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Solving Detroit's blight, one scary poster at a time

Wed, 2014-05-28 11:43

Good news has been in short supply in Detroit, of late.

There’s the bankruptcy, of course. And then there is the blight. Which, according to a new federal report, is going to cost hundreds of millions of dollars more to clean up than anyone thought. Its a huge challenge, but you don’t need to tell that to Erica Gerson.

“It’s 330 pages, that is a lot of digesting,” said Gerson, Chair of the Detroit’s Land Bank Authority, which is in charge of dealing with the broken down properties the city owns. “One of the problems here is there are houses that having been sitting empty for three to five years and they are not getting any better. So we have to get our hands on them faster.”

Gerson says sometimes a direct approach is the best way to deal with neglectful landlords.

“I have a staff of attorneys who go out and put big posters on [abandoned] houses that say ‘Call this number within 72 hours or your property will be seized by the Detroit Land Bank.' That tends to get the landlord’s attention.”

Gerson says that, yes, the task before her can seem daunting. But she doesn’t have to look far for signs that the city is getting better.

“Yesterday people saw a man who they thought was scrapping--tearing down the gutters on a beautiful old house that seemed abandoned. When the police got there, instead of arresting the man, they started laughing...turned out that it was one of the houses we had postered. And [the man] was putting up brand new gutters. A lady in the neighborhood said she hadn't seen anyone do that in 20 years.  That’s what keeps you going.”

Increase your v-o-c-a-b-u-l-a-r-y

Wed, 2014-05-28 10:26

From the Marketplace Datebook, here's a look at what's coming up Thursday, May 29:

John F. Kennedy was born 97 years ago. He was the youngest man elected President.

In Washington, the Commerce Department releases its second estimate for first quarter domestic product.

The National Association of Realtors issues its April Pending Home Sales Index.

Wisconsin joined the Union on May 29th, 1848.

And kids compete in the Scripps National Spelling Bee Championship Finals. You can watch it live on ESPN while gripping your dictionary.

Goodbye driver's ed, hello self-driving car

Wed, 2014-05-28 09:43
Wednesday, May 28, 2014 - 15:00 Google

This illustration depicts a very early version of a prototype of the Google self-driving vehicle. 

Google has released a new prototype in its long mission to put self-driving cars on the road. Proponets of the technology say it has the potential to free up parking lot real estate in cities, make delivery services more efficient, and make roads safer. Though, certain features (or lack thereof) make others uneasy: This latest Google car doesn't have a steering wheel, or break pedals.

It's hard to be nervous about a vehicle that's so adorable, though. Michelle Krebs, an analyst at Auto Trader, says the minimalistic look of the car reminds her of a Volkswagen Bug. The retro design makes sense when considering the fact that, at least in its debut outing, the audience for the self-driving car is largely baby boomers, says Krebs:

"I think absolutely the older generation will be interested, because you get older, you're driving is not as good, and people are very reluctant to give up their driver's license."

Krebs also points out that the technology could be very popular with millenials for a completely different reason:

"On the opposite side of the spectrum, you've got the millenials, who haven't...shown much of an interest in driving. Although, this isn't going to be inexpensive technology right away, so whether they can afford it or not is the question."

Krebs says that while the technology is largely there for self-driving cars to be a reality, the stumbling blocks of regulation and legality still remain. In her mind, the next step is most likely cars that give the driver an option of driving, or letting the vehicle take control. 


Marketplace Tech for Wednesday, May 28, 2014by Ben JohnsonStory Type News StorySyndication PMPApp Respond No

The Sochi Effect and the unwanted Olympics

Wed, 2014-05-28 09:37
Thursday, May 29, 2014 - 05:36 Paul Gilham/Getty Images

International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Thomas Bach (3rd L), Russian President Vladimir Putin (4th L) and Claudia Bach (L) attend the Opening Ceremony of the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics at Fisht Olympic Stadium on February 7, 2014 in Sochi, Russia.

The number of countries bidding to host the 2022 Winter Olympics is dropping fast. Call it the Sochi effect -- this year’s winter games hosted in Russia, which cost a crushing $51 billion. 

Poland was the most recent country to drop its bid for the 2022 Winter Olympics. Voters soundly rejected the idea in a referendum. Switzerland, Sweden and Germany were all former contenders, but they too have dropped their bids.

"It’s not like the Tooth Fairy, Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny just dropped a buttload of money in your lap," says University of Chicago’s Allen Sanderson says countries lose money because the games are run by a monopoly -- the International Olympic Committee. "Countries tend to lose money on these things."

Ukraine, Norway, Kazahkstan and China all say they’re still interested in hosting the 2022 Winter Olympics.

But not all host cities come away from their hosting gig with massive debt. Here are three cities that bucked the trend

Marketplace Morning Report for Thursday May 29, 2014LIST: Three Olympic host cities that finished the games with a sweet profitby Conrad WilsonPodcast Title The Sochi Effect and the unwanted OlympicsStory Type News StorySyndication SlackerSoundcloudStitcherSwellPMPApp Respond No

The cost of concussions

Wed, 2014-05-28 09:32
Thursday, May 29, 2014 - 05:30 Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

This really might not be enough to prevent a concussion.

The White House hosts a summit Thursday about the perils of concussions in youth sports.

Researchers have been racing to find a fix, but gels and extra padding in helmets may not do the trick.

“Helmets stop skull fractures," says professor Dennis Molfese at the University of Nebraska's Developmental Brain Laboratory. "But we think it’s the primary rotation movement to the head that produces the concussion.” 

He’s working with electrodes to diagnose concussions. Other academics experiment with blood samples or voice patterns that can reflect brain damage. But it will be years before any reach the market.

Sports teams have an economic incentive to find a solution. The NFL is finalizing a more than $700 million settlement, which was rejected by a judge earlier this year, related to ex-players’ brain injuries. And experts anticipate more concussion-related law suits at all levels of the game.

Marketplace Morning Report for Thursday May 29, 2014by Jeff TylerPodcast Title The cost of concussionsStory Type News StorySyndication SlackerSoundcloudStitcherSwellPMPApp Respond No

Classroom tech: A history of hype and disappointment

Wed, 2014-05-28 09:28

In 1976, Liza Loop went to a meeting of the Homebrew Computer Club, in Silicon Valley. “There were engineers and hobbyists and all kinds of neat people,” said Loop, “among them Steve Wozniak.”   That would be the Steve Wozniak, who co-founded Apple computers.

At one point, Loop stood up and told the group, “I’m doing a public access computer center and I’m taking computers into schools.” It’s a goal that might sound pretty mundane today, but at the time, it was almost radical.

Woz was impressed. A month later, he visited Loop’s local computer club and brought a gift: the first Apple computer. Ever. Apple 1.

For everything that Apple has become today, that first computer was not a great success.

Loop said it took forever to load BASIC, a programming language.  And then, after 25 minutes, the whole thing crashed. “I took it back to Woz, and said, you know I really think this is a great idea. I’m all for it and I really want to use it. But I can’t use this machine in a classroom. You’re going to have to do something else.”

That’s been the story of technology in the classroom, pretty much from the start. Great hope, ambition, and expense. Followed by disappointment.

Back in 1922, for instance, Thomas Edison thought he'd figured out the future of education.

“I believe that the motion picture is destined to revolutionize our education system,” he said, according to Larry Cuban's  Teachers and Machines: The Classroom Use of Technology Since 1920, “and that in a few years it will supplant largely, if not entirely, the use of textbooks.”

“Edison was a better inventor than prognosticator,” said Robert Reiser, Associate Dean for Research in the College of Education at Florida State University.

Films fizzled out. They were expensive. Projectors were unreliable. It was hard to find the right film for the right class.

Enter radio.

School boards and universities, even commercial networks like CBS and NBC, poured money into creating classroom broadcasts,  or  “textbooks of the air.” Then, said Reiser, “the enthusiasm died out.”

Next up were “teaching machines” with names like Cyclo Teacher, Instructocard, and the Edumator.

One of the best known was created by psychologist BF Skinner, in 1954. Here he is explaining the devices.

According to the 1962 book Teaching Machines and Programmed Learning, there were dozens of companies that made these devices in the early 60s.

Turns out buttons and levers weren’t a great way to learn.

Which brings us to television.

TV combined sight and sound, and could bring live events — like space missions — right into the classroom. It was also seen as one answer to the teacher shortage. The money poured in. The Ford Foundation invested millions into programming, according to Cuban's book. The federal government also pitched in cash. By 1971 more than $100 million had been poured into educational TV.

Again, the same story. “We see one medium after another coming along, a lot of enthusiasm for that medium, followed by disappointment in the extent to which that medium changed the nature of the instruction taking place in classrooms,” said Reiser.

So, when computers exploded into classrooms  in the early 80s, with basic video games like Oregon Trail.

And when, as Todd Oppenheimer writes in The Flickering Mind, the numbers of computers tripled between 1980 and 1982, and tripled again by 1984.

And when Time magazine ran a cover story called “Here Come the Microkids,” in 1982.

Educators were skeptical.

But now, some are reconsidering. Maybe this time is different.

“We’re on the cusp now of that big revolution,” said Themistocles Sparangis, chief technology director at Los Angeles Unified School District. LA Unified has bet big on tech--a billion dollars big-- to give every student an iPad.

And around the country, other schools, districts, and the government are buying in.

“I think we’re starting to see a maturity in the user friendliness and the interfaces with media and technology,” said Sparangis. In other words, the machines work. Now, it’s about finding the right way to use them.

Today, said Sparangis, teachers can look for activities and learning experiences to “create a personalized, individualized, learning plan for every child.” That’s the tech promise we’re being sold now, personalized learning.

Computers and tablets and smart phones and the internet—will allow our kids to learn in the right way for them, and they will move at their own pace. These teaching machines of the digital age will gather mounds of data about student performance, feeding back information to teachers about what works, and who is advancing where.

Companies and investors are betting billions on classroom technology, in the hope that this the revolution is going to happen. Some experts think the rush to digitize the classroom is misguided.

“At lot of this is happening really fast,” said USC education professor Patricia Burch, co-author of Equal Scrutiny: Privatization and Accountability in Digital Education, “We need to slow down.”  

“You see this in a number of the big districts,” said Burch, “Ed tech initiatives are being rolled out within a year or two years to all students.” The risk is that you don’t want students to be guinea pigs.  “You don’t want to be working out the bugs on kids.”

Because, as we’ve learned over time, not all education technology is worthwhile.

And the promise, is just the beginning.

Lost in translation? Skype hopes not

Wed, 2014-05-28 09:14
Wednesday, May 28, 2014 - 16:13 Microsoft

A German- speaking Skype caller uses Skype Translator to communicate with an English- speaking Skype caller.

It’s one of those “living in the future” technologies. Microsoft is unveiling a live translation feature coming to its Skype service later this year. You have a conversation with someone in another language, and a moment later, the software translates it.

Gurdeep Singh Pall, a Microsoft Vice President, demonstrated the technology on stage at Re/code’s Code Conference this week, and the company says an early version of Skype Translator will debut later this year.

“It has some syntax problems, but yeah, wow, it’s good,” says Alice Leri, who teaches at the University of South Carolina’s Darla Moore School of Business, and speaks German. 

Her colleague, Ken Erickson, a business anthropologist at the school, was a bit more skeptical. This kind of electronic translation, good as it is, “lulls you into a sense of comfort where you should be not so comfortable,” he says. 

A lot can get lost in translation in international business. Computer translations can send the opposite meaning than you intended in languages like Chinese. Skype Translator might be useful for simple things like scheduling a meeting, but, “if you want to negotiate a contract, you better not rely on something like this,” Erickson says.  

Microsoft admits the technology is still not ready for primetime. It will likely first be used by regular Skype users, who don’t have the same demands for accuracy as business customers. 

“It makes more sense to introduce the technology is through consumer applications,” says Raúl Castañón, a senior analyst with the Yankee Group. 

And, the tech giants are all becoming more interested in translation services. Google recently bought Word Lens, an app that uses a smartphone's camera to translate text on signs and menus. 

Marketplace for Wednesday May 28, 2014by Dan BobkoffPodcast Title Lost in translation? Skype hopes notStory Type News StorySyndication SlackerSoundcloudStitcherSwellPMPApp Respond No

What Google's driverless car actually means

Wed, 2014-05-28 09:11
Wednesday, May 28, 2014 - 16:01 Google

This illustration depicts a very early version of a prototype of the Google self-driving vehicle. 

Imagine for a moment that it is the year 2050. You are watching TV, a movie from the early 2000s. It’s a rom-com and a couple is at the end of a date, about to kiss awkwardly in their car, when your eight-year-old grandkid walks into the room, looks at the screen and says, “What’s that round thing?” That, you answer, is a steering wheel.

This scenario is not entirely unlikely. Google just unveiled the second generation of its self-driving car. The big difference between Google’s new driverless car and the old one is that the new version has no brake pedal and no steering wheel. So passengers are controlled completely by Goggle’s software.

“Now for some people, this might not be a big deal. For some people, this might be a benefit,” says Thilo Koslowski, an analyst with Gartner.

The self-driving car presents us with all kinds of opportunities. The elderly would be less isolated, blind people could hop in a car and go anywhere, at any time. The designated driver could get hammered. And everyone would be on safer roads because traffic could be coordinated.

“The question we will have to ask ourselves as a society,” says Koslowski, “is are we willing to give up some of that freedom in exchange for fewer accidents and improved traffic flow.”

Along with that freedom, we would also be giving up even more of our privacy. Tech companies would not only know our movements at all times, they would have control over them.

Eric Noble is with The Car Lab. He believes the best estimates about the growth of autonomous vehicles is a report by IHS titled "Emerging Technologies: Autonomous cars-Not if But When". “By 2035 they predicted 54 million automated vehicles [will be] on the road,” says Noble.

To put that in perspective, that’s roughly a quarter of all the cars on the road. The IHS report predicted that nearly all of the vehicles in use are likely to be self-driving sometime after 2050.

Marketplace for Wednesday May 28, 2014by David WeinbergPodcast Title What Google's driverless car actually meansStory Type News StorySyndication SlackerSoundcloudStitcherSwellPMPApp Respond No

When we started drinking beer, we became civilized

Wed, 2014-05-28 09:03

"Beer is one of the founding moments of civilization," says Adam Rogers, author of "Proof: The Science of Booze". "It’s where we decided we’re going to ferment; we’re going to do this on purpose."

Rogers is talking about fermenting and distilling alcohol, beer and wine. He has spent many years researching how these drinks are made and visiting distilleries and breweries across the nation. He says none of these places look the way marketers describe them -- Jim Beam and his friends are a lot more industrialized than their pastoral packaging suggests.

"They want you to believe in the tradition and history," says Rogers. "But, of course when you really go to a place like Jim Bean, it’s a chemical plant."

So, what makes craft beer and alcohol so much more expensive?

"One of the barriers to entry for a craft distiller is that it costs a lot of money to sit on this stuff for 10 years," says Rogers. "That’s something that a big distiller can do and a craft distiller cannot because they need to get product out the door. So you are paying for their expertise, and making sure it tastes good when they’re done."


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