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Silicon Tally: Trash to power

Fri, 2014-07-25 01:00

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

This week, we're joined by Marketplace's own Lizzie O'Leary, host of Marketplace Weekend.

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Weekly Wrap: The week that was

Thu, 2014-07-24 23:11

David Gura talked with to Catherine Rampell from the Washington Post and Linette Lopez from Business Insider for a look back at the week’s biggest business news.

Following movie stars all the way to the theater

Thu, 2014-07-24 13:54

Keeping with the tech-heavy theme of the broadcast today, there's a report out from Nielsen saying 87 percent of people on Twitter said their decision to see a movie was influenced by the site. 

Plus, 65 percent of people on Twitter say they follow a film-related account. That is, specific movies, theater chains and actors.

I don't get it. I mean...I get it. But I don't get it.

 

How can tech companies diversify their workforces?

Thu, 2014-07-24 13:54

Twitter is the latest tech company to disclose statistics on the race and gender of its workforce, following Facebook, Yahoo, Google and LinkedIn. Like those companies, Twitter is falling short on diversity. Technology companies seem to recognize that there is a problem. In an email to Marketplace, Twitter pointed to a list of organizations it supports, including Girls Who Code, YearUp, Black Girls Code, and others. 

These organizations help push more women and people of color through the pipeline and into tech jobs. 

Kathryn Finney, the founder of DigitalUndivided, says for people of color, networking can be a stumbling block.

"Usually in tech, you get a job because your friend works there, or you know the founder, or you went to the same school and were classmates," says Finney. "We're not part of those networks."

Brogrammers give up some ground in comp-sci classes

But people who work in tech say helping others break in is only part of the solution.

Leigh Honeywell, a security engineer, administrator of the Geek Feminism wiki, and member of Double Union, a feminist hacker space, says women who make it through the pipeline and get jobs in tech are confronted by a culture that can be downright sexist.

"I could tell you stories that would make you be like, is this 'Mad Men?'" Honeywell says, referring to the 1960s-set AMC TV series. 

She says simply bringing diverse employees in isn't enough.

"It's really not cool to be encouraging all of these young girls and young people of color to enter a field where they are going to face discrimination," says Honeywell. "It's up to those of us that are here, both men and women to encourage attitude changes."

Graphic by Shea Huffman/Marketplace

How can tech companies diversify their workforce?

Thu, 2014-07-24 13:54

Twitter is the latest tech company to disclose statistics on the race and gender of its workforce, following Facebook, Yahoo, Google and LinkedIn. Like those companies, Twitter is falling short on diversity. Technology companies seem to recognize that there is a problem. In an email to Marketplace, Twitter pointed to a list of organizations it supports, including Girls Who Code, YearUp, Black Girls Code, and others. 

These organizations help push more women and people of color through the pipeline and into tech jobs. 

Kathryn Finney, the founder of DigitalUndivided, says for people of color, networking can be a stumbling block.

"Usually in tech, you get a job because your friend works there, or you know the founder, or you went to the same school and were classmates," says Finney. "We're not part of those networks."

But people who work in tech say helping others break in is only part of the solution.

Leigh Honeywell, a security engineer, administrator of the Geek Feminism wiki, and member of Double Union, a feminist hacker space, says women who make it through the pipeline and get jobs in tech are confronted by a culture that can be downright sexist.

"I could tell you stories that would make you be like, is this 'Mad Men?'" Honeywell says, referring to the 1960s-set AMC TV series. 

She says simply bringing diverse employees in isn't enough.

"It's really not cool to be encouraging all of these young girls and young people of color to enter a field where they are going to face discrimination," says Honeywell. "It's up to those of us that are here, both men and women to encourage attitude changes."

GM's post-recall strategy pays dividends

Thu, 2014-07-24 13:54

General Motors says compensating victims of its faulty ignition switches will cost $400-600 million, maybe more. That doesn’t include repairs and other costs associated with multiple GM recalls. The company’s recall crisis isn’t readily apparent in auto sales numbers. New GM cars are selling well, without the company having to offer big incentives.

“It’s amazing. General Motors would have had an outstanding quarter had it not been for all of the costs associated with the recalls,” says AutoTrader senior analyst Michelle Krebs.

Car industry watchers credit GM’s improved public relations response after early bumbling. But not everyone is impressed.

“If I were grading them in my class, they’d get a low pass, which is sort of the equivalent of a D,” says Paul Argenti, who teaches corporate communications at Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business.

He wants to see the company better explain how it’s going to change a corporate culture that led to serious, deadly engineering flaws getting on the road. That goes beyond a simple PR response. It’s a real leadership challenge for CEO Mary Barra. Breaking decades of bad habits is a lot harder than fixing an ignition switch.

“All of what she’s doing and all of what she says will go for naught if a year from now, it’s business as usual,” says auto analyst Maryann Keller.

Mark Garrison: You wouldn’t think GM is the company going through a recall crisis based on sales numbers.

Michelle Krebs: It’s amazing. General Motors would have had an outstanding quarter had it not been for all of the costs associated with the recalls.

AutoTrader senior analyst Michelle Krebs adds that recalls actually provide a sales opportunity.

Krebs: A lot of these recall people are coming into the dealership and liking what they see in the showroom. They get their recall fixed, but they buy a new car.

And GM is driving sales without giving away the store, says Sean McAlinden with the Center for Automotive Research.

Sean McAlinden: They have not resorted to incentive campaigns to keep their sales up. Profitability on some of their newer models is very healthy.

Car industry watchers credit GM’s improved PR response after early bumbling. But Paul Argenti, who teaches corporate communications at Dartmouth’s business school, isn’t impressed.

Paul Argenti: You know, if I were grading them in my class, they’d get a low pass, which is sort of the equivalent of a D.

He wants to see the company better explain how it’s going to change a culture that led to serious, deadly engineering flaws getting on the road.

Argenti: What people wanna know in a crisis is why it happened. But then they also wanna know why that’s just not gonna happen again.

And that’s a real leadership challenge for CEO Mary Barra. For auto analyst Maryann Keller, it’s about action, not talk.

Maryann Keller: All of what she says will go for naught if a year from now, it’s business as usual.

And breaking decades of bad habits is a lot harder than fixing an ignition switch. I'm Mark Garrison, for Marketplace.

Facebook mobilizes, successfully

Thu, 2014-07-24 13:54

A couple years ago Facebook had to prove it could figure out how to make money off its mobile services.

Consider it done. 

Revenue from mobile ads helped propel the company’s profit to $800 million in the second quarter, up from $333 million a year earlier.

Those ads feature products like furniture or detergent, and they now appear — like it or not — as regularly as your friends' adorable baby photos in your Facebook mobile news feed.

“The mobile ads business is growing faster than anyone had anticipated,” says Ben Schachter,  internet analyst with Macquarie Capital, which invests in Facebook.

Google still owns the mobile ad space. The search giant took in 42 percent of all U.S. mobile ad revenue last year, according to the research firm eMarketer. Facebook commanded about 16 percent. But Google has been losing ground and Facebook is coming on strong.

“The thing is they're growing so fast, there's already the question, when are they going to take over Google,” says Karsten Weide, vice president for media and entertainment at International Data Corporation.

But there are some tougher questions, too, like how Facebook is going to keep up its daily user base, which didn’t grow in the latest quarter, and how Facebook plans to make money off new services like private messaging and virtual reality.

No deluge of campaign cash after limits end

Thu, 2014-07-24 12:57

In April, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down a decision in a big campaign finance case, McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission. The justices voted 5-4 to overturn certain limits on how much money Americans can give to candidates and committees.

The reaction was swift. There was concern, among the dissenting justices and campaign finance reform advocates, that the decision would open the floodgates, allowing more Americans to give more money. But so far, it seems the decision has only affected a small group.

Gone are what are called “aggregate limits” on political donations. That is, according to Emory University School of Law Professor Michael Kang, “the total amount an individual could give to candidates, parties and other PACs.”

In the past, a donor could give a maximum of $74,600 to party committees every two years, and $48,600 to federal candidates. A Republican donor named Shaun McCutcheon challenged those, and the court’s majority ruled they were unconstitutional. But, Kang says, here’s the thing: “The court striking down the aggregate limit probably won’t affect that many givers going forward.”

That’s because most Americans weren’t already affected by them.

“There really weren’t a lot of people bumping up against these aggregate limits. So, in 2012, I think the number is roughly 650 maxed out,” says Heather Gerken, a professor at Yale Law School. To “max out” means you gave as much as you could to candidates and committees – tens of thousands of dollars.

During oral arguments, the justices debated a hypothetical: With no aggregate limits, a donor could, in theory, funnel millions of dollars to a single candidate through committees. Gerken acknowledges that is plausible, but she says she doesn’t expect it will happen too often.

“If you have enough money to give $3.5 million in one check, you probably have enough money to fund your own super PAC,” she says, noting that is something many big donors have done. If you have your own super PAC, you have a lot more say over how your money gets spent.

So who has been affected most directly by the Supreme Court’s decision? Lobbyists.

Kelly Bingel is one of them. She is a big supporter of Democratic candidates.

“I think, as soon as the decision came out, every lobbyist in Washington, DC was looking at their checkbook, thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, what does this mean for me?’”

A lobbyist’s checkbook gets a lot of use. Part of her job, Bingel says, is to give money to politicians. She plans for it every year.

“This was a part of my family’s budget,” she allows.

Bingel pays out of pocket to go to political fundraisers, and there are a lot of them.

“We could spend breakfast, lunch and dinner with folks,” Bingel says. “My personal preference is to have breakfast and dinner with my family.”

Bingel estimates she gets around a hundred solicitations a day, mostly by email. In the past, those aggregate limits the Supreme Court overturned gave her an easy out:

“I mean, it used to be you could say, ‘I’m sorry. I’ve hit the max.’ Now, you have to say, ‘I’m sorry. I just can’t…’”

Lobbyist Kenneth J. Kies, managing director of the Federal Policy Group, used that line.

“In my case, it was actually true,” he says.

Kies bumped up against those caps many times. He has given hundreds of thousands of dollars to Republican candidates and Republican Party committees. 

Kies also worried about the effect of the McCutcheon decision, joking, “I was going to get rid of my email address and delist my phone number.”

One limit is still in place, a cap on how much a donor can give to a single candidate: $2,600.

“I think from the standpoint of campaign finance reformers, they feel like they dodged a bullet here,” says Kang, noting that “base limit” is something the justices could address in the future.

“I don’t think it’s too sweeping to say that the court really is on a path toward something approaching total deregulation of campaign finance,” he says.

If that limit on individual donations were to disappear, that would affect many more Americans.

Brogrammers give up some ground in comp-sci classes

Thu, 2014-07-24 10:58

Computer science is still a brogrammer’s world. But efforts to bring more girls and minorities into the field may finally be paying off.

According to the College Board, which administers Advanced Placement tests to high schoolers, the number of girls taking the AP computer science test in 2014 increased by 35.5 percent over last year. For boys, the increase was 24.5 percent.  While the participation for white students grew by 21.6 percent from 2013, the  rates of increase were even larger in other racial categories, including for non-Mexican Latinos, African-Americans, Asian-Americans and those who described their race as “other.”

Students who do well enough on the exam earn college credit for the course.

The College Board itself may be partly responsible for the increase. In collaboration with Google, it brought roughly 500 new AP math and science courses to schools with populations that are underrepresented in the STEM fields. One College Board official called the AP results the “first real indication of progress” for girls and minorities in years.

How can tech companies diversify their workforces?

The exam is still dominated by boys, specifically white and Asian ones.  And while the percentage of male test-takers dropped to its lowest level in five years in 2014, overall they still accounted for 80 percent of all students taking the test.

Similarly, while the percentage of white students who took the test dropped to its lowest rate in the last five years, white students still make up 50.4 percent of all test-takers.

The numbers are preliminary; the results of some make-up tests have not yet been recorded, according to Trevor Packer, who runs the AP program at the College Board.

The charts below show  the number of boys and girls who took the test from 2010 to 2014, as well as the increased participation rates by race.  

 

 

 

Kai Ryssdal vs. the American Girl Store

Thu, 2014-07-24 10:26

Walk into an American Girl store - any American Girl store - and you'll see different shades of pink. Everywhere. That, and dolls, which cost a minimum of $110. Accessories and services like ear-piercing cost more.

American Girl has been around since the 1980s. Their dolls started out as historical characters, who starred in accompanying books about significant periods in American history. Over the years, the line has expanded to include more contemporary characters.

Jean McKenzie, the woman who runs American Girl for its parent company, Mattel, says parents see the dolls as an investment. "I think they feel good about it because it’s quality and there’s just a lot of meaning behind it.”

She took Marketplace host Kai Ryssdal on a tour of her store, at The Grove in Los Angeles  He's ... well, you should just watch:

Video produced by Preditorial

Director: Rick Kent

Producer: Mimi Kent

Director of Photography: Anton Seim

Editor: Zachary Rockwood

Music: "Run Amok" Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com

Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0

A fund to invest more in rural infrastructure

Thu, 2014-07-24 08:57

Parts of rural America might be getting an infrastructure upgrade.

The Department of Agriculture is partnering with the private sector to launch a new investment fund stocked with $10 billion to go toward rural infrastructure development.

The idea is to bundle projects together so investors can more easily fund them, ranging from schools and hospitals to wastewater treatment facilities or even broadband.

For example, the state of Georgia exports nearly 30 percent of its agricultural products, according to Kent Wolfe, director of the Center for Agribusiness and Economic Development at the University of Georgia.

“In order to get those products to the port and compete on a global basis, we need to make sure that we have an efficient transportation system, requiring additional funds in rails, roadways, and port facilities,” Wolfe says, describing the type of investment his area might benefit from.

Especially in more rural locations, communities simply can’t afford to do these large projects on their own.

“Rural areas often have farmland and lower cost rural housing and that’s about it to tax,” says Larry DeBoer, a professor of agricultural economics at Purdue University. “In order to do a big project, the tax rates you’d need to do this sort of thing at normal interest rates would be quite high.”

CoBank, a national cooperative bank based in Colorado, is putting up the first $10 billion, though the Department of Agriculture is seeking additional funding from other private sources, like pension funds, endowments, and foundations.

The agency will then act as the matchmaker, finding projects for this fund to invest it. Some loans will be all private money, others a mix of private and public funding.

PODCAST: Breaking the glass ceiling

Thu, 2014-07-24 03:00

The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission has voted to change the way money market funds work. More on that decision. Plus, more on a new study shows that women and minority leaders tend to be punished for focusing on diversity, while white men are rewarded for the same behavior. Also, with the influx of young migrants detained at the Southwest border this year, we take a look at the countries from which most are fleeing: Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador.

Debating corporate tax inversions

Thu, 2014-07-24 03:00

Corporate tax inversions are the latest topic of debate on Capitol Hill. Allan Sloan, senior editor at large for Fortune magazine, appeared before the Senate Finance Committee on Tuesday to talk about  international taxation and ways to reverse American companies reincorporating overseas.

Click the media player above to hear Allan Sloan in conversation with Marketplace Morning Report host David Brancaccio to explain the maneuver, why it’s happening, and what government should do to regulate it. 


Some bond insurers oppose Detroit's bankruptcy plan

Thu, 2014-07-24 03:00

Retirees and employees have voted to accept benefit cuts under Detroit’s bankruptcy blueprint, but not all creditors are on board. Two of the biggest holdouts are bond insurers.

Some are cooperating with Detroit’s plan, but not Syncora Guarantee Inc.

“They’re fighting tooth and nail against the city’s proposed settlement, because it’ll cost them money,” says Alan Schankel, a municipal research analyst at Janney Montgomery Scott.

Syncora and Financial Guaranty Insurance Co. (FGIC) insured almost $1.5 billion of Detroit’s pension debt. The city is offering ten cents on the dollar, or less. That may not be enough.

“Bond insurers got in a lot of trouble in the 2008 crisis. A lot of them were investing in some very exotic derivatives and other things,” says Eric Scorsone, a public finance economist at Michigan State University.

Syncora was insuring mortgage backed securities and other complicated financial products, says analyst Alan Schankel. As the housing crisis hit, Syncora lost capital and its AAA rating.

This all comes at a time when fewer muni bonds are even getting insured. Schankel says before the financial crisis, more than half of new bonds got insurance.

“This year to date that percentage is 4.85 percent,” he says, calling it a precipitous drop.

He believes marketshare will improve over time. The question is whether it will happen in time for Syncora. 

Why young children are fleeing Central America

Thu, 2014-07-24 02:00

The issue of how to deal with young illegal immigrants has been particularly troubling for the Obama administration, with more than 57,000 young migrants, most from Central America, apprehended at the southwest border since October.

María Elena Salinas co-anchors the Univision Network’s national newscast “Noticiero Univision” and the weekly primetime newsmagazine “Aquí y Ahora." She took a recent trip to Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador to explore the social, political, and economic reasons why children are fleeing from those countries to the United States. 

Click the media player above to hear Univision anchor María Elena Salinas in conversation with Marketplace Morning Report host David Brancaccio.

Demographics, tech, and the digital divide

Thu, 2014-07-24 02:00

In the tech industry, one of the central debates has been over whether continued technological innovation can do much good for a wider group of people than just a narrow slice of the urban upper middle class. Tessie Guillermo, CEO of the tech consulting company ZeroDivide, has been thinking about these issues.

The “digital divide” — the gaps between technology haves and have nots — which inspired the name of her firm, is a real and pressing issue. The skewed demographics of the tech industry can also make using technology to improve social outcomes a challenge.

“It creates a lot of anxiety and fear,” says Guillermo.

The ability to give digital literacy to these groups — community organizations and underserved communities — is difficult, and the demographics compound the challenge.

Furthermore, the way the tech industry sells these improvements could be counterproductive.

“There’s not necessarily an app for everything,” says Guillermo.

There is an impatience to how the tech industry deals with problems, in terms of the constant iteration, that doesn’t always translate to other contexts. 

When music introduces a new technology

Thu, 2014-07-24 02:00

If music tech nerds had a patron saint, that patron saint might be electronic music pioneer Robert Moog. As an inventor and entrepreneur, Moog's impact on synthesizers and electronic music in general is best described by gear heads who are more knowledgeable than yours truly. Nonetheless I've been thinking about Moog and his synthesizers a lot.

The 9th anniversary of Moog's death is just under a month away on August 21st. I've been thinking about Moogs in part because of the band Neutral Milk Hotel, which played Brooklyn on Wednesday. At this point, the band has reached a kind of classic indie rock status — known far more now than it was back when it was making records. And one of the great songs in the band's set right now features a special version of the Moog called the Rogue, played by bassist Julian Koster. Not designed by Moog himself, the instrument has its supporters and detractors.

But dang if it doesn't sound pretty awesome when Koster plays it on this tune. The first time I heard it, I was floored. Check it out (gets good around 2:00):

 

Instrument technology in the electronic age has vastly expanded the number of options musicians have when they go about making their music. That’s had a massive impact on the art form—maybe more than other disciplines, though that could be my bias.

As an example, the Rogue is actually pretty old fashioned. It came out in 1981 — since then there have been so many other kinds of synthesizers and digital instruments that have appeared to change the landscape for musicians. But it was cheaper than earlier models, making it easier for people who wanted a monophonic synth to get and play with.

For musicians, most of whom do not start out rich, price point is often a key deciding factor. And as technology advances, it often gets cheaper. So I think the Rogue is still one of my favorites — proof that innovation at its best can move the needle and the listener.  

Why it's so difficult to break the glass ceiling

Thu, 2014-07-24 02:00

Workplace discrimination comes in many different forms and shapes. But research out of the University of Colorado shows how women and minorities are often punished for promoting other women and minorities.

Researchers at the University of Colorado say they think they’ve solved the puzzle of why there is still a glass ceiling. They say women and minority leaders are discouraged from focusing on diversity, while white men are praised for doing so.

Matthew Kohut is Managing Partner of KNP Communications and co-author of the book, “Compelling People: The Hidden Qualities That Make Us Influential.” 

“This is a double standard. There’s no question that this is straight up discrimination,” says Kohut.

Kohut says a positive case for diversity has to be made again and again.

“Certainly my hope would be that, that would minimize the impact of this double standard and that would begin to chip away at it,” says Kohut.

But in the meantime, the best and brightest employees could still be overlooked. Lissa Broome heads the Director Diversity Initiative at the University of North Carolina Law School.

“So I would really hate the result of this to be that people don’t go to bat for whomever they believe the best candidate is regardless of that person’s gender or race,” said Broome. 

The study suggests one way to change this behavior is to get rid of the idea of “diversity” and instead focus on “demographic unselfishness.” 

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