Marketplace - American Public Media

Aetna raises its minimum wage ... who's next?

Tue, 2015-01-13 11:52

Aetna’s raising its minimum base pay to $16 an hour and improving its health benefits starting in April 2015. It's a massive raise for some workers, generally in customer service and billing positions. 

But is this a sign that wages are preparing to rise for low income workers across the economy? Not necessarily.

Aetna, as a healthcare company, sees a future in which it is increasingly consumer facing. And yet, the turnover rate industry wide for customer service employees is around 30 percent.  The company is investing to improve morale, reduce that turnover rate and attract high quality employees.  

Bidding for blood, the Priceline way

Tue, 2015-01-13 11:20

For hospitals, blood is a core commodity. 

 

“It’s not like if you run out of milk you’re fine, we’ll go without milk,” says Chris Godfrey. “If you run out of blood, there are lives at risk, so the stakes are very high.”

 

Most hospitals rely on regional blood centers, which is why Godfrey started Bloodbuy. It’s like Priceline, but for blood products – a cloud-based platform connecting supply with demand in a multibillion-dollar industry.

 

Blood complexities

 

Managing a blood supply is more complex than managing hospital products like morphine or pain pills. Two main factors make blood a tricky business:

 

  1. Blood products can expire quickly: While red blood cells have a shelf life of 42 days, platelets last only five days before they need to be tossed.
  2. Blood supply varies greatly by region: Blood donations in Des Moines, Iowa, might be high, while in Houston there may be shortages.

 

“You have blood centers on the supply side and hospitals on the demand side,” Godfrey says. “So we act as a technology backbone that sits in between them and connects everybody.”

 

Where blood buyers and sellers unite

 

Like Priceline, Bloodbuy uses a series of algorithms that match a hospital’s needs with what’s available for the best deal. And the suppliers, not the shoppers, pay a fee to list what’s available. So far, there are users in six states.

 

Mike Dossey of John Peter Smith Hospital in Fort Worth, doesn’t use Bloodbuy, but says he can see how the service could save blood, and money, by making availability and prices more transparent across the country.

 

“Because it’s such a rare commodity, and you’re asking people to donate their precious blood, you don’t want to waste any of it,” he says. “We spend just under 4 million dollars a year on blood products.”

 

Today, a hospital pays from $170 to $300 for a pint of blood.

 

In a pilot program, Bloodbuy’s technology saved Texas Medical Center in Houston more than 20 percent on blood expenditures.

 

Dossey with John Peter Smith Hospital says there are risks to using the Priceline model.

 

“It might also affect your buying power with your current vendors if you’re using less of their products and going somewhere else,” he says.

 

Maintaining a good relationship with the blood bank in town is crucial, Dossey says, when there’s unexpected trauma.

 

“You could have a 10-car pileup out on the interstate and need those products swiftly,” he says. “And having that relationship with our vendors is also key to getting those products here when you need them.”

 

Both Dossey and Godfrey say they hope easier access to prices and inventory for hospitals will help even out supply and demand so blood can, yes,  circulate better.

Bidding for blood

Tue, 2015-01-13 11:20

For hospitals, blood is a core commodity. 

“It’s not like if you run out of milk you’re fine, we’ll go without milk,” says Chris Godfrey. “If you run out of blood, there are lives at risk, so the stakes are very high.”

Godfrey says the problem is most hospitals rely on regional blood centers. That’s why Godfrey started Bloodbuy. It’s like Priceline, but for blood products – a cloud-based platform connecting supply with demand in a multi-billion dollar industry.

Blood Complexities

Managing a blood supply is more complex than managing hospital products like morphine or pain pills. Two main factors make blood a tricky business:

  1. Blood products can expire fast: While red blood cells have a shelf life of 42 days, platelets last only 5 days before they need to be tossed.
  2. Blood supply varies greatly by region: Blood donations in Des Moines, Iowa might be high, whereas in Houston, there may be shortages.

“You have blood centers on the supply side and hospitals on the demand side,” Godfrey says. “So we act as a technology backbone that sits in between them and connects everybody.”

Where Blood Buyers And Sellers Unite

Like Priceline, Bloodbuy uses a series of algorithms that match a hospital’s needs with what’s available for the best deal. And the suppliers, not the shoppers, pay a fee to list what’s available. So far, there are users in six states.

Mike Dossey, with John Peter Smith Hospital in Fort Worth, doesn’t use Bloodbuy, but sees how the service could save blood, and money, by making availability and prices more transparent across the country.

“Because it’s such a rare commodity and you’re asking people to donate their precious blood, you don’t want to waste any of it,” he says. “We spend just under 4 million dollars a year on blood products.”

Today, a hospital pays anywhere from $170 to $300 for a pint of blood.

In a pilot program, Bloodbuy’s technology saved Texas Medical Center in Houston more than 20 percent on blood expenditures.

Still, Dossey with John Peter Smith Hospital says there are risks to using the Priceline model.

“It might also affect your buying power with your current vendors if you’re using less of their products and going somewhere else,” he says.

Maintaining a good relationship with the blood bank in town is crucial, Dossey says, when there’s unexpected trauma.

“You could have a 10-car pileup out on the interstate and need those products swiftly,” he says. “And having that relationship with our vendors is also key to getting those products here when you need them.”

Both Dossey and Godfrey hope easier access to prices and inventory for hospitals will help even out supply and demand so blood can, yes, circulate better.

Happy reminder, courtesy of the Labor Department

Tue, 2015-01-13 11:00

There were, as of the end of November, 4.97 million open jobs in this economy.

That's more than there have been in 14 years.

That number comes from the Labor Department, and is taken by many – including Janet Yellen – as a good sign for the overall economy.

Weiss withdraws but will still work at Treasury

Tue, 2015-01-13 10:44

The president's nominee for the number-three job at the Treasury Department, Antonio Weiss, sent a letter to the White House, withdrawing from the process, after a confirmation fight driven by Senate Democrats. Instead, Weiss will become a top adviser to the treasury secretary. 

These types of arrangements are becoming more and more common, as nominees either can’t get confirmed or don’t want to go through the confirmation process.  

So, what’s difference, really? Does the adviser have the same amount of power, without the pain of confirmation? 

Depends who you ask.  

“He'll have, perhaps a secretary, but no staff.  And he’s not part of the established task forces in the White House,”  says Robert Shapiro, an undersecretary of commerce in the Clinton administration.

Shapiro says advisers don’t have the legal authority of someone who’s been confirmed. Still, advisers who are close to a secretary or president can be quite influential. Especially if everybody knows they’re close to power. 

"A lot just depends on the individual relationship and the reputation of that person in the Washington community.  The reputation for power is power," says Jack Pitney, a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College.

All those powerful people aren’t cheap. Paul Light, who teaches public service at NYU,  estimates that President Obama has 1,500 to 2,000 advisers.  Light says all those bodies can cause inefficiency.  

“Well, it’s like the childhood game of telephone, where you tell a secret to the person next to you, and that person passes it on, and eventually it gets distorted or dropped,” he explains.

And Light says whoever’s responsible for the drop or distortion doesn’t get in trouble, because there’s little accountability for advisers. Congress can’t collar them and call them on the carpet, the way they could with someone whose nomination they’d approved. 

Tech's favorite metric may be broken

Tue, 2015-01-13 09:33

Twitter bucked the downdrafts on Wall Street today. Shares picked up half a percent or so, to almost $40 apiece at the close in New York.

Dick Costolo, CEO of the 140-character social network, has sold $25 million worth of company stock since November amid rumors of that some big investors aren't all that pleased with Twitter's numbers.

Not strictly numbers from the bottom line, though. Instead, it's the numbers that measure how often you and I – and millions of others – are on Twitter and every other online site. In industry speak, monthly active users, or MAUs.

"This is an important number," Marketplace Tech host Ben Johnson says. "Someone went to your site, used your service, played with your app, once a month."

For investors in quickly growing companies, like tech startups, it's a useful way to distinguish the total amount of attention a company has received from the longer-term love people show a service or social network as they repeatedly return to the site.

But even that is too little information, according to Evan Williams,who runs the publishing platform Medium and is a cofounder and former CEO of Twitter. 

"You can land on a website and stay for three seconds, or you can land there and read something for five or 10 minutes," Williams says. "When you talk about the dimension of people who stop by as the only thing you talk about, what value are you measuring, either to the people or the company?"

Spending quality time with a product, service, or app, is something the monthly numbers simply don't reveal. But since the monthly active user measurement is the industry standard for venture capitalists, user numbers start to stand in for value. Particularly for companies that are not publicly traded and have yet to make much revenue.

The metric was important when news broke that Instagram had surpassed Twitter in its total number of MAUs — 300 million to Twitter's 285 million. Twitter investors started getting nervous, another reason Twitter CEO Costolo may soon be on his way out. 

But Johnson warns that MAUs probably won't always be the end-all, be-all. Investors and advertisers are ultimately looking for ways to reach the right customers, at the place and time they are completely engaged. Namely, on their phones. And blanket monthly numbers aren't nuanced enough to reach them. 

"In the next few years, we're going to see the things we do on our phone really, really fragment and go niche, and we're going to see advertisers actually start to use the data they're collecting on us all the time, to create ads that are actually useful to us," Johnson says. 

Their hope? More money for advertisers, better ads for consumers. 

In other words: "The next generation of advertisers isn't going to be buying ads for the Super Bowl. It's going to be buying ads for curling equipment for the curling championships."

Tech's favorite metric is broken

Tue, 2015-01-13 09:33

Twitter bucked the downdrafts on Wall Street today. Shares picked up half a percent or so, to almost $40 apiece at the close in New York.

Dick Costolo, the CEO of the 140-character social network, has sold $25 million worth of company stock since November amid rumors of that some big investors aren't all that pleased with Twitter's numbers.

Not strictly numbers from the bottom line, though. Instead, it's the numbers that measure how often you, and I, and millions of others are on Twitter and every other site online. In industry speak, monthly active users (MAUs).

"This is an important number," Marketplace Tech host Ben Johnson says. "Someone went to your site, used your service, played with your app, once a month."

For investors in quickly growing companies, like tech startups, it's a useful way to distinguish the total amount of attention a company has ever received, from the longer-term love people may begin to feel for a service or social network, coming back again and again. 

But even that is too little information, according to Evan Williams,who runs the publishing platform Medium and is a cofounder and former CEO of Twitter. 

"You can land on a website and stay for three seconds, or you can land there and read something for five or 10 minutes," Williams says. "When you talk about the dimension of people who stop by as the only thing you talk about, what value are you measuring, either to the people or the company?"

Spending quality time with a product, service, or app, is something the monthly numbers simply don't reveal. But since the monthly active user measurement is the industry standard for venture capitalists, user numbers start to stand in for value. Particularly for companies that are not publicly traded, and may not have made much revenue yet. 

The metric was important when news broke that Instagram had surpassed Twitter in its total number of MAUs — 300 million to Twitter's 285 million. Twitter investors started getting nervous, another reason Twitter CEO Costolo may soon be on his way out. 

But Johnson warns that MAUs probably won't always be the end-all, be-all. Investors and advertisers are ultimately looking for ways to reach the right customer, at the place and time where she is completely engaged. Namely, on her phone. And blanket monthly numbers don't contain the nuance to reach her. 

"In the next few years, we're going to see the things we do on our phone really, really fragment and go niche, and we're going to see advertisers actually start to use the data they're collecting on us all the time, to create ads that are actually useful to us," Johnson said. 

Their hope? More money for advertisers, better ads for consumers. 

In other words: "The next generation of advertisers isn't going to be buying ads for the Superbowl. It's going to be buying ads for curling equipment for the curling championships."

Fracking makes sand a $10 billion industry

Tue, 2015-01-13 09:20

On a square of clay and gravel about 40 miles north of downtown Denver, Joel Fox’s colleagues are starting a frack on an oil well. Fox — who runs fracking operations for Encana Corp., a $9 billion oil and gas company — points to the action we’ll be able to see from our safe distance.

“Once they start the sand,” he says, “you’ll see it coming out of that hopper.”

The hopper is connected to a Sand King — which looks like a giant purple dumpster, 40 feet long, one end tilted into the air.

Seconds later, we see sand flowing into a trough that feeds a giant blender, which mixes the sand with water. Together, they’ll get pumped into the well, shattering the shale rock below ground.

Over the next hour or so, the Sand King will dump about 100 tons of sand into the blender. All the while, trucks move in and out of the well site, with 25-ton partial-refills for the Sand King.

Fox will repeat this process 20 times for a single well.

“So, what’s that? 2,000 tons in a well,” he says, doing some quick calculations. “And I got seven wells.”

That’s just on one site north of Denver, a two- or three-week fracking operation.

Multiply that out by more than 20,000 wells fracked in a year, according to PacWest Consulting Partners, which tracks the oil and gas industries. It comes to more than 100 billion pounds.

Thanks to the fracking revolution, sand — one of the most common substances on earth — has become a $10 billion industry. At times, some oil and gas producers have not been able to get enough. Even with low oil prices likely to mean less drilling in the next year, the question with sand is whether the oil industry’s demand will stay the same, or go up.

At the wellhead, Fox explains just what the sand and the water do in the well.

“The water provides the force to crack the rock open,” he says. The pressure – 5,000 pounds per square inch – makes tiny cracks in the rock, flows into them, and brings the sand with it.  

“And then when I flow the well back,” says Fox, meaning, he pulls the water back out. “I leave the sand in the fractures.”

The sand keeps these tiny little fractures propped open, so Fox’s colleagues can suck the oil out through them.  

The "frac sand" business has grown to the point where several companies have gone public. The biggest players will win over time, says Brandon Dobell, an analyst who follows the oil and gas industry for William Blair and Co. He thinks scale and coordination will be critical, like it was for FedEx and UPS.

“When overnight delivery started, you had a bunch of companies doing overnight delivery,” he says. Now there are two. “And the reason there’s two is because it’s really difficult to get a package from Point A to Point B in a very short amount of time, no matter where the Point A or Point B is, and no matter how big or small that package is.”

The comparison is more direct than it may seem: Delivering packages on time is a big part of what sand companies do. In this case, the packages are 25-ton truckloads. Over the course of two or three weeks, Fox will use 560 truckloads of sand at his seven wells north of Denver.

If the trucks don’t show up on time, then workers here — there are dozens, scheduled in shifts that go around the clock — sit around waiting. So do the Sand Kings (there are three) and the blender, the truck-size pumps (there are 10) and everything else.

According to PacWest, transportation can account for about two-thirds of the price that operators like Fox pay for sand. Some sand companies control railcars and loading facilities, as well as mines.

However, supply has been the first concern.

“You would think: ‘There’s sand everywhere. How can there not be enough supply?’" says Dobell. "Well, this sand’s different. And it’s only in a couple of places.”

The best sand for fracking is called Northern White. It comes from Minnesota, Iowa, Illinois, and especially Wisconsin. The rush to grab it has turned some rural areas inside out.

That sand rush may continue, and the business may keep growing, despite low oil prices, because Fox uses sand conservatively. Dobell describes what other producers have been finding: “Shoving a lot of sand down into each frack generates a lot more oil production.” That means some companies now put two to five times as much sand into each well.

Sand is expensive, but it’s a small part of the total cost of a fracking operation. “They’re using the same days on drill, and they’re using the same equipment,” says Dobell, “but they’re putting a lot more sand in, and they’re going to get a lot more oil out.”

PacWest does not factor this trend into its projections. “We’ve been extremely conservative,” says Samir Nangia, the PacWest principal who oversees sand-industry estimates. His numbers for the next two years show demand as steady — neither growing substantially, nor shrinking.

Fracking made sand a $10 billion industry

Tue, 2015-01-13 09:20

On a square of clay and gravel about 40 miles north of downtown Denver, Joel Fox’s colleagues are starting a frack on an oil well. Fox — who runs fracking operations for Encana Corp., a $9 billion oil and gas company — points to the action we’ll be able to see from our safe distance.

“Once they start the sand,” he says, “you’ll see it coming out of that hopper.”

The hopper is connected to a Sand King — which looks like a giant purple dumpster, 40 feet long, one end tilted into the air.

Seconds later, we see sand flowing into a trough that feeds a giant blender, which mixes the sand with water. Together, they’ll get pumped into the well, shattering the shale rock below ground.

Over the next hour or so, the Sand King will dump about 100 tons of sand into the blender. All the while, trucks move in and out of the well site, with 25-ton partial-refills for the Sand King.

Fox will repeat this process 20 times for a single well.

“So, what’s that? 2,000 tons in a well,” he says, doing some quick calculations. “And I got seven wells.”

That’s just on one site north of Denver, a two or three-week fracking operation.

Multiply that out by more than 20,000 wells fracked in a year, according to PacWest Consulting Partners, which tracks the oil and gas industries. It comes to more than 100 billion pounds.

Thanks to the fracking revolution, sand — one of the most common substances on earth — has become a $10 billion industry. At times, some oil and gas producers have not been able to get enough. Even with low oil prices likely to mean less drilling in the next year, the question with sand is whether the oil industry’s demand will stay the same, or go up.

At the wellhead, Fox explains just what the sand and the water do in the well.

“The water provides the force to crack the rock open,” he says. The pressure— 5,000 pounds per square inch— makes tiny cracks in the rock, flows into them, and brings the sand with it.  

“And then when I flow the well back,” says Fox — meaning, he pulls the water back out -- “I leave the sand in the fractures.”

The sand keeps these tiny little fractures propped open, so Fox’s colleagues can suck the oil out through them.  

The frac-sand business has grown to the point where several companies have gone public. The biggest players will win over time, says Brandon Dobell, an analyst who follows the oil and gas industry for William Blair and Company. He thinks scale and coordination will be critical, as it was for companies like FedEx and UPS.

“When overnight delivery started, you had a bunch of companies doing overnight delivery,” he says. Now there are two. “And the reason there’s two is because it’s really difficult to get a package from Point A to Point B in a very short amount of time, no matter where the Point A or Point B is, and no matter how big or small that package is.”

The comparison is more direct than it may seem: Delivering packages on time is a big part of what sand companies do. In this case, the packages are 25-ton truckloads. Over the course of two or three weeks, Joel Fox will use 560 truckloads of sand at his seven wells north of Denver.

If the trucks don’t show up on time, then workers here — there are dozens, scheduled in shifts that go around the clock — sit around waiting. So do the Sand Kings (there are three here) and the blender, the truck-size pumps (there are 10) and everything else.

According to PacWest, transportation can be about two-thirds of the price that operators like Fox pay for sand. Some sand companies control rail cars and loading facilities, as well as mines.

However, supply has been the first concern.

“You would think: ‘There’s sand everywhere. How can there not be enough supply?’" says Dobell. "Well, this sand’s different. And it’s only in a couple of places.”

The best sand for fracking is called Northern White. It comes from Minnesota, Iowa, Illinois, and especially Wisconsin. And the rush to grab it has turned some rural areas inside out.

That sand rush may continue, and the business may keep growing, despite low oil prices, because Joel Fox uses sand conservatively. Brandon Dobell describes what other producers have been finding: “Shoving a lot of sand down into each frack generates a lot more oil production.” That means some companies now put two to five times as much sand into each well.

Sand is expensive, but it’s a small part of the total cost of a fracking operation. “They’re using the same days on drill and they’re using the same equipment,” says Dobell, “but they’re putting a lot more sand in, and they’re going to get a lot more oil out.”

PacWest does not factor this trend into its projections. “We’ve been extremely conservative,” says Samir Nangia, the PacWest principal who oversees sand-industry estimates. His numbers for the next two years show demand as steady — neither growing substantially, nor shrinking.

Quiz: Grading America's quality of education

Tue, 2015-01-13 03:53

Education Week gave Massachusetts, New Jersey and Wyoming the highest scores in the newspaper’s state-by-state rankings.

We reported on the nation's lowest Education Week grade last week.

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Quiz: Grading the nation’s quality of education

Tue, 2015-01-13 03:53

Education Week gave Massachusetts, New Jersey and Wyoming the highest scores in the newspaper’s state-by-state rankings.

We reported on the nation's lowest Education Week grade last week.

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PODCAST: Lithuania adopts the euro

Tue, 2015-01-13 03:00

First up on today's show, we'll talk about the numerous pharmaceutical buy-outs that have gone down in the last two days. Plus, why buy a ticket for the Titanic after it has struck an iceberg? It’s a question that some analysts are asking Lithuania after the tiny Baltic state became — at the beginning of this month — the 19th member of the European Union to join monetary union and adopt the euro.

The effect of cheap oil on the jet making industry

Tue, 2015-01-13 03:00

The two largest suppliers of passenger jets, Airbus and Boeing are continuing to rack up huge sales.

The two companies reported purchase contracts of around 1,500 new orders each for 2014. Together, Boeing and Airbus face a combined backlog of some 12,000 unfilled orders, enough to keep their profits stable for years to come.

But while falling oil prices are good news for airlines, the trend doesn’t necessarily bode well for the jet makers' biggest customers.

“There will be less oil revenue flowing into places like the Arabian Gulf where airlines like Emirates, Qatar and Etihad have been ordering planes by the hundreds,” says Seth Kaplan of Airline Weekly.

Airlines operate on notoriously thin margins and are always looking to cut costs. So, whether oil is cheap or expensive, Kaplan says newer planes with better technology will remain in demand.

However, cheaper gas could also prompt airlines to also keep aging, less fuel-efficient jets in service longer. Future investments, however, aren’t likely to change drastically based on the current price of oil.

"Remember the order cycle is pretty long,” says Webster O’Brien, an Airline planning strategist with ICF International.

“So, a lot of the investment is made based on, not on yesterday's fuel price, but essentially where the industry feels it's going overall," he says.

O’Brien notes that cheap gas does offer incentives for startups, who could expand into markets cut out by previous rounds of airlines contractions.

College students discover the dorm stay-cation

Tue, 2015-01-13 02:00

It’s lonely in Alexander Poling’s campus apartment at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. Like most students, his three roommates are gone for the month-long winter break. Poling, a junior, has a job in a university warehouse.

“I just don’t want to make that commute every day,” he says.

Plus, he’d rather be here than back home in Sparks, Md.

“Honestly, I like being on my own,” he says. “Especially since I have cats at home, and I’m allergic to cats.”

As college campuses become more diverse, students have lots of reasons to stay during breaks. For the growing numbers of international and low-income students, a trip home isn’t always affordable. Others hang around for winter classes or internships. On many campuses, traditional breaks are giving way to a new college tradition: the staycation. 

“We’re seeing a definite spike in students’ need to have somewhere to be,” says Allison Avolio, director of residential life at Johns Hopkins University. “So I think a lot of institutions are looking to find ways to accommodate those needs.”

This school year, for the first time, Hopkins opted to keep its dorms open for Thanksgiving and Spring Breaks. Around 300 to 350 students decided to stay for Thanksgiving, Avolio says.

Sophomore Jaya Jasty from New Orleans was one of them.

“It was quite depressing,” he says. “There was not much to do.”

Jasty had plenty of company, though, when he came back early from winter break to take a couple pass/fail classes and hang out with friends. About half of the university’s 2300 or so residential students come back for what’s known as Intersession, before the spring semester gets underway.

“We usually play video games nonstop in our common room since nobody’s here,” Jasty says. “We go to a lot of restaurants now, just explore Baltimore.”

Hopkins doesn’t charge students extra to stay during break, but keeping the lights and heat on may pay off in other ways. Students who live on campus and are more “engaged” in college life tend to do better in school.

Lithuania embraces the Euro

Tue, 2015-01-13 02:00

Why buy a ticket for the Titanic after it has struck an iceberg?

It’s a question that some analysts are asking Lithuania after the tiny Baltic state became — at the beginning of this month — the 19th member of the European Union to join monetary union and adopt the euro.

Ten years after joining the European Union, and almost 25 years after declaring its independence from the Soviet Union, Lithuania is doing well. The economy is growing at a healthy rate of 4.3 percent per annum, the budget deficit is way down, and government debt to GDP is among the EU’s lowest. So why put that at risk by joining a currency zone which is mired in crisis, deflation and recession and could even break up? Why clamber aboard a sinking ship ?

“Lithuania was already on the Titanic,” explains Andy Birch of IHS Global Insight. "Lithuania’s currency, the litas, was tied to the euro, so if the euro collapsed it would have dragged down the litas with it anyway. By joining the eurozone, at least the Lithuanians can have some say in the management of the euro. And they do now have the backing of the European Central Bank.”

Many Lithuanians don’t agree. 40 percent were opposed to euro membership. Some even staged a mock funeral for the litas this month with a coffin and mock mourners, lamenting the death of their national currency and the loss of sovereignty that it entails. Lithuania can no longer devalue its own money or even set its own interest rates. Opponents of euro membership fear that Lithuania has surrendered the power to fully manage its own economy.

But Simon Tilford of the Centre for European Reform says that one of the main reasons for Lithuania joining the eurozone is political rather than economic. It’s motivated by fear of the old occupying power on its doorstep.

“All of the Baltic governments believe that eurozone membership will help protect them against Russian aggression,” he says.

Already a member of the NATO alliance, Lithuania wants to embed itself even more securely in the west to ward off the Russians.

“They are brutal and aggressive,” says Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaitė. "We lived with this neighbor for 50 years under occupation and we never, never ever will allow anybody to occupy us once more. “

Here is a real irony: Lithuania is giving up some of its sovereignty in order to guarantee its independence.

Does a big user base mean big success?

Tue, 2015-01-13 02:00

The other day Evan Williams a former CEO of Twitter and now the head of Medium, posted rant on Medium, the publishing platform he helped create. It caught our eye because it touched on a hot topic: Monthly Active Users. That’s the number of people who interact with your service or your platform at least once a month.

If you're a social media company in 2015, especially one that has gone or is going public, there's a good chance you're talking a lot about monthly active users. This number is used to measure the success of companies like Twitter or Buzzfeed. But Williams doesn't think that's the only metric for success. 

What kicked off his rant in the first place was a question about whether Instagram is bigger than Twitter because it has more users. But what exactly does bigger mean? Williams says it’s frustrating that so many people measure the success of consumer internet services — news, social media etc — solely by number of users. Twitter's CEO Dick Costolo is facing investor criticism right now because the social network isn't seen to be gaining new monthly active users fast enough.

Williams says that single number — the number of people who visit or use a site at least once a month — isn’t a fair metric. For one, it doesn't tell you how many people spent less than a minute on the site, and how many stayed longer. “What value are you measuring, either to the people or to the company?” he says.

Williams thinks time is “one of the other dimensions worth paying attention to,” but it’s an imperfect way to measure a site’s impact on people.

“The ultimate metric is probably not traceable,” he said. But for now, he’s interested in defining what bigger means.

 

College students discover the dorm stay-cation

Tue, 2015-01-13 02:00

It’s lonely in Alexander Poling’s campus apartment at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. Like most students, his three roommates are gone for the month-long winter break. Poling, a junior, has a job in a university warehouse.

“I just don’t want to make that commute every day,” he says.

Plus, he’d rather be here than back home in Sparks, Md.

“Honestly, I like being on my own,” he says. “Especially since I have cats at home, and I’m allergic to cats.”

As college campuses become more diverse, students have lots of reasons to stay during breaks. For the growing numbers of international and low-income students, a trip home isn’t always affordable. Others hang around for winter classes or internships. On many campuses, traditional breaks are giving way to a new college tradition: the staycation. 

“We’re seeing a definite spike in students’ need to have somewhere to be,” says Allison Avolio, director of residential life at Johns Hopkins University. “So I think a lot of institutions are looking to find ways to accommodate those needs.”

This school year, for the first time, Hopkins opted to keep its dorms open for Thanksgiving and Spring Breaks. Around 300 to 350 students decided to stay for Thanksgiving, Avolio says.

Sophomore Jaya Jasty from New Orleans was one of them.

“It was quite depressing,” he says. “There was not much to do.”

Jasty had plenty of company, though, when he came back early from winter break to take a couple pass/fail classes and hang out with friends. About half of the university’s 2300 or so residential students come back for what’s known as Intersession, before the spring semester gets underway.

“We usually play video games nonstop in our common room since nobody’s here,” Jasty says. “We go to a lot of restaurants now, just explore Baltimore.”

Hopkins doesn’t charge students extra to stay during break, but keeping the lights and heat on may pay off in other ways. Students who live on campus and are more “engaged” in college life tend to do better in school.

Car sales in the era of $50-a-barrel oil

Tue, 2015-01-13 02:00

Detroit is hosting its annual North American International Auto Show this week and next. There are a few new green offerings on display, such as a new version Chevy’s Volt and an Audi Diesel plug-in hybrid. But with the price of gas so low, many consumers have lost some of their enthusiasm for fuel-efficient vehicles.

Edmunds' John O’Dell says as gas prices fell in the latter half of last year, truck and large SUVs sales ticked up and sales of smaller more fuel-efficient cars dropped slightly. But not all green cars were affected equally. O'Dell says consumers pulled back from hybrids, but electric cars remained popular with early adopters.

Ben Kallo, a senior research analyst at Robert W. Baird, says Teslas, in particular, have become an aspirational vehicle in the U.S., as BMW has been in the past.

You had me at "Like" on Facebook

Tue, 2015-01-13 01:30
3 million

That's how many copies of a special issue of Charlie Hedbo will be printed  on Wednesday, hitting newsstands in 16 languages. As reported by Bloomberg, the issue will feature the Prophet Muhammad on the cover.

84 percent

The portion of police raids that utilized flashbang grenades in Little Rock, Arkansas in 2014, almost exclusively in black neighborhoods. Those raids rarely turned up weapons or even drugs in some cases, a ProPublica investigation found, but the flashbang itself can be extremely dangerous.

1,500

That's about how many new orders each Airbus and Boeing reported in 2014. They also face a combined backlog of some 12,000 unfilled orders, enough to keep their profits stable for years to come. But some question how the tumbling price of oil will affect the jet makers' biggest customers

42-20

The score of the first-ever college football national championships, in which Ohio State upset Oregon to win the title. The Wall Street Journal has the strange story of "Mandrake," Oregon's frightening, muscular attempt at a new mascot to replace it's Donald Duck-aping "Puddles."

10

The number of Facebook "likes" a computer program must analyze to guess a subject's personality better than his or her coworker. The computer could only beat roommates and friends when it had about 70 "likes" to work with, the Washington Post reported, and it could beat a spouse with 300 likes.

Eight biggest takeaways from CES 2015

Mon, 2015-01-12 15:19

Here are the big takeaways from last week’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. In all, it was a nerd’s paradise.

1. Drones!

For the first time, drones got their own section of the floor at the Consumer Electronics Show—thanks partly to projections by the Consumer Electronics Association that the category will post 50 percent growth in sales this year, to about $103 million. Most drone makers showed  small- and medium-sized machines for consumers and hobbyists.  But China-based Harwar, displayed imposing, large commercial-grade drones that cost $15,000, can fly 15,000 feet, and weigh five pounds.

2. Gesture Control

Electronics companies are working hard to alter how we interact with technology: forget keyboards and mice, think hand gestures.  Laptops with gesture control, powered by Intel’s new 3-D technology, will hit  stores within weeks. Farther into the future, look for gesture control  in cars. VW was showing some of that off.  And Razer showed virtual-reality goggles that let gamers interact with screens using just their hands — no gloves required.

3. No Control

We all know automakers are  more deeply integrating smartphones, apps and tablets into their cars. Next up, smarter cars. BMW showed a video demonstration in which a car, communicating via a Samsung smartwatch, turns itself on, drives through a parking garage and locates its owner. Nvidia is working on a cloud-based smart learning system for cars, so they can warn each other about road signs, people and other objects.

4. Talk to Me

The “Internet of things” was a very buzzy CES term. These are products that connect everyday objects in the home via processors, sensors, and Bluetooth or other Internet connections. All that’s needed now is standard platforms, designs, technologies, and coding languages, so that products can be made to work with any ecosystem in the future.

5. Super Televisions

Samsung rolled out a new digital platform, Tizen, which is supposed allow for better connectivity between the TV, the Internet, streaming services, and, eventually, connected home devices. Meanwhile, Sony hitched its wagon to the Android TV platform with the same goals in mind. The two companies also announced new 4K televisions, known interchangeably – if not completely accurately – as Ultra High Definition TV. The technology for 4k, which upgrades a typical 2 million-pixel HD TV screen into an 8 million-pixel TV screen, has been around for a couple of years. But the price has begun to come down, and more players are entering the market. The sector is expected to double its business in 2015 to $4.9 billion in revenue, according to the Consumer Electronics Association.

6. Streaming TV

Buried in all the new technology and gadgets was fairly big news from the pay-TV world. Dish Network announced its Internet-only, streaming-only TV offering, which will include many cable channels – even ESPN, hadn’t previously signed on with other streaming services. All for just $20 a month.

7. Just Wear It

Sales of wearable technology will grow 474 percent, this year, to $3.1 billion, says the Consumer Electronics Association. Much of that is being fueled by the expected debut of Apple’s smartwatch later this year. The show, though, had no shortage of smartwatches, digital bracelets and other fitness and health gadgets. There was even a baby thermometer in the form of a patch that can provide constant monitoring and app-based reporting on the baby’s temperature. One of the challenges facing wearables, though, is the availability of censors, which are mostly designed to work in mobile devices. Wearables need more durable, less power consuming sensors. And there aren’t enough of those right now.

8. Charge It!

Looking for better cell-phone charging technology? It’s coming. How about bolting a device to the bottom of your desk that turns the entire surface into a charging station? “The vision here is that we will eventually have the ability to charge your device everywhere,” says Kamil Grajski, President and Board Chairman of A4WP, the Alliance for Wireless Power.

We can’t wait.

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