News Show.

Click the media player above to play along.

The Konami Code for vintage gamers

Thu, 2015-07-23 13:05

Even though it’s been years since arcades reached their peak of the '80s, there’s still a fondness for the classics. Whether it’s Pac-Man, Donkey Kong or Galaga, old-school arcade games still have an audience.

One store that celebrates that love is the Vintage Arcade Superstore in Glendale, California.

Gene Lewin is the owner. At the store he sells everything from pinball to Pong. He says his love for all things retro and arcade began when he was young.

"I started playing when I was 16 in 1972,” Lewin says. “All thorough my teenage years, I went to arcades and played pinball.”

After playing for a few years, Lewin decided that he had to own a piece of the arcade for himself. “I got my first pinball in '76, and I still have it.”

The machine was called Jumping Jack and was based on the Jack-in-the-Box restaurant. He eventually found out how to make money with his new machine. “I put my Jumping Jack into a billiard place,” Lewin says.  “And since my game worked better than all the other games, it made more money than anything else. So I talked the owner into letting me take over the whole location, and that’s how I got started.”

Lewin’s business plan ran into a major problem in 1985: The market for video games and arcades completely crashed. He managed to stay in business, but just as things started to pick up for video games in general, arcades could not return to their former prominence. The release for arcade games slowed, and the ones that did come out were derivative of ones that were released on consoles.

“[The developers] lost their creative edge," Lewin says. "I thought maybe it would come back, but it really didn’t.”  

With arcades struggling, Lewin decided to try a new business venture: selling games and pinball machines.

“I figured out these games would be collectible years before anyone else did,” Lewin says. “It started with pinball. I would go to pinball shows and see ‘Oh, these are worth money now!’ So I started thinking after a few years, ‘Oh, this is going to happen to video games too!’ ”

Lewin would buy the games for cheap prices and then collect them until their value increased. Then he'd sell them back to his fellow fans. The buyers would get them for restaurants or just for their homes. “They want to own a piece of their childhood,” he says.

Most of the machines go for thousands of dollars, and that price only increases as they become rarer.

Lewin doesn’t plan on retiring any time soon. “A lot of people hate their work,” he says. “I always end up staying late, and my favorite thing when I’m done working is to go over to the showroom and play pinball. It’s pretty awesome.”

The changing platform for YouTube stardom

Thu, 2015-07-23 13:00

YouTube is growing up, and the line between YouTube stars and celebrity is becoming blurrier. Thousands of screaming fans are out in force at VidCon, a conference for online video makers in Anaheim, California, on Thursday.

Freddie Wong will be among them. His YouTube channel, RocketJump, has more than 7 million subscribers, and he is one of the latest YouTube stars looking to move their production off YouTube.

Earlier this year, Wong signed a deal with Hulu for a half-hour comedy. He says the business of making video content is one that involves doing a little bit of everything.

"We produce and create, write, shoot, direct, edit, post production — everything is sort of all done in house," Wong says.

So, when you've got 7 million YouTube fans, why move to a different platform?

"It doesn’t really affect what we do on our end," Wong says. "At the end of the day, we still make the things that we make. And we found that the best strategy in this very fluid marketplace is to not be tied into any given platform, but to be able to make good content, and good content will be able to live anywhere."

Wong says it's a whole new world for content creators today. Back in the day, content creators had to ask big companies to fund their project and give them a platform. Now, you build your own audience — and people with money come to you.

HBO picks up former ESPN host Bill Simmons

Thu, 2015-07-23 13:00

ESPN has parted ways with a lot of its big-name talent recently, including Bill Simmons, whose contract was not renewed back in May. Simmons has landed at HBO, where he'll host a weekly talk show and work on sports documentary projects.

“Bill Simmons is a name that’s known in the sports industry, and he will have his followers come to HBO with him,” says Kenneth Shropshire, a professor at the Wharton School. Simmons was one of the most popular and controversial hosts on ESPN. Last year he was suspended for three weeks for criticizing NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. HBO may offer more creative freedom.

“For Simmons, HBO is kind of a blue ocean in terms of what he’s going to be able to do there," Shropshire says. "There’s a great deal of flexibility it appears in terms of how HBO lets its talent perform.” 

HBO has had a hand in sports for a while, and Shropshire is unfazed by the move. “They’ve done a lot in terms of documentaries, boxing and other programs, so going further in this space is not surprising.”

Click the media player above to hear more.

 

Celebrities are mastering the art of the group selfie

Thu, 2015-07-23 13:00

When I was talking to YouTube video creator Freddie Wong, who heads the channel RocketJump, he told me that today — far more often than signatures — fans want selfies.

So, these stars are coming up with efficient ways to take a bunch of them in a short amount of time. 

Apparently at some of these conventions, fans form big circles, with their phones out, and the stars runs around the back of the circle putting their head in shot after shot.

Whatever you think of selfies, you've got to admire the ingenuity. 

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