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Dr. Pepper’s stock is up. Coke and Pepsi, not so much.

Tue, 2015-02-10 02:00

Coke and Pepsi are reporting 2014 earnings this week. In both cases, we are likely to see two versions of the same basic story—changing tastes at home, coupled with a strong dollar and weak economy abroad, are taking some of the pop out of profits.

But luring back calorie-conscious customers is not as simple are taking out the sugar. Shareholders and investors don’t like to see companies stray too far from their core product, which in the case of Coke and Pepsi, remains regular old sugar soda.

Click the media player above to hear more.

If you're happy and you know it, write a tweet

Tue, 2015-02-10 02:00

Vermont is the happiest state in the country, according to a data-based meter that measures people’s happiness in real time.

Hedonometer, as it’s called, sources words from tweets, movie subtitles, e-books, and just about any sort of publicly accessible electronic text available online. Each word is scored on a nine point scale of happiness. The meter then parses around 50 million tweets each day to find out if people are using happy or sad words.

And people in Vermont were using happy words the most in the last 30 days, says Chris Danforth, who is part of the team that developed Hedonometer: “People are talking about the amazing snow and being out with their family.”

Danforth, a professor of Mathematical, Natural and Technical sciences at the University of Vermont, says this can be a useful tool for public policy.

If there was a decision to be made, he says, about funding or changes in policy, the hedonometer could track people’s reactions to it in real-time. “Rather than using some anecdotal tweet you can look at the big data perspective on how people are feeling,” he adds.  


The JOLTS report and the middle class

Tue, 2015-02-10 02:00

The Labor Department today releases its monthly Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey, known in economic circles as JOLTS. 

The monthly JOLTS report gives economists a pulse check of the job market. It tells them who’s hiring, and how many people were laid off, or are quitting their jobs.

“It kind of gives you a sense of the underlying movements in the labor market to give you a better sense of what’s going on in the job market,” says Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s Analytics.

Zandi says in the first part of the economic recovery, employers mainly created low and high-wage jobs. But over the past 12 to 18 months, we’ve seen more jobs in the middle of the pay scale. So now, about a third of new jobs are low-wage, a third are high-wage, and a third are right in the middle.

“A lot of government jobs are middle-paying, and of course there were a lot of layoffs there until recently," Zandi says. "Construction jobs are generally middle-paying. A lot of manufacturing jobs – not all of them, some are high-paying – but some are middle-paying.”

There are winners and losers in the JOLTS report. There have been layoffs lately in the energy sector, because of falling oil prices. But Zandi says the healthcare, retail and construction sectors are all hiring. 




Miami condo-buyers aren't home-owners. They're traders.

Tue, 2015-02-10 02:00

Miami’s building boom has featured prominently in many stories about the threat the city faces from rising seas and a changing climate. Scientists warn that parts of greater Miami— including some of its crucial water infrastructure—will be below sea level within a few decades. Meanwhile, developers are pouring many billions of dollars into many thousands of new condominiums and offices.

However, downtown Miami's condo explosion turns out to run on its own financial logic—far removed from rising seas.

Peter Zalewski runs Crane Spotters, an information service on the building boom, explains that the bulk of these condos are not residences. They are apartment-shaped financial instruments.

"In New York, you trade stocks. In Chicago we trade commodities. Miami, we trade condos," he says.

"This is what we do," he continues. "We trade down here. These are traders who are not looking to live the American dream with a family of four and a dog. They’re looking to make a hundred-grand a unit … with virtually nothing being done but making a phone call to your broker in Miami and having him unload it to somebody else’s broker, who’s representing somebody in Russia."

The basic idea is: Investors buy in before construction begins, betting that by the time the building is finished, prices will have gone up.

Many of the buyers are from outside the United States—often from Latin American countries where other available investments and home currencies make Miami real estate look like a stable place to park some cash.

Bill Hardin, a real estate professor at Florida International University, likes to tell people that real estate is Miami’s number-one export.

He anticipates the obvious question—How do you export real estate? — and he has a ready explanation.

"In an economic sense, it’s not moving the product," he says. "It’s: where does the money come from that pays for those products?"

He sees the market at work every day from his office window. At the moment, his 11th-floor office overlooks the ocean. However, it also overlooks a construction site just below his window—soon to grow into an 87-story building.

"So somebody is going to have a great view in the future," he says. "But it won’t be me."

Heinz catches up to modern tastes

Tue, 2015-02-10 01:30
1/3 of jobs

The Labor Department releases its monthly Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey on Tuesday, otherwise known as JOLTS. The report provides economists a look into the current state of the job market. After the recession, job creation was mostly focused on high-paying and low-paying employment. But now some economists are saying that middle-paying jobs are having a moment, with about 1/3 of new jobs in that sector.

$7.99 a month

That's how much Netflix will charge for its services in Cuba (the same as its price in the U.S.). As reported by Tech Crunch, the streaming video company announced it will offer service to Cuban customers starting Tuesday. But as Quartz points out, the move is largely symbolic, as less than 5 percent of the population has internet access, and the monthly subscription fee is nearly half the average salary in Cuba.


That's the percentage increase Twitter has seen in government requests for information since its last report in July. As reported by the BBC, Twitter reports receiving 2,871 requests from around the world, and has fulfilled a little over half of them. The U.S. government was the most frequent requester; hundreds came in from Turkey as well.

$975 million

That's how much China has fined chip maker Qualcomm for violating its laws to curb monopolization, as announced Monday. As reported by the New York Times, regulators in China defended the fine on Tuesday, saying that the large amount is meant to "restore market competitiveness."


Heinz is catching up to popular taste with the newly-released Sriracha-flavored Ketchup. The suggested retail price for the standard 14-ounce bottle is $2.69.

Auto security? What security?

Mon, 2015-02-09 12:19

A report released Monday says the security protocols in connected cars aren't nearly secure enough. It's yet another example of the basic dilemma posed by the Internet of Things: how to connect more devices to each other and the Internet, while making them easy to use, technologically innovative and  private and secure. 

Cars with wireless systems connected to the Internet are vulnerable to hacking and data theft, according to the Senate report, which found that auto-industry security measures are "inconsistent and haphazard." 

"Every time you add a new point of connectivity to a device, you have increased the attack surface — more ways to gain access," says Steve Checkoway, a researcher at the Johns Hopkins University Information Security Institute. Checkoway participated in experiments in 2010 that showed how vulnerable cars can be. 

Automakers are designing cars with the same kinds of wireless connectivity technologies that consumers have come to expect from their daily digital devices. Accordingly, cars are becoming subject to the same growing pains facing computers and smartphones – in addition to featuring digital door locks and thermostats.

Silicon Valley is grappling with a delicate balance: Keeping these products easy to use while implementing enough security to keep customers comfortable with using them.

"The out-of-the-box experience when you start up a product [is that] when you unpackage it, put it on the wall, it needs to be very seamless," says Tom Kerber, who heads research into the Internet of Things at Parks Associates. If customers have to grapple with too many steps to implement security protocols, Kerber says, they will reject products instead of adopting them.

In the meantime, Silicon Valley is churning out connected products based on the same model it used to churn out computers and apps. "Innovation in Silicon Valley is all about iteration and experimentation," says analyst Frank Gillett of Forrester Research.

Experimentation tends to mean that products aren't fully cooked when they come to market, he says. "So the idea is: Figure out the minimum viable product that will let you experiment with an idea, develop it and see if there's something there, and then figure out how to improve it, iterate it, make it better," Gillett says.

While companies often think about security when first releasing a product, their process of improving a product after launch means security is often playing catchup, he says, and that model is not likely to change soon.

Average tax refund so far this year is about $3,500

Mon, 2015-02-09 12:16

The Internal Revenue Service said Friday that the average refund so far this year is running at $3,539.

So two things:  First, who's got their taxes done already? Because, cut it out! You're making the rest of us look bad.

And secondly, you know that when you get a refund you've basically given the government an interest-free loan, right?




Changing fortunes of nightly news shows

Mon, 2015-02-09 12:09

Brian Williams, the host of NBC Nightly News, is embroiled in a scandal over fabricated stories he told about experiences during the invasion of Iraq in 2003. He's taken a leave of absence from the show.

But just how important is an anchor like Williams to a news network in an era of declining network news viewership?

NBC took a ratings hit last week, according to preliminary numbers from Nielsen. It was a big dip, at 36 percent, but declining viewership for network news isn’t exactly, well, news. Fewer and fewer sets are tuned to these broadcasts after reaching a peak in the 1980s.

Is the evening-news tradition becoming irrelevant in this new era of 24/7 information? Or do the networks see a good reason to continue their investment? Williams' show, after all, is still a major source of ad revenue for NBC.

For more, click on the audio player above.

What if Greece really does leave eurozone?

Mon, 2015-02-09 11:30

The man they’re calling “the rock star of anti-austerity” rocked financial markets Monday. Yanis Varoufakis — the new Greek finance minister — sent bank shares reeling on the Athens stock exchange with his comments on the euro.

Over the weekend, he warned that the eurozone would collapse if his country is forced out of the currency union by Germany’s refusal to accept a renegotiation of the terms of Greece’s bailout. Varoufakis said he believes that if Greece left the eurozone, investors will pull their money out of other heavily indebted euro countries – forcing them to leave too. With its biggest export market – the rest of Europe – then in turmoil, Germany could be the biggest loser.

With Common Core testing, you get what you pay for

Mon, 2015-02-09 11:14

Think “standardized test,” and you might picture kids sitting at their desks filling in bubbles with No. 2 pencils or a Scantron machine cranking out scores.

It’s time to update that picture. This spring, millions of kids around the country will take a whole new kind of computer-based test aligned to the Common Core state standards. They’ll be able to use online tools like highlighters and calculators. They’ll be asked to “drag and drop” their answers into boxes and to respond to video.

In one sample from a 7th-grade English test, children read two articles about electricity, and then watch a video clip from a TED talk about building circuits with Playdough. Then they’re asked to write an essay, supporting their response with evidence from each source.

No bubbles in sight.

“Whether it’s the English test or math test, there’s a great emphasis on constructing responses to questions,” says Jeff Nellhaus, chief of assessment for PARCC.

That stands for the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers. It’s one of two multi-state consortia that shared $360 million in federal grants to create tests aligned with the common core standards. The standards focus on critical thinking, problem solving and analytic skills. Nellhaus says the old measures won’t do.

In life, he says, there are no multiple-choice answers. “You have to construct your own answers from your own knowledge and drawing on other sources to get information,” Nellhaus says. “That’s what this test focuses on primarily.”

That kind of test is more expensive, says Scott Marion, associate director of the National Center for the Improvement of Educational AssessmentEach question has to be written, then reviewed for bias and age-appropriateness, and field tested. Then it may be revised or even thrown out. When you add up nine grade levels, all with different tests in math and English, we’re talking thousands and thousands of questions. Marion estimates a single multiple- choice question costs roughly $1,000 to develop.

“When you get into more open-ended questions, you get into three, four, five thousand dollars per question,” he says.

That’s because it’s harder to write questions that demonstrate different levels of ability. They also have to be changed out every year or so. Those are just the development costs. Then there’s the scoring.

“Scoring open-response questions generally requires human beings to read the papers and then assign scores,” Marion says.

Humans need to be trained and monitored to make sure they’re scoring fairly. Under pressure from states, PARCC has tried to keep costs down through technology. A feature on the math tests lets students type in equations that can be scored by machine. There will still be some multiple choice. Nellhaus says PARCC is also testing technology to score essays by computer.

“We’ll always have humans doing a check on the machines,” he says, but computerized essay scoring could be incorporated in the tests within a few years.

The savings won’t come soon enough for states like Georgia, which withdrew from the consortium when PARCC estimated its tests would cost about three times what the state had been spending. PARCC’s price has since come down to about $24 per student. That’s less than what many states spend, but much more than others. The cost has added to the controversy surrounding the new tests.

For some, though, it’s not enough.

“I think we’re spending actually too little on testing,” says Matthew Chingos, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “If we’re talking about 30 bucks a kid, to round up, that’s less than the cost of a textbook.”

A few years ago Chingos did a rough estimate of what states spend every year on K-12 assessment. He came up with about $1.7 billion – out of more than $600 billion in total spending on public education.

“We’re really talking about a small amount of money, especially in comparison to the importance that’s attached to the results of these tests, and the uses to which people want to put them, which is to hold teachers accountable, to improve schools, to hold schools accountable,” Chingos says.

There’s another reason tests are so important. They don’t just measure what kids learn. We’ve all heard the phrase “teaching to the test.” PARCC’s Nellhaus says tests send a signal to teachers and principals.

“What the test measures and how it measures it is going to have an impact on what they teach and how they teach it,” he says, “so it’s really incumbent on the test to be great.”

A great test? It’s hard to imagine students will see it that way when get a load of the real thing in the next few months.  Common Core By the Numbers

The number of states that have adopted the Common Core State Standards.

The year the Common Core standards were developed.

The number of states that are giving standardized tests from the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC), which are aligned with the Common Core standards.

The per-student cost of PARCC exams.

The number of states that will use Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) tests this spring.

$22.50 – $27.30
The per-student costs of SBAC exams.

$1.7 billion
The Brookings Institution estimated in 2012 that states spend $1.7 billion on standardized tests each year. Brookings also noted the entire public education system spends more than $600 billion annually.

PODCAST: German Chancellor Angela Merkel visits U.S.

Mon, 2015-02-09 03:00

First up, planning for a financial disaster if Greece decides to abandon the euro. More on that. Plus, more on German Chancellor Angela Merkel's visit with President Barack Obama, and what tops the agenda for the meeting. We'll also take a look at Medolac, a breast milk company that pays $1 per ounce, and how their business may be affecting non-profits who offer the same service.

As breast milk becomes a commodity, donations drop

Mon, 2015-02-09 02:00

When Alison Richardson’s baby was born prematurely, he weighed just 1 lb, 11 ounces.

“This is William Hague Richardson IV,” says Richardson, holding him carefully so she doesn’t tangle the wires, medical bracelets and oxygen tube that tethers William to the neonatal unit at Bronson Methodist in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Today, he’s wearing a baby blue onesie that says “Little Man.”

“He’s now 5 lbs, 13.9 ounces,” she says proudly.

A big reason Richardson says William is doing so well is that the hospital brought in donor milk when her own supply fell short.

For years, hospitals have gotten donor milk from non-profit milk banks.

But now, for-profit milk companies have entered the picture, like Oregon-based Medolac.

Medolac pays a dollar per ounce for the breast milk they get from moms, like Andrea Short of Newport, Michigan. Short’s youngest, Johanna, didn’t latch when she was born, so Short found herself with a freezer stuffed with frozen breast milk.

“She was probably four months old when I realized I had an overflow problem,” Short says.  

Selling her excess milk to Medolac helped her family pay bills, and it even got her breastfeeding Johanna longer than the year she’d originally planned.  

“It was a great incentive for me to continue, and make a little bit of extra money, and help some other babies who need it,” she says.

Over time, Short sold about 6,000 ounces of breast milk to Medolac.   

But before this, she was donating her milk to the nonprofit milk bank in Kalamazoo, Michigan—The one that supplies the hospital treating baby William.

Cindy Duff runs that milk bank. She says lately, their donations have dropped sharply enough that they've had to send some patients to other milk banks out of state.

And she's critical of Medolac for not disclosing exactly where it sends its milk. 

"My concern is that we want to be able to have the milk necessary to process for the babies in Michigan. And if the milk goes to a for-profit, and it's not even being dispensed to anyone in Michigan, that's concerning."

Medolac declined to be interviewed on tape.

But in an email, a spokesman says the company can't say which hospitals it sells to because of non-disclosure agreements.

The spokesman says all of the milk Medolac collects is given exclusively to sick infants.






German Chancellor Angela Merkel visits President Obama

Mon, 2015-02-09 02:00

On Monday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel is in Washington D.C., visiting President Barack Obama. Their agenda runs the gamut from transatlantic trade to climate change, counterterrorism to the G7 Summit in June. But the highest priorities are likely to be seemingly intractable conflicts facing the European continent.

Jacob Kirkegaard, senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, says Chancellor Merkel and President Obama will discuss the worsening violence between Ukraine and Russian-backed separatists in Eastern Ukraine. 

Peter Sparding, transatlantic fellow at the German Marshall Fund, says another subject may be a different conflict: The stand-off between the new Greek government, pushing back against the onerous terms of its bailout, and its European creditors.

Hacking into wired cars

Mon, 2015-02-09 02:00

A new Senate report released Monday says cars equipped with wireless internet could be a security risk, and could transmit personal information about a driver.  

The report, from Massachusetts Democrat Ed Markey, says automakers are short on safeguards that would keep hackers from, say, taking control of your car, and causing it to accelerate suddenly, or killing the brakes.

“This is a big deal,” says Dave Cole, chairman of AutoHarvest, which encourages innovation in the auto industry. 

Cole says cars with wireless internet could also transmit all kinds of data about their drivers. That could come in handy during, say, a hurricane evacuation, or maybe help parents.

“Do I want to track a teenaged son who might be doing something I don’t want him to do? But how about my everyday life? Do I want somebody checking on that all the time?” Cole wonders.

He says we might need federal rules to establish what information can be collected, and how it can be used.








Waiting for a key report on global oil market

Mon, 2015-02-09 02:00

The International Energy Agency in Paris issues its look-ahead to oil markets in the next five years on Tuesday. So what's the key question, and why do so many energy pros follow this agency?

To many analysts, consensus is spelled I-E-A. The International Energy Agency forms consensus, says consultant Bob McNally of the Rapidan Group.

He says consensus used to be that OPEC would intervene whenever prices fell. Until last fall, when it didn't. The big question now – a central question in the upcoming medium-term report – is how a new world without an OPEC price-stabilizer might look.

Some analysts see a prolonged period of low crude oil prices, perhaps below $75 a barrel. McNally's take: "We told our clients, welcome back to Space Mountain, the Disneyland roller coaster."

In other words, volatility.

Lending ones' eyes via smartphone

Mon, 2015-02-09 02:00

An app that helps the blind by connecting them to sighted volunteers who can see through their video camera has been gaining a lot of attention since its recent launch. Be My Eyes, as the app is known, was developed by Hans Jørgen Wiberg, a 50-year-old Dane, and funded by three different Danish groups. Wiberg himself is visually impaired.

“Its great to see people being really innovative in this space,” says Eliza Cooper, a social media consultant who has been blind since childhood. She recently tested the app to find out the expiration date on her milk carton.

“I didn't know where the expiration date usually is,” says Cooper. So her volunteer looked at her own milk carton and then told Cooper where to aim the camera.

What made her apprehensive, Cooper says, was not the technology itself, but the person who would be on the other end. “Maybe someone who is lonely and just wants a connection, and they choose to use this app,” she says. “That made me nervous."

But she soon realized that wasn’t the case. The woman Cooper spoke to didn’t ask to exchange names. “I felt good about not having any pressure to identify anything more than I wanted to,” says Cooper.

Click the media player above to hear more about Eliza Cooper's experience using 'Be My Eyes.'


Who lives in a money-making pineapple under the sea?

Mon, 2015-02-09 01:30
54 percent

The portion of New York City real estate purchases over $5 million that were conducted by shell companies, the New York Times reported. That adds up to more than $4 billion, much of it paid anonymously by LLCs or other corporations with fluid, obscured ownership. A Times investigation, rolling out this week, found that number is on the rise and transparency in the city's high-end real estate is disappearing, which becomes disconcerting when many of the shell companies trace back to foreign billionaires with checkered pasts.


The number of states in which truck driving was the most common job in 2014, according to an analysis by NPR. They used census data, and excluded two very broad categories "manager" and "salesperson," to find truckers have become more and more common as other jobs move overseas or become obsolete.

$590 million

That's the size of the stake Alibaba is taking in a smartphone maker based in China, as reported by the New York Times. Meizu Technology Co. will get access to Alibaba's sales channels in exchange for using Alibaba's operating system in its devices.


The number of drunk driving accidents Uber claims to have "likely prevented" in California since launching there two and a half years ago. But ProPublica notes the relationship between the ride-sharing service and drunk driving may not be so clear-cut. Indeed, communities with UberX saw a larger drop in drunk driving accidents among under-30 set than those cities that didn't have the low-cost ride service. But it's a leap to credit Uber - both sets of communities saw drops and it's unclear how many of the people under-30 actually it.

$56 million

Are you ready kids? The SpongeBob Squarepants movie won the weekend box office with a $56 million opening. As reported by the WSJ, the yellow sponge dethroned previous top spot holder "American Sniper."