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Bezos wins a round in the billionaire space race

Thu, 2014-09-18 13:52

Elon Musk of Tesla Motors Inc. has been jockeying to get his Space Exploration Technologies Corporation (SpaceX for short) some work helping NASA build new launch systems. Now he's been one-upped by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, who has his own spaceship enterprise: Blue Origin.

NASA’s existing supplier has announced that it will use Blue Origin’s technology in its next generation of launchers.

All of which raises a question: Is there money to be made here? Or is this just billionaires with unlimited funds for new toys?

First, there are a couple of big reasons to take on these kinds of projects. To start with, the launch technology we use now is 40 years old, says  Jim Bell, a professor at the School of Earth and Space Exploration at Arizona State. It’s like the Atari 2600 of rockets.

"The existing generation of traditional engines are the Ataris of their time," he says, "and there’s a whole bunch of start-ups out there — Blue Origin being one and SpaceX being another — that are building our modern XBoxes."

Also, the rocket engines we’ve been using since the 1990s is Russian. Ever since tensions flared over Ukraine, that dependency on Russia has been making policy-makers pretty nervous.

There is money in space, but it's mostly in selling satellite services like TV and GPS, less so in the launch technology that Bezos and Musk are competing over.

"If you were looking for the very best money-making machine, I would probably not advise you to invest in starting your own launch company," says Carissa Christensen managing partner at the Tauri Group, a consultancy that specializes in space technology.

"Space is a little like the movie business. Nobody is in it by accident," she says. "Everyone desperately wants to be doing it. There are three people behind everybody who is making money at it, who would like to be involved the industry— and part of it is the allure of it. It’s fascinating."

As for startups looking to do next-generation space tech, Christensen says she’s seen generations of them. This one, which also includes Virgin Group founder Richard Branson, is different.

"The people who are starting these companies are not simply doing it to build the coolest rocket that they can," she says. "They are doing it to prove that you can make money in space. They are doing it with very deep pockets, they are doing it with business expertise from outside the space industry, and they are actually succeeding."

Both companies are private, but the SpaceX website describes the company as "profitable and cash-flow positive."

Blue Origin's "about" page does not mention profits, but refers to the company's mission as "a long-term effort, which we're pursuing incrementally, step-by-step."

Some surprising facts about states and student data

Thu, 2014-09-18 13:41

Open wide: Alaska collects data on students’ oral health, including how many teeth they have. 

Stop picking on me: Many states collect data on students who are disciplined for bullying, but Florida also tracks students who have been victims of bullying and the reasons why (ie., sexual orientation, religion)

Destined to drop out: In Texas, kids can be tagged as “at-risk” of dropping out of school as early as the pre-kindergarten level, based on their performance on a school readiness test.

Don’t ask: School districts in South Dakota, Idaho, West Virginia and Louisiana are forbidden from collecting data on whether a family owns a gun, under new data laws passed this year.

No window to the soul: In many states, school districts are also now barred from collecting biometric data like eye scans and palm prints.

Jail time for bureaucrats: In Louisiana, anyone who knowingly allows a data breach can be imprisoned for up to three years.

Fat chance: In New Hampshire, the state can no longer track the body mass index (BMI) of students under a new law passed this year. Nor can it use surveillance software on school laptops to track activity.

Once upon a time, inflation really was high

Thu, 2014-09-18 12:48

If you turned a Federal Reserve meeting into a theatrical production, the marquee might read “Waiting for Inflation.” That’s the economic bogeyman that keeps Fed members awake at night, even though there are zero signs the inflation monster is stirring.

Why all the angst over inflation? In this country it’s mostly painful memories of “The Great Inflation,” in the 1970s,  and the severe recession that followed it.

Baby boomer Bob Donohue remembers how inflation affected his father. When his dad retired in 1972, he started collecting a pension of $120 a month.

“My father’s pension check, which was fixed in its amount, covered his rent for two months when he retired,” says Donohue. “Less than seven years later, that same pension check only covered two weeks worth of rent on the same apartment.”

During the 1970s, oil prices more than quadrupled. Mortgage rates hit double digits. The inflation rate shot up from 5.7 percent to 13.5 percent in just four years. Wages and prices spiraled out of control.

The U.S. put an end to runaway inflation in the early '80s by tightening the money supply under Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volcker. But it came at an enormous cost. The recession that followed threw millions of Americans out of work.

CORRECTION: The original version of this article misstated the president under which Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volker raised interest rates to bring down inflation. It was President Jimmy Carter. The text has been corrected.

The shortcomings of the corporate wellness program

Thu, 2014-09-18 11:14

Corporate wellness programs have become a $6 billion industry for one, possibly flawed, reason: they help reduce companies' healthcare costs, while saving their employees money.

To some degree, they have been a success. Growth in premiums has hit its lowest point in the last 16 years. A new survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation shows that 71 percent of employers believe corporate wellness programs are either "very" or "somewhat" effective at reducing spending on providing benefits for their employees, who would be rewarded with these benefits by meeting various incentives.

But companies can also impose a penalty. They can charge an employee more for smoking or being overweight. It's the very reason why, says Professor Nancy Koehn of the Harvard Business School, these programs don't work.

"What's really happening in many instances is that costs are getting shifted to employees, whether it's because they don't meet certain goals or they don't conform in certain ways," she says. "Healthcare costs are going down for companies, but not so much for individuals and families."

And they're not having any lasting effects on their health, either, she adds.

"All these incentives, all these hurdles, greatly increase the cost of testing employees. So these things are more costly than you might think."

 Listen to the full conversation in the audio player above.

.tv and the surge of Internet video

Thu, 2014-09-18 10:15

There's now a billion websites, according to online tracking firm Live Stats, and the internet is getting a little crowded.

A bunch of new top-level domains — those letters that go at the end of a web address — were released to go alongside ".com." We have ".nyc," ".sports," and so on. But one of the most interesting — and popular — domains is ".tv," and it says a lot about the way television is changing.

Marketplace Tech host Ben Johnson says ".tv" has been around for a while, but it’s being used more and more for branding by emerging media companies. That could be good for the tiny island nation Tuvalu, which was originally assigned the domain and has made a pretty penny from leasing it out.

But more interesting than the rise of ".tv" is the parallel rise of Internet video — just look at Twitch(.tv).

"Video is a vastly expanding area of our vastly expanding internet," says Johnson. "Cisco estimates 70 percent of total internet traffic by the year 2017 is going to be video, and a lot of that is going to be mobile video."

That sea change is affecting the physical networks the web is built on and the way video is being delivered to our devices. On a recent visit to Bell Labs, Johnson spoke to researchers looking for ways to make a wireless connection respond to the environment for seamless streaming.

"Say you're a passenger in the seat of a car or maybe you're on a train in the future... and you're about to go into a tunnel," Johnson says. "They want to use the GPS on your device to tell the network you're that going underground, and then they want the network to deliver you more data faster before you go into the tunnel."

So whether your preferred video service is a ".tv" or ".com" website, you're probably taking up a lot of bandwidth, but the Internet of the future is going to accommodate you better.

Nearly half of American households are financially insecure

Thu, 2014-09-18 09:52

Financial insecurity is on the rise in American urban areas, even as the economy slowly recovers from the Great Recession, as unemployment falls, as foreclosures dwindle and as home prices rise again in many markets.

Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen highlighted the problem in an address, delivered by video, to the nonprofit Corporation for Enterprise Development’s 2014 Assets Learning Conference in Washington, D.C. 

“The financial crisis and the Great Recession demonstrated in a dramatic and unmistakable manner how extraordinarily vulnerable are the large share of American families with very few assets to fall back on,” Yellen said. “We have come far from the worst moments of the crisis, and the economy continues to improve. But the effects of the recession are still being felt by many families, particularly those that had very little in savings and other assets beforehand.” 

This week, the Corporation for Enterprise Development released new analysis of financial insecurity nationwide, drilling down on data at the state, regional and local levels. The group found that nearly 45 percent of households in cities with population of 200,000 or more, are “liquid-asset poor.” That means they don’t have enough in savings, or in assets that can be easily liquidated (such as stocks, bank accounts or retirement accounts), to cover their basic living expenses for three months. The threshold is set for a family of four living at the poverty level, which would need $6,000 to live.

Andrea Levere, president of Corporation for Enterprise Development, pointed out that this financial insecurity doesn’t just affect the poor, it affects those who are unemployed or working at minimum-wage jobs, too..

“Twenty five percent of American families in the fourth quintile of income — which is roughly $50,000 to $90,000 — are in liquid asset poverty,” said Levere.

Randy Albelda, an economist at the University of Massachusetts-Boston, isn’t surprised by the findings. Or, that levels of financial insecurity have risen during and after the recession.

“Given the very slow recovery for most people, given the last 20 years of very slow income growth for the bottom 50 percent, people have depleted their savings,” Albelda said.

Albelda thinks improvement in the situation would require lower costs for basic necessities such as rent, energy and food, and/or higher wages for a wide range of jobs (from low- to high-skilled), to allow more people to save and build a cushion against financial emergencies. She said a more comprehensive publicly funded social safety net would also help, one that delivered longer-term income support and food assistance for the poor and unemployed.

Levere said financial insecurity would also be less prevalent if mainstream consumer banking services were more readily available to the working poor. People have more financial resilience where there are more banks, and where working people use them. Highly “unbanked” cities, such as Newark, N.J.; Cleveland, Ohio and San Bernardino, California, also have high levels of liquid asset poverty.

“On average, an unbanked person spends $1,000 per year on financial services—getting their checks cashed because they don’t have a bank account, going to payday lenders, or rent-to-own,” said Levere.

Bottom line: It’s expensive to be poor.

View Estimates of Household Wealth and Financial Access in a full screen map

Pliny the Elder: A case study in scarcity marketing

Thu, 2014-09-18 07:54

Pliny the Elder was the Roman naturalist credited with first identifying hops.

Pliny the Elder is also a beer, and, today, a case study in "scarcity marketing," said Natalie Cilurzo, the co-owner of Russian River Brewing Company.

"We don’t do any advertising,” Cilurzo said. “As far as our marketing, I blog very infrequently on our website. We have a Facebook page, I try to post like once a week... maybe."

Despite the sparse marketing, demand for Russian River's signature beer couldn’t be greater. Cilurzo says on weekends, their brew pub in Santa Rosa is packed.

“We usually have lines up front on Friday, Saturday and Sunday mornings before we open,” Cilurzo said. “I heard yesterday, the Google Bus was here.”

Russian River Brewing Company also sells bottles of Pliny the Elder, in limited quantities, to a couple hundred stores in California and Colorado. (The beer, by the way, is pronounced Pline-y, unlike its namesake Roman naturalist whose name is pronounced with a short “i.”)

One of those stores is Ledger’s in Berkeley. I got to to the store at 4:00 p.m., which is when I was told the Pliny gets delivered.

Turns out, the beer came early and they were already out. Aviv Gerber was one of the lucky ones. He’s 29, a bartender, and he found out about Pliny at the dog park.

“I heard it’s only here on Wednesdays, and it’s now limited to one bottle per person. And I was curious,” Gerber said.

Most stores limit the number of bottles a customer can buy because, in the past, one guy would come in and buy the whole lot and anger customers. In fact, the Russian River Brewery now delivers the beer in unmarked trucks because some fans were known to follow the trucks from store to store.

I walked back into the store and spotted Cole Yacco. He’s 32 and works there. Ledger’s is my neighborhood store and so Cole hooked me up with a Pliny. He kept the beer under the counter and out of sight of the customers.

“I’m trying to hide them,” Cole said. “They can’t see, they’ll get really mad.”

I paid for mine and went home.

I have to say, the bottle is a little underwhelming. The label is super simple and you could easily miss Pliny the Elder on a shelf. As for the beer? It’s super dry, super hoppy and totally worth the hassle of tracking it down. Or so it seemed, says Nir Eyal, the author of “Hooked: How to Build Habit Forming Products.

“Scarcity has this effect of making people perceive products as more valuable simply for the fact that they’re scarce,” Eyal said.

He said it’s not just psychological: Studies have shown it’s physiological.

“They took a look at what was happening inside people’s brains when they were trying wine of different price points,” Eyal said.  

In other words, some wines were more valuable and scarce than others. Eyal said its not that people just liked the most expensive wine.

“But their brains actually perceived the wine differently when they tasted the $90 wine versus the cheap wine,” Eyal said. “And then they didn’t tell the participants that it was the same wine all along.”

Eyal said what’s happening is that one piece of information — that something is scarce — is short-circuiting the brain. There’s also the fact that scarcity makes for a good story. Eyal said if you tell people, “Hey, this beer uses high-quality hops and is made in small batches,” nobody is going to remember that.

But if you say, "Hey, I have this crazy story about how you can buy a limited amount and can you believe it and the lines?"

That’s a really easy story for one person to transmit to the other, Eyan says. Eyal said for scarcity marketing to work, the scarcity has to have, at the very least, an aura of legitimacy.

When it comes to Pliny the Elder, scarcity is more than an aura. Natalie Cilurzo  says she and her husband considered making more beer, but that would mean taking on more debt, stress and work.

“This is always been a lifestyle venture for us, you know we’re a married couple,” Cilurzo said. And plus, “scarcity breeds demand and that’s not that by design for us.”

She says it’s been a winning formula.

Pliny the Elder: A case study in scarcity marketing

Thu, 2014-09-18 07:54

Pliny the Elder was the Roman naturalist credited with first identifying hops.

Pliny the Elder is also a beer, and, today, a case study in "scarcity marketing," said Natalie Cilurzo, the co-owner of Russian River Brewing Company.

"We don’t do any advertising,” Cilurzo said. “As far as our marketing, I blog very infrequently on our website. We have a Facebook page, I try to post like once a week... maybe."

Despite the sparse marketing, demand for Russian River's signature beer couldn’t be greater. Cilurzo says on weekends, their brew pub in Santa Rosa is packed.

“We usually have lines up front on Friday, Saturday and Sunday mornings before we open,” Cilurzo said. “I heard yesterday, the Google Bus was here.”

Russian River Brewing Company also sells bottles of Pliny the Elder, in limited quantities, to a couple hundred stores in California and Colorado. (The beer, by the way, is pronounced Pline-y, unlike its namesake Roman naturalist whose name is pronounced with a short “i.”)

One of those stores is Ledger’s in Berkeley. I got to to the store at 4:00 p.m., which is when I was told the Pliny gets delivered.

Turns out, the beer came early and they were already out. Aviv Gerber was one of the lucky ones. He’s 29, a bartender, and he found out about Pliny at the dog park.

“I heard it’s only here on Wednesdays, and it’s now limited to one bottle per person. And I was curious,” Gerber said.

Most stores limit the number of bottles a customer can buy because, in the past, one guy would come in and buy the whole lot and anger customers. In fact, the Russian River Brewery now delivers the beer in unmarked trucks because some fans were known to follow the trucks from store to store.

I walked back into the store and spotted Cole Yacco. He’s 32 and works there. Ledger’s is my neighborhood store and so Cole hooked me up with a Pliny. He kept the beer under the counter and out of sight of the customers.

“I’m trying to hide them,” Cole said. “They can’t see, they’ll get really mad.”

I paid for mine and went home.

I have to say, the bottle is a little underwhelming. The label is super simple and you could easily miss Pliny the Elder on a shelf. As for the beer? It’s super dry, super hoppy and totally worth the hassle of tracking it down. Or so it seemed, says Nir Eyal, the author of “Hooked: How to Build Habit Forming Products.

“Scarcity has this effect of making people perceive products as more valuable simply for the fact that they’re scarce,” Eyal said.

He said it’s not just psychological: Studies have shown it’s physiological.

“They took a look at what was happening inside people’s brains when they were trying wine of different price points,” Eyal said.  

In other words, some wines were more valuable and scarce than others. Eyal said its not that people just liked the most expensive wine.

“But their brains actually perceived the wine differently when they tasted the $90 wine versus the cheap wine,” Eyal said. “And then they didn’t tell the participants that it was the same wine all along.”

Eyal said what’s happening is that one piece of information — that something is scarce — is short-circuiting the brain. There’s also the fact that scarcity makes for a good story. Eyal said if you tell people, “Hey, this beer uses high-quality hops and is made in small batches,” nobody is going to remember that.

But if you say, "Hey, I have this crazy story about how you can buy a limited amount and can you believe it and the lines?"

That’s a really easy story for one person to transmit to the other, Eyan says. Eyal said for scarcity marketing to work, the scarcity has to have, at the very least, an aura of legitimacy.

When it comes to Pliny the Elder, scarcity is more than an aura. Natalie Cilurzo  says she and her husband considered making more beer, but that would mean taking on more debt, stress and work.

“This is always been a lifestyle venture for us, you know we’re a married couple,” Cilurzo said. And plus, “scarcity breeds demand and that’s not that by design for us.”

She says it’s been a winning formula.

The numbers for September 18, 2014

Thu, 2014-09-18 06:43

The polls are open now to Scotland's 4.7 million registered voters - about 97 percent of the population - and they are heading to the polls to make big decisions about the country's independence. Voting ends at 10 p.m. local time, and ballots will be hand-counted overnight, Bloomberg reported. Results are expected Friday morning.

Here's what we're reading - and some other numbers we're watching - Thursday morning.

12 percent

Only a fraction of women who experience sexual assault on college campuses go to police. That number is key to "It's On Us", a new awareness campaign the Obama administration is expected to announce Friday, according to the Associated Press. The effort will reportedly focus on young men, urging them to confront what is often a hidden problem by promoting bystander intervention and victim support.

$13 trillion

The estimated spending power of the 4 billion low-income customers around the world, especially places like India. Multinational corporations like Pepsi and GE are beginning to recognize these consumers - some of whom live on pennies a day - and develop new products marketed to them, the New York Times reported. After making headway with these less expensive products, some companies have been able to up-sell wealthier consumers in developing countries or co-opt the new products to a wider market.

0.00385 percent

That's the portion of Apple customers who have had information disclosed due to government requests, according to a new section of the company's website that launched Wednesday. Apple has come under intense scrutiny after it announced a new mobile payment system about a week after nude photos of several celebrities were stolen, apparently from their iCloud accounts. The new site includes detailed instructions for securing devices and an open letter from Tim Cook, in which the Apple CEO emphatically denies that the company grants government agencies easy access to users' data.

Why women's pockets are useless: A history

Thu, 2014-09-18 05:33

The iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus descend upon us today, and tech reviewers are throwing it a pretty elaborate welcome party. Amid the loving descriptions of its crisp camera, the odes to its intuitive operating system and the near-reverence for its sleek lines and its mystical Apple-ness, one question (quite literally) looms large: Is the bigger iPhone 6 Plus a "pocketable" size?

Case in point:

The Verge's Nilay Patel started his video review like this...

Screenshot: The Verge

...and ended it like this:

Screenshot: The Verge 

Lance Ulanoff at Mashable wasn't sold on the 5.5-inch "phablet" (OK, maybe there is more than one controversy over this phone):

"To be honest, I can see why, even with the heftier price tag, the iPhone 6 Plus is so alluring, but no, I won’t be carrying that giant device in my pocket or feeling its slightly hefty body tottering in my hand. I prefer the iPhone 6."

 Yahoo’s David Pogue agrees:

“The small of hand won’t be thrilled about the added width. The iPhone 6 Plus, in particular, is a pocket-filler.” 

The list goes on. The conversation hinges on the company's decision to release a gigantic phone. However – and we're not the first to point out – the "pocket problem" would be more accurately described as a "men's pocket problem."

Most "pockets" in women's clothing, are, pretty much without question, useless. Some won't open at all. A demonstration:

The great gendered pocket divide is real, and it did not happen by accident. As Christian Dior is reported to have said in 1954: "Men have pockets to keep things in, women for decoration." 

This is how it happened:

1700s

Pockets used to do a lot more than decorate, writes fashion historian Barbara Burman in of "Pockets of History: The Secret Life of an Everyday Object." Most 17th and 18th century women tied separate pocket bags underneath their dresses, which they would access through a slit in their skirts and petticoats. 

Courtesy of the Victoria and Albert Museum

Owners thought of them as meaningful pieces of clothing in their own right. They would often spend years embroidering and embellishing them - after all, for many people who shared close quarters, a pocket was one of few truly private places to keep personal possessions.  

LACMA/Wikimedia Commons

Early 1800s

As the 18th century turned into the 19th, however, women's pockets shrunk and sometimes disappeared – especially for those with means.

"The design of the times was 'Greek Goddesses,'" says fashion historian Elizabeth Morano, a professor at Parsons School of Design. "Women...would study the ancient texts and couldn't find pockets, so they didn't use them in the dress. Some of those stories are just stories, but the line was a lot more sleek. Think of the neoclassical dress. It's straight up and down. The line of the clothing changes completely." 

Pierre-Paul Prud'hon, c. 1805 Take, for instance, this portrait of Empress Josephine, hanging out in a forest circa 1805:  

She wasn't wearing a pocket under her empire gown, and neither were her wealthy contemporaries. Inner-clothing storage space gave way to the external "reticule," considered a precursor to the modern handbag. They were carried on arms or in hands, and they held just about nothing. Curators at the Victoria and Albert Museum say reticules had "barely enough room for a hankie and a coin, never mind the mirror, watch, keys, needlecase and oranges that a pocket usually contained."

In terms of functionality, it was a major downgrade. 

"If I were to interpret [the change]," says Morano, "it comes down to 'you don't want this functional item. It's not traditionally feminine, it's not fashionable.'"

Well-to-do women weren't supposed to need their hands for labor, and carrying money just wasn't supposed to be a wife's concern. In Burman's words, "the frustrations and limitations of women’s access to money and ownership of property were neatly mirrored in the restricted scope of their pockets." 

LACMA/Wikimedia Commons

Not everyone would let go of pockets or "dimity bags" without a fight — especially older women, young children, and working-class servants. As the granddaughter of President John Adams and the first lady Abigail Adams wrote: “All old ladies wore these pockets and carried their keys in them." 

Even when smaller, sewn in pockets came back into vogue in the later nineteenth century, there was still a distinction between lower-class women’s ample pocket bags and the “bag like slip of silk” satirized in a popular story from the time called "Grandmma’s pockets." 

Late 1800s

Men's clothing, meanwhile, had more pockets than ever, Morano says, many of which weren't visible to the outside observer. The hands-in-pocket gesture was a staple of nineteenth century photography. Pockets were for men's men.

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Many family portraits of the time feature the husband standing, hand-in-pocket, as his wife sat with her hands folded on her lap or around a Bible.

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

1900s

Along with many of the trappings of the Victorian era, fashion gave way to function for Westerners of all classes and genders at the outbreak of the World Wars. Women working on the war movement were wearing trousers for the first time, mostly men's clothes tailored to fit. 

 

Topical Press Agency/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

These men's pants had menswear pockets. But after the war, as a two-legged style slowly, but surely took off among more daring women, trousers taken up by the designers of the time - Paul Poiret and Coco Chanel among them. In the words of a Vogue editor in 1939, slacks had to be:

"‘Not necessarily tailored like a man’s—after all, your figure isn’t the same. […] In the early, experimental days, slacks too often were accompanied by too mannish accessories."

That, right there, was the trick: Acceptable trousers needed to be feminized - and one way to do it? Whittle down those bulky masculine pockets.

Or, hey, do away with them all together.

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

By the 1970s, trouser pants were here to stay, bolstered by the feminist movement and glossy magazines alike. At the same time, two more fashion trends endeavored to keep the pocket down: Statement handbags and and super-thin models. 

An ideal of slenderness — not just self-sufficiency — tightened fabrics and streamlined design, at about the same time the "it bag" became a thing. "Stay away from bulky pockets" became the rule for looking long and lean.

Much like earlier centuries' reticule and pocket bag, the form transferred the function. Says Morano: "Handbags have taken such importance recently as accessories that convey meaning... it's another reason [pockets could be] becoming obsolete."

Roger Jackson/Hulton Archive

Smartphones, echoing the "needlecases and oranges" before them, have ended up in bags women carry on their arms or in their hands. Most purses come with a special phone flap. In the late 1980s, luxury handbags started to go by one name ("Kate", "Birkin"):

Sex and the City

2000s

Enter the giant smartphone.

"Maybe men are going to have to start carrying bags around," Morano says. "Backpacks? They tend to have more pockets."

And that, I suppose, is what we call "wearable technology."

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

PODCAST: Strong year for corn, bad year for farmers

Thu, 2014-09-18 03:00

First up, the Federal Reserve doesn't think the U.S. economy is healthy enough to raise interest rates for a quote "considerable" time. And fresh numbers this morning from the housing market lend support to that view. And last evening, the Senate joined the House in passing a measure to approve new ingredients for sunscreen in America. There's a backlog at the Food and Drug Administration, meaning Americans have had to do without modern sunscreen formulations that people in other countries have been using. Plus, this year's corn crop is expected to break records thanks, in part, to weather that was generally just about right. The great crop is a paradox for farmers. The Agriculture department says the average price per bushel will probably drop by more than thirty percent. We traveled to Iowa to meet with a young farmer facing a difficult bounty.

Child care providers are the glue of many communities

Thu, 2014-09-18 02:00

One day, there may be universal pre-school everywhere in the U.S., but the scenario where every four-year-old is in school remains a long way off. In the meantime, some of the gap is filled by a fleet of women, working out of their own homes, providing childcare and preschool services. They tend to only make news when something awful happens to a child. Yet in many neighborhoods, these workers are the glue that holds a community together.

Take Vernessa Easly. She has run a home-based childcare for 19 years out of her Long Beach, California home. Her day starts around 5:45 AM as she prepares breakfast for her early arrivals. The first child is dropped off at 6:00 AM.

Vernessa’s husband, Earle, quit his job at the local school district some years ago and joined her in running the business, which they call "Little Tykes." They employ one full-time and one part-time teacher, and they serve up to 24 kids a day.

Easly’s proud of her blended curriculum that incorporates all the things little ones need; from singing, literacy and pre-science lessons, to healthy meals and lots of outdoor play.

Home childcare providers like Easly tend to do it all these days, as families rely on them for more than just childcare. Single mom, Kinta Cox, has sent her daughters to Easly since they were toddlers.

Easly has attended parent-teacher meetings when Cox could not get off from work, and she has even driven the girls home when Cox had car issues—all at no-extra charge.

“She’s taken my kids to the doctor during emergencies,” Cox says. “She is there for me.”

Easly will often keep Cox’s daughters well into the evening if she is running late at work or stuck in traffic. Easly also feeds the girls a hot breakfast and dinner, lessening Cox’s food costs.

Yet providers like Easly are not making much more than the low-income families they serve. Easly estimates she and her husband brought in a maximum of $40,000 combined last year. A 2012 Health and Human Services study found that the average home childcare provider nationwide worked 54 hours a week and earned just $22,000.

William Yu of UCLA’s Anderson Forecast studies the economy of early childhood education. He says preschool teachers tend to only make a little more than daycare providers. Last year, according to Yu, the average early childhood teacher in California made $30,000. Yu compares this to a profession in California that demands similar entry qualifications yet pays much more money—prison guards.

“If you look at prison guards, they are making $72,000,” he says.

Yu says it’s all good and well to have bipartisan support for expanding preschool access. Yet, he asks, if you were thinking about your future career, doesn’t it make much more bottom-line sense to become a prison guard?

Almost 14 hours after the day began, around 7:30 PM, there are still a couple of kids waiting to be picked up. Easly’s husband keeps them busy with a coloring project—she’s still bustling about in the kitchen prepping the food for the next day.

Your sunscreen is way out of date

Thu, 2014-09-18 02:00

The sunscreen you used over the summer is about 15 years out of date.  

That's because the FDA hasn’t approved applications for new sunscreen ingredients since the late 1990s.  

The applications are mired in complex regulations that ironically were supposed to simplify FDA approval of ingredients that have been used safely in other countries.

“It’s just ridiculous,” says Scott Faber, vice president for government affairs for the Environmental Working Group. “Consumers in Canada, the EU, Australia, are able to use sunscreens that are much more effective at blocking out both UVA and UVB rays."

Sunscreen makers have joined dermatologists in a coalition called PASS, or Public Access to Sunscreens. The coalition says manufacturers want access to the very latest ingredients.

“It would allow product developers to innovate and use new technologies and new science," says Michael Werner, chief lobbyist for PASS. 

While the FDA declined an interview, it did issue a statement saying that it "has prioritized reviewing the safety and effectiveness of additional sunscreen ingredients as quickly as possible given the agency’s resources."

 

Graphic by Shea Huffman/Marketplace

In Iowa, big corn crop presents a problem

Thu, 2014-09-18 02:00

This year’s corn crop is expected to break records, thanks in part to near-perfect weather. Paradoxically, that means bad news for corn farmers. The United States Department of Agriculture says the average price per bushel will probably drop by more than 30 percent. I went to Iowa, the nation's top corn-producing state, to see how that is playing out.

But because this is a story about how markets work, I stopped first at the Chicago Board of Trade, where Scott Shellady trades for TJM Investments. He described a farmer’s ideal scenario: "If you want high prices as a farmer, you want there to be a drought on everybody else’s farm except yours."

In theory, a big crop should have an upside. Sure, he said, prices are low, "but you, technically speaking, are making more of it, so lower prices but more of it should help make up for that."

So, does it? "Not really," he said with a rueful laugh. "Not all the time. No."

That’s because once the market has more than it wants, prices drop precipitously.

That’s a new experience for Alex Edgington. He’s 27, four years into his career as a farmer.

The day we met, on his farm about 10 miles south of the Minnesota border, corn prices at the Chicago Board of Trade had just gone below $3.45 a bushel.

"I sold my first 5,000 bushels of corn for $4.86, and it did nothing but go up after that," Edgington said. "So for me, this is definitely my first down year, and it’s nerve-wracking. It’s very scary for me."  

Most of his acres are in corn, with some soybeans—which are also in oversupply. He's also got 53 goats, and gets paid by another farmer to keep 175 head of cattle on his land.

"Having the animals, that’ll keep me afloat this year," he said. "I don’t know how I would do with a five-year deal of this."

I ask him about Scott Shellady’s colleagues at the Board of Trade. Couldn’t Edgington have sold his crop on the futures market there earlier this year? Prices were above $5 at one point.

"The opportunity is always there to sell," he said. "And sometimes you do risk it, waiting for a higher price. Other times, especially last year, you don’t know if you’re gonna have a crop. We planted one third of our acres last year."

Spring rains made it impossible to plant more. If they had tried pre-selling super early, hoping to grab higher prices, he said, that would have been trouble.

"It's a risk," he says. "Everything's a risk, in farming."

Always-online requirements are ruining mobile gaming

Thu, 2014-09-18 02:00

I'm not a true gamer, but I love playing games on my tablet. As a New York commuter—though yes, I do spend time reading—gaming is a key part of my day. Or at least it used to be. Recently my commute has very little game play in it, thanks to the growing popularity of a feature I absolutely hate in mobile games: the always-online requirement. 

More and more, the mobile games I'm downloading and trying to play on my phone or tablet use this, and in the process renders my gaming experience at best annoying and at worst impossible. The early versions of this road block started with getting a generic error message or pinwheel suggesting the game was having trouble booting up. Now, it's more direct: "Error! No Internet connection available. Please make sure your device is connected to the Internet."

The worst. 

Requiring a constant internet connection for PC and console games to work has been around for a few years. For game makers, it seems to serve some different purposes, some of which it can probably be argued do benefit the user. It makes it easier to deliver updates, have a more dynamic, changing game environment, especially in the case of massively multiplayer online games.

That hasn't stopped big controversies from blowing up over what has also been called "persistent online authentication." Remember the "Diablo III" release? OK, that was back in 2012. How about EA's "Sim City" always-online foul-up a bit later? Followed a few months later by the resignation of the company's CEO John Riccitiello? The most recent example would probably be not game-based but console-based. When it looked like Xbox One would have an always-online requirement built in, gamers revolted, and Microsoft reversed course so quickly that it made you worry the massive tech company might sprain an ankle.  

In the mobile game space, this requirement seems to be about everything from getting me to spend more money with in-app purchases, to incorporating some sort of bogus "social" aspect of the game that is more often than not a nudge for a free bit of advertising. But it doesn't at all seem about making my experience as a game player better. I can't fix it or toggle it in the game's settings (which ought to be a no-brainer). I can't even easily tell while I'm shopping for games whether the requirement is part of what I'm buying unless I go through reviews with a fine-toothed comb. Basically 99.9% of the time, the benefit of always-online for the user seems nonexistent. 

That might be because the benefit for the user is actually nonexistent 100% of the time. The always-online requirement is also a form of DRM, or digital rights management—essentially, a way for publishers to be sure that you aren't using a pirated copy of a game. I get that, but it seems to me that pirated copies of video games aren't a particularly popular form of personal copyright infringement.

And until the day the entire globe is magically blanketed in free WiFi shooting out of Google unicorn horns, making the mobile game player be online when they want to play hurts the user and the publisher. Why? Because the company that makes the game is cutting my potential in-app time in half, and making me not want to spend any money on games made by hardworking developers.

For the record, I'm happy to be convinced that making games this way is somehow essential, but I just don't see it as a user. For now, I hope that mobile gamers are one day as engaged with the products they buy as real-deal gamers, and that they too consider revolt. 

How affordable is the Affordable Care Act?

Thu, 2014-09-18 02:00

A survey out on Thursday suggests many Americans who signed up for health insurance under the Affordable Care Act (ACA) find their coverage affordable.

That’s particularly true for people with low incomes who are paying less than $125 a month in premiums, similar to people that get coverage at work. To be sure, there were good deals for consumers in the first year of the ACA.

But the Commonwealth Fund’s Sara Collins, who co-authored this report, says for individuals earning about $30,000, or say $60,000 for a family of four, those deals could be hard to find.

“People are paying more than they would have if they had gotten a plan from an employer,” she says.

Collins’ report raises an important question: Are the ACA subsidies generous enough to make insurance affordable? The federal government is on track to spend at least $11 billion in financial assistance this year.

Sharon Long with the Urban Institute says a chunk of people who buy their own coverage—in and off of the exchanges—are still struggling.

“Among those who are buying coverage on their own, almost half report they are satisfied with their coverage. But that means about half are not satisfied,” she says. For the unsatisfied, the big problem is price, says Long.

And, she adds, that’s the case for more than half of the 41 million Americans who remain uninsured.

LinkedIn changes policy on banned content in China

Thu, 2014-09-18 02:00

Up until now, LinkedIn was blocking posts from its members in China that were deemed sensitive by China’s government—For example, posts about the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, or about Tibetan independence.

Censored content was not only blocked inside of China, but removed from LinkedIn's site worldwide.

In an email to Marketplace, LinkedIn Director of Communications Hani Durzy wrote the company has officially changed its policy so that sensitive content will still be censored inside China, but not on its site outside China.

China social media expert Jeremy Goldkorn says LinkedIn isn’t the first Western company that has bent over backwards to please China’s government in return for access to its market.

“It’s a very difficult environment to navigate, because the lines shift. So today, you might be in a space where you feel comfortable and you feel like you’ve gone out of your way to please the government, but it still might not work," says Goldkorn.

Bloomberg’s a good example. Late last year, the news site killed a story that exposed corruption among China’s leadership.

Despite the kowtow to China’s government, Bloomberg’s site in China remains blocked.

 

Dropping its NFL sponsorship pays off for Radisson

Wed, 2014-09-17 13:42

When was the last time you thought about Radisson Hotels? Probably about a day ago, when the company pulled its sponsorship of the Minnesota Vikings.

What about before that? Hmm.

Turns out the hotel is already benefiting hugely from its decision, getting them more attention than they've had in a while.

According to research firm Amobee Brand Intelligence, Radisson got "enough social, Web and mobile impressions to account for 58 percent of its total online consumption (impressions plus mentions) for the last three months," Adweek reported.

That's a long time.

Can advertisers pressure the NFL?

Wed, 2014-09-17 13:42

Football season had a rough start this year.

Former Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice was caught on tape knocking out his fiance and Minnesota Vikings Adrian Peterson was indicted for child abuse, putting a spotlight on how the NFL handles domestic violence. Many fans haven't liked what they've seen, and now they're joined by another group the league may have to listen to: its sponsors.

McDonald's, Visa, Campbell's Soup, CoverGirl: A growing list of NFL sponsors have come out with statements applying pressure to the league. Anheuser-Busch, which has a $1.2 billion, six-year contract with the NFL, used some of the harshest language, saying: "We are disappointed and increasingly concerned by the recent incidents that have overshadowed this NFL season. We are not yet satisfied with the league's handling of behaviors that so clearly go against our own company culture and moral code."

"The NFL here is a multibillion-dollar business," says Gabe Feldman, director of the sports law program at Tulane University. "If some of those billions start to get threatened, I think the NFL is going to stand up and take notice."

But so far, sponsors have stopped short of publicly threatening to tear up their contracts with the NFL. Radisson hotels ended its limited sponsorship with the Minnesota Vikings, but when it comes to individual teams and players, the stakes are lower. But the costs — like having the Radisson logo in the background at press conferences responding to child abuse allegations — are higher.

"There's a lot of sports properties but there's only one NFL," says Kenneth Shropshire, director of the Wharton Sports Business Initiative.

The sheer size and engagement of the NFL's audience may insulate it from criticism more than the NBA, which banned former Clippers owner Donald Sterling for life following racist remarks, but only after companies such as State Farm, CarMax and Virgin America withdrew their sponsorship from the Clippers.

"[The NFL is] a $10 billion-a-year industry. The next closest sports are $3 [billion], $4 billion behind. So it's astronomically larger, even though we don't think of it as such," says Shropshire.

He thinks major NFL advertisers are more likely to apply pressure behind the scenes than publicly break ties.

But there could still be looming financial implications for the sport. "I think if you were a sponsor right now contemplating an investment in NFL, you'd probably wait," says Kent Atherton of sports media firm Atherton Communications.

And if more damning details emerge, big money advertisers could do more than just talk.

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