Marketplace - American Public Media

Emoticon creator says emoji are :-/

Wed, 2015-04-22 10:33

The year was 1982. The internet was in its infancy, and email had just opened up between universities. There was even a kind of social media, remembers Scott Fahlman, computer scientist at Carnegie Mellon University. You could send an email to a bulletin board to post it up. And just like today, sarcasm was rampant, and often misinterpreted. 

"We would have these flame wars," Fahlman said. "We felt maybe we needed a way to mark the posts that we put up that were just meant to be humorous."

They considered using an asterisk in the subject line, but that wasn't intuitive. Instead, Fahlman threw together three easy-to-find characters: a colon, a dash and a closing parenthesis. :-) 

"I thought, maybe people would turn their heads, and we could make a really nice face in that case," he says. 

Fast-forward a few decades and emoticons moved into work email, chats, and now text messages and tweets in the form of emoji. Fahlman doesn't much care for the cats-with-hearts-for-eyes variant. But he says it's a personal preference.

"People want to make this into a big crusade on my part and it's not. I'm not a fan of the graphical emojis, no," Fahlman says. "I think it took a little bit of creativity to figure out how to make a smiling face out of just text characters. And then for awhile people were inventing more and more complicated ones. Santa Claus and Abraham Lincoln and the Pope all being eaten by a python."

An example of ASCII art.


For emoji fans, Fahlman's perspective is less :-) and more . But one thing is clear: pictures help us express emotion and intent where words alone can leave too much ambiguity: softening the tone of a work email, turning a straightforward text into a flirtation, or adding fire to a heated back-and-forth exchange on a message board. And with the vast number of texts, tweets, emails and posts sent each minute, that's an important communicative tool.

Fahlman has worked as a computer scientist for decades, with an eye toward the development of artificial intelligence. Part of his legacy, though, is tied up in the expression of all these feelings, be they textual or graphical. 

"I've reconciled myself to the idea that the first line of my obituary is going to be 'Scott Fahlman who invented the email smiley face (and also made major contributions to artificial intelligence) passed away today.' And depending on how old I am, I guess there will either be a smiley face or a frowny face on the tombstone."

The bookstore primaries

Wed, 2015-04-22 10:02

Before presidential candidates head to Iowa, New Hampshire or Chipotle, they're in your book store.

Looking toward the GOP primaries, Marco Rubio just released his second memoir, "American Dreams"; Ted Cruz's "A Time for Truth" will hit shelves this summer; Rand Paul's second book in three years is out next month; and Jeb Bush is rolling out an e-book. Last year, policy wonks scoured Hillary Clinton's "Hard Choices" for clues to a presidential run and an expose about her finances is making headlines ahead of its release.

But writing, selling and releasing a book takes time, even with a ghostwriter. Why is just about every presidential hopeful doing it? What good does it do so early in the election season?

"Primaries are a crazy time, and they are so different from the general election," says D. Sunshine Hillygus, associate professor of political science at Duke University. "So when a candidate can do anything in a primary to get a bit more media attention, a bit more evidence that they might be electable and able to beat the other side, that's ... advantageous."

Sales don't hurt, but the political book is less a moneymaker than it is the foundation of a larger strategy, Hillygus says. As soundbites shrink, a book lets a candidate frame themselves and get out in front of any potential "dirt." In "Dreams of My Father," for example, a young Barack Obama discussed his drug use.

But here's the rub: it's not actually all that important that people read the book.

"Part of the value of the book is not the readership of the book, but the fact that you wrote it," says Craig Allen, an associate professor of journalism at Arizona State University who has written about presidential communication throughout history. Candidates can draw on the book during speeches and debates, he says, giving them an air of thoughtfulness and credibility. Best case scenario: the candidate recaptures the success of John F. Kennedy's "Profiles in Courage," which Allen says inspired many of the politicians who've written books since.

Even if they don't win any Pulitzers, savvy candidates can at least go on a book tour, giving interviews and essentially holding campaign events without ceding media coverage to their opponent under equal-time requirements.

That works if candidates get out their book early enough, says Peter Hildick-Smith, head of the publishing insights firm Codex Group. That's where the current crop of GOP candidates could run into trouble, he says, even if the message is well-crafted.

"If everybody's got their book coming out within a month of each other, it's very hard to get the audience's attention," he says. When candidates release the book early in the election cycle, "you don't have a campaign to run [and you get] to talk to people in a more normal way instead of being on the stump. It's that quiet conversation with Matt Lauer when people aren't really expecting it."

Hildick-Smith's company worked with a candidate on one of last year's political bestsellers. He wouldn't say who, but he did say the book had a larger-than-expected "crossover readership" of independent voters. Part of that comes from striking the right balance between policy and personal writing, along with getting the book out early.

Of course, a candidate's detractors can use similar tactics. The Clinton campaign is already running interference on "Clinton Cash," which comes out May 5 and alleges that foreign donations to the Clinton Foundation lined Hillary's pockets and influenced her policies as secretary of state.

"Clinton Cash" has potential to hurt Clinton because some major news organizations got an early look; the New York Times and Washington Post published deep investigations into the book's claims this week. While Clinton's campaign has a sizable headstart, her long history in politics means she's more vulnerable to this kind of scrutiny, says UC Davis political science assistant professor Amber Boydstun.

"If you took any potential opposing Republican candidate and you put them in public service as long for as she's been in public service, you'd probably have a book about them too," Boydstun says. "In Clinton's case, there's of course going to be dirt, and I'm not sure what the dirt looks like but that could potentially not play well, especially if the media gives credence to [it]."

There's a lot of ink spilled on all sides about candidates, but come Election Day, what impact does it really have? Duke's Hillygus says that's something political scientists are still puzzling out.

"A debate doesn't have much effect, frankly. A single television ad has almost no effect... it's all cumulative and incremental," she says. "What becomes important is: does this book by the candidate help to create a characterization of who they are that sticks? And it's never going to stick on its own."

Spoofing: An explanation using bananas

Wed, 2015-04-22 09:37

London-based trader Navinder Singh Sarao, and his company are accused of using software to manipulate the S&P’s futures contracts through a practice known as "spoofing.”

Spoofing means fooling the markets – making it look like you’re doing something, when you’re actually not. How about an analogy?

Imagine you have a booth at the farmers market, where you are selling bananas at two bucks a pound. Suddenly, this guy sets up an empty stall beside you and starts shouting about selling bananas for a dollar a pound. His truck is just coming up the street, he says – the bananas will be here in a minute. All your customers start lining up at his stall! It’s a nightmare!

So now you have to cut your price and sell your bananas for a buck a pound. You sell several boxes to a woman in a green hat. And suddenly, the guy beside you has disappeared! There’s no truckload of bananas coming!

You decide to raise the price back up to two dollars a pound again. When, suddenly, you get a phone call from your wife, who has spotted the truckload of bananas guy at the other end of the market. He’s selling bananas right out of the box, helped by a woman in a green hat. You have been spoofed! They fooled you into selling your bananas at half price, and now they’re selling them at two bucks a pound. 

At RSA, desperate for data to help understand threats

Wed, 2015-04-22 08:39

The annual RSA Conference is the largest security trade show in the world, and this year, there’s an extra level of desperation in the air. Security vendors and IT chiefs are looking to big data to help them understand how to protect companies from the ever-increasing tide of hackers looking to break in.

 The RSA Conference is, at its heart, a show where the makers of security products come to pitch their wares to big enterprise buyers. Those buyers, of course, are more interested than ever, since big companies and consumers are both reeling from a string of high-profile breaches at <a href="">Sony</a>, JP Morgan, Home Depot, <a href="">Target</a> and others.

 Insiders say there’s a palpable shift in tone from how the security industry used to treat breached companies. They used to be pariahs: companies that had failed and obviously had inferior infrastructure.

 Now, though, the incoming president of RSA tells Fortune magazine flatly that <a href="">"security has failed."</a>

Security products used to promise prevention and protection. At past conferences, a security company might terrify IT officers with tales of potential security flaws and then tout an ironclad fix.

More recently, as breaches got more common and ironclad fixes less believable, the focus shifted to "intrusion detection." Security experts started telling companies that they shouldn’t wonder if a breach might happen — only when.

 So, the next wave of products promised to detect those inevitable breaches sooner, before they got out of control and compromised mass amounts of data (remember, the Target and JP Morgan hackers were roaming around inside the company’s networks for months before anyone noticed). 

So this year, the product focus is something more like troubleshooting.

 "Half the vendors here are talking about some app that can provide intelligence or 'threat intelligence,'" says Chris McClean, a risk and security analyst at Forrester Research. "That’s the buzzword of the year here."

From what I can tell, "threat intelligence" is really just a dramatic way of saying "figure out what’s happening and hopefully what might work to stop the bad guys."

For example, I interviewed Vikram Phatak, CEO of a company called NSS Labs, which is a security research and advisory company that just launched a new product to help companies gather data about where they’re vulnerable to attack and how well their security products are working.

NSS Labs <a href="">just raised $7 million in funding</a> to grow its spectacularly named Cyber Advanced Warning System. It’s basically a subscription service with a web dashboard that offers analytics about a company’s security.

There are lots of points of possible failures. Most companies layer on multiple products, like an intrusion detection service, a firewall and a so-called "endpoint solution" (basically an antivirus or antimalware product like McAfee). And then there’s all the potentially vulnerable software the company runs, like Windows, Java, Flash, Internet Explorer and so on.

The Cyber Advanced Warning System dashboard might show, for example, that lots of attacks are getting through the firewall but being stopped by the antivirus software, but that the company is running an outdated version of Java and needs to update it before someone exploits it and takes over company systems.

 The goal, says Phatak, is to help security pros understand how to better use the software they have, deploy the right settings on their company networks and get "situational awareness" about their overall security systems.  

 McClean says that approach — looking to the data — is a big theme at RSA this year.

 "The message is right," he says. "If you are telling an enterprise, we can take all of the disparate sources of information, we can tell you where you risks are and help you make better business decisions, how to allocate and where to prioritize and whether to use certain vendors in certain regions, then as a vendor, you’re in great shape." 

Still, he says there could be a whole new approach to security by next year, because cybersecurity threats are going to keep increasing for the foreseeable future — that is, there's always something to be afraid of. 

"Every year we say that in the last year we’ve seen breaches that are unprecedented and this totally changes the game," he says. "Next year we’ll say there are new breaches that have changed the game; in three years there will be more breaches that change the game. The game will always have changed."

PODCAST: The spark behind the "Flash Crash"

Wed, 2015-04-22 03:00

First up, we talk about the challenge of proving that a trader is out to manipulate a financial market. We talk to Joel Hasbrouck, a financial industry consultant and Professor of Business Administration and Professor of Finance at the NYU Stern School of Business, for more. Plus, search giant Google could launch its new wireless service as early as today. The Wall Street Journal reports a key feature is customers paying only for the data they use instead of buying data in bulk, whether they use it or not. And a California appeals court has ruled that one city's special system of charging for water—the more you use, the higher the price—is invalid. Pricing water is tough, even in places not beset by drought.

A look at how you're doing based on where you vote

Wed, 2015-04-22 02:30

One useful way to answer the question of how America is doing is to consult a new statistical analysis out Wednesday called "Geographies of Opportunity."

It looks at statistics on health, education, and what we earn and produce what's called a Human Development Index. As the campaign gears up, the report offers a breakdown by congressional district in the U.S., compiled by an outfit called Measure of America.

The report also allows for comparison between congressional districts on everything from median earnings, to level of education, to life expectancy.

Measure of America

Especially interesting among the findings: The higher the proportion of foreign-born residents in a congressional district, the longer people live. For example, data shows foreign-born Latinos live much longer than native-born Latinos.

Measure of America co-director Kristen Lewis says one possible theory points to social cohesion and family support buffering the effects of poverty to create better outcomes.

Click the media player above to hear Kristen Lewis in conversation with Marketplace Morning Report host David Brancaccio.

Police departments grapple with body camera costs

Wed, 2015-04-22 02:01

In light of recent high profile police use-of-force headlines, form Ferguson to New York, to North Charleston, there's been a lot of talk of arming police officers with body cameras.

President Barack Obama this past December proposed spending hundreds of millions to equip police departments.

But the costs don't just end at the initial expense of buying cameras. Police departments that are already using the devices, from trials to full implementation, report that maintaining and managing volumes of video data is the bigger cost.

There seems to be little doubt among police executives on the merits of the cameras, according to a report by the Police Executive Research Forum, an organization that provides research and support to police chiefs. PERF reports that many police chiefs think the cameras make a measurable difference in reducing complaints against officers.

Mary D. Powers, 92, of Chicago can attest to the benefits of introducing cameras in policing. Powers first became a watchdog thorn on the Chicago police department's side more than 45 years ago.

"In the early days, people thought you were a kook if you were talking about police brutality," Powers says.

Still, Powers and those in her now-disbanded watchdog group Citizens Alert, successfully fought to get cameras installed in Chicago's police interrogation rooms. Powers says many commanders reported reductions in abusive interrogation tactics — tactics such as the ones that this month led the city of Chicago to pay reparations to victims of former commander Jon Burge. Burge oversaw a program of police torture of suspects using tactics such as electric shock and mock executions to elicit confessions. 

Powers says public attitudes have changed, and quickly, with the mass availability of cheap smartphone cameras that have captured the kinds of abuse she used to report one flier and public meeting at a time.

"The public is certainly a lot more aware," Powers says, and more "acknowledging that some of these things do happen, which was unpatriotic to admit that in the old days. You were questioning your government."

Powers is in favor of police body cameras, saying the devices represent the next step in the evolution of police transparency and accountability.

A recent survey by the Police Executive Research Forum, a group that conducts research for law enforcement chiefs, found that many chiefs agree with Powers. In many departments that already use them, police executives report body cameras correlate to a noticeable drop in complaints against officers.

"Certainly there are chiefs who see the potential here," says Brian Jackson, a researcher with the Rand Corporation's Center on Quality Policing. But Jackson says implementing cameras worn on uniforms comes with a whole host of questions, and policy and budget considerations, which all still have to be worked out.

For example, "deciding when they have to be turned on," says Jackson, "And when you're a department who's ... taking video a good chunk of every day, the amount of that data just adds up very fast."

Storing all of that data, according to the PERF survey, costs departments more than the cameras themselves. The survey found that 39 percent of police executives cite cost as the primary reason for not implementing body cameras at their departments.

In Baltimore, the city's mayor initially vetoed a body camera bill because of the costs. A city-wide program to furnish cameras to officers would cost between $5.5 million and $7.9 million annually. The city is now consider a limited trial program.  

But other departments see clear benefits that outweigh the costs.

"If the purpose is to use those cameras to get at the truth: what happened between an officer and a citizen ... how can you not afford ... to outfit your officers?" asks Michael Wagers, the chief operating officer of the Seattle Police Department.

His department plans to spend $2 million on 1,000 cameras. He is now testing a system to automatically redact the videos those cameras will produce, and upload them all on YouTube. The idea is to reduce manpower costs and allow access to the videos, which will be blurred and without sound. The YouTube videos will be used as an index, from which people can then request specific segments of video.

The idea is to have people request minutes, not hours, of tape, which workers would then sift through, redact any sensitive information (such as children's identities) that they are legally required to, and release the clear versions of the videos to the public.

Right now, the Seattle Police Department already has its own channel on YouTube, with some experimental videos uploaded. Wagers says the hope is to eventually blur the videos less. He's employing volunteer coders to figure out how to do that, perhaps only automatically blurring faces, in the near future. As they are now, the videos are fuzzy and unclear.

Wagers was recently invited to a White House meeting held with a number of law enforcement experts, to discuss body cameras and the various issues involved with their implementation. 

Longtime police watchdog Mary Powers applauds Seattle's attempts, but she's underwhelmed by their project.

"It doesn't seem to be all that practical, but I think it's wonderful that they have the intent of sharing all this information, making it available. Why not?" Powers says.

Raising water rates isn't just a California problem

Wed, 2015-04-22 02:00

A California appeals court found that one city’s tiered rate system violates a constitutional limit on fees. The ruling has potentially serious implications for California, which is deep in drought.

But California isn’t the only state struggling to set an appropriate cost for water, and scarcity isn’t the only factor putting pressure on prices.

Newsha Ajami is director of urban water policy at Stanford’s Woods Institute for the Environment. “You might now have a water scarcity problem, but you might also have a water quality problem,” she says.

Furthermore, the cost of building and maintaining infrastructure is rarely fully accounted for in water rates. “There are a lot of other municipalities that might not have the capacity or manpower or expertise to set up the rates properly ... or they just don't do it," Ajami says.

Peter Gleick is president of the Pacific Institute. "The proper pricing of water is, frankly, a global issue,” Gleick says. “We argue about it in the West, and in California in the context of drought, but it’s a national issue as well. We ought to pay the full price of the water services we get."

Gleick says raising rates to reflect the true cost of water is the best way to develop better infrastructure and encourage people to use less.

You're mortal, so write your will

Wed, 2015-04-22 02:00

Just 56 percent of American parents have gone through the fairly uncomfortable process of writing up a last will and testament to divide up their assets among beneficiaries upon their death, according to a new survey from

Not having an estate well ordered before your death can result in turmoil after your passing. Some famous examples are the estates of Jimi Hendrix, Martin Luther King Jr., and Robin Williams. 

"If the person has gotten their lives and their paperwork in order then it should be a fairly simple process," says Sally Hurme, author of ABA/AARP Checklist for My Family: A Guide to My History, Financial Plans and Final Wishes.

But it's not always so easy. Andy Cohen, CEO of, says using an additional step—placing assets into a living trust—can help keep your estate out of probate court, in which a judge determines who gets what.

If you don't do that, "the estate goes to probate. It can drag on in the courts for years, it can cost a lot of money and most importantly it’s a lot of heartache for the families."

Spoof, there it is

Wed, 2015-04-22 01:59
600 points

That's how many points the Dow rapidly dropped in 2010 in what became known as the "Flash Crash." Regulators have continually struggled to pinpoint exactly what happened. But now there may be some answers. Navinder Singh Sarao, a British futures trader, was arrested on Tuesday, and charged with manipulating the market via spoofing, in which large orders are placed and then almost immediately cancelled. The practice forces other investors to move on false figures. As the NY Times reports, Sarao is alleged to have made $40 million in profits.

Prop 218

That's an amendment to the California state constitution. Passed about two decades ago, prop 2018 protects against utility fees, but it's had unintended consequences, curbing attempts at tried pricing, a water-saving measure in a state ravaged by drought. 

$5.5 million to $7.9 million

That's the potential cost to the city of Baltimore, MD to outfit all of its police officers with body cameras. The mayor vetoed the plan initially, but now the city is considering a trial run. With President Barack Obama's (now on hold) proposal to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to equip police departments, we take a look at the pros and cons of using body cameras, and the costs after the cameras start rolling.

44.8 percent

The portion of emoji typed by SwiftKey users showing a happy face, according to new data released by the company this week. That may seem mundane, but it's actually widest-reaching data we have about emoji use, and it has some surprises. Fusion notes the U.S. leads all countries in use of the eggplant emoji, for example, while Canadians prefer the poop emoji.

$900 million

That's what start-up Fad was once valued at, though it went onto be acquired for about $30 million. The problem? Overspending. Sam Altman, head of tech incubator Y Combinator, says too many start-ups are aggressively burning through money so they can grow. He's reaching out to YC alumni, Business Insider reported, warning that burning cash are threatening the industry more than ballooning valuations.

The activists are coming!

Tue, 2015-04-21 14:16
Every year, at about this time, many of America's public companies gather their shareholders together for their annual general meetings.

The AGM is a usually carefully choreographed affair, with the board doing its best to provide a canned, self-congratulatory narrative about the company's performance over the last 12 months, and issuing a bland-yet-optimistic forecast for the next year. 

More and more often these days, however, the kabuki performances are interrupted and disrupted by activist investors. These gadflies like to show up and throw hand grenades about the place, trying to force the board of directors to do things that most of them don't want to do: buy back shares; merge with other companies; ditch certain board members; the list goes on. If you don't know what an activist investor is, watch this short video for an explanation:


We all want things. The difference between most of us and activist investors is that they are prepared to spend lots of money and cause lots of pain until they get what they want. Last year was a particularly successful year for activist investors: they ousted the CEO of Sotheby's and  got shareholders to overthrow the entire boards of both Darden Restaurants and CommonWealth REIT, now renamed Equity Commonwealth. This year they're going after Tempur Sealy International, DuPont, MGM Resorts, Macerich and Shutterfly.

In his Dealbook column, Steven Davidoff Solomon, a professor of law at the University of California, Berkeley, says this year more sparks may fly than usual, because companies appear to be digging in their heels and pushing back. And it's not just companies. The heads of several big institutions (investors in those companies) have said publicly that they believe the current vogue for share buybacks — a favorite of shareholder activists — is bad for the economy. That may give companies heart as they announce their opposition to the activist scourge.  

Trouble on the chicken farm

Tue, 2015-04-21 13:00

Iowa is the top egg-producing state in the U.S. Unfortunately, the state found a flock of millions of hens infected with avian flu on Monday. The spread of this bird flu has accelerated concerns over how much the current outbreak will affect the U.S. egg and poultry industry. It’s said to be the worst case so far in a national outbreak.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the H5N2 bird flu virus was found at a farm in northwest Iowa's Osceola County. About 3.8 million hens will be euthanized there.

Although that is a very large number of birds, Ed Fryar, CEO of Ozark Mountain Poultry in Rogers, Arkansas, says it is actually a small number relative to the overall size of the flock that's in the U.S.

"The U.S will produce about nine billion brawlers this year," says Fryar. "It can be really tough on an individual farmer or an individual company, if you lose 10 or 20 or 50 million birds, but you’re still talking way less than one percent of the population."

Iowa was already among a list of states to have detected bird flu infections – killing over five million turkeys and chickens just this year.

Anti-tax measure complicates California drought effort

Tue, 2015-04-21 13:00

A California appeals court ruling has complicated water conservation efforts in the state. This week the 4th District Court of Appeal ruled the city of San Juan Capistrano’s tiered water rates violated Prop 218, an amendment to the state constitution. Tiered water rates discourage water waste by charging customers more as their water consumption goes up. They’re a key tool in California’s campaign to save water. At least two-thirds of water providers in the state use some form of tiered pricing.

When California voters passed Prop 218 in the mid-'90s, they had no clue it might gum up efforts to conserve water in a severe drought. The idea then was to plug what anti-tax groups saw as loopholes in Prop 13, the granddaddy of all California propositions. That one limits property taxes. Prop 218 limits certain property-related fees, from trash collection to water service.

Ellen Hanak, director of the Water Policy Center at the Public Policy Institute of California, says under Prop 218, those fees cannot exceed the cost of the service.

“Anybody who hears that will think, yeah, that sounds right," she says. "Why should they be allowed to charge us more than the cost of the service they’re delivering?” She said the law provided more transparency to government fees and costs.

The court ruled San Juan Capistrano hadn’t shown that its higher rates for big water users were directly tied to the costs of delivering the water. Tim Quinn, executive director for the Association of California Water Agencies, says higher water rates are commonly used to force conservation, “not so much to cover cost of service.”

“If that tool is off the table," Quinn says. "I don’t know what they’re going to do. It’s a very powerful tool, and it’s not clear to me that you’ll have an easy substitute."

But Tom Ash, a water rates expert and senior environmental resource planner at Inland Empire Utilities Agency, emphasized that the California court didn’t invalidate conservation pricing. It simply clarified the rules. “I’m not afraid of any of those guidelines,” Ash says. “I think they help us set up transparent, equitable and very practical rates.”

Many California water agencies have had to hire water rate consultants to help them design tiered rates that stay within Prop 218 guidelines. “It’s a complex task and so it takes a complex, sophisticated rate design to do all of that – to be fair, yet recover the cost of service,” Ash says.

Brian Gray, a professor at UC Hastings College of Law, said Prop 218’s conflict with drought efforts may lead some groups in the state to try to pass yet another proposition that would “harmonize Prop 218 with the compelling water conservation needs that we have in the current drought.” It might authorize higher tiered water rates as penalties, rather than fees.

A call to invest in safety of the power grid

Tue, 2015-04-21 13:00

The first federal report card on our energy infrastructure is out today. It calls for more than $8 billion in power grid safety and upgrading.

The power grid is vulnerable in a couple of ways, the report says. One is increasingly unpredictable weather, and thus, blackouts. Every year, the average New Englander loses power for three and a half hours. The average person in Japan: four minutes.

Threat two is physical attacks on key pieces of the grid, like high-voltage transformers. Engineering professor Massoud Amin at the University of Minnesota calls these transformers "critical nodes" that change voltage at key junctions. They're indispensable — and they're barely made in America.

"Post 9-11, we did not have manufacturing capability to manufacture them," Amin says. "If they are taken out, the recovery time to actually build, deliver, retrofit and install it was somewhere between six months to two years."

Today's report proposes a strategic transformer reserve to stockpile extra for emergencies, like we have for crude oil. 

Two years ago, one transformer site in California was attacked by snipers. "This was a well-trained group that had sophisticated weaponry, shooting at a very critical part of the power grid," says Peter Fox-Penner, principal of the Brattle Group consultancy and senior policy scholar at Georgetown University.

The lights stayed on, thanks to redundancies. "The real fear is that terrorists would target several transformers at once," Fox-Penner says, "really damage them so they couldn't be repaired."

One internal government analysis reportedly found that taking out nine key transformer sites could black out the entire country. Fox-Penner says eventually the grid may decentralize and become less vulnerable to hardware threats. But that would take a generation.

Now Amazon will let you rent goats

Tue, 2015-04-21 13:00

I think Amazon may have finally jumped the shark.

They've got a newish product called Home Services, which is kind of a catch-all for various and sundry things — television wall mounting, virus and spyware removal, plumbing and also, apparently, lawn care.

And not just any lawn care; they're offering a goat grazing service.

Straight from the goat's mouth: "You'll receive a recommendation for how many goats will be loaned to you, how long those goats will keep you company, and how often a pro will come check on them."

Also, you get to keep any goat poop.

Trade agreements, then and now

Tue, 2015-04-21 13:00

Congress is turning its attention to trade this week.  Specifically, whether to “fast track” trade agreements, like the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership.

Under fast track, Congress can’t change trade deals.  It just gets an up or down vote. But to leave politics aside for a moment, and focus on the economy, take yourself back to 1993. Michael Jordan scores his 20,000th career point.  Whitney Houston tops the charts. And, at the end of the year, President Clinton signs NAFTA into law. The U.S. is king of the global economy.

“The world has changed so much from 1993,” says Susan Ariel Aaronson, research professor of international affairs at George Washington University.  Aaronson says now, we live in more of a multi-polar world. “Brazil is the eighth-largest economy in the world," she says. "Russia’s economy, I believe, is shrinking.  But it’s still very important.”

And then there’s China.  It was just starting to stretch its economic legs in the early '90s. “They have increased, dramatically,  their exports all around  the world. So all eyes have been on China," says Kathryn Dominguez, a professor of economics and public policy at the University of Michigan.

Back on the homefront, "the U.S. share of the world economy has declined,” says Gary Hufbauer, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics and trade negotiator in the Carter administration.

Hufbauer says the U.S. share has fallen from 27 percent in the early '90s, to about 20 percent today. But Hufbauer says we still have a lot of bargaining power, because the U.S. is a huge consumer market.  And other countries really want to sell their stuff here. 

Knock it off! A step-by-step guide to make a bag

Tue, 2015-04-21 12:50

When you’re a small business owner, the last thing you want is for people to copy your products. That’s exactly what happened to Dave Munson, CEO of Saddleback Leather, but instead of tracking down the knockoffs and suing the creators he made a YouTube video.

His step-by-step tongue-in-cheek video teaches people exactly how to make his bags. It lists every part of the process from choosing the leather to cutting the patterns to sewing the bag together.

“I thought, 'Hey why don’t we show people our quality,' and then we just dogged on the people who were knocking us off," Munson says. "It put doubt into people’s minds about whether or not they wanted to buy a knockoff…and it worked."

Iowa farm the latest to suffer bird flu's toll

Tue, 2015-04-21 03:00

Up to about 5 million hens will have be euthanized at a farm in Iowa due to an outbreak of the highly infectious bird flu. The virus has been hammering poultry producers in the Midwest, particularly turkey farmers in Minnesota.

Producers have had to destroy millions of birds. They’ve also ramped up biosecurity measures such as rinsing shoes in a disinfectant prior to entering a barn.

“Everyone had very tight biosecurity programs before, and I would say they're tightening the hatch even more,” says Mark Cook, a professor of animal science at the University of Wisconsin Madison.

Cook consults with poultry producers on those biosecurity programs and usually does farm visits. But he recently tabled one such visit with a Minnesota producer.

“I don't want to track anything to them and they don't want me over there. And I don't want them over in my facility either,” he says. “In fact, our last visit with them was in a hotel halfway between Minnesota and Wisconsin within the past month.”

Scientists suspect wild waterfowl are spreading the virus through the feces they drop during migration.

The virus kills commercial poultry quickly. Once a case is identified, all other birds in a barn must be euthanized. The infected birds are kept out of the food supply. The threat to human health is considered low

It's not yet clear if the destruction of millions of chickens and turkeys will cause a price spike for those products. If that happens, consumers may opt for other meats.

“What people do is switch,” says Mike Boland, professor of agricultural economics at the University of Minnesota. He says so far there has not been a noticeable spike in turkey prices, though the Associated Press reports that Hormel expects to sell less turkey this year because of the flu outbreak.

Boland adds that any effect on egg prices will be tough to gauge. He notes that egg production and prices have fluctuated a great deal over the past five years.

“A lot of fluctuation is caused by food safety issues,” he says. “Some of it is caused just by demand for eggs is going up—people are eating more eggs.”

PODCAST: The business of reruns

Tue, 2015-04-21 03:00

First up, more on Google's new campaign to reduce our exasperation when thumbing through cluttered websites. And as regulators continue to weigh the potential Time Warner-Comcast tie up, the companies will reportedly meet with Justice Department officials Wednesday to talk about possible concessions that would keep the merger alive. We look at what concessions are on the table. Plus, this is the time of year when many television shows find out their fate: Will they live to see another season, or enter the realm of syndication, downloads, and streaming services? We look at how the afterlife of television shows is changing for TV lovers and advertisers.

How Time Warner Cable and Comcast might reassure the feds

Tue, 2015-04-21 02:00

If Comcast and Time Warner Cable go ahead with their planned merger, they’d control almost 30 percent of all the cable TV subscribers in the U.S., possibly raising fears that they’d own too much of the market. They will reportedly sit down with Justice Department officials this week.

So, how do you reassure the regulators that you’re not out to rule the cable world? For starters, sell some stuff, experts say. Get smaller.




/* Style Definitions */ table.MsoNormalTable {mso-style-name:"Table Normal"; mso-tstyle-rowband-size:0; mso-tstyle-colband-size:0; mso-style-noshow:yes; mso-style-priority:99; mso-style-parent:""; mso-padding-alt:0in 5.4pt 0in 5.4pt; mso-para-margin:0in; mso-para-margin-bottom:.0001pt; mso-pagination:widow-orphan; font-size:10.0pt; font-family:"Times New Roman",serif;}

“Cable properties, television properties, channels," says David Klein, managing partner at Klein Moynihan Turco. "It could even be radio or print publications as well.”

Klein says Comcast and Time Warner could also start offering a la carte pricing, something cable customers have been clamoring for. Comcast could also throw in internet deals for libraries or schools.

“They might, for example, offer to provide higher speed services to some schools in their footprint,” says former Republican FCC commissioner Harold Furchtgott-Roth.

Or Comcast could agree to hand over some of its customers to a competitor.