Marketplace - American Public Media

Subscribe to Marketplace - American Public Media feed
Updated: 11 min 45 sec ago

The dark side of online education

Mon, 2015-05-18 13:06

Online education is the new thing, but there’s a dark side to it. The New York Times Pakistan bureau chief Declan Walsh wrote about a company in Pakistan that’s making millions of dollars by selling fake credentials to whoever wants them. His piece is called "Fake Diplomas, Real Cash: Pakastani Company Axact Reaps Millions." 

What’s the problem with Axact?

Our reporting has indicated that these websites are posing as universities, often giving the appearance of being in the United States, or high schools also in the United States. Their customers have been both in the United States and in many other countries around the world, particularly in the Middle East.

They have very cleverly and purposefully crafted the brand identity of these schools to cater to different audiences. Some of them will have names that hue very closely of those of famous American universities. Other universities will appeal to customers, perhaps in the Middle East…within the company, these fake universities are treated as brands to be created and marketed for specific customer basis. 

How do they get people to sign up?

They have a whole range of techniques that starts off by paying companies like Google and Facebook for advertising space, so that if you type in a search for online education, one of their sites will come up prominently. Secondly, they have promotional tools. They place stories on the CNN iReport, which is a citizen-journalism website. They create promotional videos using paid actors posing as staff and students. So, they have a whole range of tools to draw people into the website and to give them an appearance at least of legitimacy that allows them to maintain the fiction that these are genuine education institutions, as opposed to what they are, which is a diploma mill.

Why have they gotten away with it?

 It has very cleverly taken advantage of the sort of freedoms and anonymity that the Internet can allow you to do business. It has set up a whole web of off shore companies in places like Cypress and the British Virgin Islands to both take in the money that it receives and to pay the vendors. It has engaged in often quite aggressive legal tactics against people who would either investigate it or criticize it in public, so newspapers and other media groups in Pakistan and in other countries, including the U.K., have come under strong threats from the company’s in-house lawyers. 

Amazon's Echo lets you order something by saying it out loud

Mon, 2015-05-18 13:00

Amazon moves us one step closer to ordering something just by thinking it. 

People who use Amazon's voice-activated speaker system Echo can now order something just by saying it out loud.

I'd offer some thoughts here, but chances are Amazon already knows what they are.

'Pitch Perfect 2' leaves 'Mad Max' in the dust

Mon, 2015-05-18 13:00

"Pitch Perfect 2" made $69 million in U.S. movie theaters over the weekend, beating the action film" Mad Max: Fury Road."

"This was a huge surprise, I mean earth-shaking," says marketing strategist Peter Sealey, who was the head of marketing at Columbia Pictures in the 1980s.

The movie, about a group of young women in a singing competition, trounced the big summer action movie, which traditionally attracts a male-skewing demographic.

That demographic, boys and young men under 25, is what studios have traditional gone after, says Sealey. "It's just, you know, kind of a knee-jerk reaction."

But the 75 percent female audience that carried "Pitch Perfect 2" is evidence that the paradigm is shifting, says box office analyst Paul Dergarabedian of Rentrak.

"We have a lot of movies that we're seeing where women are driving the story. That they're the center of these movies. And, we're going to see more of that," Dergarabedian says, pointing to recent films such as the "Twilight" series, "Fifty Shades of Grey" and "Cinderella."

But Pitch Perfect hasn't been just a female-centric franchise. The first film, which was released in the fall of 2012, has attracted a broad audience on home video.

"And I have to say, when adult straight men say that they loved the movie, I find that extremely satisfying," Kay Cannon, the films' screenwriter, told Marketplace in an earlier interview.

"Often, there's a big preamble before: My wife made me watch it, none of the other channels on the television worked, I couldn't find the remote," says Cannon.

To reduce the need for a preamble this time around, Universal Pictures marketed the film broadly, even during the Super Bowl.

"Over time . . . given all those marketing efforts," says Dergarabedian, the film "could build more of a male audience" than the audience in its opening weekend.

Pitch Perfect 2

Mon, 2015-05-18 13:00

"Pitch Perfect 2" made $69 million in U.S. movie theaters over the weekend, beating the action film" Mad Max: Fury Road."

"This was a huge surprise, I mean earth-shaking," says marketing strategist Peter Sealey, who was the head of marketing at Columbia Pictures in the 1980s.

The movie, about a group of young women in a singing competition, trounced the big summer action movie, which traditionally attracts a male-skewing demographic.

That demographic, boys and young men under 25, is what studios have traditional gone after, says Sealey. "It's just, you know, kind of a knee-jerk reaction."

But the 75 percent female audience that carried "Pitch Perfect 2" is evidence that the paradigm is shifting, says box office analyst Paul Dergarabedian of Rentrak.

"We have a lot of movies that we're seeing where women are driving the story. That they're the center of these movies. And, we're going to see more of that," Dergarabedian says, pointing to recent films such as the "Twilight" series, "Fifty Shades of Grey" and "Cinderella."

But Pitch Perfect hasn't been just a female-centric franchise. The first film, which was released in the fall of 2012, has attracted a broad audience on home video.

"And I have to say, when adult straight men say that they loved the movie, I find that extremely satisfying," Kay Cannon, the films' screenwriter, told Marketplace in an earlier interview.

"Often, there's a big preamble before: My wife made me watch it, none of the other channels on the television worked, I couldn't find the remote," says Cannon.

To reduce the need for a preamble this time around, Universal Pictures marketed the film broadly, even during the Super Bowl.

"Over time . . . given all those marketing efforts," says Dergarabedian, the film "could build more of a male audience" than the audience in its opening weekend.

Georgia landowners fight eminent domain over pipeline

Mon, 2015-05-18 13:00

We’ve heard a lot about the controversial Keystone XL Pipeline over the last year or so. There are already more than two million miles of pipeline in the U.S., carrying natural gas, petroleum products and chemicals, right under our feet.

Now, a fight is raging over a new pipeline proposed for the Georgia coast. The company that wants to build the pipeline needs private land to do it, and it is asking the state for the right to use eminent domain.

That’s not sitting well with many landowners in the region, like Eddie Reddick, who owns a tree farm near the South Carolina border.

Eddie Reddick at his family's tree farm in Screven County. He says Kinder Morgan surveyors damaged some of his crop.

Molly Samuel/WABE

“This tree will eventually die,” he says, picking up a small crooked tree by its trunk on his family’s 845-acre property in Screven County. A few weeks ago, surveyors for the energy company Kinder Morgan came out here, and Reddick says they drove over some of his young pine trees.

See, there’s a nice vigorous growing seedling, about 7-foot tall, that’s been run over,” he says. Now that tree and others in its row are bent over sideways, like long grass on a windy day. They’re all pointing in the same direction, toward a wooden stake with a pink ribbon fluttering at the top.

Here’s the first stake, and it says, 'proposed pipeline,' ” Reddick says .

Surveyors have begun laying out the route for the proposed pipeline.

Molly Samuel/WABE

This marks where the Palmetto Pipeline would travel through Reddick’s land.

It continues in a southerly direction through this young pine plantation, till we get to a wetland branch several hundred feet on down the line,” he says.

The energy company Kinder Morgan wants to build this 360-mile pipeline along the Savannah River and then down the coast, to Florida. It would split off from another bigger pipeline the company owns that carries gas from Gulf Coast refineries to the Northeast.

A map showing the route of the proposed Palmetto Pipeline. 

Courtesy of Kinder Morgan

Reddick says he thinks the pipeline would take about 4.5 acres of his farm permanently out of production. That’s a small amount of land for Reddick, but he says it’s the principal of the thing. 

“As a private landowner, [you] feel like you’re being run over,” Reddick says. 

But Allen Fore says this is about planning for the larger community’s needs. He’s a vice president with Kinder Morgan.

We’re looking at not just service now and what the needs are now in Georgia, but we’re trying to look at the next 20-30 years,” Fore says .

Savannah’s fuel comes from ships or trucks; Fore says a pipeline would be cheaper and more reliable.

Savannah in particular is one of the few areas that doesn’t have direct pipeline capacity,” Fore says.

It would cost a billion dollars to build the pipeline, and it would eventually carry about 150,000 barrels of fuel a day. Fore says all of the gas is for domestic use, not for export, and that Kinder Morgan will only use eminent domain where it has to.  

“Our use of that, if granted, is extremely rare,” Fore says. “Over 98 percent of properties are acquired by amicable resolution to the satisfaction of landowners. So we’re talking about a small, very small number.”

But a lot of landowners are upset about the idea. At a public hearing earlier this month, a couple hundred people turned out. There were environmentalists concerned about fragile wetlands, but the most vocal opponents were people angry about a private company taking their land.

Most people at a public hearing in Waynesboro, Georgia, in early May opposed the use of eminent domain to build the Palmetto Pipeline.

Molly Samuel/WABE

“My mama’s people, and my daddy’s people, been here since the 1700s,” said Jeff Mallard. “I don’t agree with eminent domain.”

But eminent domain serves a purpose, explains Peter Appel, law professor at the University of Georgia. The government uses it to build highways, post offices and parks. And, yes, states can grant it to private companies, too.

“People want to say this is my property, and you can’t have it, and the fact of the matter is, that’s not true,” he says. “A pipeline, similar to a railway line, is almost a classic case for when eminent domain makes sense.”

That’s because it’s going to serve the public by delivering gas, he says, and a pipeline’s route isn’t very flexible. Kinder Morgan can’t twist and turn around every landowner who doesn’t want to sell. But Appel says just because the pipeline is a good candidate for eminent domain doesn’t mean Georgia has to grant it.

It really is up to the government to decide, 'Are we going to put our power behind this project?' ” he says.

Gov. Nathan Deal came out against the plan earlier this month. But under Georgia law, it’s the commissioner of the Department of Transportation who makes the decision. The deadline for that decision is Tuesday. If the commissioner gives the green light, the project will then need to go through an environmental review.

Target zeroes in on food, glorious food

Mon, 2015-05-18 13:00

Target, long the “cheap chic” destination for clothing and home furnishings, is trying to spruce up its grocery business at the expense of some of its big processed food suppliers by capitalizing on consumers’ growing preference for organic and natural foods over packaged foods.  

“Natural and organics has been growing mid-teens now for eight to 10 years,” says Brian Yarbrough, an analyst with Edward Jones. “And the center of the aisle, the cereal, the chips, the cookies, the crackers, the soups of the world — they’re barely seeing volume growth at all.”

A Wall Street Journal report says Target will do less to promote packaged foods suppliers such as General Mills and Campbell Soup Company. That may mean less space on shelves and in circular ads.

Target spokeswoman Molly Snyder would only confirm the accuracy of quotes from CEO Brian Cornell. He told the Journal that mac and cheese isn’t getting eliminated altogether, "but clearly assortment is being shaped around what consumers are looking for.”

Sean Naughton, an analyst with Piper Jaffray, suspects Target shoppers might see more items like craft beers or specialty organic foods.

“I think they would like to create a little more uniqueness inside the store,” Naughton says.

Doug Waxson of St. Paul, Minn., already sees more appealing products at his local Target.

“My wife's noticed they're starting to carry some things she ordinarily gets at Whole Foods or a co-op, like some higher-quality lunch items and frozen items,” he said. “It seems like something that they've started to get better at recently.”

Analysts caution that Target won’t be dumping packaged foods altogether. But they say it probably will nudge out some of the big food companies’ products in favor of its own private label brands.

Yarbrough says the situation will make things harder on big food companies, whose sales are already suffering.

“Once they shrink the shelf space,” he said, “it's going to pressure sales for the next year.”

 

 

 

Federal money talks — kind of

Mon, 2015-05-18 13:00

Now that the president's Task Force on 21st Century Policing has proposed its recommendations, the White House is offering grants to encourage local police departments to adopt some suggestions, like having officers wear body cameras and using a new federal tool kit to train them. 

The grants make the medicine go down a bit more smoothly, but the White House’s reach is limited. 

“On a day-to-day basis, the president of the United States does not control the way police officers interact with citizens,” says Jack Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College.

Jim Pasco, executive director of the national Fraternal Order of Police, says local authorities were already buying cameras, and local police will make the key decisions about how to use them, such as “who’ll be wearing them, and for how long, and under what circumstances they go on and off.” 

This isn’t the first time President Obama has dangled money in front of local officials to try to bend them to his will.

“I think it works,” says Robert Shapiro, a professor of political science at Columbia University, pointing to funding for states to expand Medicaid in the Affordable Care Act. “They’ll take the money," he says. "And I think a good case in point is what we’ve seen on Medicaid.”

President Obama also tried to get states to change the way they educate children with his Race to the Top grants. He’s hardly the first president to try buying a little local control. President Nixon handed out grants encouraging local police to get tough on crime. 

PODCAST: Good news for the Georgia pecan

Mon, 2015-05-18 03:00

New limits are on the way for military-style gear used by police officers. More on that. Plus, luxury brands take Alibaba to court over counterfeit goods on the site. And Calpers wants to sell a portion of its timberland holdings, mostly in Louisiana. Timber is performing below par compared to private equity, public equity and real estate since the recession hit. And with years of drought in California affecting nut production, some farmers are looking at other places, and other nuts, to grow. That’s good news for Georgia pecan growers.

San Francisco takes innovative approach to homelessness

Mon, 2015-05-18 02:00

The tech sector in San Francisco may be booming, but the city's homeless are still suffering.

With real estate prices skyrocketing, pressure has intensified on San Francisco's needy. Advocates say there is only one shelter bed for about every six homeless people. New residents are clamoring for solutions.

The city is now trying something a little different—a shelter with fewer rules and more open space.

I sat on a bench next to Marco Simonetti. He rolled back his sleeve to show me thick, long, fresh scars. They ran all down his right arm. Simonetti says he was robbed and stabbed a couple of weeks ago.

Simonetti was living on the street. The attackers took all he had—a bike, wallet, and three dollars. He says, “They just picked me at random I guess.” He thinks maybe it was his gray hair. They saw and old guy and decided to get him.

Simonetti is safer now. He's living at The Navigation Center. 

Marco Simonetti sits outside The Navigation Center.

Sam Harnett

The center is different from most homeless shelters—less institutional. There is a big courtyard, and no curfew. Guests can come and go anytime.

Julie Leadbetter is the center's director. She says, “We're trying to lower the barriers on the street to access shelter.”

The biggest difference from most shelters, Leadbetter says, is that people can bring pets, partners, and possessions. Usually, they have to leave all that behind.

“We don't want to create a place that breaks down the very little supports that they have,” Leadbetter says. “It's about starting with what they have and building up."

Shelters are a band aid, not a solution. They are often dorms crammed with beds. There's no place to put your stuff, and they have a curfew for when you can come in and when you must leave during the day. Sexes are separated to protect women from rape. These conditions keep people out.

Allen Naethe is an army vet. He's been homeless 15 years and never went to a shelter. He couldn't abandon the love of his life. “I don't go nowhere she wont go,” Naethe says.

“She” is an English Staffordshire Terrier named Benthe. She's nine years old and pretty adorable. Naethe says he promised to get her a house, and that is what he's trying to do now at the Navigation Center.

Allen Naethe with his dog Benthe

Sam Harnett

Once someone like Naethe comes in to the center, the goal is to get them on their feet and into housing in about two weeks. The center has government services on site to help with housing, benefits, and jobs.

Bevan Dufty is San Francisco's housing director. He says the city is under pressure to innovate like this.

Dufty says, “The technology companies here want to see us do a better job responding to homeless.”

Dufty hopes the center will prove the city can be successful, and that tech companies will then start chipping in more—because the center isn't cheap. It's funded by a $2.4 million anonymous donation, and it accommodates only 75 people at a time.

For Simonetti though, the difference from other shelters is huge. “They treat you more like a regular person here,” he says, “They help more. They want to see you progress. They don't want to see you stagnate.”

Simonetti hopes to organize himself and get back together with his old girlfriend, who is now living off the street. His big dream though is to buy a boat like the one he used to live in, to head out through the Golden Gate bridge, turn left, and keep on sailing.

As walnut prices rise, consumers look to pecans

Mon, 2015-05-18 02:00

The water-thirsty nut crops grown in California are getting a lot of attention these days given that state’s four-year drought.

Take walnuts for example. The drought has affected both supply and quality of this popular nut, and that’s helped double its price over the last few years.  But with increased prices, coupled with declining quality, consumers are looking for alternatives.  

That means farmers are starting to look at other places – and other nuts – to grow. The interest is good news for pecan growers in places like Texas and Georgia, because pecans are a natural substitute for walnuts.

“The applications, particularly when you’re talking about baking, are very similar,” says Dan Zedan of Nature’s Finest Foods, which specializes in marketing tree nuts.

Aside from the obvious differences – different nuts, different trees – there’s one key distinction between the two: where the nuts are grown. Pecans are grown in a handful of states and can flourish in a variety of climates.  Walnuts, on the other hand, need arid conditions to thrive and are grown almost exclusively in California.  

With the price of walnuts on the uptick, Zedans says, “We’ve seen a significant shift in consumption of Pecans.”

Zedan says confectioners and bakers have always preferred pecans, but up until recently pecans have generally been the more expensive option. The opposite has been true in the last three years.

“[Pecans] have a much better flavor profile, they have a better shelf life, they’re a bit more versatile, and there is a quality perception difference between walnuts and pecans,” Zedan says.

This is all good news for Georgia, which is the top pecan producer in the U.S. Other pecan producing states like Texas and New Mexico are happy too.

Lenny Wells, a pecan specialist with the University of Georgia, says the pecan industry was booming even before the California drought. Growers, he says, have seen almost a dollar increase per pound in the last few years.

“A lot of that is driven by the export demand for pecans right now, mainly to Asia,” Wells says. “So the economics looks good and we’ve had a lot of outside interest in the industry.”

With California’s ongoing drought, this interest is showing no signs of letting up.

Wells says he’s even gotten a couple of calls from California nut growers looking to set up shop in Georgia. 

Calpers reportedly looking to sell of timberland

Mon, 2015-05-18 02:00

California’s public-employee pension fund—Calpers—is reportedly looking to unload some trees. About 300,000 acres-worth, according to The Wall Street Journal, which reports Calpers wants to sell timberland it owns in the Southeastern U.S.

Calpers lists about $2.2 billion worth of forestland investments in its $300 billion portfolio; it has much bigger stakes in investment classes such as stocks, bonds, and real estate. The investments fund the pensions of more than 1.5 million California public employees and retirees in California.

Back in the early 2000s, the trend was to diversify investments to get higher returns (Calpers faces underfunded pension liabilities, as do many other state pension funds). But some alternative investments didn’t pan out, says economist John Canally at LPL Financial.

“What happened to timber prices over the last ten years—you basically got no return on forestry stocks,” says Canally. He says the housing crash and global recession depressed the lumber market. If pension funds like Calpers had left their money in stocks and bonds, he says, their investments would have been more profitable in the long run.

A spokesman for Calpers told Marketplace by email that he could not confirm any plans to downsize Calpers’ timber holdings or review that segment of the fund’s portfolio.

University of Georgia forestry business professor Thomas Harris says that if Calpers did want to sell its timberlands in Louisiana and East Texas, there would be plenty of potential buyers. “Weyerhauser, Potlach, Plum Creek, have been active in acquiring timber land,” says Harris. “There’s interest by pension funds and high-wealth individuals.”

Harris says timber can be an attractive and stable investment, because the trees keep growing, getting more valuable as time goes on.

How Mexico is fighting obesity

Mon, 2015-05-18 02:00

Mexico and the United States have the highest rates of obesity of any major country in the world, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. 

But Mexico has been taking steps to change that. "In the United States, we think we're the first to do everything, but that's not necessarily true," says Kelly Brownell, dean of the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University. "And in the case of policies, to address the obesity problem, there are other countries that have been out of the gate earlier than we have." 

Mexico is one of the first countries to adopt a tax on sugary beverages, a ban on junk food advertisement during kids' shows and movies, and a push towards healthier food in schools. But Franco Sassi, senior health economist at the OECD, says it is difficult to specify exactly what constitutes a "healthy food." 

When it comes to obesity, there is no single food and policy that can tip the scales by itself, Sassi says.

A Loft-y purchase

Mon, 2015-05-18 01:59
$2.16 billion

That's the purchase price for Ann Taylor's and Loft's parent company. The buyer? Ascena Retail Group, the owner of Lane Bryant and Dressbarn. As reported by the New York Times, the combined companies will have 4,930 stores in the United States alone.

"Seven or eight"

That's how many errors publisher HarperCollins corrected in "Clinton Cash," a controversial book about Hillary Clinton's finances and foundation. Normally, readers would have to wait for a new edition for these revisions, but there's no standard practice for e-books, and in this case they were updated with a notification email from Amazon. 

300,000

That's about how many acres of timberland the California’s public-employee pension fund, Calpers, is reportedly looking to sell. With the lumber market down since the housing crash, investments in that industry by Calpers have not been performing as well as if the money had been put into stocks and bonds.

$16.1 million

That's how much Chinese e-commerce site Alibaba says it spends per year fighting counterfeit goods. But not everyone thinks the site is doing all it can. Shortly before its IPO in July, a group of luxury brands represented by Kering SA filed a suit against Alibaba citing dissatisfaction with efforts to weed out counterfeit goods. That initial suit was dropped, but now those same brands are back, this time claiming Alibaba assists counterfeiters in the sale of their products.

2 weeks

That's about how long The Navigation Center, a new kind of homeless shelter in San Francisco, aims to have residents back on their feet and into housing. Facing pressure from the tech industry to address homelessness, the city is trying out a new kind of system that feels less institutionalized. At The Navigation Center, residents are allowed to bring pets, and there are no curfews. There are also government programs on site to help with employment and 

461

That's how many people police killed in 2013, according to the FBI. But there's more to those numbers; mainly that they may be inaccurate, and better data is hard to come by. Local departments' reporting standards don't match up, and often the paperwork just doesn't get filed correctly. That's the latest story in our series "Behind the Blue Line."

Pages