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Updated: 28 min 47 sec ago

Trading insurance discounts for health data

Wed, 2015-04-08 11:11
Could fifteen minutes of exercise could save you fifteen percent on your life insurance?   John Hancock Financial is the first insurer in the U.S. to offer discounts to policyholders who wear wireless fitness trackers. Sign up for a new life policy today, and the company will send you a Fitbit, one of those bracelets that tracks your steps. The more exercise you get, the bigger discount you get on your insurance premium, up to 15 percent.   Company president Craig Bromley says the policy will also reward good behavior with "fun sort of rewards" to get you to the gym, like gift cards, discounted hotel stays and leisure travel.   Delaying a death benefit "would obviously be good for us, but also good for them," Bromley says. "You know, other companies are not really helping people to live longer."   It's not just about customers living longer. By leveraging wearable devices and promoting wellness, the company is also trying to bestow a youthful glow on the aging life insurance industry.   "It’s great to be at sort of the forefront of all this technological change, which hasn’t always been the case for the life insurance industry," Bromley says.   It sure hasn't. A recent report from PriceWaterhouseCoopers says the life insurance industry could use some reinvention: the number of life policies has gone up from 23 million in 1950 to 29 million in 2010. PWC says that amounts to a 35 percent drop in market share over 60 years.   "If anything it’s as important or more important than it’s ever been," says Massachusetts-based Certified Financial Planner Tim LePain. Life insurance used to be seen as an investment, LePain says, not so much anymore.   "It’s less prevalent today because there are many other ways to invest your money," LePain says, citing mutual funds as an example.   Analysts expect other insurance companies to follow John Hancock's lead, but will it work? Will more policy holders take up Jazzercise and the Insanity Workout to improve their position on the actuarial table?   "Sure!" says 38-year-old Julie McMahon. "I’d get cheaper life insurance, for what I do anyway."   Other potential customers are not so sure.   "I hope my insurance company doesn’t do that," says Polly Brown. She has concerns about sharing personal health data for commercial purposes.   Brown said she wants her insurance provider to sell her a policy, not to try to be her personal trainer.

Stopping German students in their tracks?

Wed, 2015-04-08 11:07

At an elementary school in Essen, a city in northern Germany, students stream in from recess. They stuff boots into cubbies and hang up their jackets.

The fourth-grade classroom looks a lot like the classrooms in American public schools.  The class has one teacher, who covers all the subjects in the same classroom. Some students excel, some struggle, some are in the middle. 

But next year, that will end.

Every student will be placed on one of three different education tracks: Gymnasium, Realschulen or Hauptschulen. Gymnasium includes eight years of university-prep school. Realschulen is six years, and typically leads to an apprenticeship instead of college. Hauptschulen is the lowest track, meant to serve slower learners.

Bela, one of the fourth-graders, says he wants to be a deep-sea scientist when he grows up, studying marine ecosystems and animals. To do that, he’ll have to go to university.

In Germany, kids are divided up after four years of school, put on paths to university or vocational training.

Mallory Noe-Payne/WGBH

In the United States, 66 percent of high school graduates enroll in college. In Germany, only a third of students do.

Germany is very selective about who gets to go to college, because the state pays for every student to attend a public university, and there are a limited number of spots.

Decisions about which students should be tracked for college depend on a mix of grades and test scores, and are heavily influenced by teachers. Students spend the first four years in school with the same instructor.

Lis Vincenz is the principal at the elementary school in Essen. She says this system puts a lot of pressure on teachers, who have to make these tough calls with anxious parents peering over their shoulders.

“They just had their mid-term grades last week, and it only took three hours for the first parents to complain,” Vincenz says. “Parents feel very pressured to have their kids be university-bound.”

Vincenz isn’t a big proponent of the tracking system, and she would like to see students stay together for a longer period of time.

She once taught at a Hauptschule, the lowest track. She questions whether full potential can be predicted so early, pointing out that students at Hauptschulen are disproportionately poor, or children of immigrants.

“Any form of tracking is a form of discrimination really,” Vincenz says. “Even if you don't tell that to the children, they are feeling that they are not really wanted.”

Supporters of tracking point to Germany’s vocational system, where students who don’t go to college are given the opportunity to learn a trade. Graduates of vocational education are still able to earn good money, sometimes even more than college graduates.

 “I see the functionality in it, and I’m impressed by the society that results from it,” says Joshua Hallet, an American expat living in Germany.

Hallett and his wife Wendy live in Dusseldorf, an affluent city north of Cologne. They have two teenage sons who are on the university track.

Wendy Hallett says she loves the tracking system. Her sons are high-achieving students, and she says they were always held back in American schools.

“For our kids to be pulled out, and now be in a classroom of basically all gifted and talented kids, it's insane,” she says. “They're taught at a level that they understand and where they can perform.”

The Hallett family is American, but have lived in Germany for three years. Both sons were put on the university track.

Mallory Noe-Payne/WGBH

Subject matter doesn’t necessarily differ from track to track, but the depth and pace of teaching does vary. And, says Joshua Hallett, Americans would be quick to call that unfair.

“The tracking system in Germany is so, for lack of a better word, un-American,” he says. “It doesn't give you that golden ring to reach for. Americans are bred from an early age that nobody can tell you what to do, but you can do what you want.”

The irony is, the American comprehensive high school was partially a reaction to Germany’s tracking.

In the 1950s, former Harvard president James Bryant Conant served as an ambassador to Germany. He didn’t like the tracking system he saw there, so he came home and led a movement to reform American schools.

It took 30 years, but by the 1980s any type of tracking in the U.S. — even within high schools — was widely considered regressive and unjust.

In Germany, though, the system hasn't changed much in 60 years, even though parents like Anya Turner worry about the effect it's having on their children.

“My daughter is maybe not as focused as we want her to be sometimes. And having looked back at my education I can relate,” Turner says. “I would find it very sad for her path to be set after the fourth grade.”

Turner's daughter is 9-years-old and will be placed on a track soon. If she isn’t recommended for gymnasium, the university track, Turner and her husband could decide to ignore the suggestion and send her there anyway. In the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia, the government recently granted parents the right to make that choice.

However, ignoring a recommendation is still rare because, for all of their misgivings, Germans still trust the system.

This is the final part in a series from WGBH's "On Campus" that explores how higher education works in Germany, compared to the U.S. Click the links at the top of the page for previous coverage.

When water runs dry, farmers focus on profit

Wed, 2015-04-08 11:03

"When farmers are short on water, they're going to say, 'Well, I'd like to have more water, but with the water I have, I'm going to make the most profit from it that I can,'" says Jay Lund.

That's how Lund, a professor for civil engineering at the University of California in Davis, explains the crop choices in the state's Central Valley. Lucrative specialty crops reign when water supply tightens.

Here are the Central Valley's top crops, by acreage and value, according to the latest numbers compiled for Marketplace by Bill Matthews, UC Agricultural Issues Center, using data from the USDA's National Agriculture Statistics Service:

Rafael Cardenas/Marketplace

 

 

'Furious 7' charges up box office, diverse audiences

Wed, 2015-04-08 11:03

For less than a week's work, over $174 million isn't so bad. Add another $250 million on top of that for overseas box office, and "Furious 7" is off and running.

The latest installment of the "Fast and Furious" franchise went ahead despite the death of star Paul Walker a year a half ago, using a mix of CGI and body doubles to keep his character in the film. 

"I love these movies," says Wesley Morris, film critic at Grantland. "They're so much better made than they even need to be." 

This isn't high art, Morris says, but a highly entertaining series of impossible stunts, gaining praise form critics and filmgoers alike. The cast is also more racially diverse than the average blockbuster, encouraging a broader audience to go out and buy tickets. 

"I think the number is 75 percent non-white — the audience," Morris said, but here's a note for distributors growing smug about their profit margins. "People think that Universal has the multiracial, multiethnic thing locked up, right? I think they have the 'Fast and Furious' thing locked up." 

And to retain audiences long-term, studios will have to offer more than sleek cars and an appealing ensemble cast. 

"People don't only want to see brown people drive cars and rob banks," Morris said. "With the right the people and the right story, you can have a diverse cast without calling attention to the fact that you have a diverse cast." 

As for Furious 7, you don't have to see the prior six to enjoy it, Morris says. All you need is a healthy appreciation for cars parachuting backward out of cargo planes.

 

Tsipras' visit with Putin raises European eyebrows

Wed, 2015-04-08 11:02

A beautiful new friendship appeared to blossom in Moscow today between two embattled leaders. Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras held his first official meeting with Russian president Vladimir Putin. Both clearly hoped they might be able help each other in their time of need.

Putin wants to snag at least one "no" vote when the European Union meets this summer to consider renewing sanctions against Russia over Ukraine. The sanctions have to be approved unanimously, so one negative vote would terminate the measure and bring Russia some much needed economic relief.

In turn, Putin might, "give the Greeks a bundle of goodies," says Athenian blogger John Psaropoulos.

But, analysts warn that Putin may have a tough time doling out large amounts of cash to Greece; the sanctions and the collapsing price of oil have taken their toll on the Kremlin’s finances.

Putin might reward the Greeks in other ways. He has imposed counter sanctions on a whole range of foodstuffs from the EU, an embargo that has cost Greek fruit growers $1 billion in exports a year. The Russian president could lift the ban on Greek produce. He could also give the Greeks a further discount on Russian oil and gas supplies.

But the Germans say these are paltry rewards when you consider what the Greeks are risking. By playing footsie with Putin, they are putting their whole relationship with the western world in jeopardy.

“What is it that Russia can offer to Greece that can compensate for falling out completely with Europe at large and the United States?" asks Heinz Schulte, a leading German commentator.

In Athens, Psaropoulos says that after six years of economic misery, Greeks no longer seem to care about upsetting their Western partners.

“There’s no feeling that in this marriage between Greece and the West, there’s a danger of breaking the wedding china because the wedding china has already been broken,” Psaropoulos says.

The question now is whether the rift will end in divorce, with Greece’s ejection from the eurozone.

ESPN doubles as the Grinch

Wed, 2015-04-08 11:01

Twelve-year-old Sam Holtz of Hawthorne Woods, Ill., tied for first place in ESPN's March Madness basketball bracket.

That's tied for first, out of 11.5 million brackets. ESPN awards the prize through a random draw of brackets that were among the top 1 percent in the contest.

But Holtz won't be allowed to enter for the $20,000 gift card or trip to Hawaii, because the rules say you must be 18 to enter.

“I’m irritated," Holtz told the Daily Herald. “"Yes, I'm still proud of my accomplishment, but I'm not happy with the decision."

An ESPN spokesman says that the real prize isn't money, but glory, and knowing you are better than everyone else: "That's what makes this so awesome. The prize really is secondary."

No, ESPN, it's not.

Shelling out for a BG takeover

Wed, 2015-04-08 11:00

Oil company Shell is teaming up with BG, a gas company. It’s just one of a number of mergers in the oil and gas business that are either being considered, or are in the works.

Shell will reportedly pay $70 billion for the company, one of the largest mergers in the industry since ExxonMobil.

The industry is under immense pressure to consolidate — but are some sectors under more pressure than others?

Click the audio player above to listen to the full story.

Watching the Apple Watch

Wed, 2015-04-08 03:00

Appointments for interested consumers to check out the Apple Watch start on Friday in Apple Stores. But a select few have already been wearing them. Musician Pharrel was apparently wearing one the other night while serving as a judge on NBC's singing show The Voice.

Editor-in-Chief of the website The Verge Nilay Patel has written a big feature about wearing the Apple Watch throughout the day.

Click on the multimedia player above to hear our conversation about whether you should invest in an Apple Watch. 

PODCAST: Death and taxes and more

Wed, 2015-04-08 03:00

Shell is buying a company once called British Gas for just under $70 billion. BG Group is a major supplier of liquified gas to North America, but it also increases Royal Dutch Shell's crude oil portfolio by nearly 20 percent. More on that. Let's turn to Chicago where we find  Lindsey Piegza, Chief Economist, Managing Director at Sterne Agee, to check some dominant themes in markets and the economy this morning. Plus, we read a little e-book called "As Certain as Death: Quotations About Taxes" days before the big filing day. 

Uber picks up more corporate business

Wed, 2015-04-08 02:00

An increasing number of workers are turning to Uber to get around. The ride-sharing company handled 47 percent of car rides expensed through the processing company Certify last month, up from 15 percent in March 2014. Rohit Verma, a professor at Cornell University’s School of Hotel Administration says since they’re not spending their own money, business customers are generally more focused on convenience than price.

In many cities in the US, using Uber  can be more convenient than hailing a taxi on the street. It's certainly more convenient payment and tip-wise. And finally, to use a buzzword loved by Silicon Valley, Uber can provide a seamless experience both for the user and the company: if a firm signs up for Uber Business, the worker doesn't even have to file an expense report. 

Click on the media player above to hear more. 

 

Matt Walsh on politics, comedy and Veep

Wed, 2015-04-08 02:00

Comedian and actor Matt Walsh was at SXSW Interactive in March to talk about VEEP, the HBO comedy series in which he stars.

Walsh is also co-founder of the Upright Citizens Brigade, an improv comedy troupe and director of A High Road, an independent feature film. He is currently working on his second film, A Better You, which he reportedly shot digitally in 10 days.

We caught up with him to talk about politics, comedy and how Veep portrays Washington DC.

How has the internet made your job as a comedian easier? Or harder?

Easier or harder. Well, I was recently talking with a screenwriter friend of mine. One of the interesting things about technology is things like Google and texting have really challenged plot devices. Like if you can imagine a film noir movie where people could just text each other? You would never tail someone, you would never meet them in an alley.

I had to get to a phone...

Yeah, exactly. You don’t run out after the press conference and get into a phone. And then in terms of being like an actor, I guess it makes you …. you kind of have to be engaged, I think, with your audience. I do twitter. I like twitter because it's mostly one way. You don't feel the burden of, oh, I have to get back.

What about twitter as a form of comedy? Does it have any similarities with improv?

It does in that some days I’ll just try to tweet something. For example, I’ll just start writing and not thinking about it and then I’ll go back and edit it. So you're sort of improvising your thought. Some people who are great at twitter, they have like 10 jokes banked in their drafts. I  never do that. Like I see, "Oh that’s a cool picture, and I’ll get rid of it and I am like, I did my homework today ... I am done with my twitter homework."

You have three young kids.

We have three young kids.

What’s funny to you about how they interact with technology?

Well, my son who is seven-and-half, Jude, because I work in Baltimore, he likes to text me on the iPad now, and because of that predictive texting, like if you start the world ‘he’ it'll sometimes say ‘hershey’ or ‘helium’ and then you can just guess. So it’s like, "Hi dad, how are you elephant balloon times square is the house ready boyfriend guerrilla."

Do you know what I mean? But it’s like two or three paragraphs. I think he thinks it makes  him sound smart. So he’s using all these big words and it’s like, "Holy cow! You wrote me five paragraphs." And then I read it and it’s sort of ridiculous.

I heard someone describe Veep as way more realistic than House of Cards when it comes to politics in Washington.

Yeah.

Which seemed like a great compliment and also moderately concerning.  

Yeah. People laugh and say, "Boy, your show is exactly like DC!" And I'm like, "That shouldn't be funny! That’s a really important business you guys should be doing." But again I think that is what comedy does. It reminds you of ... I always say politics is trying to push ideals and yet the reality is it’s like flawed people. You know, [they] get this bill, they are eating barbecued chicken or they are from downstate Illinois, and they are sitting on the senate oversight committee that wants to talk about the navigation on a drone and should we fund it for 2 more billion or not and they are like…

They’re like, "There's barbecue on that page…"

Yeah. They are just normal, flawed human beings. I mean basically we should have a dictator and we’d be all better off.

You heard it here first.

 

Taking the hydro out of hydropower

Wed, 2015-04-08 02:00

California is facing its worst drought in a thousand years, according the state’s energy commission. The Snowpack in the Sierra Nevadas, which Northern California counts on to replenish reservoirs, is 94% below average.  So what happens when there's less water for hydropower?  

Normally, hydropower fuels 15%, on average, of California’s energy needs, primarily in the northern half of the state.  (The state's Energy commission puts the figure at between 14% and 19%) So with less hydro? “It almost cuts it in half,” says Heather Cooley, director of the Water Program at the non-profit Pacific Institute.  She estimates hydropower's contribution dropped to around 8%. 

 This has meant that over the past few years, California has had to turn to dirtier energy sources to make up for the loss.

 “Generating this electricity from other sources increased greenhouse emissions by up to 8 %,” says Cooley.

Hydropower is cheap, so replacing it has also cost the state.  Cooley estimates Californians have paid $1.4 billion extra for their power over the last three years.  Robert Weisenmiller, chair of California’s Energy Commission, says these effects will persist into next year, costing Californians another $300 million. 

“We will have somewhat dirtier air, somewhat higher prices of power, but the lights will stay on,” he says. Blackouts are not in the cards. 

For farmers in the central valley, Weisenmiller says “it’s a double whammy – higher energy prices and...less farming.”  Some farmers will have to spend more on energy to pump groundwater. 

California’s aggressive move towards renewables has, however, cushioned the blow.  “Solar and wind has more or less doubled, two and half times between 2012 and 2014,” says Weisenmiller. Without that, he says, emissions would be worse. 

How much is that MBA paying off

Wed, 2015-04-08 01:00
$69 billion

 That's how much Royal Dutch Shell is paying for another huge natural gas and oil company BG group. BG provides a lot of the liquefied natural gas in America, and, once closed, this deal will be the second biggest ever, after Exxon's acquisition of Mobil in the late 1990s.

 

47 percent

 This is the percentage of car expenses for Uber, according to a company called Certify that processes expense reports for other companies. That's up from 15 percent March last year, thanks to the convenient app that eliminate the process of filing for reimbursements. A win-win situation for employees, companies, and of course, Uber.  

 

$200 million

 That's how much Nestlé, the Swiss food giant plans to spend in growing its flavored water production in America, according to the Wall Street Journal.Sales of water have grown rapidly and could overtake carbonated soft drinks by volume in the U.S. by 2017, according to the Beverage Marketing Corp. Nestlé is doubling down on this trend on launching more flavored version of its sparkling water, a healthier alternative to soda. 

 

1 percent

 The quit rate for disabled Microsoft employees hired in food service, transportation and events. Now the tech giant is expanding its efforts to hire more diverse workers by recruiting people with autism for 10 full-time positions.

 

$47,000

 The median pay bump MBAs enjoyed after earning their degree and earning their degree, according to a Bloomberg survey  People who switched fields after getting their MBA saw an even bigger raise.

 

54 percent

 That's how many non-working people said they're staying out of the workforce for family reasons, according to a poll New York Times, CBS News and Kaiser Family Foundation. The Upshot explores the work/family balance in Silicon Valley, where the tension can be most severe.

Curiosity changed Brian Grazer's life

Tue, 2015-04-07 13:43

Academy Award-winning producer Brian Grazer worked on films like “Apollo 13” and “Splash” but he’s also behind hit TV shows like “24” and most recently, “Empire.”

Grazer says much of his success comes from an expert ability to ask the right questions, and he’s put together a book with some of his best conversations. Called “A Curious Mind: The Secret to a Bigger Life,” Grazer's new book isn't so much of a how-to guide as it is a how-to-ask-the-right-questions guide.

When he was young, Grazer’s grandmother praised him for his curiosity and knack for asking good questions. “And I realized I should apply that to every part of my life,” he says. “It made me more than a nobody, it made me someone who was knowledgeable about a lot of different subjects.”

Grazer went on a quest to find experts he could learn from.

“Every two weeks, almost as a religion, or like a religion, I would go meet somebody who was an expert in any of those areas just to ask questions and dig inside what could be the truth of what they’re doing,” he says.   

Early on, he was able to make his way into the office of legendary studio executive Lew Wasserman.

“He went into his office and got a pad of paper and a 2H pencil, and said put the pencil to the paper and it has more value than it did as separate parts,” says Grazer.

Grazer took Wasserman’s advice and not long thereafter, he wrote “Splash.” 

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