Marketplace Tech®

with Ben Johnson

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Hosted by Ben Johnson, this daily "journal of the Digital Age" airs during broadcasts of Minnesota Public Radio's Morning Edition.

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Will Twitter's midlife crisis bring a fancy new CEO?

The pressure is on Twitter's interim CEO, Jack Dorsey ahead of the company's earning reports. Many are wondering whether Dorsey's is fully committed to his role after his other company, Square, reportedly filed for an IPO confidentially. We talk with Will Oremus, Senior Tech Writer at Slate, about Jack Dorsey and the once and future challenges of the company. 

Click the media player above to hear host Ben Johnson in conversation with Will Oremus.

"I think this is a rare case where a new CEO might actually have a chance to make a difference," says Oremus, due to the fact that the company is in a transitional period. "In startup years, Twitter's kind of having a midlife crisis. It went through the big early boom years. It started to mature and make money, but now it really has to grow into something much bigger if it's going to satisfy investors."

The dual challenges facing Twitter are to grow advertising and users, says Oremus — Falling short of expectations after its IPO that Twitter would be the next Facebook, the company is now wanting to focus more on reach than number of active tweeters. 

In light of this shift, Oremus points to Twitter's new initiative, Project Lightening, as a potential opportunity to pivot Twitter from a ubiquitous social media site to more of a media platform. Project Lightening allows users to "to follow events and then you'll see tweets curated by human editors with the help of software so you won't have to be a pro Twitter user to log in and see what's going on."

With anxious investors, a revolving door of CEOs, and a need to re-think Twitter's role in the digital media sphere, Oremus says, "the Twitter board really wants someone who can put his whole life into this role." 

While Oremus says the challenge of ousting Dorsey is that he is such a popular figure within the company, Twitter has to do some serious soul searching to overcome the ghosts of Twitter past and re-position itself for a new Twitter future. 






Music-making and dysfunctional technology

As part of a series about music technology called "Noise Makers," we're talking to musicians about their favorite noise-making device. For this week's installment we talked with experimental composer Sabisha Friedberg ahead of her performance for the Issue Project Room. 

Sabisha Friedberg's music is planned very carefully. As she puts it, "if something is very well placed and thought out a kind of magic can happen."

Magic and unexpected occurrences are the focal point of her recent double-LP entitled The Haunt Variance. About the record, Friedberg says, "much of it is about things that seem to manifest as apparitions that one doesn't intend. It's the idea of a haunted space and entities that end up coming through the mechanics in the electronic equipment like phantoms that you don't expect."

Click the media player above to hear Sabisha Friedberg talk about working with imperfect technology to make music.

She remembers how this electronic equipment, specifically tape machines and frequency generators, "were my early toys, in fact. So, I played with disused reel-to-reel tape machines and the frequency generators I've inherited from people."

In her performances, Friedberg continues to revive instruments, and even sources her equipment from a Russian mechanic in Coney Island. Through her dysfunctional equipment and rigorous planning, Friedberg creates music with a controlled chaos and haunting ambiance.

More information on Sabisha Friedberg and her recent double-LP can be found at the Issue Project Room website.



Game over for Hollywood video game tie-ins

Pixels, a film debuting this weekend, features a rag tag team of gamers fighting against giant arcade game characters, like Pac-Man, who are attacking planet earth. And along with the movie, there are two free apps based on the flick where you can essentially play Pac-Man, Centipede, and Frogger.

This summer also saw a $50 Jurassic World console video game using the Lego game brand. So, why all the video game spin-offs of Hollywood movies? Marketplace's Molly Wood talks with Adrienne Hill about these video game tie-ins ... and their spectacular failures.

Click the media player above to hear more.

According to Hill, we've had video game tie-ins "almost as long as we've had video games. Back in the arcade days, even." However, Hill says, "a lot of these games have been average or really bad." 

One such game was the ET game for the Atari 2600. It was so bad, it's credited with being part of the reason the industry tanked in the 80's. Jon-Paul Dyson, the director of the International Center for the History of Electronic Games at the Stong Museum of Play, reveals the story behind the ET game:

"The developer Howard Scott Warshaw had only about a month to translate this movie into a console game for the Atari 2600, which was the most popular video game console of the time. And it was really an impossible task. It was the story of this alien trying to make his way home. There was not really the battles or other things people knew how to make for video games at the time"

The disaster of the ET game reveals a lot about why movie tie-in games still struggle. Hill explains that the "developers don’t have enough time to work in these games. They often don't have the budget that a really good game requires because these things don't ever sell great." Also to blame? The games often seem more like a marketing ploy than an attempt at making a quality game. 

With video games becoming more cinematic than ever and movies using graphics to create virtual worlds, it might be game over for video game tie-ins.


Silicon Tally: Kickstarting the Smithsonian

It's time for Silicon Tally! How well have you kept up with the week in tech news? 

This week, we're joined by Tom Merritt, host of the Daily Tech News Show.

Click the media player above to play along.


Homejoy shuts its doors

At the end of July, the on-demand cleaning start-up Homejoy will shut down in the wake of lawsuits challenging the company's classification of workers as contractors rather than employees. It's a familiar story that has affected companies like Uber, Lyft, and Handy.

Click the media player above to hear Marketplace's Molly Wood talk with Christopher Koopman, research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, about how this case signals to a change in the sharing economy. 

According to Koopman, the sharing economy's growth in recent years "has been driven by the fact that this isn’t a traditional business model and it isn't an employer and employee relationship." Yet, this is precisely the point of contention for the numerous lawsuits levied against Homejoy and others.

Companies in the sharing economy toe a dubious line between online platform, social network, and employer. Koopman maintains that "saying they're no longer a platform connecting people but in fact an employer could really spell doom for a lot of these companies like we're seeing with Homejoy."

In the wake of Google snatching up Homejoy's tech and product team, Koopman sees the future as especially bleak for small outfits if these organizations are deemed employers: "Only the largest and most deep pocketed firms are going to be the ones that are able to weather that storm. So you'll see firms like Uber, Lyft and the other really large players in the sharing economy likely survive. But this could be extremely difficult for the small startups."


Blue Cross Blue Shield will offer credit protection

Earlier this year, hackers broke into the database for Anthem Blue Cross Blue Shield – one of the nation’s largest insurers. The bad guys made off with personal information of nearly 80 million consumers.

By the start of next year, Blue Cross Blue Shield plans will offer credit monitoring and fraud detection to most of its collective 106 million members.

Doug Porter, Blue Cross Blue Shield Association's senior vice president of operations and chief information officer, says Blue Cross Blue Shield is making a major investment.

“We’re not doing this in lieu of other protections," he says. "It’s one more prong to make sure we have the protections from beginning to end.” 

Consumers have the choice to opt in for this service. Several information technology analysts say the measure could cost several hundred million dollars. While that may ultimately get baked into the price consumers pay, John Pescatore with the SANS Institute says it’s a wise move for the Blues.

“By offering these credit monitoring services, you are essentially working to limit your liability in the future," he says. "$350 million may sound like a lot of money, but a class action lawsuit may cost you more than that,” he says.

We may find out soon. Some 100 lawsuits have been filed against Anthem for its data breach and are being wrapped into a class action suit in California.


Silicon Tally: Amazon's tupperware party

It's time for Silicon Tally! How well have you kept up with the week in tech news? 

This week, we're joined by Alex Fitzpatrick, Deputy Tech Editor at Time.

Click the media player above to play along.


Neko Case talks about her favorite guitar

As part of a series about music technology called "Noise Makers," we're talking to musicians about their favorite noise-making device.

When asked about the most important gear she brings on tour, Neko Case immediately points to the 1960 Fender Jazzmaster. Previously, the guitar belonged to Case's favorite guitar player of all time, Pete Staples.

But more than its sentimental value, Case speaks of the guitar's lower register, which she says helps her with vocal tuning: "Low end is a really hard thing to capture at a live show sometimes, if you're singing. It's a vibration that's not that easy to make with your own body sometimes." 

Plus, she simply adores it. Short on superlatives, Case let her imagination run, describing it as "a sleek panther covered in maple syrup shaking in slow motion."

Click the media player above to hear Neko Case of the New Pornographers about her beloved 1960 Fender Jazzmaster.


Necessity driving Greeks to adopt web banking

After a deal that avoids a "Grexit" and a sudden banking collapse, Greek banks remained closed. Marketplace Tech host Ben Johnson spoke with Marketplace's Kai Ryssdal, who is reporting from Athens, about how Greeks are coping in uncertain times. 

Click the media player above to hear more.

"Make no mistake," Ryssdal says, "it's tough here. Unemployment is at 25 percent. If not for the tourists here in downtown Athens, I don't know what would be going on." But he also sees the resilience of Greeks, as "people are finding these coping mechanisms."

One of which has been there the whole time: online banking. Ryssdal, quoting Panayotis Alexakis, an economist from the University of Athens, explains that "it's a good thing there are capital controls in place, that the banks are closed because it's convincing people to switch to web banking." Alexakis himself switched to online banking.  

But people still need cash. In the images from Greece, there are lines of 20 or 30 people queuing up for the ATM to withdraw their daily 60 euros. However, Ryssdal has had people tell him how "they see people in front of them with 3 or 4 cards. Like they've been deputized by the family to go to the bank for that day and cycle the cards in and out and get as many euros out as they can."

Ryssdal concludes, "necessity drives invention, I guess." And whether the invention is rediscovering online banking or gaming the withdrawal limits to feed your family, Greeks on the ground "are doing what they got to do." 


Comcast courts cord-cutters with new streaming service

In August, Comcast's new T.V. streaming service called Stream will launch in Boston. Marketplace Tech host, Ben Johnson, talks with Lindsey Turrentine, Editor-in-Chief at, about the cable's company entry into the streaming market.

Click the media player above to hear more.

Turrentine says the new service "is obviously aimed at cord cutters." She maintains the cable giant's move to debut Stream in Boston is just as strategic as it is transparent: "It seems pretty obvious that they're trying to figure out what college students will do," alluding to the number of colleges in the Boston area. 

Comcast's Stream will be available to Xfinity customers and will give them access to about a dozen T.V. channels on their tablets, phones, and laptops. Stream also provides a DVR option to record shows onto the cloud. Turrentine believes that it "feels more like television." Apart from the fact that "it's not available on your television." 

In a time of expansion in the streaming service industry with services from Dish, HBO, Showtime, CBS, and more, Turrentine says Comcast "has got to have an answer" because "customers who are never onboarding as cable television subscribers will be totally lost to these services if cable companies do not figure out how to keep them."     

The test for college-aged Bostonians is whether they would want to add an extra monthly fee for 12 stations and a DVR. This is sounding a lot more like bunny ears and a VCR than a multi-platform video streaming experience. 



NASA's New Horizons mission to Pluto

Traveling for nearly ten years at a speed of 31,000 miles per hour, NASA's New Horizons spacecraft will fly by Pluto Tuesday morning. Adriene Hill talked with Alan Stern, a planetary scientist and Principal Investigator for New Horizons, about what to expect.

Click the media player above to hear Marketplace's Adriene Hill in conversation with Alan Stern.

Stern believes the New Horizons' fly by is "going to be spectacular." And at a price tag of upwards of $700 million, he maintains the cost is justifiable because it will make history: "No other country on Earth has been first to any planet. Let alone first to every planet, which is the case for NASA and the United States." 

The U.S. has not ventured into the interplanetary frontier since the Voyager 2's 1989 mission to Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. Stern sees this mission to the edges of our solar system as a chance to inspire "a new generation of people to turn a point of light into a planet right before their eyes."

And as for Pluto's demotion from planet status by astronomers, Stern defends the little guy, citing the fact that "it has all the attributes of other planet. Its atmosphere is bigger than Earth’s." He concludes, "What else would you call it?" 

NASA's latest mission might provide precisely the new horizon that both space exploration proponents and Pluto need; it just took almost 10 years and a trip to the end of the solar system to do so.   




Silicon Tally: Move glitch, get out the way

It's time for Silicon Tally! How well have you kept up with the week in tech news? 

This week, we're joined by Steve Kovach, Deputy Tech Editor at Business Insider.

Click the media player above to play along.


Chinese tech companies hit hard in stock crash

As China's stocks fall after a market boom earlier this year, Chinese tech companies are the worse off. We spoke with Chris Low, chief economist at FTN Financial, to find out why.

Click the media player above to hear Marketplace Tech host Ben Johnson in conversation with Chris Low, chief economist at FTN Financial.

According to Low, the Chinese state fueled much of the enthusiasm around China's stock market boom because it "looked like a terrific way of paying off debt by issuing new shares. So they absolutely encouraged it." 

Low explains that the stock market boom was seen as "another part of China's transition to a consumer driven economy and a way of sharing the wealth with the Chinese people." 

The center of the euphoria, Shenzhen, has been hit the hardest. Likened to the NASDAQ, the Shenzhen market has smaller, more entrepreneurial companies. At the height of the boom, these Shenzhen tech companies were the poster-children for entrepreneurialism and getting away from state owned enterprises. However, now  "they are faring worse" says Low. And they may need some help from the Chinese government.

Low predicts that the state "may step in and start buying shares." To explain, he compares the present situation to how "the old mainstream companies, the steel makers and the car makers were government owned enterprises" and says "so too the tech companies might become government owned enterprises."

In Low's opinion, this possibility reveals "one of the fundamental differences between China and the U.S. They don't have this reverence of private markets that we have." 



When messing with gear leads to music

As part of a series about music technology called "Noise Makers," we're talking to musicians about their favorite noise-making device. To kick the series off, Hrishikesh Hirway of the Song Exploder podcast, talks about what he's learned from interviewing musicians from bands like U2, Spoon, and the National.

In his podcast, Hrishikesh Hirway invites artists to break down a song layer by layer and tell the story behind its composition. This behind-the-music perspective often reveals how musicians arrive at the final mix from a moment of inspiration; a trajectory sometimes instigated by equipment.

"Every artist approaches how they get into a song differently," Hrishikesh says. "For some, it starts with lyrics, some it starts with the melody, but for a lot people it starts with just messing with gear. Messing with a guitar that they have or trying an instrument they’ve never used before because it opens up their brain up to ways that they haven’t been used to.”

While this could lead to avid collecting of guitars and synths — and in many cases it does — Hrishikesh believes that "it doesn’t really matter what the equipment is that you use" because "it’s really about the ideas you build into it.”

This is certainly the case for Nick Zammuto of the band the Books, who ditched instruments all together to cut a new path ... literally. Zammuto created a "drum machine" by scratching indentations into the locked groove of a vinyl record where the needle rests after the record ends. Hrishikesh says Zammuto described this record technique as "a blank canvass for him rhythmically." 

But in order to turn the silent loop of vinyl record into a music making device, Zammuto had to employ some geometry. By using a protractor to measure the 360 degree circumference at the center of the record, he was able to divide it into custom templates for different time signatures

He even played the sound through a corrugated PVC pipe to give it an extra special quality.

So noise makers are more than those obnoxious plastic hands at parties or sports games. Musicians are also noise makers who build novel ideas into seemingly commonplace objects, instruments, and equipment. 

Scratch Edition from Nick zammuto on Vimeo.


When hackers get hacked

In over a decade since the war on terror started, the use of digital surveillance has exploded, not only in the U.S., but around the world. As malware has seeped into the foundation of national security, surveillance technology has moved further into the private sector.  

Marketplace Tech host, Ben Johnson, talked with Christopher Soghoian, principal technologist at the American Civil Liberties Union, about the current state of digital surveillance after a major hacking firm was hacked. 

Click the media player above to hear host Ben Johnson in conversation with Christopher Soghoian.

Hacking Team is a boutique Italian surveillance technology firm, serving up made-to-order malware solutions for any supported or "not officially supported" regime.

On Sunday, a hacker infiltrated the company's network and published a huge trove of its documents to the tune of 400 GB. Speaking on the extent of the hack, Christopher Soghoian says, "this Hacking Team breach is really just everything. It’s the source code for the malware, for the surveillance software, it’s all the company’s internal emails, it's all their invoices, it's even their expense reports for their international travel. Everything is there."

While government agencies like the FBI and the NSA likely use custom surveillance software for high value targets, Soghoian points to low cost software as a market in which private companies like Hacking Team profit: "Surveillance companies are providing lower cost, cheaper surveillance software to governments with lower budgets. So, what we’re seeing is the governments with a few hundred thousand dollars can buy this software." 

While the low costs enable certain countries to bulk up on malware for cheap, Soghoian believes it may hit closer to home: "What [it] means for Americans is that this technology, if it has not already, will very soon be trickling down to local and state law enforcement agencies. I would not be surprised to learn at all if local and state law enforcement agencies had also purchased this technology from Hacking Team". 

In addition to some of the weaker passwords revealed in the hack, dismantling the hacker's house with the hacker's tools has revealed a disconnect between private interests and governmental regulation. Soghoian says the difficulty of regulating malware is because technology isn't a weapon, as Hacking Team argues. However, he maintains this breach may change the conversation: "I expect that once these documents are made public, I imagine that the U.N. and other governments might take a different view of what hacking team’s software does and what how existing arms control rules might apply to it."

Whether or not Hacking Team can recover from this hack remains to be seen. But if there's one thing to remember, it's don't make your password: Pas$wOrd!


Silicon Tally: We go together like guac and peas

It's time for Silicon Tally! How well have you kept up with the week in tech news? 

This week, we're joined by Brad Jenkins, Managing Director of Funny or Die’s DC office.


Bitcoin offers no easy escape for Greece

In the midst of the current Greek financial crisis, some cryptocurrency enthusiasts have pointed to Bitcoin as the panacea for the country's financial woes. The price of the cryptocurrency has steadily risen as the Greek financial crisis has intensified. However, the question remains: can digital money give Greece an out? Spoiler alert: no.

Nathaniel Popper, author of the book, "Digital Gold: Bitcoin and the Inside Story of the Misfits and Millionaires trying to Reinvent Money," maintains Bitcoin will not save Greece because “at this point, I think Greek citizens are locked into their own system and the bad decisions people have made. I don't think there is an easy way out.”

In theory, Bitcoin seems like just that. However, the logistics of buying bitcoin requires you to move money from your bank account to the bank account of a Bitcoin service. Not so easy when Greeks are unable to withdraw money from the ATM. Sure, you can buy bitcoins from someone in a café with cash from under your bed, but to pull a country out of a financial crisis? Unlikely.

Popper points to Argentina as an example where some “real experimentation is going on” with Bitcoin, but he reminds us that the Bitcoin story “is a very young technology. It’s not ready for the prime time. It’s like expecting to run Netflix on the Internet of 1995.”

As Popper explains it, Bitcoin hopefuls may be expecting too much from the cryptocurrency: “Throughout the Bitcoin story, it's been offered as a utopian solution. But these utopian solutions always need to find some way to get from the current system to the utopian future.”

Ideas anyone? We’re still buffering our 1995 dial-up Netflix.


Silicon Tally: A swift response to Swift

It's time for Silicon Tally! How well have you kept up with the week in tech news? 

This week, we're joined by Jeff Cannata, host of the We Have Concerns comedy podcast, and the DLC video game show.

Click the media player above to hear more.


Prisoners could be an untapped resource for startups

As part of our series about technology in prison called “Jailbreak,” we're taking a look at how former inmates could be an untapped resource for the tech community. 

Take Tulio Cardozo, for example. He was an inmate for nearly seven years in San Quentin prison in Northern San Francisco. Because of restrictions on technology in prisons, he had to learn how to code by reading programming books. He says, “for the most part prisons want to keep you far, far away from technology.” 

Even though he had read about technology in magazines like Wired and Popular Science, he remembers the moment he saw the prevalence of technology upon his release: “When I finally got out, I was left at a bus stop in Tucson, Arizona. I got on the bus, it was the middle of the night, the ceiling glowed with cellphones and that’s when it hit me really hard that ‘Wow technology is everywhere.’”

Cardozo ended up going back to prison within a year after his release — Not for reoffending, but rather to pursue a business idea.

While in prison, Cardozo participated in The Last Mile program at San Quentin, which teaches business and technology entrepreneurship to inmates. There, he honed his concept: a LinkedIn type platform called Collaborative Benefit that connects incarcerated individuals with employers.

Since graduating, Cardozo has been employed as a web developer, launched his own startup, and is himself a mentor in prisons around the San Francisco area. He now uses his coding and entrepreneurship skills to make sure other people on the inside get the same opportunities he had.

In his opinion, the lack of technology on the inside could allow former inmates to contribute new ideas to the startup community: “In the absolute absence of all this outside input, you really get creative about what you think you know and you come up with interesting new ideas.”



Connecting inmates with their children through books

As part of our series about technology in prisons called "Jailbreak," we paid a visit to a new program that uses technology to fill an important role in the development of the children of those who are incarcerated.

Organizers say the TeleStory program the first of its kind in the country. At the main branch of the Brooklyn Public Library in New York, families of inmates bring their children to a special room filled with toys and books. Even more unique: the room is virtually connected to a prison on Rikers Island.

As part of the program, an inmate who has had training gets a rare opportunity: they get to read a book to their child. 

We paid a visit to the Brooklyn Public Library's main branch, where we got to chat with a family taking part in the program.

Click the media player above to hear more.



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