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Google and other tech companies reported earnings this week, amid fears of another tech bubble bursting. (Getty Images)

Tech Week: Earnings, A Heartbleed Arrest And Digital Distraction

Apr 19, 2014

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There was really only one tech story last week — the potentially disastrous Heartbleed bug. This week, we return to more of a panoply of tech-related news, starting with NPR stories in the ICYMI section, the broader topics in the industry in The Big Conversation and fun links you shouldn't miss in Curiosities.


Digital Distraction Remedies: Is a backlash beginning ... in favor of the physical world? Kids, gamers and restaurant-goers are finding ways to step away from smartphones and reconnect the old-fashioned way. Laura Sydell introduced us to Ingress, a video game that gets people to connect in person. Steve Henn's daughter reminded us that in some cases, parents are too distracted by devices and ignoring their kids. And the service industry says put those phones away and just enjoy breaking bread together, in a piece I reported on Monday.

Big Conversation

Tech Earnings: The tech bubble 2.0 questions keep swirling, and stocks started tumbling even before Google reported its numbers, which were disappointing to Wall Street despite 19 percent revenue growth. Yahoo performed relatively better in the eyes of investors, thanks to its stake in Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba, which is poised for an IPO. More companies will be releasing numbers in the next couple of weeks, so as Time notes, it will all be interesting to watch.

Heartbleed Hacker Charged: It was a vulnerability that someone skilled could exploit, and law enforcement believe they found at least one guy who did. A 19-year-old Canadian student was arrested for allegedly exploiting the Heartbleed vulnerability to steal taxpayer data from as many as 900 Canadians. And researchers say an attacker used the bug to break into a major corporation.


The Verge: The Inventor of Everything

This profile introduces you to Mike Cheiky, a darkside version of Elon Musk. "He is either the world's most unheralded genius, or he's criminally insane," a former colleague says of Cheiky.

Wall Street Journal: Bitcoin Creator Satoshi Nakamoto 'Unmasked'...Again?

It wasn't that long ago that Newsweek caused a tempest over its claim that a man living in LA named S. Nakamoto was the father of the digital currency. He denies it and may sue. Now, a linguistic analysis points the finger at Nick Szabo, "a well known name in cryptography circles," the Journal reports. Szabo has also denied being Nakamoto.

Engadget: 'Wearable eyes' take all the work out of having emotions

A Japanese professor has designed a high-tech version of those novelty spectables with eyes drawn on them. "The digital eyes blink when you nod or shake your head, look up when you tilt your head down and (best of all) it stays open even while you doze off ... ," the tech blog says. They're designed "to make you look friendlier and less socially awkward than you actually are."

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Wal-Mart is promising to drive down the prices of organic food by bringing in a new company, WildOats, to deliver a whole range of additional products. (Wal-Mart/Flickr)

Can Wal-Mart Really Make Organic Food Cheap For Everyone?

Apr 19, 2014

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It could be another milestone in organic food's evolution from crunchy to commercial: Wal-Mart, the king of mass retailing, is promising to "drive down organic food prices" with a new line of organic food products. The new products will be at least 25 percent cheaper than organic food that's on Wal-Mart's shelves right now.

Yet we've heard this before. Back in 2006, Wal-Mart made a similar announcement, asking some of its big suppliers to deliver organic versions of popular food items like mac-and-cheese. A Wal-Mart executive said at the time that it hoped these organic products would cost only 10 percent more than the conventional alternative.

Wal-Mart has, in fact, become a big player in organic food, with some remarkable cost-cutting successes. At the new Wal-Mart just a few blocks from NPR's headquarters, I found some organic grape tomatoes on sale for exactly the same price as conventional ones. Organic "spring mix" salad was just 9 percent more expensive than the conventional package.

Outside the fresh produce section, though, organic products were hard to find, and those I did spy were significantly more expensive. Organic diced tomatoes were 44 percent higher. The premium for a half-gallon of organic milk was a whopping 85 percent.

Now Wal-Mart is bringing in a new company, WildOats, to deliver a whole range of additional organic products, from pasta sauce to cookies, and do it more cheaply.

I asked the CEO of WildOats, Tom Casey, how he plans to do it. His answer, in a nutshell: Bigger can be better.

The production and distribution of organic food is still highly fragmented, Casey says. Wal-Mart can change that, delivering organic products in through its "world-class distribution system" and giving manufacturers of, say, pasta sauce a chance to operate on a larger, more efficient scale.

Charles Benbrook, a long-time proponent of organic agriculture who's now with the Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources at Washington State University, thinks that this plan is realistic. Most organic producers have to use other companies' processing facilities, which also handle conventional food, Benbrook wrote in an e-mail. "This requires them to shut down, clean out the lines, segregate both incoming and outgoing product, and this all costs money," writes Benbrook.

According to Benbrook, larger production — to supply larger customers — will allow organic food processors to run "100 percent organic all the time" and will cut costs by 20 to 30 percent. This has already happened with packaged salad greens, which is why consumers don't pay very much extra for those organic products.

Benbrook does have one warning: Large scale can't be achieved overnight. It takes at least three years for farmers to get their land certified as organic, for instance. "There will be hell to pay if Wal-Mart turns mostly to imports, and they know it."

If Wal-Mart sticks with this effort and creates an organic supply chain that's as efficient as the conventional one, the company could help answer an unresolved question about organic food: How much of the organic price tag is because of small-scale production, and how much is inherent in the rules that govern organic production, such as the prohibition on synthetic pesticides, and industrial fertilizer?

Benbrook thinks Wal-Mart's experiment will show that organic farmers, if given an honest chance to compete, will out-produce their conventional neighbors, and that organic prices will come down.

Others disagree. Todd J. Kluger, vice president of marketing for Lundberg Family Farms, told Rodale News in an interview that Wal-Mart's goal of producing food 25 percent more cheaply is "fantasy. There isn't much you can do to cut the cost of organic ingredients," Kluger said.

In the same interview, Mark Kastel, an organic activist who co-founded the Cornucopia Institute, suggested that Wal-Mart's cost-cutting drive could undermine the ethical values of organic farming. "One of the reasons people are willing to pay more is that they think they're supporting a different ethic, a different animal husbandry model, and that family farmers are being fairly compensated," Kastel says.

According to Kastel, organic buyers will shy away from the kind of large-scale supply chain that Wal-Mart and WildOats envision. "We want to know where our food comes from, how it's produced, and what the story behind the label is," he told Rodale News.

Tom Casey, CEO of WildOats, says that the company has not yet decided whether it will disclose where it is buying its food. (That's pretty typical for supermarket brands.) "We want to be respectful of our suppliers," he told The Salt.

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A GDI Hyundai Genesis is on display at the New York International Auto Show in New York, USA (DPA /LANDOV)

Episode 533: Why Cars From Europe and the US Just Can't Get Along

Apr 18, 2014

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When a car is sold in the United States, the safety features on that car — the airbags, the bumper — they are built to US safety standards. There is a different set of standards in Europe. To sell a Jeep Wrangler in Europe, Chrysler has to redesign and replace a bunch of seemingly random parts of the car.

The Europeans have the same issue. The new Volkswagen Golf R is driving on the autobahns in Berlin, but not yet in the US. Before the car can come to the US, the German company has to manufacture the car for a completely different set of safety regulations.

Today on the show: why can't you build a car that can be driven anywhere in the world?

Music: Crash Test Dummies's "Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm." Find us: Twitter/ Facebook/ Spotify/ Tumblr. Download the Planet Money iPhone App.

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Abhina Aher was born a boy biologically and is now a hijra, a member of an ancient transgender community in India. Of her painful physical and psychological transformation, Aher remembers now: "I just wanted to become a beautiful butterfly." (NPR)

A Journey Of Pain And Beauty: On Becoming Transgender In India

Apr 18, 2014 (All Things Considered)

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Aher dances during an event observing World AIDS Day in New Delhi on Dec. 2, 2012. Of the recent legal ruling, recognizing transgender Indians as a third gender, she says: "We have put a foot inside a door, which is a door of hope, and we will open it -- very, very soon." Aher attends a national conference on HIV-AIDS in New Delhi on July 4, 2011. Unlike many other hijras, she holds a conventional job as a project manager with an HIV-AIDS group.

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The signs came early that Abhina Aher was different.

Born a boy biologically and given the male name Abhijit, Aher grew up in a middle-class neighborhood of Mumbai, India. The son of a single mother who nurtured a love of dance, Aher would watch enthralled as she performed.

"I used to wear the clothes that my mother used to wear — her jewelry, her makeup," Aher, now 37, recalls. "That is something which used to extremely fascinate me."

Draped in a bright sari, gold earrings and painted nails, Aher is, by outward appearance, a female, preferring to be addressed as a woman.

She has undertaken a long and arduous journey, rejecting her biological sex and opting to become a hijra — a member of an ancient transgender community in India, popularly referred to as eunuchs.

This week, India's Supreme Court handed down a landmark ruling for hijras and other transgender Indians, by recognizing a third gender under the law that is neither male nor female. The sweeping decision redefines their rights and the state's obligation to them as one of India's most marginalized groups.

Aher has felt that marginalization from a young age.

With his mother working as a clerk in the state government, Aher was raised by a maid who indulged the fantasies of an only child, including a fascination with a mother's jingling anklets.

"I was mesmerized by that. When I used to be at home, I used to have grand performances, calling all the neighbors and dancing in front of them and putting up a show exactly replicating what my mother is doing on the stage," Aher remembers. "One fine day, she just found out, and she got really mad about it. I was asked to sit in front of a god and make a pledge that I would never do that again."

'A Huge Feeling Of Incompleteness'

Things grew more complicated as Aher grew more effeminate and became the object of abuse — dragged into the school library, stripped and taunted by older male students. Aher's teacher was no source of comfort: She declared the tormentors were in the right.

"She said to me, 'Your friends are doing this to you because you are behaving in an extremely feminine way and that's what is an issue,' " Aher says.

To resolve the deepening complexities of the teenager's sexual identity, a psychiatrist prescribed sitting "in a dark room" and taking two Tylenol.

"Which we tried for some time — and my mother took me to a lot of saints and a lot of temples also to make sure that I came back to what I should be," Aher says.

Aher was told to behave more "manly," sever contact with girls who were a feminizing influence and wear male clothing. And Aher obliged so as not to bring shame on her mother.

"I had to do that for 10 to 15 years. I used to watch myself, how I walk, how I talk, how I behave, how I dressed, just to hide my sexuality, just to fit into the heterosexual world," Aher says. "I finished my education ... and started working as a software engineer. There was a huge feeling of incompleteness all the time — having something wrong with your body all the time, not being able to connect with your soul all the time."

Confused about what was happening, Aher attempted suicide three times — and survived each attempt.

"I could not die," Aher says. "And that was turning point in my life, because I thought that since I did not die, let me try to live now."

The strains with Aher's mother became so serious that while they lived under the same roof, the two did not speak for nine years.

All the while, Aher's desire to change gender was growing.

"My urge to become a woman was getting stronger inside me," she says.

Joining The Hijras

A sense of isolation drove Aher into the arms of a guru, or mentor, within a community of like-minded souls known as hijras, who dress up in saris and are enshrined in Indian literary epics. Regarded as auspicious, they are invited to bestow blessings at births and dance at weddings.

Today, hijras can also be aggressive, especially when not handed money as they wend their way through traffic, begging. Though visible in public, their world is often shrouded in secrecy.

"They like the mystique," says Aher, adding that initiation into the hijra community is full of rituals.

First, a hijra's earnings go to the guru. Then there's the physical transformation: As the male gender is cast off for the female, initiates cannot cut their hair or shave their faces. Traditional "pluckers" from the hijra community pluck all the hair from initiates' faces. They then start going out in public as females.

Joining this group that traces its roots back to antiquity is not something to be taken lightly.

"It's no joke," Aher says solemnly.

It can be psychologically and physically traumatic; there's body-altering hormone treatment, often followed by operations to reassign sexual organs.

And the changes are costly. Aher says a breast augmentation operation alone can cost about $1,000 — a considerable amount in India. Castration surgeries cost a similar amount. Aher says she became a sex worker to help finance her transformation.

The physical toll is high as well.

"After the castration, you cannot work for 1 1/2 month. It was not an easy task, it was a journey of pain," Aher says now, with a laugh. "I just wanted to become a beautiful butterfly."

Castration is a dangerous business, and Aher says many members of the hijra community don't survive the procedure.

"It happens in a dingy room, 10 by 10 probably. Immediately after castration, within two hours, the hijra is told to leave that place, because it's illegal," Aher says. "The operations are normally done by quacks, and lots of hijras died because of that."

The UNDP reports that in some Indian states, up to 40 percent of hijras are said to be infected with HIV as they resort to selling sex to survive. They have long been discriminated against in jobs, housing and education. Aher is one of the lucky ones; she is a full-time staff member of the the Indian HIV-AIDS Alliance. But she also recalls being turned away by 17 hotels while on a business trip in the Indian state of Kerala, one of the country's most progressive.

'A Door Of Hope'

This week's Supreme Court ruling making a third gender for India's transgender population is a milestone for this conservative country that still regards homosexuality as a criminal offense.

The colonial-era law makes gay sex a crime in India and is also used to threaten or extort money from hijras — under the same prohibition on any sexual activity that is not "procreative" in nature.

Next week, the Supreme Court will hear arguments on the British-era penal code.

Aher says the fight is not over.

"What we have done is we have put a foot inside a door, which is a door of hope, and we will open it — very, very soon," she says.

But as well-established as the hijras may be, they are still regarded by many Indians with discomfort and derision. Ridding society of stigmas and superstitions will be the true test of the hijras' hard-fought recognition.

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Attorney General Eric Holder (right) recently expressed outrage at the treatment President Obama and he have received from conservatives. He stopped just short of saying it was race-related, leaving that for the African-American audience at the recent National Action Network convention to decide. (AP)

Are Democrats Trying To Energize The Base With The Race Card?

Apr 18, 2014

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Aher dances during an event observing World AIDS Day in New Delhi on Dec. 2, 2012. Of the recent legal ruling, recognizing transgender Indians as a third gender, she says: "We have put a foot inside a door, which is a door of hope, and we will open it -- very, very soon." Aher attends a national conference on HIV-AIDS in New Delhi on July 4, 2011. Unlike many other hijras, she holds a conventional job as a project manager with an HIV-AIDS group.

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Few mixtures in American life are more emotionally combustible than the one formed by the combination of politics and race.

That helps explain why Democrats, in general, and President Obama, in particular, have tended to steer clear of overtly raising race as an issue to explain some of the opposition to Obama's presidency and agenda.

There seems to be a shift in recent days, however.

Top Democratic party officials have either directly or indirectly blamed race for some of the hostility to Obama, his policies, or both.

Rep. Nancy Pelosi, the House Democratic leader from California, and New York Rep. Steve Israel, who heads the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, both cited racism, pure and simple, among some Republicans as explanations for the House GOP's resistance to legislation that would comprehensively overhaul the nation's immigration laws.

Meanwhile, Attorney General Eric Holder took a slightly subtler approach. Speaking to the National Action Network, the largely African-American civil rights group founded by the Rev. Al Sharpton, Holder suggested some Republicans had a racial animus toward the president and himself.

"The last five years have been defined by significant strides and by lasting reforms even in the face, even in the face of unprecedented, unwarranted, ugly and divisive adversity," Holder said.

"If you don't believe that, you look at the way — forget about me, forget about me — you look at the way the attorney general of the United States was treated yesterday by a House committee. It had nothing to do with me, forget about that. What attorney general has ever had to deal with that kind of treatment? What president has ever had to deal with that kind of treatment?"

All of this has led to accusations that Holder, Pelosi and Israel are themselves guilty of playing the race card.

The attorney general later pointedly stated that he never explicitly said race explained the political right's treatment of him or the president. Instead, he said his complaint was about Washington's growing incivility.

What Holder demonstrated is that just as those on the right can use dog whistle politics to motivate their base, those on the left can also send messages that are heard a certain way by theirs.

It's a safe bet, for instance, that many African-Americans who heard or read Holder's words didn't doubt he was talking about race. And he did it without ever uttering the R-word like Pelosi and Israel.

Is this partly about activating minority voters during a midterm election year in which Democrats stand a good chance of losing the Senate if their voters don't go to the polls in numbers? Could be.

When Obama has been on the ballot, minority voters, especially African-Americans, didn't need much more motivation than that to vote. But a midterm election when he's not on the ballot is different.

Social scientists who have studied voters have found that voter participation rises when voters are emotionally engaged.

For some voters, suggestions that some of the opposition to Obama and his policies is more than just honest disagreement — and is indeed racially based — could help do the trick.

The Democrats' use of voting rights strikes the same chord. Voting rights and race have been so inextricably linked in the nation's history, and in the African-American experience, that Obama can send a resonant message to many minority voters without ever explicitly mentioning race.

He did exactly that when he spoke to the same Sharpton group as Holder, a few days after the attorney general.

Obama portrayed Republican voter ID efforts as attempts to undo civil and voting rights protections enacted during the Johnson administration — protections won at the price of blood.

That those Johnson-era laws were needed to counter racist laws and practices that prevented blacks from voting, especially in the South, could go unsaid before an audience well-steeped in that racial history.

"You think about Brown v. Board of Education, and the Civil Rights Act, and the Voting Rights Act, and Freedom Summer," Obama said. "And with those anniversaries, we have new reason to remember those who made it possible for us to be here." He mentioned three civil rights workers who became famous after they were killed registering Mississippi blacks to vote.

"James Chaney and Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner believed so strongly that change was possible they were willing to lay down their lives for it," Obama said. "The least you can do is take them up on the gift that they have given you. Go out there and vote. You can make a change. You do have the power."

"People died so you can vote" is a powerful emotional appeal. Come November, we'll see if it was powerful enough.

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