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Updated: 39 min 32 sec ago

The numbers for October 13, 2014

Mon, 2014-10-13 08:28

Sentencing is underway for Olympic runner Oscar Pistorius, who was convicted last month of culpable homicide — equivalent to manslaughter — in the shooting death of his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp. Pistorius' defense team asked for leniency, the New York Times reported, citing the athlete's anguish over the killing. One witness suggested house arrest and community service, which prosecutors rejected.

Pistorius could face up to 15 years in prison and the trial will resume Tuesday morning. In the mean time, here are the stories we're reading — and other numbers we're watching — Monday.

200,000

That's how many sensitive photo and video messages — some of minors — that were stolen in the latest hack into the self-destructing message app Snapchat. The images began appearing on 4chan over the weekend, Business Insider reported, and users set up a system to search for specific usernames. The unofficial app SnapSaved has taken responsibility for being hacked, but experts say the blame could be on Snapchat's own security, which is open to third-parties like SnapSaved.

29

The list of globally, systematically important banks maintained by the international Financial Stability Board. U.S. and U.K. regulators will simulate the failure of two big lenders and their impact on the global economy as part of a "war game" Monday, Bloomberg reported.

$29.31 billion

The National Institutes of Health's budget for fiscal year 2013, which has been on a steady decline for a decade, when adjusted for inflation. NIH head Francis Collins told the Huffington Post a lack of funding has inhibited the organization's research on an Ebola vaccine.

After J.C. Penny closure, retail 'flatline' in Montana

Mon, 2014-10-13 08:22

J.C. Penny has (another) new CEO, and a renewed focus on its Middle America stores.

While the company does not plan additional store closures at the moment, one left Butte Plaza Mall in Butte, Montana earlier this year.

Manager Alana Ferko shared her disappointment when that decision was announced back in January.

"I'm very grateful for the mercy J.C. Penny showed, by not coming in and closing the doors. They gave us time to prepare," Ferko said.

Even so, she said, "I miss them terribly."

After a strong tourism and back-to-school season, Ferko is looking ahead to the Christmas shopping season. Despite strong economic indicators, she said, it feels like retail is still "flat-lining."

But that Christmas spirit is infecting the mall, even before Halloween.

"Maybe that's what I need just to pop me out of this," Ferko said. "The cinnamon pine cones, it's pretty exciting."

Railroads profit from energy boom

Mon, 2014-10-13 04:00

The railroad business has been heating up, thanks in part to the energy boom underway in parts of the United States. Now there’s word that Canadian Pacific Railway approached U.S. rail company CSX Corporation about a merger. CSX reportedly declined.  

Together the two companies would have a market value of about $62 billion, according to the Wall Street Journal, which first reported the proposed merger. Combined they have more than 35,000 miles of track across much of Canada and the U.S.

The offer comes as the railroad business is experiencing a resurgence, fueled partly by an increase in crude oil production in states like North Dakota and Texas. Major railroads operating in the U.S. made more than $2 billion hauling crude last year, according to the Journal. Meanwhile, bumper crops of grain in the Midwest and Canada and an improving economy have increased other kinds of rail traffic.

“The railroads are suffering right now from basically too much traffic that they’re having a little difficulty handling," says Steve Ditmeyer, who teaches railway management at Michigan State University. “It’s a problem, but it’s a good problem that they have.”

All the extra traffic has caused delays for Amtrak, the passenger rail service, and for farmers trying to get their products to market.  

PODCAST: Controlling the panic over Ebola

Mon, 2014-10-13 03:00

First up, more on what materials the Centers for Disease Control is telling hospitals in the midst of panic over the Ebola virus. Plus, a look at a supposed merger proposed by the Canadian Pacific Railway with CSX Corporation. And more on spacecraft Rosetta which could collect data that could tell us how to mine asteroids.

An argument for a federal robotics commission

Mon, 2014-10-13 02:00

Private companies, academic institutions, and governments are dabbling more and more with the idea that our future will be full of robots capable of completing all sorts of tasks. But does it necessarily mean that we need a Federal Robotics Commission?

Ryan Calo, Assistant Law Professor at the University of Washington and an affiliate scholar at the Stanford Center for Internet and Society, joined us to talk about his vision for a commission compromised of technologists, engineers, and scientists:

“I don’t know that we need a Federal Robotics Commission exactly as I’ve described it, but what we do need is to start thinking more systematically about robotics law and policy.”

Professor Calo brought up one example: The Department of Transportation was recently asked by Congress to investigate whether the sudden acceleration problem in Toyota vehicles was a software glitch. The DOT didn’t have the experts needed in-house to figure out the problem, so they hired people at NASA to look into it.

Ultimately, this is the argument for having a Federal Robotics Commission—To have a group of experts who understand the issues technology can bring about and properly advise different agencies and states about how to proceed with different policies.

For more information, check out "The Case for a Federal Robotics Commission" by Ryan Calo.

The lingering effect of last year's tough winter

Mon, 2014-10-13 02:00

The U.S. Energy Department says heating costs are likely to be less this winter, thanks to relatively mild temperatures and a drop in oil prices. 

The bad news in the forecast is the slight uptick in natural gas prices, which have gone up on average about 6 percent, the Energy Department’s Energy Information Administration  says. 

But thanks to milder temperatures anticipated for this winter, officials still predict less consumption of heating fuels and a drop in overall costs for households. 

Last year's severe weather and unusually cold temperatures are still having an impact, though. They are the cause of the higher natural gas prices, says Steve Piper, a natural gas analyst with SNL Financial. 

“With the widespread cold weather, we drew down storage levels of natural gas to extremely low, critical levels,” Piper says. 

While storage levels have recovered, they are still about 10.5 percent below the five-year average. The slight shortage has raised prices and is likely to continue to do so, Piper says. 

"The gas utilities are going to be in the market actively procuring gas, to prevent a repeat of last winter’s events. And that’s going to bid up the price somewhat,” he says.  

But even though more than half of the nation’s homes depend on natural gas for heat, officials still forecast less total spending on heat, because of the milder temperatures. 

"We expect a relatively mild start to the winter, especially November and into December,” says Dan Leonard, a senior meteorologist with weather forecaster WSI, which operates The Weather Channel. 

Leonard says while temperatures will get frostier in February, the expected mild start to winter will reduce the amount of heating needed. But the savings for households will not be uniform. 

The EIA says households using natural gas — which already spend the least on winter heating — will save an average of $31 this winter. That affects more than half the households in almost every region of the country except the South.

Homes using electricity, which is a majority of homes in the South, will save an average of $17. The small proportion of homes using propane, many of which are in the Midwest, will save an average of $652. And heating oil households, almost all of which are in the Northeast and account for more than a quarter of homes in that region, will save an average of $362. 

Meanwhile, the National Weather Service is preparing an updated forecast for winter, which the EIA cautioned could affect its forecast of heating costs.

Primary care staff anxious over Ebola preparedness

Mon, 2014-10-13 02:00

Ebola is increasingly on the minds of doctors, nurses and other frontline health workers around the country and the Centers for Disease Control reports a significant spike in clinical staff seeking out the agency’s guidance over the last week.

Dr. Linda Girgis, who runs her own practice in New Jersey, says she runs through ‘what if’ scenarios in her head these days.

“For example, if I have a patient who walks in to see me in the evening, the health department is closed so we really don’t have anybody to call at that time to know what to do with that patient,” she says.

Beyond that, Girgis worries EMTs who would transport that patient aren’t sure what to do, either.

“A lot of us don’t feel that we are prepared to take the precautions to contain the infection,” she says.

Various arms of the federal government have stepped up outreach efforts since the first patient was diagnosed with Ebola in the United States.

Wednesday, the CDC hosted a Twitter chat. The Monday before, Dr. Nicole Lurie, Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response, penned a letter addressed to “All U.S. Healthcare Professionals.”

Lurie, who herself is a primary care doctor, outlined three steps to prevent the spread of Ebola.

An Open Letter to All U.S. Healthcare Professionals Dear Colleague,

As a frontline healthcare provider, you play an essential role in protecting the health and well-being of our nation. In light of the recent presentation of an Ebola-positive patient in Texas, we wanted to remind all healthcare professionals that simple steps can be taken to prevent the spread of this disease. You can contribute to our country’s response by being ready to detect a potentially infected patient; protect yourself, your colleagues, and other patients from exposure; and respond with appropriate patient care. Specifically, you should be ready to:

  • Detect: Ask All Patients with Non-Specific Complaints About Recent Travel
    A travel history should be taken as early as possible in your encounter with all patients. Although the signs and symptoms of Ebola are nonspecific (e.g., fever, headache, muscle pain, weakness, vomiting, diarrhea, etc.), Ebola can be virtually eliminated from your differential by ruling out travel to the affected area.
  • Protect: Use Good Infection Control Practices
    Consistent and correct use of personal protective equipment (PPE), frequent hand washing, and proper decontamination of surfaces and equipment are key to reducing or eliminating the transmission of Ebola and other communicable diseases (e.g., HIV, influenza, hepatitis, and Enterovirus-D68).
  • Respond: Have a Plan
    All healthcare workers should know what to do when encountering a suspected Ebola patient. It is critical to know who to notify and to make that notification immediately. Remember, Ebola is a nationally notifiable disease and must be reported to local, state, and federal public health authorities.    

    The CDC website has many important resources for clinicians to learn more about Ebola.
    In addition, the CDC Emergency Operations Center (EOC) is always available at 770-488-7100 or eocreport@cdc.gov.

    In the last decade, our nation has made great strides in healthcare system and public health emergency preparedness. As a result of our efforts, we are confident in our collective ability to control the spread of Ebola domestically. Thank you for your continued partnership and dedication to national health security.

    Best regards,

    Nicole Lurie, M.D., M.S.P.H.
    RADM, U.S. Public Health Service
    Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response 

The letter included CDC emergency operation contacts.

“It takes the whole healthcare community to protect health. Everybody involved has to recognize it’s my problem, not somebody else’s problem,” she says.

Lurie understands it often takes a while for something to sink in. That’s why she says she's ready to repeat herself for as long as it takes.

What is the CDC sending out to doctors?

The CDC is sending doctors handouts like this checklist for evaluating patients for Ebola and the flowchart below on how to evaluate a returned traveler.

 

A new financial innovation in the housing market

Mon, 2014-10-13 02:00

Financial innovation in the housing market is back.

The last year saw the creation of something called "REO-to-rental securities" or "rental-backed securities." It's enough to give you subprime crisis flashbacks. But in fact, it's a very different species of financial instrument. 

It does start with a house, much like that of Jess Joslin. "It's a two-story brick house with a two garage," she says. 

Joslin rents from American Homes 4 Rent, one of the largest players in the emerging market of single family rentals owned by big investors. "From what I understand, almost all their houses look like this," Joslin says. "They’re really nice."

The largest investors have purchased nearly 200,000 houses in the last several years. The purchasing peaked in 2012, and has focused on places where the subprime mortgage crisis hit hardest. 

"You’re seeing it in Phoenix, in Las Vegas, in Atlanta," says Laurie Goodman, director of the Housing Finance Policy Center at the Urban Institute. 

In many of these markets, housing prices fell by more than a third, and the plan was to buy low with cash from investors, and then reap the profits from high rents. But in many of these markets, housing prices have appreciated, while rents have remained more stagnant. "Rents haven't gone up all that much," says Goodman. "And they haven't gone up nearly as much as home prices."

This change has meant that the buy-to-rent strategy generates less return for every dollar. To make up for it, in the last year, these investors have looked for ways to put other people's dollars to work. 

Enter securitization. 

Do we call them rental-backed securities? 

"They're viewed as a hybrid," says Doug Bendt, director of research for mortgage-backed securities at Deutsche Bank. 

His bank pioneered this new financial instrument as a way of giving investors more leverage. "'Necessity is the mother of invention,' as the saying goes," he says.

Think of it as a really big loan to a really big landlord, chopped into little pieces and sold to bondholders. The landlord—like American Homes 4 Rent—gets some cash for the rising home prices, and lower borrowing costs going forward. "Just kinda like a homeowner refinancing," says Bendt. 

The bondholders get a check every month, thanks to thousands of rental payments from people like Jess Joslin.

And if some of the thousands of Joslins stop paying their rent? The landlord can kick them out of their homes and find new tenants, or sell the whole house. That, and a much smaller scale and more conservative approach, are why analysts like Goodman and Bendt see the rental-backed security as far more benign than the infamous toxic assets that led to the last housing crisis. 

"I think people think, ‘Oh this is a repeat of the excesses of the past!’ But in reality, it’s very, very different than the past," says Goodman. "It’s sort of a begin to creep back to normalcy."

A normalcy where more people are renting, and more of their landlords are multi-billion-dollar companies.

Three charts that show why your heating bill will fall

Mon, 2014-10-13 01:30

The Department of Energy is predicting lower heating costs this winter. Some homes could see a nearly 40 percent drop in their heating bill. There are a couple forces behind this, and the federal Energy Information Administration has a wealth of data. Here's what you need to know, boiled down to three charts.

The Polar Vortex took our natural gas 

Natural gas is used to heat 57 percent of homes. Prices are on the rise after last winter's bitter temperatures depleted supply. Even if this winter is 10 percent warmer than expected, the EIA projects supply still won't have recovered to prior levels in 2015.

This winter will be much warmer

Last winter hiked up natural gas prices, and electricity followed, but the EIA is predicting demand will fall faster, especially when compared to last year's bitter polar vortex conditions. Heating days — a national measure of demand, waited by population — are expected to fall sharply for winter 2014-2015, following a decades-long trend.

That means lower bills for (almost) everyone

Even if this winter is 10 percent colder than predicted, the EIA says propane and heating oil users will see drops in their bills. As it's forecast now, demand will outpace higher prices and mean discounts across the board.

Of course, needs vary across the country, the energy department has an interactive tool that lets you explore spending state-by-state.

Weekend Brunch: AIG and women in sports

Sun, 2014-10-12 09:35

ESPN The Magazine's Mina Kimes and Shane Ferro from Business Insider look back on the week's news.

This weekend's reading list:

Dealbook/New York Times: AIG Bailout, Revisionists' Version

ESPN: Lawsuits show MLB's gender problem

Quartz: Memo to Warren Buffett: Actually, women are better than men at managing money

Record labels try their luck at comedy

Sun, 2014-10-12 08:32

The Recording Industry Association of America released their mid-year report, showing revenue industry wide is down almost five percent from last year as audiences turn towards streaming services like Spotify and Pandora.

But for one iconic indie label, there’s hope sales can bounce back, and that hope relies on comedy.

“Our two comedy releases that we’ve put out in the last twelve months have sold better than all the other records we have put out in the last 12 months, combined,” says the President of Kill Rock Stars, Portia Sabin. “It’s pretty wild!”

That’s a big change for Kill Rock Stars, which released albums from noted music acts like Sleater Kinney, Bikini Kill and Elliot Smith. This week, the label released comedian Cameron Esposito’s critically praised new album, Same Sex Symbol.

That comes as other indie labels are taking a similar tact. For example, record label Sub Pop, which first made its mark with the bands Nirvana and Soundgarden, is now home to comedian Sarah Silverman, while the label Drag City has signed comedian Neil Hamburger.

Portia Sabin joined Marketplace’s Lizzie O’Leary from the Kill Rock Stars office in Portland, Oregon, to talk about comedy and the future of the recording industry. 

Fewer Americans are moving. Why?

Fri, 2014-10-10 13:57

Whether it's because jobs are scarce, or homes are expensive, fewer Americans than ever before are moving, according to data from the U.S. Census.

via Trulia

We want to know: Why did you pick the city you live in now? 

Family? Friends? Great museums? Money? The love of your life? The former love of your life?

We want to hear your stories, so tell us! Send us a message on Twitter - we're @MarketplaceWKND - or by email

Less Americans are moving. Why?

Fri, 2014-10-10 13:57

Whether it's because jobs are scarce, or homes are expensive, less Americans than ever before are moving according to data from the U.S. Census.

via Trulia

We want to know, why did you pick the city you live in now?

Family? Friends? Great museums? Money? The love of your life? The former love of your life?

We want to hear your stories, so tell us! Send us a message on Twitter, we're @MarketplaceWKND, or by email

A catalog of strange market turns

Fri, 2014-10-10 11:51

Stock markets are, by definition, volatile. They go up and down at a moment’s notice and sometimes, it seems, on a whim. Sometimes it's politics that makes the market move; sometimes it's war ... sometimes it's just the weather.

Sometimes, though, it's something truly odd. Watching the stock markets every day is part of our job at Marketplace, as is gathering opinion from traders and investors about what's making them volatile. So we are going to start cataloging some of the stranger things that have been blamed for making the market move. 

 

Wikimedia CommonsThe 1600s: Tulipmania 

In the 1600s, tulips caused one of the more memorable market reversals. The event became known, infamously, as “Tulpenwoede."

Prices of tulip bulbs skyrocketed as wealthy merchants competed to create the most beautiful gardens, filled with exotic varietals of these trendy flowers. A futures market for tulips was even created, and investors investors put up their houses as collateral as they rushed to buy the best and most rare bulbs.

Just before the crash, one type of tulip bulb was priced at 5,500 guilders per bulb.  That's about $55,000, in today's money, according to some calculations. Yes, for a single tulip bulb. No one is really sure what caused the market in tulip bulbs to reverse, but reverse it did, with a resounding thud in February 1637, leaving many investors bankrupt.

2010: Fat Finger

On May 6, 2010, the stockmarkets crashed...hard. The Dow Jones Industrial Average shed almost 1,000 points in seconds, in what's now known as the "Flash Crash." It wasn't long before shares recovered most of the ground they had lost, but the market closed down that day. The sudden downward bounce had the financial world scratching its collective head over what had gone wrong. 

There were plenty of theories, but here's one that deserves a highlight: You know that feeling in the pit of your stomach when you realize you accidentally hit “reply all”? Well, multiply that by a billion, and you can guess what one particular trader was feeling on the afternoon of May 6. A rumor spread that some unfortunate person might have accidentally entered an order to sell a billion shares when he meant to sell just a million.

The “Fat Finger” theory, if you will.

In the end high-frequency computer trading got most of the blame, although defenders of HFT say that while computers may have made the market move so fast, they helped it recover quickly, too. The jury's still out on what the trigger for the sell-off might have been. Either way, exchanges were directed to implement “circuit-breakers,” to halt trading when a market or asset went sharply up or down. 

How investors are profiting off a 'rentership society'

Fri, 2014-10-10 11:49

For 25 years, Kathi Cobb has lived in Cincinnati's East Price Hill, on a block packed with wooden frame houses and miniature lawns.

"We all went to the same church. The kids would play outside," she says. "It was more of a neighborhood." 

Then came the housing crisis.  The Cincinnati Enquirer used a nearby block to tell the story: "First came the 'For Sale' signs, from one end of his East Price Hill street to the other, as investors and long-time residents tried to bail out of the crashing real estate market a few years ago. Then came the foreclosures, more signs, more foreclosures and, finally, the exodus."

"I don't think anybody's in that one. And there's nobody in that one," says Cobb, pointing to houses across the street. "We're the only ones left."

But now there are signs that East Price Hill is entering a new, uncertain phase. A California-based real estate investment trust called Raineth Housing bought the house across the street. It's one of more than 230 in the city that Raineth intends to turn into a rental.  Elsewhere in the city, more than 1,000 houses have been purchased for the same purpose by much larger companies, American Homes 4 Rent and American Residential Properties. They all represent a trend over the last few years called "REO-to-rent,"  in which investors buy foreclosed properties and turning them into rentals. 

"The way the institutional investors think of this is: 'What is the most attractive investment I can put in my portfolio?'" says Laurie Goodman, director of the Housing Finance Policy Center at the Urban Institute. "And when home prices fell to very distressed levels they were able to buy up properties, rehab them and rent them out and achieve a very attractive return on their investment." 

Investors capitalized on their ability to buy cheap houses, but to rent at relatively stable market rates.  "Rents are much more stable than property values," says Doug Bendt, director of mortgage-backed securities research at Deutsche Bank. "Throughout the recession, on the national level properties values fell by about 30 percent;  rents fell only a few percentage points."

Some investors also see this as a long-term trend. "The combination of falling home prices, limited mortgage credit, continued liquidations, and better rental options is fundamentally changing the way Americans live," an influential Morgan Stanley report in 2011 said."We believe this change is only beginning, and is moving the country towards becoming a Rentership Society."  

In the last few years, this prospect has attracted  institutional investors including hedge funds, private equity firms and real estate investment trusts. Together they have spent billions of dollars on single-family homes with the intention of turning them into rentals. The largest six firms alone have spent $18 billion and purchased more than 115,000 homes, according to analysis by Deutsche Bank in August.

"They've sort of standardized the operation," says Goodman. "So, everyone gets 'Gray Carpet Number 53.' Everyone gets this type of refrigerator, this type of toilet, this type of oven.'"  

Questions have been raised about how effective this industrial landlord approach is, often in reference to Invitation Homes, an entity created by private equity firm Blackstone that is the largest player in this market, with more than 45,000 houses.

"It's important, though, not to lose sight of the fact that this is a very small proportion of the rental stock," says Goodman. "Just to put this in perspective, over the last six years  something like 4.5 million homes have been converted from owner-occupied into rental properties, and the institutional investors have maybe purchased 200,000."

In other words, the vast majority of the new  single-family rentals are owned by much smaller-scale investors. 

In Cincinnati's East Price Hill, Ken Smith runs a community development corporation Price Hill Will. Their community development work includes buying neglected buildings that are unattractive to investors, and rehabbing them into beautiful homes. Smith shows me a stately yellow two-story on Beech Avenue. "The street has a lot of potential, and has a lot of investment," he says.

But two blocks away, the landlord is Raineth Housing, which has bought more than 100 homes in the neighborhood. On a walking tour of nearby Raineth-owned properties, we find primarily houses that don't appear to have been rehabbed. (Raineth says 41 of the 235 homes they have purchased in  Cincinnati are awaiting rehab.) The condition inside is difficult to judge, but the properties' exteriors include garbage strewn across overgrown lawns and peeling paint. "It is certainly empty, with the number, looks like on a Sharpie, written on the front of the house," says Smith of a property on Beech Avenue.

"We want others to invest in the neighborhood, bring capital to the community to help rebuild it," says Smith. "But we know there's good investment and there's bad investment." 

Smith has managed property before, and can't fathom how an out-of-state company will adequately rehab and maintain so many homes. "It's mind boggling for me to think how one would manage that," says Smith.

Moreover, he's concerned that since the entire business model relies on the gap between rental price and home value, that to squeeze high returns from monthly rents, the incentive will be to skimp on long-term repairs. "Let’s face it you could put $70,000 into a home and get a certain amount of rent, or you could put $30,000 into that  home and get maybe less rent, but a better return on the 30,000 dollar investment," he says.

"I can understand people's concerns," says Ed Renwick, founder and CEO of Raineth. "But from my perspective, they don't really make sense.  So what they're worried about is that we're going to bring $50 million into these communities and then not care about the long-term value of the assets we bought with $50 million?"

Renwick says Raineth is spending an average of  $6,000-$8,000 to rehab the properties it has purchased in Cincinnati (purchased at prices that range from $0 to $35,000). He emphasizes the company's intentions to provide affordable housing and bring money to the local community, and insists that even his financial incentives are long-term. "If I'm getting a 12 percent return on my asset [the return [promised to Raineth's investors], it's going to take me ten years before I've gotten repaid on the asset," he says. "The average American lives in a house for seven years, so I'm already making a bigger commitment than the average American."

Renwick emphasizes comparing his ownership with the state of the properties before.  "We are taking homes that are empty. We are taking houses that are broken," he says. He also welcomes a comparison with existing local landlords. "Those local landlords are great people, but they're significantly cash-constrained. And a cash-constrained landlord is a bad landlord." 

Cincinnati will find out soon whether an investor-constrained landlord is better. Raineth aims to buy 25 houses a month here. American Homes 4 Rent, which has purchased more than a thousand homes in the city, was recently named the fastest growing housing company in the country by Housing Wire, with revenue growth of 3,000 percent in 2013.

Three fish and the Supreme Court

Fri, 2014-10-10 11:48

What does Enron have in common with a fish?

The Supreme Court of the United States is considering a case that shows how a business very different from yours might affect you in ways you never imagined.

After Enron collapsed, a law called "Sarbanes Oxley" made it a crime to destroy documents and other tangible objects. It turns out "tangible objects" might include... fish. 

John Yates, a commercial fisherman in the Gulf Coast, caught a bunch of grouper under the legal size limit. Fish and wildlife agents ordered him to bring them to a nearby port. Yates allegedly tossed them overboard instead, and was charged with destroying tangible objects under Sarbanes Oxley.

We wanted to get a sense of how this case is playing in the Gulf, so we spoke to Dean Blanchard, who runs a seafood company in Grand Isle Louisiana. 

Beyond bookshelves: Meet your public library's robots

Fri, 2014-10-10 11:45

Robots can help build cars, they can vacuum your floor, they can even engage in galactic war . . . well, maybe eventually they can do that. But can you check one out at a local library?

Not yet, but close.

The public library in Westport, Connecticut is set to debut its two latest acquisitions this weekend: the robots Nancy and Vincent.

Standing two feet tall, with Buzz Lightyear-like bodies, they can walk, talk and even do Tai Chi in sync with each other, while playing their own music.  They’re amazingly humanoid, smooth and graceful, as they slowly balance and sway on their 24 joints—not as many as a human, but enough to mimic quite a bit of what we can do.

They also gesture a lot when they talk. “I use my hands above all to express my emotions,” Vincent chimes in – literally.  There’s a two-tone beep to announce he has something to say.

These fancy toys sound intelligent and responsive, but they can only respond to and do the things that someone programs them to do. And that’s why they’re at the library.  Alex Giannini is the manager of digital experience at the Westport Library. He says the library has an 8- to 80-year-old approach to things, where anyone, at any age, at any level can come in and learn how to program these guys.”

Giannini says patrons will be able to use the coding language Python to program the robots do all kinds of things—like read stories to kids, dance, do a sales pitch.  The library is also thinking about doing robot poetry slams. "Because they gesticulate like we do,” says Giannini.  

Maxine Bleiweiss is the library director. She says good libraries have always been on the cutting edge. In the '80s, she says, libraries were the place most people put their hands on a computer for the first time.

“Fast-forward to three years ago, we put 3-d printers in our library,” Bleiweiss says, “and so it is with robotics: We believe robotics is the next disruptive technology that people need to know about.”

If we fast-forward enough, could robots disrupt the need for a librarian?

Bleiweiss says no. “The librarian as curator of information has never been needed as much as it is now, because there’s so much information out there.”  It’s an argument to keep librarians on the cutting edge, and keep them curating, because ... information overload, right?

“Everybody is a little crazy,” Vincent responds. 

The stock market has been, and always will be, volatile

Fri, 2014-10-10 11:26

There are some parts of the stock market you don’t need to be a analyst to understand.

“Markets, I don’t care what market it is, they just don’t go up in a straight line,”  says Scott Wren, a senior equity strategist with Wells Fargo Advisors.

It’s in the nature of markets to give investors a bumpy ride, he says. But this recent ride has been more bumpy than most, and investors have a lot of reasons to be worried. In addition to the bad news from Germany, which Wren says is key, there's Ebola - and more.

"What’s the Federal Reserve going to do with interest rates; how much is China going to slow?" says Wren.

Quincy Crosby, a financial market strategist at Prudential Financial, says this is how the stock market is supposed to work. 

“You know what, it’s like a GPS system – calculate, recalculate, recalculate yet again," she says.

She says this time investors are recalculating because of the Federal Reserve’s plan to stop buying bonds, and we might see yet another recalculation when we get more company earnings next week.

“The next big catalyst for this market, potentially, if we get good news, is what companies start telling us," she says. "Are they seeing demand for their products, are they seeing demand picking up?”

Good numbers could mean the market will come roaring back – or not.  Either way, placing a bet is risky.

“Remember," says Crosby,  "this isn’t a science. A lot of people think it’s a science – it’s as much an art form as it is a science.”

As for Scott Wren, he's feeling optimistic, and his bet is that the market will come back. It’s only 4 percent off, he notes, from its all time high. But, he admits, the stock market is a gamble.

"If you look at the stock market and try to figure out what’s driving it, it’s usually some combination of fear and greed."

What could slow U.S.'s surging oil output? Low prices.

Fri, 2014-10-10 11:14

There was a strong consensus in the U.S. oil industry that the drop in oil prices would spur Saudi Arabia to cut production and bring prices back up. That consensus was wrong. Instead Saudi Arabia cut prices, putting North American oil production in a bind, and has contributed to the downward spiral of oil prices.

In much of North America oil comes from shale, which has to be fracked. Water and chemicals are pumped into the well to create pressure that forces oil out of the ground. It’s a lot like squeezing a sponge, says Robert McNally, president of the Rapidan Group. At first a lot of liquid comes out.

“You get a rush up front," he says. "Your initial production rates are very high compared to conventional oil.”  

After that initial squeeze, output declines sharply says McNally, “so in order to keep the overall flow, you are having to drill and drill and drill.”

All that drilling is expensive. This is how shale oil got the nickname "tough oil." If the price of oil continues to drop — it’s currently at $86 a barrel — it could make tough oil too expensive to drill for.

“You could pretty easily put out a number of, say, $75 a barrel. That’s kind of your break even when you consider all of your development, production costs, etc.,” says Chad Mabry, an analyst at MLV & Co.

Some regions in North Dakota and Texas — the “sweet spots” Mabry calls them — would likely remain profitable even if prices continue to drop. “I think one of the first places that you are going to see budget cuts are more on the exploration side of things.”

The demand for new wells would likely drop significantly if prices stay low, but that is largely dependent on outside forces. 

“It always comes down to what Saudi Arabia’s decision is," says Mabry. "That’s going to be the real driver on where prices go.”

Get rich by giving up lattes? Not so fast

Fri, 2014-10-10 11:01

There's a long-percolating concept among personal finance gurus: The money you spend on small purchases, say, a latte every day or so, could be redirected towards huge savings. Think hundreds of thousands of dollars over 30 years, if invested. Proponents have included Suze Orman, Penelope Wang of Money Magazine, and most notably author David Bach. 

But another personal finance writer, Helaine Olen, says no way. 

"We weren't spending more money on luxuries," Olen said of the late 1990s. "We were spending less."

Using herself as an example, Olen says the cost of coffee and other small expenses pales in comparison with the rising cost of health care, education, and housing. 

"Think of it this way: at $5 per latte, I would need to give up 260 caffeinated drinks per month to pay my monthly health insurance bill."

She recently traced the history of the concept in a Twitter essay. 

[<a href="//storify.com/annielowrey/the-latte-factor" target="_blank">View the story "The Latte Factor" on Storify</a>]
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