Marketplace - American Public Media

A day in the life of a payphone

Thu, 2014-05-22 09:12
Thursday, May 22, 2014 - 12:02 Spencer Platt/Getty Images

A public phone booth on a street in New York City. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio has called for proposals to turn underused phone booths into Wi-Fi hot spots. If successful, the program would create one of the largest free public wi-fi networks in the country. 

The highest earning payphone in Manhattan is a few blocks from Times Square, smack in the shadow of the Port Authority bus terminal and the New York Times building.

The payphone sits in a metal kiosk, where you can lean in and hide your face. The payphone has been busy all morning, but not for making phone calls. People use the kiosk to talk on cell phones, light cigarettes, count money – it offers a nook of privacy in a crowded city.

No other city has the payphones that New York has, says Stanley Shor, who oversees payphone companies at the city’s Department of Information Technology and Innovation. Boston, for instance, has less than 1,000 payphones. New York has nearly 10,000 of them.

“We walk and talk -- a lot,” says Shor.

But that’s not the only reason. In the '90s, payphone companies started putting ads on their kiosks. Payphones popped up everywhere just when people stopped using them. In peak years, more than 30,000 public payphones stood on the streets of New York. “You wouldn't be able to get that many billboards without the payphone,” says Shor.

In the last decade, many public phones were removed to make way for building construction. Still, the city has an enormous network of payphones – infrastructure Mayor Bill de Blasio could  piggyback on to create what would be the biggest public Wi-Fi network in the country.

By using a historic part of New York’s street fabric,” the mayor said in a public statement, “we can significantly enhance public availability of broadband access and increase revenue to the city—all at absolutely no cost to taxpayers.”

The city has called for proposals to turn the payphone kiosks into Wi-Fi hubs. The phones, or at least some of them, would be kept in place for 911 calls. If the plan is a success, other major cities could follow New York’s lead.

Today, the city does make money off its public phones. Payphone companies give New York City 10 percent of the money they earn from calls made on the phones and 36 percent of the ad revenue. Last year, that added up to 17 million dollars for the city. 

The highest-earning payphone – the one near Times Square – earned the city about $500 last quarter, according to Shor’s records.

Eventually, a person with a cracked cellphone tries to use the payphone, but it turns out to be broken. The city does not install or repair payphones. That is the job of payphone companies. They spend about $60 a month on every phone.

Nobody keeps track of who is actually using the phones. That is, except for Mark Thomas.

“It’s everybody,” says Thomas, “It’s little kids, it’s old people, it’s well-dressed people, shady-looking people, a lot of tourists.”

Thomas knows because he has been taking photos of these people – with their faces artfully hidden, of course. For the past 20 years, he ran the Payphone Project, where he studies all aspects of public phones.

“I actually love the smell of a filthy payphone,” Thomas says, “I’ve noticed sometimes you can smell a mix of one man’s cologne with a cigar – all these odd, disparate scents all come together on a public phone.”

Thomas is working on a book about the history and culture of payphones.

It is now the middle of the afternoon. After hours of watching people not even trying to use the payphone, I meet a young man in a red sweatshirt named Wavey.

Wavey has been standing at the corner, watching me watch the payphone. He and a group of co-workers have been using public phones across the street. Then they discretely hand off little parcels to the black SUV’s that roll by us every few minutes.

The guys here say payphones are essential to their line of work. Wavey, for one, doesn’t even own a cellphone.

“If I’m doing business,” he explains, “I’m going to use a payphone, ‘cause I don’t want nobody to get on my line.”

The problem with using the payphone for this kind of ‘business’? Sometimes your own customers get in the way.

“It’s a lot of corrupted people out here,” Wavey says, “Like drug users who try to break the phones so they could take all the money out so they can get their little drugs.”

The group’s advice to Mayor de Blasio: sure, put Wi-Fi in the payphone kiosks – just don’t forget to take out those tempting coin slots.

Marketplace for Thursday May 22, 2014by Sruthi PinnamaneniPodcast Title A day in the life of a payphoneStory Type FeatureSyndication SlackerSoundcloudStitcherSwellPMPApp Respond No

A day in the life of a payphone

Thu, 2014-05-22 09:02

The highest earning payphone in Manhattan is a few blocks from Times Square, smack in the shadow of the Port Authority bus terminal and the New York Times building.

The payphone sits in a metal kiosk, where you can lean in and hide your face. The payphone has been busy all morning, but not for making phone calls. People use the kiosk to talk on cell phones, light cigarettes, count money – it offers a nook of privacy in a crowded city.

No other city has the payphones that New York has, says Stanley Shor, who oversees payphone companies at the city’s Department of Information Technology and Innovation. Boston, for instance, has less than 1,000 payphones. New York has nearly 10,000 of them.

“We walk and talk -- a lot,” says Shor.

But that’s not the only reason. In the '90s, payphone companies started putting ads on their kiosks. Payphones popped up everywhere just when people stopped using them. In peak years, more than 30,000 public payphones stood on the streets of New York. “You wouldn't be able to get that many billboards without the payphone,” says Shor.

In the last decade, many public phones were removed to make way for building construction. Still, the city has an enormous network of payphones – infrastructure Mayor Bill de Blasio could  piggyback on to create what would be the biggest public Wi-Fi network in the country.

By using a historic part of New York’s street fabric,” the mayor said in a public statement, “we can significantly enhance public availability of broadband access and increase revenue to the city—all at absolutely no cost to taxpayers.”

The city has called for proposals to turn the payphone kiosks into Wi-Fi hubs. The phones, or at least some of them, would be kept in place for 911 calls. If the plan is a success, other major cities could follow New York’s lead.

Today, the city does make money off its public phones. Payphone companies give New York City 10 percent of the money they earn from calls made on the phones and 36 percent of the ad revenue. Last year, that added up to 17 million dollars for the city. 

The highest-earning payphone – the one near Times Square – earned the city about $500 last quarter, according to Shor’s records.

Eventually, a person with a cracked cellphone tries to use the payphone, but it turns out to be broken. The city does not install or repair payphones. That is the job of payphone companies. They spend about $60 a month on every phone.

Nobody keeps track of who is actually using the phones. That is, except for Mark Thomas.

“It’s everybody,” says Thomas, “It’s little kids, it’s old people, it’s well-dressed people, shady-looking people, a lot of tourists.”

Thomas knows because he has been taking photos of these people – with their faces artfully hidden, of course. For the past 20 years, he ran the Payphone Project, where he studies all aspects of public phones.

“I actually love the smell of a filthy payphone,” Thomas says, “I’ve noticed sometimes you can smell a mix of one man’s cologne with a cigar – all these odd, disparate scents all come together on a public phone.”

Thomas is working on a book about the history and culture of payphones.

It is now the middle of the afternoon. After hours of watching people not even trying to use the payphone, I meet a young man in a red sweatshirt named Wavey.

Wavey has been standing at the corner, watching me watch the payphone. He and a group of co-workers have been using public phones across the street. Then they discretely hand off little parcels to the black SUV’s that roll by us every few minutes.

The guys here say payphones are essential to their line of work. Wavey, for one, doesn’t even own a cellphone.

“If I’m doing business,” he explains, “I’m going to use a payphone, ‘cause I don’t want nobody to get on my line.”

The problem with using the payphone for this kind of ‘business’? Sometimes your own customers get in the way.

“It’s a lot of corrupted people out here,” Wavey says, “Like drug users who try to break the phones so they could take all the money out so they can get their little drugs.”

The group’s advice to Mayor de Blasio: sure, put Wi-Fi in the payphone kiosks – just don’t forget to take out those tempting coin slots.

PODCAST: The economy in Uighur China

Thu, 2014-05-22 08:40

Chinese officials are calling it a terrorist attack. Early this morning in the western city of Urumqi, 31 people were killed and at least 90 others injured when vehicles plowed into a crowded market and then exploded. It’s the latest in a series of attacks in China. In March, a knife attack by a group of men killed dozens in Southwest China, and just a few weeks ago, a bombing and knife attack at a train station in Urumqi, injured dozens more. China’s government have blamed the previous attacks on Uighur separatists -- Uighurs are an ethnic Muslim minority who live in China’s vast Northwest region of Xinjiang, a Chinese province roughly the size of Alaska that borders Central Asia. China has so far not blamed any particular group for today’s attack.

London could face new obstacles as a financial capital if Scotland votes is to become its own country and separate from the United Kingdom this fall. But economic warnings from London could change the vote of those in favor for independence. 

PODCAST: The economy in Uighur China

Thu, 2014-05-22 07:48
Thursday, May 22, 2014 - 11:40 MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images

This photo taken on on June 29, 2013 shows a muslim Uighur man at the Grand Bazaar in Urumqi, Xinjiang Province. China's constitution proclaims the country's dozens of minority groups as integral and equal parts of the national tapestry -- but analysts say the mishandling of such distinctions is a driver of unrest in remote Xinjiang.

Chinese officials are calling it a terrorist attack. Early this morning in the western city of Urumqi, 31 people were killed and at least 90 others injured when vehicles plowed into a crowded market and then exploded. It’s the latest in a series of attacks in China. In March, a knife attack by a group of men killed dozens in Southwest China, and just a few weeks ago, a bombing and knife attack at a train station in Urumqi, injured dozens more. China’s government have blamed the previous attacks on Uighur separatists -- Uighurs are an ethnic Muslim minority who live in China’s vast Northwest region of Xinjiang, a Chinese province roughly the size of Alaska that borders Central Asia. China has so far not blamed any particular group for today’s attack.

London could face new obstacles as a financial capital if Scotland votes is to become its own country and separate from the United Kingdom this fall. But economic warnings from London could change the vote of those in favor for independence. 

Marketplace Morning Report for Thursday May 22,2014 by David BrancaccioPodcast Title 05-22-14 Mid-day Update - The economy in Uighur ChinaStory Type BlogSyndication All in onePMPApp Respond No

Take down the Union Jack?

Thu, 2014-05-22 07:24

London could face new obstacles as a financial capital if Scotland votes is to become its own country and separate from the United Kingdom this fall. But economic warnings from London could change the vote of those in favor for independence. Will Scotland decide to break free from the United Kingdom and become an independent country? Rob Broomby, UK affairs correspondent for the BBC, tells Marketplace Morning Report host David Brancaccio about the possible consequences for the United Kingdom and Scotland.

Take down the Union Jack?

Thu, 2014-05-22 06:35
Thursday, May 22, 2014 - 10:24 Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

Colin MacDonald Provan walks his dog Colleen down Glasgow High Street past a Yes referendum campaign billboard On May 20, 2014 in Glasgow, Scotland. A referendum on whether Scotland should be an independent country will take place on September 18, 2014.

London could face new obstacles as a financial capital if Scotland votes is to become its own country and separate from the United Kingdom this fall. But economic warnings from London could change the vote of those in favor for independence. Will Scotland decide to break free from the United Kingdom and become an independent country? Rob Broomby, UK affairs correspondent for the BBC, tells Marketplace Morning Report host David Brancaccio about the possible consequences for the United Kingdom and Scotland.

Interview with Rob BroombyPodcast Title Take down the Union Jack? Story Type News StorySyndication SlackerSoundcloudStitcherSwellPMPApp Respond No

British home buyers fear a 'super bubble'

Thu, 2014-05-22 04:49

There’s an old saying that an Englishman's home is his castle.

If he lives in London, it's likely to be a pretty small castle, and there definitely won't be room for a moat -- unless he’s prepared to pay a king's ransom.

House prices in the British capital are rising at breakneck speed, fueling talk of a price bubble, or even a superbubble.

Prices rose 18 percent last year, according to a recent survey by the Nationwide Building Society. The average price of a home in the British capital is now more than $600,000.    In a desirable part of town, a simple two-bedroom condo can cost millions.

“We’re doing great business here, and have done since early 2009 when the market recovered,” says Peter Rollings, chief executive of real-estate agency Marsh and Parsons. “We’re now 40-50 percent  above our 2007 highs, driven by super demand from UK and overseas buyers.”

But while property agents are breaking out the champagne, it is becoming increasingly difficult for people on ordinary incomes to get into the market. One such person is Jacob Kennedy, a software engineer who works in London’s financial district.

“The prices always seem to go up just at the point when I think I might be able to afford it,” he says. “I always seem to be one or two steps behind the curve”.

Some experts claim hot money from abroad is distorting the market, and rich foreigners looking for a lucrative investment are pricing locals out of London. Daniel Bentley of the think tank Civitas says something needs to be done about it.

“I think we need to introduce new restrictions on foreign investors, and make sure that with each investment that is made, that money is creating new housing and not simply adding to the demand,” he says.

But others disagree. Peter Rollings believes London property has always been unaffordable for most people.

“It’s a city-state," he says. “Here, where we are in prime central London,  probably 40-45 percent of our buyers last year were from overseas. Now that doesn’t mean jetting in, buying a property, and jetting off again. It means they are living here and contributing to the local economy. So anyone who wants to get rid of them is in cloud cuckoo land, I think.”

Some analysts believe that the property market in this city is already heavily overvalued, that it's a bubble waiting to burst, and prices could one day plummet.

If that happens, it will certainly be welcomed by London's legions of would-be housebuyers. Right now, there’s little sign of it.

British home buyers fear a 'super bubble'

Thu, 2014-05-22 04:49

There’s an old saying that an Englishman's home is his castle.

If he lives in London, it's likely to be a pretty small castle, and there definitely won't be room for a moat -- unless he’s prepared to pay a king's ransom.

House prices in the British capital are rising at breakneck speed, fueling talk of a price bubble, or even a superbubble.

Prices rose 18 percent last year, according to a recent survey by the Nationwide Building Society. The average price of a home in the British capital is now more than $600,000.    In a desirable part of town, a simple two-bedroom condo can cost millions.

“We’re doing great business here, and have done since early 2009 when the market recovered,” says Peter Rollings, chief executive of real-estate agency Marsh and Parsons. “We’re now 40-50 percent  above our 2007 highs, driven by super demand from UK and overseas buyers.”

But while property agents are breaking out the champagne, it is becoming increasingly difficult for people on ordinary incomes to get into the market. One such person is Jacob Kennedy, a software engineer who works in London’s financial district.

“The prices always seem to go up just at the point when I think I might be able to afford it,” he says. “I always seem to be one or two steps behind the curve”.

Some experts claim hot money from abroad is distorting the market, and rich foreigners looking for a lucrative investment are pricing locals out of London. Daniel Bentley of the think tank Civitas says something needs to be done about it.

“I think we need to introduce new restrictions on foreign investors, and make sure that with each investment that is made, that money is creating new housing and not simply adding to the demand,” he says.

But others disagree. Peter Rollings believes London property has always been unaffordable for most people.

“It’s a city-state," he says. “Here, where we are in prime central London,  probably 40-45 percent of our buyers last year were from overseas. Now that doesn’t mean jetting in, buying a property, and jetting off again. It means they are living here and contributing to the local economy. So anyone who wants to get rid of them is in cloud cuckoo land, I think.”

Some analysts believe that the property market in this city is already heavily overvalued, that it's a bubble waiting to burst, and prices could one day plummet.

If that happens, it will certainly be welcomed by London's legions of would-be housebuyers. Right now, there’s little sign of it.

Which cities will profit off the Star Wars museum?

Thu, 2014-05-22 04:38

Chicago wants to lure director George Lucas to build his Lucas Cultural Arts Museum in the Windy City instead of San Francisco.

“We expect that the Lucas Cultural Arts Museum would generate between $2 and $2.5 billion in direct economic impact over ten years,” says Gillian Darlow, who co-chaired a task force to find a site for the museum in Chicago.

Attracting visitors is a pretty safe bet. Star Wars fans are devoted and they spend money. (A full storm-trooper costume can cost upwards of $1,200.)

But some conservationists and football fans aren’t crazy about the proposed site for the museum -- currently, it’s the Chicago Bears’ parking lot.

The economic backdrop to China's terrorist attacks

Thu, 2014-05-22 04:19

Chinese officials are calling it a terrorist attack. Early this morning in the western city of Urumqi, 31 people were killed and at least 90 others injured when vehicles plowed into a crowded market and then exploded. It’s the latest in a series of attacks in China. In March, a knife attack by a group of men killed dozens in Southwest China, and just a few weeks ago, a bombing and knife attack at a train station in Urumqi, injured dozens more. China’s government have blamed the previous attacks on Uighur separatists -- Uighurs are an ethnic Muslim minority who live in China’s vast Northwest region of Xinjiang, a Chinese province roughly the size of Alaska that borders Central Asia. China has so far not blamed any particular group for today’s attack.

#Xinjiang blast: Police cordoned off the scene after the explosion that has killed unknown number of people on May 22 pic.twitter.com/lZQRIAOC8C

— People's Daily,China (@PDChina) May 22, 2014

Today’s attack comes a week after the trial runs for a line that will connect Xinjiang with the rest of China by high-speed rail for the first time. In the past, Xinjiang was always considered very far away from the rest of China -- parts of it are closer to Baghdad than they are to Beijing and the people who live their have Caucasian facial features, many Uighurs don’t speak Chinese. But now a new train will reduce what was a trip that took days into hours, and that underscores China’s political control over this region, extending to economic control. Historically, Uighurs have always been businessmen -- this is the home to the ancient silk route. But these days, many Uighurs are frustrated because they feel they’ve lost a lot of economic decision-making power over their homeland to people they consider outsiders from Eastern China who now dominate government and business there.

Terrorist attack kills at least 31, injures 94 at Urumqi market http://t.co/f7G9RxXCQp

— China Xinhua News (@XHNews) May 22, 2014

 

The economic backdrop to China's terrorist attacks

Thu, 2014-05-22 04:19

Chinese officials are calling it a terrorist attack. Early this morning in the western city of Urumqi, 31 people were killed and at least 90 others injured when vehicles plowed into a crowded market and then exploded. It’s the latest in a series of attacks in China. In March, a knife attack by a group of men killed dozens in Southwest China, and just a few weeks ago, a bombing and knife attack at a train station in Urumqi, injured dozens more. China’s government have blamed the previous attacks on Uighur separatists -- Uighurs are an ethnic Muslim minority who live in China’s vast Northwest region of Xinjiang, a Chinese province roughly the size of Alaska that borders Central Asia. China has so far not blamed any particular group for today’s attack.

#Xinjiang blast: Police cordoned off the scene after the explosion that has killed unknown number of people on May 22 pic.twitter.com/lZQRIAOC8C

— People's Daily,China (@PDChina) May 22, 2014

Today’s attack comes a week after the trial runs for a line that will connect Xinjiang with the rest of China by high-speed rail for the first time. In the past, Xinjiang was always considered very far away from the rest of China -- parts of it are closer to Baghdad than they are to Beijing and the people who live their have Caucasian facial features, many Uighurs don’t speak Chinese. But now a new train will reduce what was a trip that took days into hours, and that underscores China’s political control over this region, extending to economic control. Historically, Uighurs have always been businessmen -- this is the home to the ancient silk route. But these days, many Uighurs are frustrated because they feel they’ve lost a lot of economic decision-making power over their homeland to people they consider outsiders from Eastern China who now dominate government and business there.

Terrorist attack kills at least 31, injures 94 at Urumqi market http://t.co/f7G9RxXCQp

— China Xinhua News (@XHNews) May 22, 2014

 

The most prolific video game voice actress ever

Thu, 2014-05-22 03:49

Jennifer Hale holds the Guinness World Record for most prolific video game voice actress. 

Check out the audio above to hear more on her career, her favorite sound effects while "dying," and how the industry has changed for female gamers.

Hale decided to lend her multiple voices to Marketplace Tech. Check out these three "characters" she brought into the studio:

The most prolific video game voice actress ever

Thu, 2014-05-22 03:49

Jennifer Hale holds the Guinness World Record for most prolific video game voice actress. 

Check out the audio above to hear more on her career, her favorite sound effects while "dying," and how the industry has changed for female gamers.

Hale decided to lend her multiple voices to Marketplace Tech. Check out these three "characters" she brought into the studio:

Best Buy's website is trying to take on Amazon

Thu, 2014-05-22 03:42

Best Buy announces its first quarter earnings Thursday. 

The retailer has struggled to compete online against companies like Amazon and Overstock.com, which matters more as more people shop online.

The University of Washington's Jake Thornock said traditional retailers like Best Buy are trying to take back what they’ve lost from e-tail companies.

“What we’re seeing at a higher level is unfettered competition in the retail space,” he said.

“There was this sort of fragmented perception that consumers would always go towards an online only company if they wanted to make an online purchase.”

But Ravi Bapna, who teaches information systems at the University of Minnesota, said it’s tough to compete against a digitally sophisticated company like Amazon.

“Best Buy being a traditional company, I don’t think it has that sort of mindset or that sort of infrastructure digitally to be at that level of sophistication right now,” he said.

Best Buy's website is trying to take on Amazon

Thu, 2014-05-22 03:42

Best Buy announces its first quarter earnings Thursday. 

The retailer has struggled to compete online against companies like Amazon and Overstock.com, which matters more as more people shop online.

The University of Washington's Jake Thornock said traditional retailers like Best Buy are trying to take back what they’ve lost from e-tail companies.

“What we’re seeing at a higher level is unfettered competition in the retail space,” he said.

“There was this sort of fragmented perception that consumers would always go towards an online only company if they wanted to make an online purchase.”

But Ravi Bapna, who teaches information systems at the University of Minnesota, said it’s tough to compete against a digitally sophisticated company like Amazon.

“Best Buy being a traditional company, I don’t think it has that sort of mindset or that sort of infrastructure digitally to be at that level of sophistication right now,” he said.

Dentist, mechanic... security expert?

Wed, 2014-05-21 23:58

When I was interviewing Anup Ghosh for today's roundup of hacking news, he expressed a setniment all too familiar.

"Never a dull day in the security world," he said. And it's true -- this week, we've learned about an Ebay data breach impacting 145 million users, a member of the Navy stealing identities of fellow servicemen from inside an aircraft carrier and a government report that suggests attacking public utilities connected to the Internet is as easy as Googling. That's just this week.

I can say "Target hack" and you know exactly what I'm talking about, right? The truth is that hacking -- the bad kind -- is becoming a regular part of our lives whether we're "into tech" or not. But here's a question I keep coming back to: how do we know the difference between a run-of-the-mill hack job, and a Heartbleed bug?

When I interviewed Brian Krebs last month about Heartbleed on one of the first days it was a story, his advice was "stay off the Internet." No modifiers, no caveats, just one simple sentence.

At that moment Krebs's statement felt like hyperbole, but as the days wore on, the emails from companies and social networks started piling up in inboxes. We talked to people who were actually trying to patch the security holes left open by Heartbleed, and they were barely sleeping. Heartbleed seemed to prove just as serious as Krebs had suggested. But it was also hard to tell what the impact really was. When there's smoke there's fire. But where there's just a ton of kindling and a book of matches... there's... ?

Hacking, as an idea, is really hard to get your head around. It's not as palpable as other kinds of threats. You might suffer from it, but you can't really see it. It's not an explosion, and you need some pretty legitimate tech creds to know how it actually works. In fact, the thing that worries me is that the vast majority of people who interact with technology every day -- and this includes me -- have a pretty simplistic understanding of how it all really works.

We're total noobs, to use the online parlance of our times. So the majority of us have to rely on obvious signs or people who know more than us if we want to identify it and calculate where a hack falls on the threat spectrum.

It's like going to a mechanic or the dentist. You have to trust someone who knows way more than you. And to be honest, I'm not entirely comfortable with that.

I've had dentists who I know attempted to get me to pay for their X-ray machine by telling me to get an X-ray every time I came in for a cleaning. And I don't think it's a stretch to suggest that if we came up with perfect security tools, a lot of cybersecurity companies would go out of business. That's a cynical idea that doesn't take into account the simple fact that most competing cybersecurity companies are trying to build the perfect cybersecurity tools so that all the other companies go out of business.

But it's a factor.

All this reminds me of another quote. It comes from cybersecurity expert at Sophos and Marketplace Tech regular Chester Wisniewski. A funny saying in the cybersecurity world, says Chester, is that "there's no patch for human stupidity." As in, people are fallible. They make mistakes no matter how powerful your security software is. And that might be a place to start from for us regulars, us noobs. To acknowledge how little we know, and promise to learn more about the technology we use, in the hope of protecting ourselves. Because hacking is here to stay.

Dentist, mechanic... security expert?

Wed, 2014-05-21 23:58

When I was interviewing Anup Ghosh for today's roundup of hacking news, he expressed a setniment all too familiar.

"Never a dull day in the security world," he said. And it's true -- this week, we've learned about an Ebay data breach impacting 145 million users, a member of the Navy stealing identities of fellow servicemen from inside an aircraft carrier and a government report that suggests attacking public utilities connected to the Internet is as easy as Googling. That's just this week.

I can say "Target hack" and you know exactly what I'm talking about, right? The truth is that hacking -- the bad kind -- is becoming a regular part of our lives whether we're "into tech" or not. But here's a question I keep coming back to: how do we know the difference between a run-of-the-mill hack job, and a Heartbleed bug?

When I interviewed Brian Krebs last month about Heartbleed on one of the first days it was a story, his advice was "stay off the Internet." No modifiers, no caveats, just one simple sentence.

At that moment Krebs's statement felt like hyperbole, but as the days wore on, the emails from companies and social networks started piling up in inboxes. We talked to people who were actually trying to patch the security holes left open by Heartbleed, and they were barely sleeping. Heartbleed seemed to prove just as serious as Krebs had suggested. But it was also hard to tell what the impact really was. When there's smoke there's fire. But where there's just a ton of kindling and a book of matches... there's... ?

Hacking, as an idea, is really hard to get your head around. It's not as palpable as other kinds of threats. You might suffer from it, but you can't really see it. It's not an explosion, and you need some pretty legitimate tech creds to know how it actually works. In fact, the thing that worries me is that the vast majority of people who interact with technology every day -- and this includes me -- have a pretty simplistic understanding of how it all really works.

We're total noobs, to use the online parlance of our times. So the majority of us have to rely on obvious signs or people who know more than us if we want to identify it and calculate where a hack falls on the threat spectrum.

It's like going to a mechanic or the dentist. You have to trust someone who knows way more than you. And to be honest, I'm not entirely comfortable with that.

I've had dentists who I know attempted to get me to pay for their X-ray machine by telling me to get an X-ray every time I came in for a cleaning. And I don't think it's a stretch to suggest that if we came up with perfect security tools, a lot of cybersecurity companies would go out of business. That's a cynical idea that doesn't take into account the simple fact that most competing cybersecurity companies are trying to build the perfect cybersecurity tools so that all the other companies go out of business.

But it's a factor.

All this reminds me of another quote. It comes from cybersecurity expert at Sophos and Marketplace Tech regular Chester Wisniewski. A funny saying in the cybersecurity world, says Chester, is that "there's no patch for human stupidity." As in, people are fallible. They make mistakes no matter how powerful your security software is. And that might be a place to start from for us regulars, us noobs. To acknowledge how little we know, and promise to learn more about the technology we use, in the hope of protecting ourselves. Because hacking is here to stay.

Rest in poverty?

Wed, 2014-05-21 21:59

This is probably the grimmest indicator of Britain's growing inequality: There's been a striking rise in the number of paupers' funerals. 

To be fair, it is not a very precise indicator because the number of British people who cannot afford their own funeral and have to be buried or cremated at the state's expense is shrouded in secrecy.

Local authorities have a legal duty to dispose of the indigent dead – under the Public Health (Control of Disease ) Act - but they don't brag about the subject. In fact they have to be compelled by requests under the U.K.'s freedom of information law to divulge any details.

A series of these requests by the opposition Labour Party has revealed a disturbing trend: Over the past five years, the number of paupers' funerals (or Public Health Funerals as they are more decorously termed) has increased across the country by 35 percent to more than 3,000 a year. In southwest England, the number has doubled.

"It's becoming too expensive for the poor to die," says Dr. Kate Woodthrope, of the Death and Society Centre at Bath University. Woodthorpe is not entirely surprised by the secrecy surrounding this subject. "There is something Dickensian about this. And there is a Victorian legacy of shame about not being able to give someone a decent send-off."

Dr. Woodthorpe – a sociology lecturer - blames a number of factors for the increase in state-funded burials and cremations.

"The costs have been rising. A cremation now costs an average of around [$5,000] and much more for burial because of the shortage of land," she says. "That's too expensive for many poor people."

But she also says Britain's relatively high divorce and separation rates have led to families becoming more dispersed around the country, blurring the lines of responsibility for burying sometimes distant relatives. 

A pauper's funeral sounds like a desperately bleak affair. But Julie Dunk of the Institute of Cemetery and Crematoria Management says the service is not perfunctory; it's simple and dignified and although there is usually no memorial marking the grave, the the name of the deceased is always recorded in the cemetary register. And these state-funded funerals can be well attended.

"I once arranged a public health funeral for a homeless man," says Dunk. "And although there was no family or friends to pay for the service, he was such a well known figure in the local neighborhood, that more than hundred people turned up at the funeral to pay their respects."

 

Rest in poverty?

Wed, 2014-05-21 21:59

This is probably the grimmest indicator of Britain's growing inequality: There's been a striking rise in the number of paupers' funerals. 

To be fair, it is not a very precise indicator because the number of British people who cannot afford their own funeral and have to be buried or cremated at the state's expense is shrouded in secrecy.

Local authorities have a legal duty to dispose of the indigent dead – under the Public Health (Control of Disease ) Act - but they don't brag about the subject. In fact they have to be compelled by requests under the U.K.'s freedom of information law to divulge any details.

A series of these requests by the opposition Labour Party has revealed a disturbing trend: Over the past five years, the number of paupers' funerals (or Public Health Funerals as they are more decorously termed) has increased across the country by 35 percent to more than 3,000 a year. In southwest England, the number has doubled.

"It's becoming too expensive for the poor to die," says Dr. Kate Woodthrope, of the Death and Society Centre at Bath University. Woodthorpe is not entirely surprised by the secrecy surrounding this subject. "There is something Dickensian about this. And there is a Victorian legacy of shame about not being able to give someone a decent send-off."

Dr. Woodthorpe – a sociology lecturer - blames a number of factors for the increase in state-funded burials and cremations.

"The costs have been rising. A cremation now costs an average of around [$5,000] and much more for burial because of the shortage of land," she says. "That's too expensive for many poor people."

But she also says Britain's relatively high divorce and separation rates have led to families becoming more dispersed around the country, blurring the lines of responsibility for burying sometimes distant relatives. 

A pauper's funeral sounds like a desperately bleak affair. But Julie Dunk of the Institute of Cemetery and Crematoria Management says the service is not perfunctory; it's simple and dignified and although there is usually no memorial marking the grave, the the name of the deceased is always recorded in the cemetary register. And these state-funded funerals can be well attended.

"I once arranged a public health funeral for a homeless man," says Dunk. "And although there was no family or friends to pay for the service, he was such a well known figure in the local neighborhood, that more than hundred people turned up at the funeral to pay their respects."

 

What China gets from the $400 billion Russian gas deal

Wed, 2014-05-21 18:04
Wednesday, May 21, 2014 - 21:00 ALEXEY DRUZHININ/AFP/Getty Images

Russia's President Vladimir Putin (L) applauds during an agreement signing ceremony in Shanghai on May 21, 2014, with Gazprom CEO Alexei Miller (C) and Chinese state energy giant CNPC Chairman Zhou Jiping (R) attending the ceremony. China and Russia signed today a monumental, multi-decade gas supply contract in Shanghai, CNPC said, with reports saying it could be worth as much as $400 billion.

In Shanghai Wednesday, China signed an historic deal with Russia's Gazprom, securing a 30-year natural gas supply for the country. Russia and China have been in discussions over building a pipeline to deliver gas from Siberia to China for more than a decade.

This was the perfect time for China to be at the bargaining table with Russia's Gazprom because of the ongoing unrest in the Ukraine. Russia's government is becoming increasingly nervous about its reliance on selling natural gas to Western Europe and the constant threat of isolation from the West. For Russia, this deal means a more diversified customer bas for its enormous gas supply. For China, the deal means 38 billion cubic meters of natural gas a year starting in 2018 – equal to a quarter of what China currently consumes each year –will be purchased to the tune of nearly $400 billion.

The deal reveals a future where Russia and China are much closer economic partners than they've been in the past.

China is buying so much natural gas through this deal that it could help Beijing in its efforts to clean up China's environment. Much of the air pollution in China is due to burning coal. Natural gas is cleaner burning, and it's likely Russian gas will be replacing some of China's dirtiest coal-fired power plants.

China relies more and more on a diverse array of foreign countries for its energy, and the fact this is a 30-year deal will allow China's government to rest a little easier at night.

Marketplace Morning Report for Wednesday May 21, 2014Interview with Rob SchmitzPodcast Title What China gets from the $400 billion Russian gas dealStory Type InterviewSyndication SlackerSoundcloudStitcherSwellPMPApp Respond No
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