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Chef Grant Achatz places one of the many courses on a server's tray in the Alinea restaurant kitchen in Chicago in 2008. In 2012, the restaurant got rid of reservations and started selling tickets. Earlier this summer, the company announced how effective it's been. (AP)

Want To Dine Out? You May Need To Buy Tickets — Or Bid On A Table

by Alexis Madrigal
Sep 2, 2014 (Fresh Air)

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Restaurant reservations are changing with technology -- now some restaurants are selling prepaid tickets, while others are considering holding auctions.

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The practice of making a restaurant reservation, outside of a tiny minority of extra snooty places, is egalitarian. Tables are given on a first-to-reserve basis, and then, at the appointed time, diners are directed to their seats and the meal begins.

But reservation technology is changing, led by a new set of companies and some of the hottest chefs in America. And as they offer alternatives to the standard method of reserving a table, the new technological possibilities force us to examine a cultural practice that first got going in 18th century France.

OpenTable, a company that solely provides restaurant reservations on the Web, was sold to Priceline.com for $2.6 billion in June. That's because OpenTable's reservation system is used by 30,000 restaurants across the United States. Fifteen million people sit down at a table booked through the site each month.

But OpenTable is only the beginning of what an enterprising restaurant technologist might cook up. It merely replicates the existing system of the restaurant reservation online. And while that does change some things — for one, it's easier for patrons to make and cancel reservations, as well as to see all the restaurants who could seat two on Friday at 8 p.m. — that technology doesn't challenge the basic idea of the convention.

For that, we can look to Grant Achatz, the chef behind Alinea, Chicago's entry for best restaurant in the country. In August of 2012, Alinea got rid of reservations. Instead, they started selling tickets. And earlier this summer, Nick Kokonas, Achatz's business partner and the driving force behind the ticketing system, revealed exactly how effective it's been.

On one side of the equation, Kokonas says that ticketing makes sense for the restaurant. At Alinea, people prepay for the prix fixe meal they're going to eat. So, having already spent the money, almost everybody who books shows up. They've also massively reduced the labor needed to take reservations for a restaurant that popular. So, altogether, the ticketing system has increased the restaurant's earnings by 38 percent.

The Alinea partners aren't the only ones going to ticketing. There are a several more elite chefs who've decided to follow suit. Kokonas told me that they're forming a new company to commercialize their software, and are testing it in 20 restaurants in seven cities this year, with plans to roll it out widely in 2015.

Other restaurants are even pondering auctions for tables, selling them off to the highest bidder. And even though Alinea doesn't do that, bidding already occurs for Alinea tickets on other websites.

But tickets are one thing. A new ethics-challenging startup called ReservationHop is another. In its initial form, ReservationHop booked tables at popular restaurants under assumed names, and then sold those reservations on its website. It's not as if restaurants have always dealt in equity and justice, but something about the bogusness of the operation sent San Francisco, a city torn apart by the flow of tech money, into paroxysms. This wasn't even good for the restaurants! Wired senior writer Mat Honan tweeted, "This is irresponsible and sleazy and exactly what people hate about startups sucking the life out of San Francisco."

Other people said that there shouldn't be a market in everything. That reservations should be first come, first serve, like always.

And maybe that's true. But one consequence of the ease with which information and money flow around the digital world is that it is easy to create a ticketing system, it's easy to create an auction system, and it's easy to create a restaurant reservation scalping system. Things that would have been incredibly difficult in the offline world are simple online.

What OpenTable, Alinea's ticketing system, and ReservationHop do, specifically, is very different. But they're connected by the notion of extreme convenience, and using that convenience as a tool to pry people away from established notions and old habits.

While I think what OpenTable and Alinea do has real value for people, many new technology-enabled services are so convenient that people don't even stop to ask if what they do is good for local businesses or communities. Instead, the apps often escape close scrutiny because they make things so easy that they feel right.

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of The Atlantic.com, where he also oversees the technology channel, and a visiting scholar at Berkeley's Center for Science, Technology, Medicine and Society.

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Dana Goldstein has reported on education for several years, including in The Atlantic and The Daily Beast. (Courtesy of Doubleday)

A Lesson In How Teachers Became 'Resented And Idealized'

Sep 2, 2014 (Fresh Air)

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As students return to school, the national dialogue on controversies surrounding teacher tenure, salaries, the core curriculum, testing and teacher competence will get more fervent.

In her new book, The Teacher Wars, Dana Goldstein writes about how teaching became "the most controversial profession in America," and how teachers have become both "resented and idealized."

In the New York Times, critic Alexander Nazaryan described the book as "meticulously fair and disarmingly balanced." Although it's largely a history, it also draws on Goldstein's reporting on recent controversies surrounding teaching.

"One of the things I noticed, especially after the recession hit in 2008 and coming into President Obama's administration, was we were having a big national conversation about inequality," Goldstein tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "And teaching was something that was discussed again and again as a potential fix — a fix for inequality, something that could help poor children achieve like middle-class children and close these socioeconomic gaps that we're so concerned about as a nation."

For the book, Goldstein researched 200 years of teaching in America.

"What surprised me ... was that we've always had these high expectations," she says. "This idea that teachers have a role to play in fighting poverty and inequality has been with us since the early 19th century."


Interview Highlights

On how teaching became a woman's profession

A lot of people are surprised to learn that back in 1800, 90 percent of American teachers were actually male. Today we know that actually 76 percent of [them are] female, so how did this huge flip happen?

The answer is that as school reformers began to realize in the 1820s that schooling should be compulsory — that parents should be forced to send their kids to school, and public education should be universal — they had to come up with a way to do this basically in an affordable manner, because raising taxes was just about as unpopular back then as it is now. So what we see is this alliance between politicians and education reformers in the early 19th century to redefine teaching as a female profession.

They do this in a couple ways: First, they argue that women are more moral in a Christian sense than men. They depict men as alcoholic, intemperate, lash-wielding, horrible teachers who are abusive to children. They make this argument that women can do a better job because they're more naturally suited to spend time with kids, on a biological level. Then they are also quite explicit about the fact that [they] can pay women about 50 percent as much — and this is going to be a great thing for the taxpayer.

On the role of education in the African-American community post-Civil War

Teaching represents everything to the African-American community after the Civil War. It is the means by which the children and grandchildren of slaves are going to be able to better themselves — the phrase that's often used is to "uplift the race" — teachers will uplift the race through their work.

Because there was so much discrimination against African-Americans in the broader job market, you see that both African-American men and women, the most educated blacks, do want to teach. [Like white women], it is a missionary job for them as well, but it's much more gender neutral, and it really carries with it a huge significance for what we today would think of as closing achievement gaps.

On the legacy of the African-American teaching mission

One of the wonderful surprises in researching this book was [that] so much of today's education reform conversation is actually borrowed directly from the African-American educational theorists who were writing as early as the Civil War about the power of education. These people — folks like Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. Du Bois, Anna Julia Cooper, Charlotte Forten — these teachers, these educators, truly believed that education could close socioeconomic gaps between blacks and whites, and they were holding black students to rigorous standards. ... These different black educators really felt that the role of the teacher was to uplift poor children — and that is something that has truly stuck with us today.

On arguments for and against standardized testing

The biggest argument for testing is that it allows us to see achievement gaps. For example, because of No Child Left Behind, we can really see for the first time how are our African-American children performing compared to white kids? How are poor children [testing] compared to middle-class kids? What about our special [education] kids? What about our immigrant children who are still learning English? It's very important to have research and data on important questions like this, so I support gathering this data from a research perspective.

I think the big argument against testing is that when you incentivize adults to raise students' test scores, you see a number of effects on kids that don't get talked about as much as they should. You see the curriculum narrowing — so on those things that we don't test, we don't focus on them because the adults are so focused on getting the kids to score better on the test. Especially in high-poverty schools, you see test prep become the de facto curriculum.

And even recently, the secretary of education, Arne Duncan, ... said this testing push is "sucking the oxygen out of the room" in many schools. ... It was really astounding because since 2009, the Obama administration has been pushing this testing stuff.

On tenure and why it's controversial

Tenure is so controversial because it provides greater job security than almost any other American who is not a teacher has. ... People say, "I don't have this sort of protection. If my boss wants to fire me, he can just come in on Monday and just fire me. Why should teachers deserve that?" I do think there are some good arguments why, but often the conversation gets boiled down to something very simplistic.

Tenure dates back to 1909, and at the time it was something that school reformers and teachers unions actually agreed about. They looked over at the Prussian, the German education system, which was very admired in the United States at the time. And they noticed that teachers there had more job security — and that the low pay that teachers earned was offset by the promise of due process, the promise that you could hold onto your job for a long time and that you would get a pension at the end when you retired.

School reformers and unions wanted to bring this system to the United States, especially because at the time it was not unusual for teachers to be laid off or fired for very bad reasons, such as they were pregnant, they were black, they didn't get along with the mayor — these were all very typical occurrences back then.

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Video Purports To Show Beheading Of U.S. Journalist

by The Associated Press
Sep 2, 2014 (Here & Now / WBUR-FM)

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An Internet video purports to show the beheading of U.S. journalist Steven Sotloff by the Islamic State group.

Sotloff, who freelanced for Time and Foreign Policy magazines, had last been seen in Syrian in August 2013 until he appeared in a video released online last month by the Islamic State group that showed the beheading of fellow American journalist James Foley.

Dressed in an orange jumpsuit against the backdrop of an arid Syrian landscape, Sotloff was threatened in that video with death unless the U.S. stopped airstrikes on the group in Iraq.

In the video distributed Tuesday and entitled “A Second Message to America,” Sotloff appears in a similar jumpsuit before he is beheaded by an Islamic State fighter.

Jim Walsh, an expert in international security at MIT's Security Studies Program,joinsHere & Now'sRobin Young to discuss these developments.

Guest

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BadBadNotGood. (Courtesy of the artist)

BadBadNotGood On World Cafe

Sep 2, 2014 (WBUR-FM)

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The instrumental hip-hop band BadBadNotGood released its third record, called ///, earlier this year. World Cafe host David Dye sat down with the Toronto-based trio to discuss its first album of original material.

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Gugu Mbatha-Raw stars in Beyond The Lights, from Gina Prince-Bythewood, who also directed Love & Basketball. (TIFF)

It's That Time Again: The Toronto International Film Festival

Sep 2, 2014 (WBUR-FM)

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It's that time again, and by "that time," I mean "Canadian time." Because beginning Thursday, NPR's own Bob Mondello and I, along with Bilal Qureshi of All Things Considered,, will be spending a week seeing movies at the Toronto International Film Festival, which your movie-nerd friends call "TIFF."

I wrote last year about the basic rhythms of the festival — its hugely packed schedule and colorful grids and huge collection of respected directors and actors. When I look at the 10 films I watched in the first two days last year, it's remarkable to me how much I've forgotten some of them. I didn't even remember I'd seen The Fifth Estate, particularly, until I reminded myself that I did. Some of them, on the other hand, echoed over and over as I talked about film for the following year: The Past, Jodorowsky's Dune, and the charmer The Lunchbox (which I still hope you'll see, if you haven't).

This year's schedule is just as enticing and hard to pin down. My Day 1 currently includes Whiplash, a drama starring Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons; Mr. Turner, directed by Mike Leigh; The Voices, directed by graphic novelist Marjane Satrapi; Girlhood, directed by Celine Sciamma, about a group of black high school students in Paris; and at least one player to be named later. And that's if I stick to the plan. I usually don't stick to the plan.

I've weeded out a couple of films about which you'll see TIFF coverage simply because they're opening so soon after we get back that I'll just see them then — first among them This Is Where I Leave You, based on a Jonathan Tropper novel I love and starring Tina Fey, Jason Bateman and Adam Driver, among others. I'm excited about the film, but the regular press screening is just after we return, so it's a small jump on the movie if any, and I'd rather take that time to seek out something less accessible from D.C.

I'm scheduled to gamble on Jason Reitman's Men, Women & Children, despite being less than blown away by Labor Day last year. I'm eager enough to see Anna Kendrick in The Last Five Years that I accidentally added it to my schedule twice. I have no idea whether Ruth & Alex, starring Diane Keaton and Morgan Freeman, is any good, but I'm not sure I can resist the pairing. And do not think for one moment you are keeping me away from Beyond The Lights, the new romance from Gina Prince-Bythewood, who made 2000's delicate and deeply felt Love & Basketball.

It goes on from there: Chris Rock! Noah Baumbach! And, oh yes, Rosewater, which kept Jon Stewart out of the Daily Show chair long enough to allow for the rise of John Oliver.

Two years ago, I wrote up every movie I saw individually and almost broke my fingers from typing; I'm unlikely to do that again. But I'll bring you roundups and updates and whatever interesting business breaks while I'm there. Feel free to peruse the listings and make recommendations; maybe your pick will be a player to be named later.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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