Retail sales numbers released Wednesday from the Commerce Department suggest consumers spent slightly less in September than the month before.
There were some bright spots in the electronics category, and overall gains from the same period last year. Still, the headline numbers might give retailers some anxiety heading into the holiday season, says Georgetown University professor Marlene Morris Towns.
“I think that retailers are really, really, kind of struggling to get people in, to get people shopping,” she says. “I think they’re pushing to holidays on us faster and faster.”
But Towns is optimistic about consumer spending going forward.
It’s just that we have to take into account the economy’s new normal, says Susan Viamari, who tracks consumers and retail trends for IRI. “The new normal is going to be much more conservative mindset than what we saw before that proverbial bubble burst.”
Viamari says many consumers who cut back during the recession are keeping a tight grip on their spending.
Compare that with a decade ago, RBS Securities economist Omair Sharif says, when homeowners were pulling equity out of their homes or using credit cards to fuel shopping sprees.
“So it’s just a very different environment in terms of your ability to finance your expenditures,” he says. “It’s just night and day versus 2004.”
Consumers are largely limited to spending what they have, says Sharif, and he doesn’t expect that to change anytime soon.
You know how techies are all into disrupting businesses? Well, right now, there’s a lot of interest in the food industry. In Impossible Foods' case, its mission is to disrupt the $74 billion beef industry.
“It’s egregiously inefficient,” says Patrick Brown, the CEO of Impossible Foods.
Brown is talking specifically about the big business of raising animals for food. He says, worldwide, animal farming is one the biggest consumers of water.
“It’s using 30 percent of the entire land surface of earth,” he continues.
And that land is being cleared to make room for cattle to graze and to grow feed crops, which brings us to Brown’s next point.
“It’s the biggest driver of biodiversity losses in the world,” Brown says. “Just to raise animals, to make cheeseburgers, it’s ridiculous.”
We've been using animals to make food for about 10,000 years, Brown says, and that technology is outdated. Take off the cultural veneer and you’ll see “livestock is a technology. We use it to take cheap plant biomass” and turn it into meat.
Or in layman’s terms: We grow and harvest tons of corn, grass and other plants and turn it into meat by feeding it to animals, which we then kill and package into chops and steaks.
Brown says we don't need to do that any more. We now know how to extract nutrients and proteins from plants, and use those ingredients to make meat without animals. Enter Impossible Foods, one of a handful of tech start-ups that wants to make animal products, from cheese to eggs and beef, from plants.
To show me what he’s talking about, Brown asks Beth Fryksdale, the food scientist in charge of making the plant-based meat.
“So I’m going to put the patty on the griddle here,” she says, plopping down two of Impossible Foods’ most recent burger prototypes. When the "meat" it hits the fry pan, it sizzles.
“You’ll notice we’ve got this nice transition in color from red to brown,” Fryksdale says, just like a real burger.
I glance over at the plate the patty was on and I see ... blood?
“Yup, it looks like blood although this is not blood from an animal, this is blood from plant,” Fryksdale says triumphantly.
“That’s the color of the 'heme' that I was talking about,” Brown interjects.
Heme is a substance found on the roots of bean plants. It gives meat its unique flavor. It’s naturally red, and when you taste the heme raw, like I did, it tastes like blood.
When the burger was done, I ate it. And If I’d tasted it at a fast-food joint, I probably wouldn’t have noticed a difference. At the same time, it’s not as good as the grass-fed burger that I get at my favorite restaurant, and that’s what Impossible Foods is going for.
Google Ventures invested in the start-up, and partner Andy Wheeler said while he’d like to go after that gourmet market, “it really is the mass-market opportunity that’s interesting.”
To get into there, Wheeler says, Impossible Foods needs to make its ground beef cheaper than the real stuff. And that’s a challenge. Right now, one Impossible Foods burger costs about $20 to make. Despite that, Wheeler says a bunch of events have made investors more bullish on food.
“We all see that obesity is a huge problem and people are getting more concerned with health,” Wheeler says.
And more people are concerned about sustainability. Traditional food companies have been slow to address these concerns, Wheeler says. Investors see an opportunity, and they think advances in science have made food more of a tech play.
“So the company may be starting with a ground beef product, but the core technology they’re developing around food science is really applicable to a really wide range of potential foods,” Wheeler says.
The idea of synthesizing real food is an age-old dream, says Michael Pollan, a food journalist and activist.
Think: Tang, non-dairy creamers and Cool Whip. But he says what’s new this go-around is that techies are on a mission.
“Which I think is distinct, and I think it’s political,” Pollan said. “These companies aim to shrink animal agriculture because of their environmental footprint.”
Pollan applauds that effort, but “I think you run into some of the limitations of Silicon Valley thinking when it comes to culture, which is the pleasure of eating meat is not simply a sensory pleasure,” he says. “Meat connotes prestige all over the world. Will fake meat offer that pleasure?”
And while this new crop food techies are using plant-based nutrients, instead of, say, artificial chemicals like they did decades ago. Pollan says there are reasons to be skeptical.
“Foods that we’ve been eating for tens of thousands of years have kind of proven themselves out and we are talking about introducing some novel foods and so we need to be careful,” he says.
But he says, that's not so say we shouldn’t do it.
Pollan says, we make processed foods for all kinds of reasons. We make it for convenience, taste and to make money. And so why not make it to save the environment?
The National Basketball Association will run an experiment this week to test the premise "Less is more." A preseason game pairing the Brooklyn Nets with the Boston Celtics will have just 44 minutes of play, instead of the usual 48.
NBA officials mentioned “our schedule” as one motivation behind the experiment. That is: Lots of games often means lots of injuries. Maybe shorter games could mean less wear and tear on players’ bodies.
Then again, maybe not, says Andrew Zimbalist, a sports economist at Smith College. "If for instance, it’s the case that LeBron James, out of a 48 minute game plays 37 minutes, we don’t know if he’ll play proportionately fewer minutes" in a shorter game.
In other words, the coach is already asking himself: "How many minutes can I play LeBron without worrying too much about injury?"
"If that number's 37," says Zimbalist, "it could still be 37 in a 44-minute game."
There is the possibility that fans — and TV networks — would prefer shorter games, says Glenn Wong, who teaches sports management for the University of Massachusetts business school.
"Two hours is something that fits well in terms of fans — and in terms of TV slots," Wong says. Typical NBA games last significantly longer. "I think there’s a certain trend toward reducing the length of the game."
In particular, the final minutes of an NBA game can drag. The 44-minute game would also cut one of three mandatory ad breaks in the fourth quarter. But what slows down those last minutes, really, is part of how the game gets played. The NBA's own website lays out how teams use intentional fouls to stop the clock.
"You can just keep fouling people, and fouling people, and fouling people and extending this," says David Berri, a sports economist at Southern Utah University, "and hope something’s going to happen."
A 44-minute game doesn't address that problem.
"I think you could say that the game in terms of actual chronological time is too long, and you could take steps to address what’s actually making it go longer," Berri says. "But just giving people less product — that just doesn't seem to make a whole lot of sense."
American soldiers found chemical weapons in Iraq as long as a decade ago, left over from Saddam Hussein's war with Iran, according to a New York Times investigation. Some U.S. troops were injured by the shells. Both the discoveries and injuries were kept secret.
This comes against the backdrop of deepening American involvement in the region, where we've already invested close to $2 trillion in Iraq alone.
John Nagl helped write the Army and Marine Corps' "Counterinsurgency Field Manual." In a new memoir he details the cost of the wars - both in terms of money and, in his view, credibility - through the lens of his own life. A retired Lt. Col. and Pentagon official, Nagl served in Iraq twice.
"There clearly is another war happening in Iraq right now," Nagl said, referring to the 1,600 troops on the ground as military advisers, plus the supporting planes, ships, and intelligence officers.
"I don't think it's going to be as big for the United States as the last Iraq war was, or my first Iraq war was. But the implications of the war and the necessity of to get it right is just as big as it was the last two times.
Nagl's new book"Knife Fights," catalogs what he sees as the costs of the second Iraq war through the lens of his personal experience in the region:
Nagl deployed to Iraq in first Gulf War
Nagl deployed to Al Anbar province, Iraq
NYT Magazine cover story: Prof. Nagl’s War
Saddam Hussein captured.
Nagl returned to Washington, DC to work in office of Deputy Secretary of Defense, Paul Wolfowitz. Co-authored the U.S. Army and Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual with Gen. David Petraeus.
Iraq Surge: U.S. sends additional 20,000 troops to Baghdad and Al Anbar Province
Official end of U.S. combat mission in Iraq
Rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria
Read an excerpt from "Knife Fights" below:
This is a book about modern wars and how they affect the lives of young men and women. It is a tale of wars that needed to be fought and wars that were not necessary but that happened nonetheless, at enormous cost in blood and treasure. It is also an intellectual coming-of-age story, that of both the author and the institution to which he devoted most of his adult life, the American military. It is a book about counterinsurgency and its journey from the far periphery of U.S. military doctrine to its center, for better and, some would argue, for worse. It is also, then, a book about America’s role in the world, and specifically about when and how we use military force abroad in the name of national security.
The book largely takes the form of a memoir, which feels somewhat self-indulgent to me—I was very much more shaped by than shaper of the events this book relates. But my hope is that following the arc of my own learning curve will be the easiest way for a reader to understand the broader story of the American military’s radical adaptation to a world of threats very different from those involving nuclear weapons and Soviet tanks massed at the Fulda Gap that I studied at West Point a generation ago. Following that arc will also help to explain why, after decades of responsibility for the lives of American soldiers, I have recently shouldered the responsibility to prepare another generation of young men for a life of service far from the battlefield, in the classrooms and on the playing fields of friendly strife as the ninth headmaster of The Haverford School.
The U.S. military changed quickly after 9/11—not quickly enough from the perspective of those we lost and had injured, but quickly indeed by the standards of very large, hierarchical institutions. Some say the military in fact has changed too quickly, embracing counterinsurgency with a fervor that has had unforeseen negative consequences. I do not take that view. This book is not a pep rally, not a victory lap around counterinsurgency’s successes in Iraq, and certainly not in Afghanistan, where they have been thinner on the ground. But as the historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., liked to say, the right question is often “Compared to what?” Any intellectually serious reckoning with America’s post-9/11 wars has to contend with what the alternatives were once the decision to invade Iraq had been too hastily made and too poorly implemented. In the wake of mistakes there are sometimes no good choices; in both Iraq and Afghanistan, counterinsurgency was the least bad option available.
I had the rare opportunity to be involved in both the theory and the practice of war, helping write doctrine and also living with the consequences of implementing doctrine in the field as an officer responsible for the lives of America’s sons and daughters. The bulk of my combat experience was in Iraq, and Iraq is central to the story this book tells. But the shadow of Afghanistan hangs over all of it, even the Iraq story.
The first post-9/11 consequence of the American military’s pre-9/11 focus on large, conventional combat operations wasn’t the failure to see the Iraq War for what it was. First there was the Afghan campaign of the fall of 2001, a campaign conceived of and initiated by the CIA because the American military had no plan on the shelf that spoke to such a situation. The Afghan campaign’s initial success at scattering America’s enemies allowed us to make the mistake of immediately pivoting to Iraq, sinking us into the morass of two ground wars in Asia when one would have been more than enough.
Focusing on Iraq meant taking our eye off the ball in Afghanistan and Pakistan, allowing the Taliban and Al Qaeda to regroup and gain strength, blinding us to the true nature of the situation there until it was almost too late.
If Iraq was the midterm, Afghanistan is the final exam. It’s a lot harder than the midterm. And while we eked out a passing grade on the midterm, after a horrible start, the final grade remains in doubt, an incomplete. We’re unlikely to know the answer for some years to come, but the Afghan end state is important for the future of the region and for America’s place in the world—a world that is likely to be roiled by insurgency and counterinsurgency for decades to come.
The story begins in a very different place and time, a time when the Soviet Union had just been tossed into the dustbin of history, its internal contradictions rendered unbearable after its own painful war in Afghanistan. America stood unchallenged as the world’s only superpower for the first time in history, but Saddam Hussein had misread American determination to enforce the international security regime it had created in the wake of the Second World War. For the first time since Vietnam, the United States deployed the full weight of American power abroad. It was a heady and unsettling time for a young man who had studied war but never seen it.
The largest nurse organization in the country, National Nurses United, is asking President Obama to take executive action and mandate “uniform, national standards” at all U.S. hospitals to help protect healthcare workers confronting Ebola.
"We know that without these mandates to health care facilities we are putting registered nurses, physicians and other healthcare workers at extreme risk," the letter says. "They are our first line of defense. We would not send soldiers to the battlefield without armor and weapons."
The group says those standards should include protective equipment like Hazmat suits and hands-on training to protect nurses and other hospital workers, even at the smallest of hospitals. And there are 5,000 community hospitals in the U.S.
Dr. Dennis Maki, a disease control expert at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, says it takes at least half a day to train people in the protective garb alone. “I’ve just gone through Ebola training in my own hospital for putting the garb on and off this week, and I can tell you that’s a very complex undertaking.”
Dr. Ashish Jha, director of the Harvard Global Health Institute, says proper Ebola training and equipment at every hospital in the U.S. will probably cost in the tens, if not hundreds, of millions of dollars. But not every hospital worker needs in-depth training.
“I think every hospital person certainly needs to know something basic about isolation,” Jha says. “And then probably every hospital needs a small number of staff who can stabilize and manage that patient for the short run.”
Jha and Maki say it’s unreasonable to expect that small community hospitals be able to care for Ebola patients long-term. Large medical centers have more staff and resources to safely care for them, they say.
The CDC says it is reaching out to hospitals to help them prepare for Ebola cases. The agency is investigating exactly how two healthcare workers at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital in Dallas contracted the disease.
Graphic by Shea Huffman & Tony Wagner/Marketplace
Another health care worker from Dallas was diagnosed with Ebola Wednesday morning, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are trying to find passengers on a flight she took Monday. The unidentified patient flew from Cleveland to Dallas with about 130 others just before she reported symptoms. The CDC is asking those passengers to call 1-800-CDC-INFO.
Vox has an explainer with five ways you can catch Ebola on a plane, and the many more ways you can't. In short: it's pretty difficult. Here are some other stories we're reading — and numbers we're watching — Wednesday:130 million
That's how many people subscribe to HBO worldwide. The network — once resistant to cord-cutting and blasé about password sharing — will uncouple its streaming service, HBOGo, from cable packages next year. Time Warner stock rallied at the news.5,000
The number of chemical weapons secretly discovered in Iraq in the years after the 2003 U.S. invasion, according to an extensive New York Times investigation. The abandoned weapons — and injuries sustained by the soldiers that found them — were reportedly kept hidden until now, even within the military.$20,000
That's how much Facebook is offering female employees to cover the costs of freezing their eggs, TechCrunch reported. Apple will begin offering the ostensible perk next year. The tech industry has a well-documented gender gap the move is seemingly addressing, but critics say egg freezing is just another way — along with free food, shuttles, laundry, massages and so on — for tech companies to keep employees content and working without distractions.
A $54 billion pharmaceutical merger is up in the air after the U.S. Treasury Department said it would crack down on so-called corporate inversions — that’s when a U.S. business merges with a foreign company to save money on taxes. Illinois-based AbbVie Inc. is reconsidering an agreement to buy UK rival Shire PLC.
AbbVie hasn’t called off the merger, but the company says its board is rethinking the deal in light of new tax regulations. The Treasury Department announced changes last month that make inversions less attractive.
It’s likely that AbbVie will renegotiate rather than walk away, says tax consultant Robert Willens, and not just because the company risks a $1.6 billion breakup fee.
“They’re going to lose a lot of credibility if they pull out of the deal in response to the Treasury announcement, after telling the market for weeks that the deal was primarily motivated by business reasons,” he says.
To comply with the Treasury rules, AbbVie could restructure the deal so that Shire shareholders had more control.
“But that’s not necessarily a desirable result for the acquirers,” says Erik Gordon, a professor at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business. “I’m not sure we’re going to see a lot of those kinds of deals go through.”
Still, several high profile inversions are moving forward, including Burger King’s acquisition of Canadian chain Tim Horton’s. Medical device maker Medtronic said it would refinance its deal to buy Irish company Covidien to comply with the new rules.
Willens says new inversions have slowed down since the regulations changed, but stopping them would require tougher action by Congress. The rules do not address a practice known as “earnings stripping,” for example, which allows a foreign parent company to essentially lend money to its American subsidiary, and then deduct the interest payments from its taxes.
The congressional Joint Committee on Taxation has estimated that a bill to stop corporate inversions would save the U.S. Treasury about $20 billion over ten years.
A merger in the pharmaceutical industry is up in the air after the U.S. Treasury Department cracked down on what are called corporate inversions. Illinois-based AbbVie is reconsidering a $54 billion deal to buy UK rival Shire. More on inversions and why the Obama administration wants to stop these deals from happening. Plus, Netflix has quietly raised prices for a service almost no one uses: streaming video in 4-K, or ultra-high-definition, used to be available for eight or nine dollars a month. Now, a subscription is $12 a month. Only a few manufacturers make devices with 4-K displays. So, why raise the price on a service that's not in high demand? And the price of oil is falling that's partly because the oil industry's been booming in this country. Well, a consequence of that growth is a shortage of regulators who oversee drilling.
Regulators in Wyoming are hemorrhaging employees. The state’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration lost a quarter of its inspectors last year. The state’s Oil and Gas Conservation Commission fared no better. And Mark Watson, the oil and gas supervisor, says rehiring, especially for specialized positions, is extremely difficult.
“They're in demand and we don't pay as much,” he says.
“You know, that job," he says, "we’re competing with someone in industry that might have 20 years of experience and we probably would pay 50 percent less than what they could get in industry.”
That’s right. 50 percent less. Watson says he’s talked to new graduates whose first offers out of college are $25,000 more than he makes as the state’s top oil and gas regulator. And it’s not just him. Nationwide, petroleum engineers working in industry make 70 percent more than those working for governments, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
“In the boom times, I’ll say, we especially have a hard time competing with industry when it comes to recruiting and retaining people,” says Michael Madrid, who heads the minerals division of the Bureau of Land Management in Wyoming. Right now, Madrid’s division is actually mostly staffed.
But there’s concern about the future, and not just in Wyoming. A recent report by the Government Accountability Office says BLM offices nationwide could find themselves short-handed as the boom continues. And Madrid says that would be bad for everyone, including industry.
“The work will eventually get done, but there’s long, significant delays if we’re short-handed,” he says.
Which is bad for those who want to keep the boom booming.
This story comes from Inside Energy, a public media collaboration focused on America’s energy issues.
The U.S. is the biggest importer of Mexican avocados—We eat about 1.7 billion pounds a year. But Mexico is eyeing an even larger market: Asia.
Behind 20-foot-doors in a chilly warehouse, hundreds of thousands of avocados are ripening in cardboard boxes.
“We take the rooms up as far as 72 degrees,” says Luis Galicia. He’s the assistant manager at Mission Produce’s ripening center in Grand Prairie, Texas.
Customers want to sell and use avocados at different stages of softness. So, Galicia explains, the avocados are heated to ripen only a certain amount, and then chilled at about 38 degrees.
The avocado business, he says, is hot. Mexican avocado sales increased by about 30 percent the first half of this year—and that’s not the result of a Chipotle rush or a Super Bowl guacamole bump. Yes, avocados are a popular condiment for sandwiches at Subway and breakfast items at Denny’s, but the real growth is happening in Asia. Japan is already the second largest importer of Mexican avocados. And in the first six months of 2014, Mexico sent nearly $3 million dollars worth of avocados to China.
Eduardo Serena, Marketing Director of the Mexican Avocado Industry, says for the first time, the industry will have marketing campaigns specifically designed for China and Japan.
“The thing with China is there isn’t an avocado consuming habit,” she says. “People aren’t familiar with the fruit yet.”
Right now, Serena says the most popular ways to eat avocados in Japan is with sushi, or fried.
“In China in particular, they like to use as smoothies as a juice, and also of course in soups,” Serena says. In today’s avocado awakening, there’s no wrong way to eat the fruit.
So go ahead, toss on the Tabasco, limón, or soy sauce.
Until recently, streaming Netflix video in 4K, or ultra-high-definition display, was available for $8 or $9 a month. It now requires a $12 dollar-a-month subscription.
Only a few manufacturers make devices with 4K displays, and it’s probably not too late to be the first on your block to get one.
"We’re expecting 10 million of these 4K TVs to be sold this year, worldwide," says Eric Smith, who looks at home-entertainment devices for Strategy Analytics. "And most of them are in China, actually."
But prices are dropping, and sales will probably go up. Smith says in a few years, a third of new TVs may be 4K.
Strategy Analytics projects that sales of ultra-high-definition TVs will climb in the next few years.Eric Smith/Strategy Analytics
Overall, getting 4K will mean paying more: a new TV, and probably more bandwidth, since the sharper picture takes four times as much data.
For Netflix, producing shows like “House of Cards” in 4K means spending more. The company says that’s why it's raising prices.
But, despite the costs, the tech ramp-up in video will continue.
"We’ll get to three-dimensional, eventually we’ll get to holographic projection," says Larry Hettick, who looks at consumer services for Current Analysis, a telecom consultancy. "And as the price point becomes bearable to consumers, then eventually they’re going to pay for it."
Medicare’s open enrollment period runs from October 15 to December 7.
The open enrollment is for Medicare Part D, prescription drug coverage, and for private Medicare Advantage plans. You can enroll in Medicare at age 65. The open enrollment period is when you tweak your coverage.
“It’s a little bit like eating your spinach," says Tricia Neuman, director of Medicare policy research at the Kaiser Family Foundation. "Nobody likes to do it.”
Neuman says most seniors are reluctant to change their Part D prescription plans, but should consider it.
“Just to be sure that there are no surprises," she says. "That might mean having greater difficulty seeing a doctor or difficulty getting a prescription you want to fill.”
Medicare is getting a few surprises from baby boomers. Almost two million more are expected to enroll this year.
They smoked less than their parents—Their problem is obesity.
“They’re likely to cost more than their parents did but not just because of living longer lives," says Kate Baicker, a health economist at Harvard. "But also because of having more complicated health conditions."
Conditions like diabetes and heart disease, for instance.
Another step in the relentless march of commerce over common sense, as found in the Huffington Post: Macy's is going to start Black Friday, the big day-after-Thanksgiving kickoff of Christmas shopping season by two hours.
It's now 6 p.m... Thanksgiving Day.
Yes, I know it's not even Halloween yet. Don't get me started on that one.
In September, the United Nations reported it would need nearly $1 billion to fight the Ebola virus, which has killed more than 4,000 people in West Africa, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Private donors have recently stepped up in order to help reach that goal. Donations so far have helped provide supplies such as masks, gloves and disinfectant. New thermal scanners help check travelers for fevers, one Ebola symptom, at airport screenings. More than 200 computers equipped with software and printers were part of donations for use in the field by the CDC and staff in the countries.
The CDC reported the U.S. government had contributed roughly $100 million by mid-September to fight Ebola, about as much as this (not-comprehensive) list of private organizations combined:
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and wife Priscilla Chan ($25 million)
Zuckerberg and his wife gave the money straight to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation ($50 million)
The Foundation donated to United Nations agencies and international organizations involved in the response, specifically $5 million to the World Health Organization and $5 million to UNICEF.
Microsoft co-founder and Seattle Seahawks owner Paul Allen ($20 million)
Allen gave to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, American Red Cross, Doctors Without Borders, Medical Teams International, various other emergency services and medical supplies.
Kaiser Permanente ($1 million)
The health company gave to Doctors Without Borders and International Medical Corps.
William and Flora Hewlett Foundation ($5 million)
This foundation gave to CDC Foundation, the UN Foundation, Humanitarian Open Street Map Team, International Medical Corps, Population Services International, the Global Giving Foundation and Capital for Good.
Raising money for Ebola is hard.
“We try to put up stories and information and photos and let people know we have a microsite and a designated button that makes it easy for people to give,” says Jana Sweeny of the American Red Cross.
But people aren’t giving in significant numbers. The Red Cross, UNICEF and Doctors without Borders have raised a combined $20 million toward combating Ebola. Compare that to the $486 million the Red Cross alone raised after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti.
“In the case of disease outbreak, I think that Americans tend to think immediately of government, our government helps manage that,” says Sweeny.
The CDC Foundation – the philanthropic arm of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – is having more success than the traditional charities; it’s raised $40 million.
“What we’ve had to say to our donors is trust those 150 CDC experts who are putting their lives on the line,” says Foundation President Charlie Stokes.
Stokes says major givers like Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Dr. Priscilla Chan, who pledged $25 million Tuesday, are trusting CDC epidemiologists to spend money at the scientists’ discretion. That risk, plus the invisibility of a viral epidemic makes raising money tricky, Stokes says.
“We’re talking about raising funding for people who are not yet sick but may die two weeks from now,” he says. “It’s harder to put a face on those victims.”
So, Stokes puts a face on public health scientists in the spooky Hazmat suits in West Africa, and how they are the ones best positioned to control this virus.
At this point, you're probably familiar with MOOCs – those massive open online courses offered by the likes of Harvard, Stanford and MIT. MOOCs are often geared toward college kids or curious adults. But that’s changing.
MOOCs are going to high school.
One of the people tasked with making the jump is Dr. Jeneen Graham at St. Margaret’s Episcopal School in California. She currently teaches psychology to 18 students; next year she’ll be teaching thousands. “I think it’s incredible,” says Graham, “and also a little bit scary.”
Graham is creating an intro to psychology MOOC for the online learning nonprofit EdX, one of the biggest MOOC providers. Her class will be one of about two-dozen free high-school classes EdX is launching.
Graham says for St. Margaret's, it’s a chance to extend the school's mission of service and education. And personally, she says, her high school self would have jumped at the chance to take a class like this. “I grew up in a small, rural town and I didn’t have access to this kind of course work,” says Graham. “I think I would have loved it.”
Those are the kids the new EdX offerings are after. Kids who are motivated. Kids without access.
Many of the courses are AP level in subjects like physics, environmental science and chemistry. They are taught by high school instructors and professor from Berkeley, Rice and MIT.
“A lot of high schools do not have a rich set of AP courses, it’s just too expensive,” says Anant Agarwal, the CEO of EdX.
MOOCs, on the other hand, are free (though students can pay for a “certificate of achievement”).
Agarwal thinks the number of middle and high schoolers taking EdX’s MOOCs could one day grow to about a third of their students. That’s a pretty compelling market, considering EdX has about 3 million users now.
“I think high schools will embrace this, because learners can directly take some of these high school courses,” says Agarwal.
The big question is whether they’ll finish them. Currently, the MOOC completion rate is only about 10 percent.
It's a number that has slowed the adoption by high schools – but not stopped it. Some allow students to take college-geared MOOCs for credit as part of an independent study. In Florida, there’s a state law that allows students to earn credit for certain MOOCs.
And while there has been hand wringing at the university level about MOOCs replacing professors, the high school educators I talked to weren't worried.
“I see MOOCs as a supplement,” said Craig Wilson, head of the University of Miami Global Academy. “ An addition to, not a take away from, the education experience.”
His school is an online program, that has experimented with creating its own MOOCs.
He says there are parts of the MOOC model that can work with high-schoolers—but it’s not perfect.
Most teenagers, he says, need teachers or mentors. They need help getting across the finish line.
“What I think is that high-schoolers still need that sense of community,” says Wilson
The ed-tech industry is also trying to figure out how to work that sense of community and adult supervision into MOOCs.
The digital education company Amplify is experimenting with a mentor based model. It’s offering an AP Computer Science MOOC— with in-school coaches.
Of course, some super motivated, hyper-focused high schoolers aren’t waiting on adults to figure MOOCs out.
They’re doing it for themselves.
Take, for instance, James Lintner. He’s a 17 year old student in Georgia who takes MOOCS in his free time. So far, he says, he’s completed five, including classes in behavioral economics, energy, and medicinal chemistry.
“I feel like if I’m learning something, that’s better than rotting my mind playing video games,” he said.
Lintner says the classes have helped him figure out what he might want study in college. He’s also hopeful they might help him get in. He’s including the MOOCs in the extracurricular section on his applications.
Now you basically have to go to college before you can get into college.
The United States is on the verge of becoming the world’s top producer of oil, according to the International Energy Agency. But the oil boom is also leading to a boom in toxic oil field waste that can end up in open pit disposal sites. There are increasing concerns over the dangers these disposal sites pose for air quality.
All energy producing states have to deal with an ever-escalating amount of waste. In Wyoming, there are 35 commercial waste pits and permits pending on six more. North Dakota shipped 1.75 million tons of oil and gas waste to landfills in 2013. And, while Colorado - like North Dakota - has been tightening regulations on the waste water resulting from drilling operations, the state's solid waste pits are still left uncovered.
None of these states have conducted studies to determine if the air coming off pits is safe. A recent investigation in Texas by InsideClimate News and the Center for Public Integrity uncovered a troublesome gap in oversight by state and federal regulators over these giant pools of oil field muck.
That problem is clear in the situation facing the residents of Nordheim, Texas, a town of 300 people about 75 miles southeast of San Antonio. Farmers and ranchers gathered recently at the old dance hall there to organize against what they see as an environmental threat to their town.
"They’re going to dump liquid oil field waste, all the chemicals that have to do with fracking," rancher Jim Fulbright said, "and they have to do something with it."
Here's what he's worried about: two enormous oil waste disposal facilities – one 200 acres and the other 575 acres - proposed for right outside of his town. Retired teacher Lyn Janssen is worried about her ranch, settled by her family in 1897. "There’s really no reason for our area to become the dump site for the Eagle Ford Shale,” she said.
Nordheim is in the middle of the most productive parts of the Eagle Ford Shale, a geological formation saturated in oil. But because it’s locked in a rocky honeycomb, it was once thought that this oil was too expensive and troublesome to get out of the ground. New drilling technologies like fracking changed that. Each day, 900,000 barrels of oil are produced in the Eagle Ford play. In 2013, it generated $87 billion in total economic output for the state of Texas. And many people in Nordheim, like Fulbright, are also getting oil royalty checks from this oil and gas bounty.
"I'm not against fracking," he said. "I’m not against the oil and gas industry. It’s necessary. The country needs the energy." The proposed waste facilities near Nordheim and elsewhere in South Texas call for billions of gallons of toxic sludge to be dumped in the plastic-lined pits left open to the air, where fracking waste is allowed to evaporate. What’s left behind is a viscous goop that’s mixed with soil and eventually buried on-site. There are currently at least 67 large commercial surface facilities for oil field waste operating in Texas.
And if you live or work nearby, it's hard to miss.
"There ain’t no Chanel No. 5 there – it all stinks,” Fulbright said.
It doesn’t just stink – the EPA and others have found that the fumes contain chemicals known to be hazardous to human health, including volatile organic compounds like benzene. But, because oil and gas waste is exempted from federal hazardous waste regulations, most states don’t require monitoring waste pit air emissions. It’s impossible to know whether chemicals are drifting into the air at levels that could affect human health.
The only hope that residents of Nordheim have to stop the pits is to block their permitting at the Texas Rail Road Commission – the state agency that has oversight of the oil and gas industry. So, last month about 30 residents of Nordheim chartered a bus and took the 150-mile trip to Austin to testify at a public hearing about the pits. One-by-one, they stood before the hearing examiner and explained how the proposed waste pits would contaminate their water wells and pollute nearby creeks.
"We have 36 acres of land that’s adjacent to the proposed site. We have a 150-f00t deep water well. It is 60 feet from the property line of the proposed waste facility,” resident Howard Ann Bouman said.
“My husband and I own 54 acres that is bordered by Smith Creek. All of the toxins that are allowed in and out of the facility because they talk about mechanical failure or human error and those things are going to run into the creeks,” Gail Tisdale said.
Also at the hearing was Republican state Representative Geanie Morrison, who has represented Nordheim for over 15 years. She expressed her concerns, even though she does believe the state needs these facilities.
“I am not naïve that we always be confronted with the 'not in my backyard' position. But this is truly in the backyard of the entire city of Nordheim," she said.
But as Nordheim had its say, so did the company proposing the pits - Pyote Reclamation Systems. John Soule is their attorney and his argument in favor of the permitting hinged on the fact that the oil field waste going into the pits is considered non-hazardous. He stressed that point five times in the first two minutes of his presentation:
"The waste that will be received," he said, "is RCRA or Resource Conservation and Recovery Act exempt oil and gas waste, by definition non-hazardous.”
A week after the hearing, the CEO of Pyote Reclamation Systems, George Wommack, expressed confidence about the ruling from the railroad commission. He was representing his company at their booth at the DUG Eagle Ford Conference in San Antonio, a gathering of about 4500 oil industry professionals. Wommack was there pitching his services as an oilfield waste processor.
He restated the fact the the company is dealing solely in non-hazardous materials: “They need to understand this is nonhazardous material. It’s mainly rocks and dirt that has come in contact with the hydrocarbon.”
But that's the key issue in this dispute: Is oil and gas waste hazardous, or not?
Right now, oil and gas waste is officially considered non-hazardous because of a decision made by Congress and the EPA back in 1988 to exempt oil and gas waste from federal regulations. It was a move to spur domestic oil production and keep costs low. Professor Ernest Smith, of the University of Texas School of Law, says it was all about politics. He literally wrote the book - a text book - on oil and gas law and is a specialist in the area.
“The oil and gas companies had sufficient pull that they were able to get it classified as non-hazardous,” he said.
But Smith believes this exemption won’t last forever. He says pressure is building on the federal government to fix it. But that would come at quite a cost to industry, at least a three-fold increase in waste processing costs. That’s why that change isn't likely to happen in time to keep the pits out of Nordheim.
Wells Fargo, Citigroup and JP Morgan Chase all reported earnings Tuesday morning. The results were more or less what analysts expected, with two banks barely beating expectations, and JP Morgan Chase barely missing. But all three are profitable, with gains in the single-digit billions of dollars for the quarter.
"The return to profitability by banks of all sizes is a good thing for our economy," says Aaron Klein, director of the Financial Regulatory Reform Initiative at the Bipartisan Policy Center. "It shows that loans are being made and repaid."
But the more significant change since the financial crisis is the quality of those loans. "You've seen a significant reduction in lending to individuals who are outside the traditional credit box," says Klein.
Safer loans are part of a broader sea change in bank processes that have reduced risk, sometimes at the cost of profits.
"I would say [the big banks are] far safer, better capitalized today than they were before the crisis, but they certainly aren’t as profitable," says Fred Cannon, global director of research at KBW.
In addition to making safer loans, banks have been forced to spin off risky "proprietary trading" desks, and to increase capital or equity. The latter directly impacts one key measure of profitability: Return on equity.
"Citigroup is a good example," says Cannon. "Before the crisis, because they didn’t have much equity, the returns on equity, were you know in the mid-twenties. And today, Citigroup struggles to make it to 10 percent."
A less profitable Citigroup, but a safer financial system?
"So that’s the good news," says Dennis Kelleher is the president of Better Markets, an organization that pushes tighter regulation of the financial industry. "The bad news is if those circumstances repeat themselves, we’re not in dramatically different position than we were in '08."
The problem, he says, is that while the big banks may be less likely to fail, if they do fail, they're still too big to avoid having taxpayers bail them out.
Oil prices have been on a downward swing for the past few months and now there is an expectation among industry forecasters that demand for oil will slow soon.
The International Energy Agency says oil demand growth is at its lowest in five years, with demand expected to grow by 700,000 barrels a day. That’s 200,000 fewer than it previously expected.
Antoine Halff is the chief oil analyst for the agency: “The main driver really has been the economy," says Halff. “The economic recovery continues to be slower than expected.”
The agency lowered its forecasts in large part because the International Monetary Fund recently lowered its forecast for GDP growth worldwide.
“And now China, which for the last 10 to 15 years was the main engine of economic growth, has been slowing dramatically as well,” says Halff.
Slower growth in Asia and in developing nations around the world is a big factor in oil demand. Last year, for the first time, the demand for oil in developing countries exceeded that of developed nations.
Growth in those developing nations is slowing, a worrying sign for oil producers, says IHS oil analyst Jamie Webster. “It’s also a worrying sign for the economy and for oil markets because that is really considered to be the home for demand growth long term.”
Despite the drop in global demand, so far at least, oil production has not declined. As a result, analyst Steven Kopits expects gas prices to drop in the U.S. which could spur demand.
“The caveat on that is that the miles per gallon for our automobiles has increased quite a bit," he says. "For new cars over the last seven years, or so it’s up 20 percent.”
Renewable energy sources don’t make up a big enough share to cut into demand for oil. But gains in efficiency, and the rise of the electric car, Kopits says, could be game changers.