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New app to improve cycling in Portland

Thu, 2015-07-23 02:00

The city of Portland, Oregon is known for its enthusiast support of cycling. With 345 miles of bikeways snaking around and through its urban core, Portland has more cyclists per capita than any other town.

Now, a new project between the tech industry and city officials is hoping to make biking in Portland even easier.

Tech entrepreneur and cyclist William Henderson has created an app called Ride, which asks cyclists to collect data as they ride around Portland. That data will then help the city to plan better cycling infrastructure, like signals, lanes, safer routes and where to avoid traffic.

Currently, 6 percent of Portland’s population cycles to work. But that number leaps to 25 percent in the inner city, which is well above the national average of less than 1 percent.

“Right now, we have some great infrastructure for biking and walking and transit in Portland,” says Henderson. “But we’re really not going to get any more space for our roads as the city grows, so we have to make more efficient use of it.”

Software developer Chris Jones is using the app during this pilot phase. Jones says he likes it because it automatically starts tracking his route as soon as he starts pedaling.

“It’s nice to not have to open the app and say, ‘Okay, here we go, I’m starting my commute now.’ I want to just get on my bike and go where I’m going,” says Jones.

The goal is to have between five to ten thousand cyclists using Ride by the end of the summer.

In addition to the app, Henderson is installing wireless bike-counting sensors around the city to count cyclists. The idea is to replace Portland’s old methods, which includes volunteers on street corners making pen-and-paper tallies.

For Margi Bradway, active transportation manager at the Portland Bureau of Transportation, this new technology offers exciting possibilities.

“One of the reasons I’m really interested in this data is to understand cyclist types and cyclist behaviors — so when is someone willing to go on a busier street for a more direct route, versus a local street that’s further away,” says Bradway. “When we get this data we’ll start to see patterns to help us shape the future for cycling.”

Pearson nears deal to sell the Financial Times

Thu, 2015-07-23 02:00

The London-based Financial Times newspaper is reportedly close to being sold to a rival media company — Among potential buyers are German media company Axel Springer, as well as Bloomberg. The seller is Pearson, which in addition to publishing is big in the education field.

Jonathan Zimmerman is a professor of education and history at New York University. He joins us to talk about why Pearson might be interested in selling the FT, and what the rise of standardized testing may have to do with the decision.

Click the media player to hear more.

UPDATE: The Financial Times newspaper reports that Axel Springer is in advanced talks to purchase the paper from Pearson.

Brash new competitor challenges Amazon

Thu, 2015-07-23 02:00

Amazon is set to release earnings on Thursday. And now they’ve got more competition in the retail game. This week, Jet.com launched, boasting plans to lure you away from Amazon with the lowest prices on the internet. Founder Marc Lore seems to relish competing with Amazon. In 2010 Amazon bought his startup Quidsi for half a billion dollars.

Charla Mathwick, a marketing professor at Portland State, says it may seem crazy for Jet.com to boast that they'll take over the online retail market from Amazon. "But it all depends on what their goal is," she says. "Acquiring customers is going to be a big challenge for a company like this if the goal is to try to really take on Amazon. But I don't know if that's what they're doing. If the goal is to demonstrate a superior pricing algorithm, you may not need huge numbers of customers, you just need enough to demonstrate that the algorithm works."

Mathwick says Jet.com is looking for the impulse buying that has fallen off as customers stop going to malls and grocery stores.

Jet's business model is something akin to a combination of Amazon Prime and Costco. A $50 membership fee will get you free shipping and those low prices. Mike Maughan is with Qualtrics, an online data company. He says in the end it will boil down to customer experience. Jet has to make you feel like you’re getting more than just a good deal.

“I think it's incumbent upon Jet.com to demonstrate and provide an incredible customer experience," Maughan says. "Price isn’t everything. If it’s all that someone’s got, it won’t last and I don’t think it’s sustainable."

Maughan says the question is, "Is there an appetite for a competitor to Amazon? Amazon is very popular and a lot of people use it but it is not used ubiquitously. Still only about 10 percent of retail shopping happens online."

Jet.com is only two days old, so it might take a few more hours to determine if this business model is going to eventually work. But analysts say the first measure of its success might be how many customers it’s actually taking from Amazon. 

The nuts and bolts of robot soccer

Thu, 2015-07-23 01:53
255,000

That's how many jobless claims came in last week, the lowest number in four decades. As Bloomberg reports, economists are saying part of the reason is that employers are holding on workers to keep up with an uptick in demand. 

345

That's how many miles of bike ways snake their way through the streets of Portland, Oregon. Now a new app called Ride is hoping to make biking in the city even easier. It asks users to share cycling data collected through the app, which can then be used to improve biking infrastructure in and around Portland.

$50

That's the cost of a membership to Jet.com, a company that aims to compete with Amazon for the lowest prices on the internet. Think of it as a cross between Amazon Prime and Costco, with a flat fee for free shipping and  low prices. Analysts say that if the site has any hope of competing with some of the giants already in the market, they'll have to offer more than just low prices. Customer experience, in this case, may be the key.

1-0

That was the final score of the RoboCup World Championships, in which Japan bested China in the "child-sized humanoid football final." As the BBC reports, this year's games added new challenges, including replacing the easier-to-spot red ball with a white one, and installing a kind of artificial turf that gave some of the robots stability issues.

Soundtracks have a life beyond the movies

Wed, 2015-07-22 13:00

A movie’s soundtrack can have big impact on the movie itself. However, sometimes a soundtrack can take on a life of its own, says Los Angeles Times writer Gerrick Kennedy. Case in point, “Fifty Shades of Grey” and its use of the track “Earned It” by The Weeknd.

Gerrick Kennedy

Tony Wagner/Marketplace

“['Fifty Shades of Grey' is] not the greatest movie. Decent enough book. Soundtrack — super hot. And I think...we saw what just happened with really successful music, and how you build that into the film,” Kennedy says.

While Kennedy says that Weeknd fans may not identify with the film, "everybody that saw 'Fifty Shades of Grey' [knows 'Earned It'], so the song is killing pop radio."  

Kennedy says that the trend of creating a soundtrack that has consistency — which also extends to music from films like "Furious 7" and "The Hunger Games" — isn’t new.

“That brings you back to what was happening in the '90s, where it was always about the whole body; the entire soundtrack was what you bought,” he says.

Although this trend may have lulled for a few years, Kennedy says “now I think executives are working a little bit hard to make the music play into the film a little bit better.”

New York City gives up in Uber cap dispute

Wed, 2015-07-22 13:00

Uber has won a big one. 

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has been going after the pioneering sharing-economy company in a very public way the past couple of weeks,  saying he wanted to limit the number of Uber vehicles on city streets.

As of Wednesday, the mayor's administration has blinked, announcing it'll stop pushing for the cap

The city is now going to study the effect of for-hire cars on — one would imagine — the taxicab industry in New York. 

Moral of the story? You can indeed fight City Hall. 

Oil is cheap, but gas is still expensive in California

Wed, 2015-07-22 13:00

Willie Hudgins drives a 2006 Ford Expedition stretch limo. Earlier today, he pulled into a Mobil station in Birmingham, Alabama to get gas. He paid $2.39 a gallon. Happily.

"Oh, it's like, man, pennies on the dollar," he says, compared with before global oil prices collapsed.

The national average for gas is $2.74 a gallon. Then there's California, where prices are almost always higher.

"Typically, California prices should be about 40 cents above the national average," says Severin Borenstein with the Energy Institute at UC Berkeley's Haas School of Business.

But in Los Angeles right now, people are paying a dollar and a half more than the national average, he says.

Part of that is because California requires a cleaner burning fuel, Borenstein says, "and as a result, we can't trade gasoline with other parts of the country. We need this special blend."

Because there's no quick way to relieve a shortage, he says, prices spike when there's a hiccup in the production of that special blend — like an explosion at the Exxon Mobil refinery in Los Angeles in February. Borenstein says those usually fizzle out within a month or so, but not this time.

"It has definitely raised concerns that this isn't just natural shortages," he says.

One explanation: the California Energy Commission says refineries are making more than twice the profit per gallon than a year ago.

And finally, analysts say, when other states have shortages, they bring gasoline in through pipelines...but California doesn't have pipelines, so when the gas finally comes, it comes by barge or tanker, which costs more. Ed Hirs, an energy economist at the University of Houston, has a message for California residents: "You guys are screwed!"

"Those are highly technical industrial terms," he adds. "You're screwed in California."

Hirs says California's refineries can't meet consumer demand. And he says when you combine that with a lack of infrastructure, you're going to pay. Just like consumers did in New England this past winter. There, Hirs says, there were no pipelines to bring in enough natural gas to meet electricity demands.

Apple's drop illustrates the power of expectations

Wed, 2015-07-22 13:00

Apple announced Tuesday that it made a boatload of money in the third quarter (without saying boatload). Revenue was up more than 30 percent and CEO Tim Cook called it “an amazing quarter.”

But many investors just didn’t see it the same way, as they expected Apple to sell more iPhones than it actually did. That disappointment sent the company’s stock down more than 4.5 percent Wednesday– and experts say that demonstrates the danger of high expectations.

“Companies would like to exceed the expectations,” says Len Rosenthal, a finance professor at Bentley University. “It looks much better to do that, rather than disappoint.”

Companies will regularly issue guidance in order to try manage investors’ expectations, Rosenthal says. He says some companies might even try to game expectations, intentionally setting them low so the company can exceed them.

“That’s not a new thing,” he says. “It’s been going on for a long, long time. I think it’s kind of silly in some ways, but that’s the way the game is played.”

Rosenthal thinks the markets often overreact, putting too much emphasis on quarterly numbers.

Expectations can come from published reports from analysts or from investors, in so-called whisper numbers, “the collective expectation from investors who own a stock about a specific metric. In Apple’s case, how many iPhones they’re going to sell in a quarter,” says Gene Munster, a research analyst with Piper Jaffray.

Whisper numbers can be a bit murky, he says, but if companies miss those expectations, their stock may go down. Alternatively, he says if they exceed them, the stock may rise. However, investors may come to expect too much from companies with consistently strong track records, Munster says. He thinks Apple may have been the victim of its own success over the last decade.

“The success has created this underlying belief from investors that they can always do a little bit better,” he says. “That expectation has kind of fueled these whisper numbers to get to points where they’re not even achievable.” 

E! Network pins hopes on new Caitlyn Jenner series

Wed, 2015-07-22 13:00

This Sunday at 8 p.m., E! Entertainment TV will premiere Caitlyn Jenner's show "I Am Cait."

The network is calling the show a "documentary series," in an attempt to differentiate it from the reality shows featuring the Kardashians that have helped sustain the network's ratings for years.

While those reality shows still perform relatively well, the network's overall ratings in recent years have been slipping. E! averaged 648,000 primetime viewers in the 2011-2012 TV season, but in the TV season that just ended, its prime time average was down to 540,000 viewers, according to figures provided by the ratings firm Nielsen.

The Kardashian franchise has begun to show its age, says Joe Adalian, West Coast editor for New York Magazine's Vulture.com.

"E's problem is what a lot of cable networks face," Adalian says, "which is splintered audiences and not a lot new coming on board" to capture audiences' attention. "And that's why 'I Am Cait' could potentially be a game changer for E!," he says.

A game changer, because the intense media and public interest in Caitlyn Jenner is likely to fuel huge audiences for the show, at least initially. Jenner's interview on ABC's news magazine "20/20" reached almost 17 million viewers. Those are numbers "20/20" hadn't seen in 15 years, Adalian says.

"I have no doubt that E!, especially after the Diane Sawyer interview came out and did so well, was able to go back to advertisers and say, 'I think you want to be here,'" he says.

Initial reviews of the series have been somewhat positive, which may give E! executives hope that "I Am Cait" might help improve the network's fortunes.

"The E! Network has had problems in the last couple of years, because they haven't been able to launch new original programming, and some of their go-tos lagged in recent years," says Michael O'Connell, TV writer for The Hollywood Reporter.

"It's sort of had to rely on these sort of celebrity-focused docu-series," says O'Connell, "But it really is the Kardashian brand that carries them in prime time, especially in between award season, when they do so well with their red carpet coverage."

Developers look to create disability apps

Wed, 2015-07-22 13:00

It’s the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. The federal law opened up services and opportunities for millions of Americans.  Today, developers in the tech world are testing new ideas with the disabled community in mind.

Take Chad Hebel. Sometimes he'll go to a restaurant with friends only to find himself physically cut off from his company.

“You’re looking under the table at everybody else,” Hebel says of his experience being in a wheelchair in those settings. 

Hebel is a businessman with an eye for innovation. Both of those factors make him a valuable resource for developers looking to design assistive technologies to bring to market. Hebel, who mentors startup companies for the Dallas accelerator Health Wildcatters, says where there’s a need, there’s a business opportunity.

An Opportunity For Developers

Just like buildings constructed decades ago weren’t designed for people with disabilities, many of the gadgets and apps created today leave out a segment of the population. For example, Google Maps doesn’t tell you whether the sidewalks are wheelchair accessible. Another example: you still need to use your hands to make a drawing on your tablet.

Which is exactly why student Mohammed Azmat Qureshi is spending his days in a lab at UT Arlington surrounded by loose cables and pieces of robotics.

Oluwatosin Oluwadare (L) and Mohammed Azmat Qureshi 

Lauren Silverman

“There’s a huge potential of using the technology that is out there in a different way for the differently-abled people,” Qureshi says.

Qureshi and his partner Oluwatosin Oluwadare comprise one of several dozen teams that have submitted a proposal to a tech challenge called Connect Ability. The competition, which is sponsored by AT&T and New York University and has a $100,000 prize, is meant to empower people with disabilities.  

Collaboration Is Key 

Oluwadare says the device he's created with Qureshi, called “EyeCYou,” will help the visually impaired “see” people in front of them.

To show how it works, Oluwadare puts on a pair of glasses with a camera attached and snaps my photo. The software analyzes the image and the tablet reads aloud a description: "Person one is wearing an orange dominate shirt, has a light-skinned complexion.  She is a female adult."

So far, the device analyzes age, gender skin and shirt color. Oluwadare admits that some of the features it’s programmed to report may be sensitive – like skin color or age. But guidance from people living with disabilities is helping shape the technology. Xian Horn likes that.

"Unless you talk to the people that you’re trying to help, you’re not going to know — even with your best intentions — how to help," says Horn. Horn is a writer from Manhattan who has cerebral palsy, which impacts her mobility. She’s also working with developers in the Connect Ability Challenge.

For Horn, the priority is hands free technology. She has poor balance and muscle control.

“So the fact that I walk around the world with shiny blue ski poles means that my hands are occupied," Horn says.

Xian Horn

Rick Guidotti of Positive Exposure

One device she likes is called Pallette. It transforms your tongue into a mouse that can control anything from a wheelchair to a light setting. That might help people who have conditions like multiple sclerosis. Another technology called DrumPants gives a voice to people with difficulty speaking. They just have to tap sensors on their pants or shirt. Horn says the control box might be too large to fit well on a cane, and she got to give that group feedback.

“We can collaborate and create things that not only work in theory but actually have an impact on the future of someone’s life," Horn says. "This kind of technology can be life changing.”

The winner will be announced on July 27, the day after the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Practice makes perfect for summer learning

Wed, 2015-07-22 12:34

Summer is time for kids to relax and enjoy a vacation from school and learning. But that vacation can lead to a lot of kids losing a lot of knowledge, especially if they are from low-income households, according to researchers.

Traditionally, summer learning loss has been addressed through summer school, but that's never been popular with students, according to a New York company called Practice Makes Perfect. It's trying to change that, using new methods to reach students and create a summer school model that kids will actually want to attend.

Karim Abouelnaga is the CEO and founder of Practice Makes Perfect. He says his upbringing made him acutely aware of the struggles of learning as a low-income student.

“I was raised by a single mother on government aid and went through some of New York City’s most struggling public schools,” he says.

Abouelnaga developed Practice Makes Perfect with a group of friends while he was in college. Today the company works to eliminate summer learning loss for students every year by training students to teach peers that are four years younger than them.

“When I first pitched the idea of having a sixth grader mentor a second grader, people thought we were crazy,” Abouelnaga says. “I can tell you in practice it works wonders. Education still is very much a relationship-based business. The number one reason kids show up to our programs every single summer is because of the relationships they build with their mentors.”

Given the negative perceptions that surround summer school, Abouelnaga says he hopes that Practice Makes Perfect can be an example of how to make summer teaching effective.

“We give our kids a pre-test and post-test, and every single year to date so far we’ve eliminated the summer learning loss for 100 percent of our participants,” he says.

Police cams center of story again in Sandra Bland case

Wed, 2015-07-22 10:00

Video from a Texas state trooper’s dashboard camera is being scrutinized after capturing the officer’s violent encounter with a citizen who later died in jail. 

That citizen was Sandra Bland, a 28-year-old Chicago native who had just moved to Texas for a job at Prairie View A&M University. On July 10, she was pulled over by state trooper Brian T. Encinia for failing to signal a lane change. The exchange that followed soon escalated. Bland refused to put out a cigarette, after which the officer pulled her from her car.

As the New York Times reports, a dashcam video released Tuesday shows most of the ensuing violent encounter, including Encinia’s threat to use a stun gun on Bland, and audio from a portion of the video where the two are out of frame includes Bland saying, “You just slammed me, knocked my head into the ground.”

After three days in a jail cell, Bland was found dead, in what was originally deemed a suicide. Details continue to emerge, and authorities are now treating the case as a murder investigation.

With the release of the dashcam footage comes troubling revelations. As Buzzfeed writes, the Texas Department of Public Safety says the arrest violated several rules of conduct.  

The investigation into Sandra Bland’s death is the latest story fueling an ongoing national conversation about civilian deaths during arrests and while in police custody, racial violence and the flaws in our nation’s incarceration system.  

The Marketplace series,“Behind the Blue Line” explored some of the same issues that are surfacing in this case, namely questions about use of excessive police force and whether the filming of police can increase accountability and transparency.  

Police departments grapple with body camera costs  

Cases involving allegations of excessive police force have prompted proposals to equip police officers with body cameras to monitor their behavior. 

According to a survey by the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF), many police chiefs reported that the use of body cameras correlates with a decrease in complaints against officers.

However, there are monetary barriers to the cameras' implementation, which can cost up to millions of dollars annually for a city-wide program. Another survey from PERF reports that 39 percent of police executives have said that cost was one of the main reasons they don’t use body cameras within their departments.

Body cameras spread, changing how cops do their job

Aside from President Obama, who requested $263 million to fund body cameras and training for police officers across the country, others are trying to devote financial resources to increase accountability in policing. At the federal level, Attorney General Loretta Lynch announced in May that that the Justice Department would spend $20 million on body cameras for select police departments throughout the nation. 

Some places have already invested in the use of body cams. Take the Seattle Police Department.  It announced plans to spend $2 million on 1,000 cameras, and currently uploads police body cam footage to its YouTube channel.

Since 2012, Rialto, California's police department has also been using body cams.  Officers must turn them on “before any significant encounter with a member of the public, a witness or a suspect.”  

A study by the Cambridge University Institute of Criminology  in the United Kingdom found that in the first year of the department’s use of body cameras, there was an 88 percent decline in civilian complaints against police and a 60 percent decline in use-of-force by police. As a result, Rialto police chief Tony Farrar has supplied the entire department with body cameras. 

However, despite bodycams’ advantages, some officers and criminal justice experts have contested their use.  They argue that filming may prevent police officers from acting as they normally would, or inhibit them from using “adequate force when they need to.”

Training is in short supply for police forces  

Questions about Bland's mental health have been raised amid the Wednesday release of booking documents. The documents reveal discrepancies, with two forms indicating that Bland had attempted suicide in 2014 and 2015, respectively. 

Texas State Sen. Royce West has criticized jail officials for their treatment of Bland, saying he thinks they should have put her on suicide watch, which would require 15-minute face-to-face checkups, instead of the standard hourly ones. Bland's family, however, refutes the claim that she committed suicide. 

Ongoing police training is expensive and in short supply. Of the country’s 18,000 local and state police departments, just 15 percent “do comprehensive mental health crisis training,” according to a program manager with the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

Kevin Dillon, a retired police officer and owner of KFD Training and Consulting, says he thinks that police officers aren’t getting enough training in areas such as use of force.

Tight budgets can make spending on training difficult, he says. 

“[Training can cost] anywhere from $100 for a one-day course for one officer to over $10,000 for a whole department for a week,” Dillon told Marketplace's Sally Herships. 

Why a share's price and its value might not line up

Wed, 2015-07-22 07:30

Valuation is a sticky subject: what is a company worth? Apple was worth $766 billion at the start of the week. This morning it was worth $50 billion less. Yesterday, Facebook was worth less than General Electric: today it’s worth $2 billion more.

How can this be? How can a company’s value change so quickly in such a short time? The answer is, it depends on what you mean by “value.” There are a couple of ways of determining a company’s valuation, as this short video neatly explains. There’s the easy, shortcut way, which is to ask what everyone else thinks – it’s right there in the stock price. Multiply that number by the number of shares that the company has outstanding, and you get something called the market valuation, or the market capitalization.

But there are a couple of problems with this approach. First off, only asking people what they think something is worth is a flawed strategy … because people are often just plain wrong. Second, when people buy shares in a company, they’re making a bet, hoping that the share price will rise. Which means a lot of people in the market aren’t focused on the company’s worth, they’re really just interested in its price, which is an important distinction.

It’s that focus on worth that defines the second way of determining a company’s value. It’s called a fundamental valuation, and it requires a lot more than just looking at a stock price. Analysts doing a fundamental valuation do what’s called due diligence: they comb through the company’s books, see what it earns and how it earns it, how much debt it has and what the competition is like. It’s an exhaustive, time-consuming and expensive process, but investors fail to do it at their peril.

The fundamental valuation does indeed drive the market valuation to some extent: a lot of the people buying shares have done the hard work to assess a company’s worth. But a lot have not. A lot are lazy so-and-sos who buy when something’s rising and sell when it’s falling. That so-called momentum trading, can skew the price of a stock dramatically, pushing it way higher than it should be, and turning trading in the stock market into a much riskier business than it should be. Because it you buy at a point higher than the fundamentals of the company justify, and the market corrects, you could be left badly needing a drink.

PODCAST: Banking in Cuba

Wed, 2015-07-22 03:00

There is word today that a bank in Florida has set up a direct link with a bank in Havannah. It's called a correspondent deal, and we'll talk about how it will improve banking between Cuba and the U.S. And an advocacy group in Chicago is tackling a problem affecting transgender people: how to find businesses and service providers that are not just friendly, but understanding of their needs. 

Homejoy shuts its doors

Wed, 2015-07-22 02:00

At the end of July, the on-demand cleaning start-up Homejoy will shut down in the wake of lawsuits challenging the company's classification of workers as contractors rather than employees. It's a familiar story that has affected companies like Uber, Lyft, and Handy.

Click the media player above to hear Marketplace's Molly Wood talk with Christopher Koopman, research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, about how this case signals to a change in the sharing economy. 

According to Koopman, the sharing economy's growth in recent years "has been driven by the fact that this isn’t a traditional business model and it isn't an employer and employee relationship." Yet, this is precisely the point of contention for the numerous lawsuits levied against Homejoy and others.

Companies in the sharing economy toe a dubious line between online platform, social network, and employer. Koopman maintains that "saying they're no longer a platform connecting people but in fact an employer could really spell doom for a lot of these companies like we're seeing with Homejoy."

In the wake of Google snatching up Homejoy's tech and product team, Koopman sees the future as especially bleak for small outfits if these organizations are deemed employers: "Only the largest and most deep pocketed firms are going to be the ones that are able to weather that storm. So you'll see firms like Uber, Lyft and the other really large players in the sharing economy likely survive. But this could be extremely difficult for the small startups."

Apple, Microsoft, and Yahoo make, lose, and lose money

Wed, 2015-07-22 02:00

Apple (AAPL) reported its fiscal third-quarter earnings after the closing bell on Tuesday. Earnings were up 38 percent from the same period one year ago, to $10.7 billion. Revenues were up 33 percent to $49.6 billion. iPhone sales were up 35 percent, totaling 47.5 million in the quarter, and iPhone sales more than doubled in China, a key market for mobile technology.

Nonetheless, Apple stock fell 7 percent in immediate after-hours trading following the earnings release. Investment analysts were expecting stronger iPhone sales — in the 50-million-unit range. The stock selloff may reflect investors’ concerns that the iPhone juggernaut could be peaking and the company's iPhone franchise losing momentum.

iPhone sales account for 63 percent of Apple’s global sales, up from 53 percent of sales one year ago. By continuing to roll out major upgrades of the iPhone series, Apple has succeeded in pushing up iPhone prices by $100-per-phone to $662-per-phone on average, even as smartphone prices overall have been declining. Apple has continued to develop and release new versions of its popular iPad tablets, and it has introduced a new product category, the smart-watch (the company did not break out sales figures for its new Apple Watch separately in this earnings report).

Yahoo (YHOO) continued on its turnaround path in its fiscal second quarter, reporting higher revenues but a net loss due to higher expenses. The company increased sales by 15 percent year-over-year, more than analyst expectations. However, Yahoo’s cost of traffic acquisition — money it pays search partners — more than tripled, which cut into earnings and led to a net quarterly loss of $22 million.

CEO Marissa Mayer expressed satisfaction with Yahoo’s results, pointing to improvements in the company’s mobile, video, and social-media businesses, which are all key to Mayer's revival plans for Yahoo.

Microsoft (MSFT) reported a record net loss in its fiscal fourth quarter, of $3.2 billion. That loss was primarily due to a $7.5 billion accounting charge Microsoft took in the quarter for its ill-fated purchase of Nokia. Microsoft announced earlier in July that it plans to eliminate 7,800 jobs connected to its troubled mobile-phone business. Microsoft reported that quarterly revenue was down 5 percent compared to the same quarter last year. Its full-year revenue increased to $93.5 billion from $86.8 billion the previous year. Annual profit fell to $12.2 billion from $22 billion the previous year. In the fourth quarter, Microsoft experienced some weakness in its Office and Windows product lines, countered by strength in cloud services, Xbox, and Surface tablet computers. 

In home bidding wars, love letters can seal a deal

Wed, 2015-07-22 02:00

In many real estate markets around the country, a shortage of homes for sale is creating stiff competition among buyers. In order to stand out in a possible bidding war, some buyers try to win favor by writing a personal appeal to the seller. 

“When the listing for your home came up online, we fell in love,” wrote Becca Schulman Havemeyer in a letter to the seller of a four bedroom home in the Boston area. “We love the charm and character of your home and can tell that your family cherished it as well.”

The Havemeyers had tried to boost their chances of getting the house by offering more than the list price. They also included an “escalation clause” in the offer, saying they’d be willing to bid yet higher, in case it came to that.

Schulman Havemeyer says the financial extras didn’t move the seller, who initially went with another bidder. But when that deal fell through, the seller turned to the Havemeyers because of their letter.  

“I've confirmed with her, because we've now been in touch, that she loved our letter and loved thinking about a family — a young family — coming into her home and having new memories there and honoring it in a different way,” Schulman Havemeyer says.

Potential homebuyers have used the love letter tactic for years in tight markets. But the letters may be more necessary today as way to get sellers' attentions. Demand for homes outstrips supply in many cities, properties are selling quickly, and sellers may enjoy multiple bid offers.

“I want the seller to feel the humanness of the bid,” says Kat Wies, a Durham, N.C.-based realtor who regularly includes a cover letter with her clients’ offers.

Wies's letters aren’t just a big wet kiss, though. She says she describes what the potential buyers like about the house.

“But you also want to describe the things the potential buyers would need to spend money on,” she says.

Some realtors say potential buyers need to be cautious not to spill their guts along with their ink, as the strategy can backfire. Even the Havemeyers, who penned love letters themselves, chafed at receiving them in return.

Will Havemeyer says it felt odd to read about how much someone else would enjoy the home he put a lot of work into. He still thought of it as his house.

“Hearing someone else talk about how they're going to live in it is hard to take,” he says.

In that case, where words failed, money still talked. The winning bidders whose letter didn’t sit right did ultimately prevail — but Havemeyer says it was largely because they were paying cash.

Looking for progress for treating Alzheimer's

Wed, 2015-07-22 02:00

More than five million Americans suffer from Alzheimer’s, a disease that can't be prevented or slow, much less cured. The FDA hasn’t approved a new drug to treat it in more than 10 years. As a result, some big pharmaceutical companies are getting together in Washington this week to discuss experimental drugs that hope to fill that market gap. 

Eli Lilly is releasing results from a clinical trial of solanezumab. Dr. Bill Thies is senior scientist in residence at the Alzheimer’s Association. "One of the issues in Alzheimer's trials is that it's a relatively slowly progressing disease," he says. "So it's hard to see changes in the rate of progression."

But Thies says today’s data should give doctors a better sense of whether this drug is working. The key is a third trial that’s already underway. The results of that trial should be made available in 12 to 18 months. "The FDA has agreed to accept the first two trials as a pivotal proof of the effectiveness of the drug," Thies says.

"So, if this third trial is successful, that gives us the opportunity to see a drug that actually will be eligible for licensing. That data is in the future but it's relatively soon in the future."

Ashtyn Evans, a healthcare analyst with Edward Jones, says the market potential for drugs like solanezumab is huge. "This is an unmet need," she says. "There's currently nothing on the market right now that is disease modifying or actually slows the cognitive decline. So, the potential for a drug that actually helps slow the decline could be quite large."

Eli Lilly sees a market opportunity and has already invested close to a billion dollars in its Alzheimer’s program. After all, the disease is the sixth leading cause of death among Americans and is the only one in the top ten that currently can’t be prevented, cured or slowed. 

An online directory aims to help transgender people

Wed, 2015-07-22 02:00

About half the time Ricky Hill of Chicago goes to the doctor, Hill has to educate the doctor about being transgender. Other times, clinic workers have called Hill by the wrong name. These are experiences with which many other transgender people can identify.

"We figure out who is a doctor that's not going to mis-gender me, or get my name wrong every single time I go in. Or, look at me like I'm a weirdo. Or, ask a bunch of inappropriate questions that have nothing to do with the sinus infection that I came in for," Hill says.

Ricky Hill

Nova Safo/Marketplace

Hill, 32, identifies between the male and female genders, and prefers the pronouns them and they, versus him or her. "I identify as a trans-masculine, gender-queer person," Hill says.

Hill is always on the lookout for doctors, hairstylists, gender-neutral bathrooms, and any other service or business where they can feel accepted.

"It is a constant explanation," Hill says, "I would love to have a day where my gender was not the topic of some sort of conversation."

This is why a non-profit advocacy group in Chicago has created an online database to help transgender people find businesses and service providers that are not just friendly, but understanding of their needs. Most of the online directory is comprised of healthcare services, and it includes a rate and review function, as well as the ability to search for businesses and providers by location.

The directory, called RAD Remedy — RAD stands for Referral Aggregator Database — is online, but still in development mode. It could potentially make a big impact, because of the sizable population of transgender Americans; up to 700,000 people, according to an estimate by UCLA's Williams Institute.

"Our, sort of, hope is to provide as much information to people as possible, for them to know what they're walking into," says Riley Johnson, RAD Remedy's co-founder.

It is not just an issue of convenience. More than a quarter of transgender people report harassment in a medical setting, says Daphna Stroumsa, a resident OBGYN at the Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit.

Robert Garofalo 

Nova Safo/Marketplace

Stroumsa has researched transgender healthcare, finding that it can even be difficult to identify surgeons willing to work with patients who are transitioning.

"Trans people have suffered so much from the way the healthcare system has treated them," Stroumsa says. "The medical professions have not been taught and trained the cultural sensitivity issues and the medical issues."

Among the clinic's listed on RAD Remedy is Chicago-based Lurie Children's Hospital's outpatient clinic for transgender youth. It is one of few focused on that population.

"We've had ... patients come from as far as Kentucky, Michigan ... Iowa. All the surrounding states of the Midwest," says Robert Garofalo, a specialist in pediatrics and adolescent medicine, who runs the clinic.

Garofalo says there are only a couple of dozen other clinics like his.

American foodmakers see new market with TPP

Wed, 2015-07-22 02:00

Congress gave President Barack Obama authority to fast-track those trade talks, but there’s still not a done deal. Negotiations continue later this month to finalize the trade pact. But one agenda item is causing friction between the U.S. and another part of the world. Politico reports that the latest flash point is over food, setting up a battle between America and the European Union.

This is all part of an ongoing fight between the U.S. and EU, which is very good at protecting food names such as Champagne, Gorgonzola cheese or Parma ham. That's a big deal for producers of particular types of good. Take Gouda cheese — The EU awarded the Dutch a protected geographical indication for Gouda cheese.  

“They get very upset when firms elsewhere use that name to identify the product,” says Gary Hufbauer, senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics. “They don’t want others crowding into what they regard as their market and that’s what’s at stake.”

And that fight is now apparently playing out in America’s trade dealings with Asia. American food makers want to sell more there, and don’t want to be told what to label their products. That’s why high-paid lobbyists and politicians are talking about American cheeses and sausages. 

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