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Corn farmers eye other crops for next year

Tue, 2014-01-14 13:42

America’s corn farmers are already planning what they’ll plant – and what they won’t. Farmers were told last week that U.S. stockpiles of corn are up – way up – and they might want to think about planting something else next year.

Keith Alverson, a sixth generation ethanol corn farmer in Chester, South Dakota, says it’s all about supply and demand. Corn prices were up last year thanks to two years of drought that lowered supplies. That meant farmers, like Alverson, planted more acres of corn. Those acres flourished -- the weather was favorable and the harvest was larger than it had been in previous years.

Alverson says the downside of the good harvest and higher supply is that corn prices have dropped 14 percent over the last few months. 

“Think of any of our budgets across the United States: If we have a 14 percent decline of what’s coming in, yeah, it can definitely have an impact,” Alverson said.

Now, he’s making plans for spring and what he’ll plant on his 2500 acres. Many of his neighbors and fellow farmers will plant a 50/50 mix of corn and soybeans, because the profits for the two are about equal. That wasn’t case last year when corn was much more lucrative.

Does that mean no corn crop in 2014? Alverson says no.

“I’ve got a soft spot in my heart for corn, no doubt about that. I enjoy growing it, it’s a fun crop to grow. That being said, there’s economics involved too."

NEST? The stock that jumped 1900%? Wrong Nest

Tue, 2014-01-14 13:37

This final note in which we're obliged to again caution investors to double check those ticker symbols before hitting the buy button.

Remember when Twitter went public and shares of a home entertainment company with the symbol TWTRQ went bananas.

It happened again today with the ticket symbol NEST, which is not the thermostat company Google spend $3.2 billion to buy.

NEST is in fact a penny stock -- a bankrupt red-light traffic camera company, in point of fact.

But at one point today, shares were up 1,900 percent to $0.10. 

Seahawks block 49ers fans from buying tickets. But does it pay?

Tue, 2014-01-14 12:57

The Seattle Seahawks sold a few thousand tickets to their NFC Championship Game on Sunday, January 19, against the San Francisco 49ers. But there was a catch: with a California billing address, you couldn’t buy them. The Seahawks limited sales primarily to people in the Pacific Northwest: Washington, Oregon, Montana, Idaho, Alaska, and Hawaii, plus British Columbia and Alberta, Canada.

It’s a rarely-used business strategy in professional sports: an attempt to limit the in-stadium fan base, and tilt the advantage to the home team.

For the San Francisco 49ers, the odds are already stacked against a win because of that visiting-team disadvantage. Patrick Rishe, a sports economist at Webster University, says  the advantage has been estimated at around two to three points added to the home team's spread.

And Rishe says Seattle’s stadium, CenturyLink Field, may amplify that advantage further.

“The architectural design of their stadium is such that it keeps and traps the noise in,” Rishe said. The stadium is narrow and high, with deep recesses under the upper deck, and a 40-row bleachers section called the “Hawks Nest,” with aluminum seating to further reflect and amplify the sound of cheering and foot-stomping.

In fact, the Seahawks so-called “12th man”—that’s a team’s crowd of fans in the stands—is so loud, they set a Guinness World Record on Dec. 2, in a game against the New Orleans Saints with 137.6 decibels of noise. Seismic experts from the University of Washington have installed ultra-sensitive monitors near the stadium and detected tiny earthquakes from fan cheering. 

“Part of the reason for the ticket block to anyone outside of the Pacific Northwest is that they want to make sure they have as many loud partisans there as they can get,” Kevin Reichard, publisher of Ballpark Digest in Wisconsin, said. “Among their fan base it’s great publicity. It pats all the fans on the back and says ‘We only want you here, we don’t want anyone else here.’”

Of course, Seahawks management can’t really keep Californians out. Only a few thousand tickets—out of 67,000 (the stadium's capacity) were sold this week online. And 49ers fans have access to the secondary market, where they can purchase tickets at marked-up prices.

Lawyer Kenneth Shropshire at Duane Morris LLP, who teaches sports business at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, says that the strategy of geographically restricting ticket sales isn’t common, but it can be a sound business strategy. And it’s not likely to run afoul of the law.

“Preferences are given to season-ticket holders, for example,” Shropshire said. “So the idea of giving a preference to a group because in some way it benefits the business, that is, the team [is acceptable] —as long as that group isn’t some sort of protected class. We would see an action if they said, ‘We’re not going to sell any tickets to any Asian people, or black people, or women. But this is different. This is, 'We want our fans to have the opportunity to be there, and we’ll give them first preference. And if you want to come and you’re from elsewhere, you can buy a ticket on the secondary market.'”

Kevin Reichard points out that the Denver Broncos have restricted ticket sales to favor locals as well. And so did Northwestern University recently for a basketball game against rival University of Illinois.

Verizon says net neutrality ruling won't change anything

Tue, 2014-01-14 12:46

The Internet got less neutral today: A federal appeals court struck down a Federal Communications Commission ruling that prohibited Internet Service providers from slowing down, blocking or otherwise reestricting Web content. 

So here’s the new reality, internet service providers can now charge websites for faster access. And they can slow down content or block it all together, according to Craig Aaron, the president of Free Press, a non-profit that advocates for net neutrality.

Aaron says the ruling is bad for competition and consumers, "The phone and cable companies are now free to say, 'Oh well we’re going to connect you to our content, that we’ll just put through right away. But oh you want to go to one of our competitors, well that’s going to take a little bit longer and maybe you wouldn’t mind watching a few ads while you wait.'"  

Aaron says net neutrality has sparked innovation on the internet, since anybody can present their ideas and products to the masses. Today’s ruling threatens that by giving phone and cable companies too much power. 

But Steve Weber, professor at UC Berkeley, says "it’s much more complicated than that." According to Weber, net neutrality has stifled innovation among telecom and cable companies, who don’t invest in expensive services. For example, if you’re doing telesurgery. If you’re Verizon, you would like to provide, say, a medical grade network," Weber says. 

With net neutrality, that’s not allowed. Weber believes telecom and cable companies won’t block content because consumers would flee to other providers. In fact, Verizon said today that it’s committed to quote an “open Internet” and consumers won’t notice a difference. 

But start-ups that can’t afford the fastlane will notice a difference, according to Scott Steinberg, analyst at TechSavvy. "These smaller, mid-level guys are going to find themselves at a disadvantage," said Steinberg.  

And the big guys, like Google, have figured out a work around. They’re starting to become internet service providers themselves. Of course, that all costs money, which we’ll end up paying in one way or another.

Germans aren't eager to commemorate WWI

Tue, 2014-01-14 12:42

Europeans will mark a grim centenary this August: The 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War. A multi-million dollar series of events will span four years, and at least three participating nations -- Britain, France, and Belgium.

 Missing from the list? Germany. All of this commemoration has proven tricky for the nation on the other side of the battle lines.

 "The German government  is fundamentally uninterested  in marking this important anniversary," Gerd Krumeich, a historian at Dusseldorf University, said. "And this reflects the mentality of most Germans today. They don’t seem to feel  that the war had anything to do with Germany even though almost 2 million of our soldiers died in the trenches."

 British Prime Minister David Cameron has added to the Germans discomfiture. Britain is spending some $80 million dollars on commemorative concerts, school visits to battlefields and other events. Cameron says Britain and its allies were fighting a just war against German aggression. Many historians agree.

 "The Germans fought a war of conquest," said military historian Garry Sheffield of Wolverhampton University. "And the British and the French found themselves  fighting a defensive war against an aggressive neighbor, bent on achieving hegemony in Europe." 

 These words have  an uncomfortable resonance today. 

 The German government’s  insistence on austerity measures in southern Europe has stirred up a lot of anti-German sentiment, and there is widespread concern about  perceived German dominance.  In a recent poll , 88 percent of Spaniards and 82 percent of Italians complained that Germany wields too much influence in the European Union. 

 Does this explain the apparent reluctance of the German authorities to commemorate the World War I centenary? Are they nervous about raking over the past?

 Andreas Meitzner – the senior German diplomat in charge of the country’s commemorative plans – denies that he has been dragging his feet, and insists German politicians and officials will take part in numerous events abroad. He says the government may yet decide to organize some commemorative activities at home. But he doesn’t expect the country to dwell on the issue of culpability.

 "It’s not about responsibility, about who is to blame. It’s about joint lessons to be drawn from the First World War,” Meitzner said. 

 Meitzner hopes Europe will use the commemoration as a lesson on the huge economic benefit of peaceful integration. But one German newspaper has written about the danger of "tearing open old wounds."

 With four years of eventson the horizon, this, like the Great War, won’t be short and sharp. And it won't be over before Christmas.

How American Idol changed television

Tue, 2014-01-14 12:24

Coming Wednesday to your television: the 13th season of American Idol.  Ratings were down last time around, but Fox is promising a facelift for the singing competition.  Love it, or over it, American Idol has changed the way we watch TV.   

At this point, the American Idol format seems pretty unremarkable. We watch some guy that no one’s heard of take on Stevie Wonder; we watch celebs judge him; we vote ourselves.  “Basically American Idol, in my mind, introduces audience interactivity,” says S. Shyam Sundar, a communications professor at Penn State.  It lets us be part of the action. We chose between Clay Aiken and Ruben Studdard. The show gave all of us a teeny, tiny, bit of control,  “and have a say in the outcome of the proceedings of the show.”

Sundar says it blends old media and new. It sets the stage for more watching together, while we’re in our PJs, watching apart.

But, the show’s format wasn’t entirely revolutionary. American Idol tapped into a long history of entertainment. 

Live. Amateur competition.

“Even in the 50s, and on radio,” says Susan Murray, a media professor at New York University, “there had been amateur hours, popular amateur hour shows.”

American Idol came up with a new formula for telling a story we’ve liked hearing for a long time: that our secret talents could be discovered, that the guy next door could become the next big thing.    

How college applications change in the era of Big Data

Tue, 2014-01-14 12:10

The number of college applications per capita is at an all-time high in America, and that's not making life any easier in the Admissions Office.

"I've applied to four schools and I'm thinking of applying to a few more," says Tim Murphy.

The high school senior from St. Louis sent in applications to places like Vanderbilt University and the University of Missouri, and he is nowhere near landing on his top choice.

"Almost anything feels like it can change my mind sometimes," Murphy says. "Stories I hear from friends who go to these schools, or the amount of money I'm getting from these schools."

Now that the application process has been moved online, kids are applying to more schools than ever. And all those applications stuffed into servers are making it harder for colleges to predict if a student will actually accept an admissions offer.

On a recent afternoon at Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville, hundreds of prospective students and their parents walk through the student center. Director of Admissions Todd Burrell is the guy in a three piece suit hanging out by the registration table.

"We know kids are applying to more and more schools, but they can only pick one," Burrell says.

Folks in the admissions business call this "yield," or the percentage of kids who accept admissions offers.

Like many schools, the university did not hit its target yield last year.

Fewer students can mean less revenue, and the school is using big data to step up its marketing game.

"What can we do more to keep them engaged in this process and say, 'I want to go there,'?" asks Burrell.

The university buys contact information from testing companies, and then sends all those kids e-mails.

The moment a kid clicks a request for more information, the marketing wheels start to turn: phone calls, e-mails, direct mailings, you name it.

Some institutions are taking this process to a whole new level.

"As a student goes through the search and application process, many times unbeknownst to them, colleges are collecting information about everything that they do," says David Hawkins, director of public policy and research for the National Association for College Admission Counseling.

Messages, campus visits, even social media interactions, are logged into admissions software.

"When the application is received, the college then has sort of a trove of data on the student," Hawkins says.

Hawkins stresses that a student has to clear an institution's academic bar. But he says colleges don't want to offer up a spot to a student who isn't likely to enroll, and all that data is crunched in the search for something called "demonstrated interest."

"How likely you are to enroll in the institution if you're accepted? That's 'demonstrated interest' in a nutshell," Hawkins says.

Mostly colleges want to see that a student has stayed in touch during the application process, but Hawkins says some go so far as to analyze the order a student lists schools on their federal aid application.

The idea is that students will put their preferred schools at the top of the list.

Under rising pressure to hit enrolment numbers, more schools are reaching to consultants for help. Hawkins says those contracts can be worth millions of dollars.

"The profession as it exists now is almost alien to the people who got into the business 20 or 30 years ago," Hawkins says.

Colleges are also using big data to help make sure kids leave campus with a degree, experimenting with systems designed to help catch struggling students before they fall through the cracks.

Surprise! 6 items still in the omnibus budget bill

Tue, 2014-01-14 11:40

Lawmakers tried to put months of bickering to bed on Monday by unveiling a $1.1 trillion spending bill that they'll vote on soon - and we have to admit, we were surprised.

Not by the deal, per se. The surprise came in the form of some unexpected government bills that will continue to be paid in 2014.

  1. Reassurances to Pope Francis. The U.S. State Department will continue funding a diplomatic presence at the Vatican, prohibiting a merger with the larger embassy in Rome "unless certain conditions are met to maintain its importance and authority." The Foreign Service as a whole, however, will have to make do with less: The bill cuts $224 milion for embassy security, maintenance, and construction costs.
  2. Condolences to a Congressional widow. Beverly A. Young, widow of Bill Young, the late House Representative from Florida, received her own $174,000 of appropriated funds.
  3. A ban on horsemeat. The bill contains ten lines reaffirming The Horse Protection Act of 1970. Other animals (and their respective protection acts) mentioned by name include rhinoceroses, tigers, great apes, marine turtles, and Asian elephants.
  4. Mail on Saturdays. The Postal Service will continue delivering six days a week - and if those packages come from Amazon, maybe even seven
  5. "...appropriate" IRS videos? Not only did the embattled IRS lose $526 million in funding, they also lost their film-making privileges. Or at least most of them: "None of funds made available to the Internal Revenue Service by this Act may be used to make a video unless the Service-Wide Video Editorial Board determines in advance that making the video is appropriate, taking into account the cost, topic, tone, and purpose of the video."
  6. The Affordable Care Act. It's missing $1 billion for the Prevention and Public Health Fund, but Obamacare lives on.

What didn't make it into the bill? Money to enforce the ban on incandescent light bulbs

Federal court rules against FCC net neutrality rules

Tue, 2014-01-14 06:54

On Tuesday, a federal appeals court in Washington struck down the Federal Communications Commission's open internet rules. The FCC had wanted to make internet providers treat all web traffic the same -- a concept known as net neutrality.

The ruling means internet service providers will be allowed to grant quicker access to websites willing to pay for the special treatment. For instance, if websites like Netflix will pay more, providers like Verizon will serve up their content faster.  

Marketplace's Nancy Marshall Genzer joins Marketplace Tech host Ben Johnson to discuss. 

PODCAST: The running tab of no tap water

Tue, 2014-01-14 05:29

A case before the court involves whether the government should be allowed to take payroll taxes from severance pay.

How do you measure the cost of a toxic spill that turns off the tap? People affected by the West Virginia water contamination had to suspend the convenience of running water, and instead relied on bottled water for everything except flushing toilets.

The Federal Reserve has an enormous balance sheet. After all, it bought trillions of securities from banks. But could something designed as stimulus turn into nasty inflation down the road? Don't worry. The Fed has a plan for that. It's called Reverse Repo.

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