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Tech IRL: Digital inheritance

Fri, 2015-01-09 08:08

 Inheritance can be financial, physical, personal, intimate. But only recently have we begun to think of it as digital. Here are five questions to address the idea of digital inheritance: 

1. What happens on the Internet when someone dies?
We see the basics of this secondhand – Facebook pages come down or are turned into memorials. Twitter pages come down or go silent. Email addresses work the same way – if a password is left behind, relatives can set up automated messages that relay the news and set up a timeline to delete the account. This can also be done by an account holder using Google Will and other sites that will check to make sure you’re alive and delete the account after predetermined periods of inactivity. Some tech companies will allow relatives to obtain passwords to access files, or will terminate an account after someone dies. But all of this is much easier if people make accommodations for their digital assets in their will.
 
2. What could you inherit, or leave behind, digitally?
Anything, really. Photos, bitcoin, passwords, writing. Some people joke that if they die, they’d like their friends to clear their history – and theoretically, you could leave or receive instructions to do just that. But more seriously, banking info and things tied to offline lives will be sorted out by heirs, but digital-only things like subscriptions and social-media accounts may fall into the category of "things that need to be specifically addressed in a will."
 
3. Who has access to information, files and social networks?
It depends a lot on where you live. Some sites will allow anyone to report someone as deceased (they do attempt to confirm this). Some sites will give information to relatives or a spouse to handle an account. A few states have laws allowing relatives to terminate, access or control various types of accounts. In Delaware in 2014, a law was passed making digital assets part of the general estate and applying the same instructions. In most states, this should be addressed more directly in a will.
 
4. How can you prepare to bequeath your digital legacy?  
Use sites that hold all your account information and files in one place, like Cirrus and Chronicle of Life. You can make a Google Will. You can specify who you want to receive your digital information. If you receive digital information, you hold the power of whether to delete or preserve a social-media account, take pictures offline or create a memorial.
 
5. What does the future hold for this kind of information?
As digital information becomes more integral to everyday life, more states will likely introduce legislation related to digital assets after death, and digital material could be absorbed more frequently into an entire estate. It makes sense that as our online lives become more intertwined with our offline lives, accommodations will be made to allow family and friends access the same way they would to boxes in the attic or tangible belongings. Similarly, people may begin making their own provisions and laying out specifics for what they want deleted or saved, and who they want in control. As algorithms become more advanced, there are some potentially strange ways to use digital information. You can currently tweet from the afterlife, and on the show Black Mirror, re-create a personality based on online history. 

The next generation of Social Security

Fri, 2015-01-09 07:40

Inheritance is not just personal. It's factors into the broader economy: what we leave behind for future generations, what one generation saves for itself, and for the next.

As Americans, we spend most of our careers paying into social security, with the promise that we'll get a little money from the country in our old age. But as Baby Boomers age and retire the Social Security reserves are strained.

Baby Boomers expanded the workforce on their own -- add into the mix a major influx of women into the workplace, and the dwindling reserves in the disability program and the retirement programs make sense. These are problems that have been predicted for years, and since Social Security was introduced, Congress has adjusted and reallocated budgets to keep the programs solvent and keep benefits stable. 

Without any changes, Social Security's disability reserve fund will run out next year. The retirement trust fund will exhaust in 2034. The facts sound a bit scary, but Stephen Goss, chief actuary of the Social Security Administration, says there isn't much reason to worry. Even if Congress did nothing to reallocate funds, the money coming into the Social Security program through payroll taxes would keep benefits going at 77 cents to the dollar for retirement, and 81 cents to the dollar for disability. 

Still, half of millennials don't think there will be any money left for them in social security when they retire, according to a Pew poll.

Alicia Munnell, director of the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College, agrees with Goss that Social Security will bounce back. So why the concern? Is Social Security a strained part of a larger retirement system desperately in need of overhaul? 

Stephen Goss and Alicia Munnell speak with Lizzie O'Leary to talk about how and when Congress needs to act to keep Social Security solvent, and how current generations should approach retirement in order to maintain benefits for the future. 

Quiz: How to turn kids into bookworms

Fri, 2015-01-09 04:41

Kids who read for pleasure are more likely to have parents who do the same, according to a poll by Scholastic.

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PODCAST: Cellphones in schools

Fri, 2015-01-09 03:00

252,000 new jobs were added in December, according to the Labor Department. More on that. Plus, New York City is poised to lift a ban on cell phones at schools. We look at the impact - the ban created a mini industry around phone storage – at some schools, kids had to leave their phones in vans parked outside. What happens to those businesses now? And reporter Nova Safo has a wrap up of this year's consumer electronics show.

The latest in virtual reality from CES 2015

Fri, 2015-01-09 02:00

Virtual reality is big at this year's Consumer Electronics Show, and Oculus VR is leading the way. So we gave their latest headset a spin and found it almost disarmingly immersive.

Click the media player above to hear more.

A year in jobs reports

Fri, 2015-01-09 02:00

With the last jobs report of 2014 now available to us, we can take a full long look back at the year.

For starters, 2014 ended with much stronger job growth than it began with. 
U.S. Jobs Added Per Month, 2014 |Create infographics
Year over year, 2014 grew the most jobs since 1999.
Annual U.S. Job Growth |Create infographics
In a stark move, the unemployment rate jumped down two tenths of a percent in December of 2014 to 5.6%, the lowest it’s been since 2007.  It’s down a full 1.1 percentage points compared to last year.
U.S. Unemployment Rate |Create infographics
In November’s jobs numbers, we saw hourly wages jump 0.4%. That was a big bump for one month, and in December those gains were erased. 2014 as a whole was pretty sad for wage growth ... and so was 2013 ... and so was 2012. As you can see in the chart below, wages have only barely crept up since 2010.

That’s the case for nominal wages, which are wages that don’t take inflation into account.  When you take inflation into account, real wages haven’t moved for decades.

Holding a cellphone for $1 a day

Fri, 2015-01-09 02:00

A ban on cell phones in New York City Schools that's been around for almost a decade is expected to end in March. The city's mayor, Bill de Blasio, made that announcement this week, arguing the prohibition makes it hard for schoolkids to contact their parents.

On top of that, he says it is unfair that the rule is enforced more strictly at lower-income schools where there are metal detectors.

But lifting the ban will do more than let phones back into the classroom — It will also kill a number of small businesses.

Click the media player above to hear more.

New York's most famous rat

Fri, 2015-01-09 02:00

It's a chilly day in midtown Manhattan, but union organizer Julian Tysh is undeterred. He's here representing Teamsters Local 814 to protest businesses that hire non-union movers. And he's not alone. 

Union organizer Julian Tysh (L) 

Tobin Low

After unfurling what looks like an inflatable mattress, he pulls the cord on a small engine, and a balloon begins to take shape: first the belly, then the claws, then the buck teeth, and finally the yellow eyes.

Julian Tysh props up the balloon as it inflates.

Tobin Low

Finally, at its full 12 feet in height, a giant rat stands on the sidewalk.

Meet Scabby, an icon of labor protests in union towns like New York and Chicago. As union president Jason Ide puts it, "The rat is like the bat signal for the labor movement in New York. When you put the rat up, everybody walking by knows that workers right here aren't being treated fairly." 

Both ugly and effective, Scabby makes regular appearances during labor disputes. He's even been taken to court, when an asbestos contractor argued that the rat qualified as "disruptive activity." (A New York district judge ruled that Scabby is protected under the First Amendment.)

But as much as he is an integral part of the metropolitan skyline, Scabby isn't so much a city slicker as a country mouse.

Just ask Peggy O'Connor. She and her husband Mike have owned and operated Big Sky Balloons and Searchlights in Plainfield, Illinois, for 33 years. Back in 1990, they got a call from a union steward in Chicago who wanted to make a statement at his next rally. So Mike, who designs the balloons for the company, made him a rat. Peggy says that in the original design, Scabby looked kind of friendly. The union steward wanted him uglier. 

Says Peggy, "Mike redesigned it with mean buck teeth, yellowish squinty eyes, big claws, festering nipples, belly art. And he sent that design back to the union steward, and the guy said 'Perfect!'"

After his big debut, orders started coming in from other unions in Chicago. New York, also a big union town, followed suit.

These days, Scabby is the O'Connors' trademarked best-seller. He comes in sizes ranging from 6 to 25 feet tall and costs between $2,000 and $8,000. You can even customize him with extras, like a union worker getting squeezed in his hand, or a money bag to represent corporate greed. 

Teamsters 814 in New York opted for a basic Scabby, though president Jason Ide says they also own others from Big Sky Balloons that they use at protests. 

"We also have an inflatable pig. Occasionally we’ve used an inflatable cat," says Ide. 

Scabby (L) and the Corporate Pig (R) are pictured in midtown Manhattan.

Tobin Low

But Scabby remains the star, even if he's not everyone's favorite. Ide tells a cautionary tale about a Scabby that was not so lucky: "A good friend of ours, a Chicago’s teamsters union, had a non-union contractor slash the rat with a knife and drive over it five or six times with his car." (The contractor was convicted of a felony and will serve jail time.)

As of yet, Ide says they haven't experienced any major run-ins. Mostly just tourists stopping to take pictures and say "cheese."

 

A D+ for early education

Fri, 2015-01-09 02:00

The newspaper Education Week is out with its annual report card on the state of American education.

Overall, the country gets a C for its performance on a range of measures, with Massachusetts finishing first among the states. When it comes to educating the youngest children, things look even worse. Less than half of three- and four-year olds are enrolled in preschool, with young children from low-income families even less likely to be in school.

What does it mean for our society and economy to be doing such a bad job of preparing kids for school?

Click the media player above to hear more.

Is North Korea really responsible for the Sony hack?

Thu, 2015-01-08 14:50

FBI Director James Comey gave a speech yesterday and doubled down on the FBI's decision to name North Korea as the source of the late November cyber attack on Sony Pictures.

According to the FBI, the hackers made some sloppy mistakes. They often used a proxy system to hide their real location but in a few cases signed into a Sony server and posted online without concealing their location. The FBI says their IP address is known to be exclusively used by North Korea.

Kim Zetter, a reporter at Wired and author of "Countdown to Zero Day: Stuxnet and the Launch of the World's First Digital Weapon," isn't convinced North Korea is to blame for the attack.

"We still don’t have all of the evidence and all of the information that’s backing his strong claim there," Zetter says.

A few things that give Zetter pause:

  • We don’t know what this IP address is or what it’s connected to.
  • The FBI is saying that this IP address is exclusively used by North Korea. How do we know that?
  • Initial communication from the hackers never mentioned the movie "The Interview." It appeared to be an extortion attempt to get money out of Sony.

The FBI has requested that the government  unclassify information related to the case, so that more can be publicly disclosed.

As for Sony? They’re still struggling and are working on replacing equipment.

Auto industry has a record year (for safety fines)

Thu, 2015-01-08 12:57

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration announced today its cumulative list of fines and civil penalties against automakers.

The biggest — also revealed today — is a $70 million fine for Honda for failing to report 1,729 death and injury claims to the federal government.

Last year the NHTSA  issued a total of $126 million in fines ... the most ever.

That's what they call a canvas in the big city

Thu, 2015-01-08 11:31

If you happen to live in a big city, you probably have noticed huge advertisements on the sides of buildings. Not digital billboards or vinyl sheets with computer-printed graphics. But hand-painted art, literally as big as a building.

"Walldogs" is the industry term for the people who paint these murals. It is also the name of a Los Angeles-based company that does that kind of work here in town.

Owner Riley Forsythe has been in the business of painting advertisements and billboards for 40 years. Outdoor advertising and billboards were much more difficult to create in the pre-digital era.

"Before 1990, all the large billboards, including Los Angeles, were all hand-painted. Most people don’t know that," says Forsythe. "All of us were trained to paint photo-realistically, to reproduce the artwork as accurate as possible on these billboards, at scale."

Listen to the full interview with Forsythe in the audio player above.

Walldogs: painting ads on 230-foot tall buildings

Thu, 2015-01-08 11:31

If you happen to live in a big city, you might have noticed huge advertisements on the sides of buildings while driving around town. Not digital billboards or vinyl sheets with computer-printed graphics. But hand-painted art, literally as big as a building.

"Walldogs" is the industry term for the people who paint these murals. It is also the name of a Los Angeles-based company that does that kind of work here in town.

Owner Riley Forsythe has been in the business of painting advertisements and billboards for 40 years. Outdoor advertising and billboards were much more difficult to create in the pre-digital era.

"Before 1990, all the large billboards including Los Angeles were all hand painted, most people don’t know that," says Forsythe. "All of us were trained to paint photo-realistically, to reproduce the artwork as accurate as possible on these billboards, at scale."

Listen to the full interview with Forsythe in the audio player above.

Some very expensive drugs may soon get a lot cheaper

Thu, 2015-01-08 11:26

There’s a good chance some of the most expensive drugs out there may soon get a bit cheaper.

Under provisions in the Affordable Care Act, it’s now easier to get approval for what are called biosimilar drugs. These are drugs that are similar – get it – to biologic, or biologically derived, medications.

Earlier this week, a panel unanimously recommended that the FDA approve the first biosimilar in the U.S. If these copycat drugs pick up steam, Rand predicts savings could reach billions in short order. 

 

Obama's latest move to boost housing market

Thu, 2015-01-08 11:18

A reduction in the mortgage insurance premiums for FHA loans, worth an estimated $900 a year to new homebuyers, is one of the most aggressive policy changes that the president can make unilaterally. It doesn't sound like much.

Susan Wachter, professor of real estate at the Wharton School, says it will have a big impact for the hundreds of thousands of households projected to take advantage of the program. But its broader economic impacts will be limited, in part because the housing market isn't being held back by the cost of funding, but by the difficulty of getting a loan in the first place.

CoreLogic chief economist Sam Khater says it'll take more than legislative action to spark a real recovery in the housing market. More people will need to be working good jobs for good pay, and wages will need to rise first.

 

Redefining the definition of a workweek

Thu, 2015-01-08 11:15

Until the mid-19th century, the average American worked from dawn to dusk, or longer. But when the industrial revolution changed the nature of work, and more people began punching the clock at factories and mines, workers began calling for a shorter, less physically exhausting workday.

The workweek often fluctuated between 35 and 40 hours when President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938. It set the maximum workweek at 44 hours, but only applied to about a fifth of the labor force at the time, according to the Department of Labor.

Republicans are now pushing to change one definition of a workweek, as defined by the Affordable Care Act, from 30 hours a week to 40. The move could benefit business owners who wouldn't be required to provide health insurance for employees who work less than 40 hour a week.

But for the 7 million Americans who say they want full-time work but can't find it, relief might be harder to come by. 

(Raghu Manavalan/Marketplace)

How the 40-hour workweek became the norm

Thu, 2015-01-08 11:15

Until the mid-19th century, the average American worked from dawn to dusk, or longer. But when the industrial revolution changed the nature of work, and more people began punching the clock at factories and mines, workers began calling for a shorter, less physically exhausting workday.

The eight-hour workday didn't become the norm until 1938, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Fair Labor Standards Act.

Now Republicans are pushing to change the definition of a full-time employee from one who works 30 hours a week to one who works 40 hours, for eligibility under the Affordable Care Act.

Some business owners might see some relief by not having to provide health insurance for employees who work less than 40-hour weeks. But for the 7 million Americans who say they want full-time work but can't find it, relief might be harder to come by.

(Raghu Manavalan/Marketplace)

Wyoming tries to prepare for life beyond oil

Thu, 2015-01-08 10:55

At the Cyclone Drilling offices in Gillette, Wyoming, brothers Patrick and Paul Hladky are arguing over who should to talk to the reporter. They laugh and trade barbs and appear to be in surprisingly good spirits, given that it has not been a very good couple of months for them. 

Cyclone is one of the largest oil drillers in Wyoming, but falling oil prices have forced them to start idling rigs. More than 25 percent of the company’s rigs could be sidelined in 2015. “I’d say that I’d feel fortunate," if 25 percent was all he had to idle, Paul says.

But the Hladkys are less worried about that than you might expect. “When you’re in oil and gas, you realize that there’s going to be highs and there’s going to be lows and you prepare yourself for the lows," Paul says. "If you’re not prepared, you’re not going to be in business very long.”

That’s a lesson states like Wyoming, North Dakota and Alaska have taken to heart. These days, they all have sizeable savings accounts for when prices drop.

A few decades ago, things were different.

Author and journalist Samuel Western learned at a party that at one point in the 1960's, Wyoming had just $100 in its bank account. “And I said, ‘that’s got to be apocryphal, that just can’t happen,'" Western says. "And yet, when I interviewed former governor Stan Hathaway, it was not $100, it was $80 in the general fund. So I kind of said, ‘How could that possibly be with all our mineral resources?’"

It was around that time that Wyoming started saving some of its mineral revenue in order to even out the cycle. Western says those in power have not forgotten the history, though, and the memory of it has shaped a survivalist mentality about the economy.

“You become a stasher. You want to hide your money in coffee cans — and we still do that in Wyoming," he says. "We’re still afraid we’re just not going to have enough that we can survive and we won’t go back to those old days again.”

In Western's view, all that stashing just hides the underlying problem, that Wyoming's economy depends on only one thing: minerals. 75 percent of Wyoming's revenue comes from oil, coal and natural gas.

Western argues that getting out of the cycle takes more than saving and points to Texas, which back in the 1980's was almost as dependent on mineral wealth as Wyoming is today. Texas took oil revenue and built "societies and industries and businesses that are not related to energy.”

It's not just Texas that has diversified and become less dependent on minerals. Stephen Brown, an economist at the University of Nevada, has studied the impact of oil prices on state economies. His analysis shows that virtually every state has become less dependent on mineral revenues since the oil crash of the 1980's. “What we’re seeing is that states are becoming more and more alike and less driven by these boom and bust cycles,” Brown says.

A few states, however, still stand out for their reliance on mineral wealth — Alaska and Wyoming being at the top of the list. Bill Schilling, the president of the Wyoming Business Alliance, wants that to change. His organization has its roots in the coal industry. He says the energy industry has been great for the state, helping to pay for everything from roads to new schools, though he also thinks the state needs to diversify. “There are some clouds on the horizon,” he says.

Diversification is a tricky thing, though, and everyone interviewed for this story had a different excuse for why Wyoming has not managed that trick yet: the cold, the lack of people, the isolation. Even so, most agree that in states like Texas and Colorado, investing heavily in education helped.

“We need people who can be programmers, we need people who can build things, we need manufacturing," Schilling says. "I mean, we need all of those things.” And he sees Wyoming heading down that path, though slowly. Schilling points to the Hathaway Scholarship and the expansion of the University’s business school as positive developments, but says more of that is needed. “What we are today is going not to be good enough for what we need to be tomorrow.”

With Wyoming's main economic drivers — coal, oil and natural gas — all in a slump, tomorrow may be here sooner rather than later.

House changes how bills are evaluated

Thu, 2015-01-08 10:50

The House of Representatives approved a change to how bills are “scored,”  that is, how government economists figure out how much a given piece of legislation will cost. The House is moving to a system known as "dynamic scoring" for major bills. It sounds mundane, but it’s actually a big deal, and it’s caused a sizzling debate in economic circles.  

Dynamic scoring is supposed to take into account all of the effects of a bill on the economy. That's "something the Congress should know," says Douglas Holtz-Eakin, chief economic adviser for Sen. John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign and former head of the Congressional Budget Office. 

Holtz-Eakin says dynamic scoring helps members of Congress properly evaluate a bill, and supports the effort to move away from the current system of "static scoring," which doesn’t look at a bill’s impact on the overall economy. “If you have two identical proposals, but one causes the economy to grow and one causes it to shrink, you’d like to know that,” he says.

Not everybody agrees. Bruce Bartlett, a former economic adviser to President Reagan, says dynamic scoring forces economists to make assumptions about the future, which can highlight the economic benefits of tax cuts. 

Bartlett says that’s why House Republicans changed the rules to require government economists to use dynamic scoring. “By tying their hands and forcing them to make assumptions that will give them the answer they want which is that tax cuts are vastly expansionary,” he says.

“In principle, dynamic scoring is a perfectly reasonable technique,” says Robert Pollin, a distinguished professor of economics and co-director of the Political Economy Research Institute at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst.

The problem with dynamic scoring is you can pick and choose, Pollin says. You could just look at the positive effects of a tax cut, like people spending the extra money, and not the possible negatives of lower government spending. “There’s a wide range of potential effects, and so the technique to susceptible to this kind of cherry picking,” he says.

In principle, dynamic scoring is better, Pollin says. But it’s hard to do well, and easy to manipulate.

Quiz: Where edtech money went in 2014

Thu, 2015-01-08 04:25

Venture investors poured more than $640 million in the k-12 edtech market in 2014, according to NewSchools Venture Fund.

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