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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The push for better cybersecurity in cars

Over the next few days, members of the automotive industry are gathering in Detroit for this year’s Autonomous Cars Conference, and one of the big issues facing the field is cybersecurity for vehicles.

Last month, you may remember, a Wired Magazine reporter lost control of his transmission, driving 70 miles an hour on a highway in St. Louis as a sort of demonstration project set up by "white hat" hackers. If there had been any doubt whether new cars rolling off the assembly line are at risk, last month’s stunt answers that clearly.

“Theoretically, hackers can take control over all control of the car, the steering wheel, can take control of the brakes, can take control of the engine and shut it off,” says Pete Samson, with the firm Security Innovation.

If your vehicle’s computer is networked to any other computer, your vehicle is vulnerable. Kathleen Fisher of Tufts University says automakers are beginning to recognize that now they must become software companies too.

“It’s going to take significantly more investment in the software that is running the cars written to higher standards of quality,” she says. “It’s going to take a culture of assuming hackers are trying to break in and thinking in a defensive mindset.”

Fisher says a bill moving through the Senate, the Spy Car Act, may force the industry to make necessary changes. If done right, she says, that could make hacking so hard, attackers would look for easier marks.


The creative limitations of sampling

As part of a series about music technology called "Noise Makers," we're talking to musicians about their favorite noise-making device. For our last installment Marketplace Tech host Ben Johnson visited El-P's apartment studio in Brooklyn where they talked about his favorite keyboard sampler.

In his studio filled with select synthesizers, drum machines, and records, El-P explains why the Ensoniq EPS-16+ keyboard still stays at the figurative center: "I keep it here because it's been the most important thing for me to even become a musician or to even learn what I'm doing."

According to El-P — real name Jaime Meline — most rap producers start out with either a drum machine sampler or a keyboard sampler. With a sampler, the performer triggers pre-recorded sounds and edits them to create a composition. Rather than a short, percussion-based sample triggered by buttons on a drum machine sampler, the keyboard sampler is advantageous for El-P because it deals with longer iterations of sound.

He describes sampling as "using sound to create sound" and employs this technique to spawn otherworldly sounds. But El-P also acknowledges the hip-hop history behind this technique: "The creativity popped out of limitation. The idea of using two records to perpetuate a groove that was limitation."

Limitation leads to creative solutions in his own music: "I have a track, I know I need a kick and a snare, I can pretty easily get that. I know I want a bass line. Can I find a bass line? Or do I need to find a bass line? Can I find a horn that I can slow way down and make it sound bassy and take the place of that?"

This process requires a give-and-take relationship with the equipment.

"You sort of paint yourself into a corner," he says, "just as much you're working with trying to find something that fits an idea you're having. You also are working with responding to the thing you've put into the machine. And you're always making the choice between bending to the sound or trying your best to bend the sound to the thing you have in your head."

Ultimately, El-P finds this feedback productive and profound because it puts his musical genre in perspective, vis a vis the larger world of music. Through the keyboard sampler El-P says he has "an unlimited sound source. Every record from every genre that has ever been made but it all has to go through this one box."

"You stop thinking about them in terms of category," he says. "It doesn't matter to you that you got a snare from a rock record, a blip from a soul record, or a recording that you just made in your living room. It all loses its original meaning and it's there for you to manipulate and turn into something else."

Click the media player below for an extended interview with El-P about other rap producers that use the EPS-16+, Blade Runner and video game sounds, and the one guy in California who replaces El-P's equipment.


The anatomy of equipment: simple hacks with Money Mark

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 Marketplace Tech host Ben Johnson had a conversation with Money Mark about simple hacks and making music from unexpected sources. 

If you ask Mark Ramos Nishita, or Money Mark, about his work with the Beastie Boys, you might end up hearing more about minutiae of writing a song than say, what it's like to be part of a multi-platinum group. He remembers the marginalia of the Check Your Head album, released in 1992, specifically: "There was a time when we were building the studio in Atwater village at the same time as we were recording. They were playing basketball in the other room. I was screwing a screw into the wall and it made this incredibly amazing sound. And [Adam] Yauch came in and was like, 'We should just record that.'"

The spontaneity of incorporating an accidental sound into a studio album fits within Mark's musical ethos: "There’s this Japanese saying that if you sharpen the knife too much, you actually make it dull. So, there’s a point when you have to have an emotive force there to inject into all this stuff that’s around you."

This philosophy derives from Mark's childhood — As a kid, whenever he would get a new piece of gear, his father, who was an electrical engineer, would take it apart in order to understand how it works.  

As a result, Mark's music making involves less polishing and more tinkering. For a live performance, Mark says: "I actually just bring everything out on the table. Nothing is really hooked up. But I think even that is the theater of it — Getting the cables and patching it all together and making a chain. And this is how it sounds in the end. All of that to me is very entertaining. I always wanted to know what was behind in the wings of the theater and what was really making all that magic happen."

Click the media player above for an extended interview with Money Mark which includes a live demonstration of a musical hack involving a cell phone, an amplifier, and a quarter.


I believe I can fly (for a very, very long time)

Emirates, the airlines, announced it's adding a flight between its hub in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, and Panama City. Perhaps most notable is the sheer length of the flight: At 8,590 miles, and with an estimated travel time of 17 and a half hours, it will be the be longest nonstop flight in the world.

In its honor, Stephan Richter, editor-in-chief of the Globalist, joins us as quiz master. The topic? Travel, of course.

Click the media player above to play along.


Silicon Tally: The hitchhiker robot's guide to the galaxy

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

This week, we're joined by Dave Pell, a startup investor in San Francisco who writes the NextDraft newsletter.

Click the media player above to play along.


Yo La Tengo's James McNew likes things that don't sound right

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 Marketplace Tech host Ben Johnson had a conversation with Yo La Tengo's James McNew before an improvised performance through the Issue Project Room at Pioneer Works in Red Hook, Brooklyn. 

Before committing to any one favorite piece of equipment, James McNew emphasizes how the nature of the performance changes his opinion about gear: "It’s an improvised performance. So I’m not that attached to either [guitar pedal]. I guess that’s really the true spirit of the improviser, which is that you can’t really depend on that stuff."

Instead of settling on a pedal, neither of which are part of his Yo La Tengo setup, McNew picks the guitar itself, a Teisco May Queen guitar, which is also something he hasn't played in a long time. He describes the Teisco as "a kind of crappy fantastic guitar ... The pickups are really cruddy. But in this really fantastic sound. It kind of has this really dead blunt sound to it. I haven’t heard another guitar that sounds like it."

McNew says he is attracted to things that don't sound right because "it’s more fun to force something to make it sound like you want it to sound. To push it out of its own comfort level. To make a tape machine into a distortion pedal just to drive it to its absolute limits and turn it into something else."

Most of all, McNew loves it for its size, the neck being the right size for someone with large hands. However, objectively the Teisco is not a quality guitar.

"In a way, it's a toy," McNew explains. "If you put it next to a 1959 Les Paul, the difference in craftsmanship is somewhat noticeable."

Similarly, McNew talks about an essential piece of equipment his typical repertoire with Yo La Tengo: a 1960s Ace Tone Organ, which he also regards as a toy. McNew speculates that "it was made for like Japanese combo pop acts; maybe Garage bands in the 60s." Either way, he concludes, "they really did it right."

Click the media player above for an extended interview with James McNew about the enigmatic band the Shags, his opinion about computers on stage, and if music provides evidence for the existence of aliens.

"Sudden Organ" by Yo La Tengo 



Maps for autonomous vehicles go beyond directions

Driverless cars or autonomous vehicles may be just around the corner, but in order to get there, they require a meticulously mapped environment that goes beyond the turn-by-turn directions on a GPS.

According to Nidhi Kalra, information scientist at the RAND Corporation, automakers are pretty much universally interested in developing driverless cars, but they do not all have access to the kinds of map technology they need.

Driverless cars require maps made for machines, not humans. Kalra explains that "for an autonomous vehicle a map really is not a map; it’s a blueprint of the world. Where’s the curb? Where are the lanes? Is that a stop sign or a stop light? Where are the constructions? Where are the detours? It’s not a map anymore the way we use it; it’s something different, it’s much richer."

Acquiring maps of this quality means huge investments for automakers in the infrastructure, technology, and servers that can deliver precise information at high speeds. It is unfeasible for many to develop their own mapping technology because the maps difficult to create and costly to maintain. 

Kalra emphasizes the stakes of designing quality maps: "The technology needs to be able to distinguish between something that’s inconsequential and something that matters. The decisions that need to be made are extremely hard. And every vehicle that has this technology or uses it is participating. And it’s absolutely essential. The difference between being 10 centimeters one way or another way can be the difference between being in the gutter or being in the other lane into oncoming traffic. So, there’s not room for error with this technology."

While there are many autonomous cars that can drive by themselves, responding to the world around them, making split-second decisions, and staying out of the gutter is another task entirely.


Battling body shaming on Instagram

Like Twitter, Instagram posts can be a veritable cornucopia for hashtags; from #nofilter, to #instafood,  to paragraphs of #tagsforlikes. Recently, #curvy, a hashtag that was popular but effectively invisible due to the photo app's censorship rules, created a controversy for the photo sharing platform.

According to Instagram, the photos on #curvy violated the photo sharing app's terms of service because of nudity. But Molly Mulshine, senior digital culture editor at Tech Insider says, "the really weird thing is you can still find a lot of much more offensive content than nude photos on Instagram."

The ban on #curvy also reveals inconsistencies about what warrants a ban versus a warning. For example, when searching for #skinny and #thin, the app shows a warning that there may be graphic content on the page, but it doesn't remove the content altogether like it has done for #curvy.

Because users self-police on Instagram and report content that they deem inappropriate, Mulshine says, "I think that a lot of people are seeing these photos surface and reporting them to just kind of to be jerks." 

Sara Chiwaya from the blog Curvily has talked about how these issues connect to the larger effort to battle cultural biases online. She says that even when equal amounts of skin are showing, curvier bodies tend to be treated as more obscene than thin bodies. 

Instagram recently reinstated #curvy after outcry from the plus-sized blogging community, and the rise of hashtags to get around the ban, like #curvee. Mulshine says that it is a rare for the photo sharing app to listen to the community in this way and lift a ban.

Now, the users on #curvy can add #winning to their posts.


Silicon Tally: 99 red internet balloons

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

This week, we're joined by Aaron Harris, a partner at Y Combinator and host of Startup School Radio.

Click the media player above to play along.


Angry Birds is back with a vengeance

Since its release in 2009, the Finnish gaming company Rovio has built an Angry Birds theme park, capitalized on Angry Birds merchandise, and created numerous spin off games like Angry Birds Star Wars, Angry Birds Rio and Angry Birds Space. 

With its bird slingshot and beef with pigs, Angry Birds blew up the mobile gaming structure and expanded into a cultural phenomenon. Farhad Manjoo, tech columnist at the New York Times, explains its success was because "they got the game mechanics, right and it was addictive and it was fun. It hooked you, so you kept playing because every free moment was an opportunity to play.”

It remains to be seen if Angry Birds can continue that excitement in the current mobile market, which Manjoo maintains is not only "a lot more crowded in the game space. But it’s just also more crowded in apps. There’s many, many more apps. There’s more stuff to do on your phone that you can goof off with.”

While Manjoo believes it has a huge marketing advantage because of its cultural influence, there is still uncertainty surrounding the release of Angry Birds 2 due to the nature of sequels — a follow up to a blockbuster film won't necessarily repeat the same success. 

Plus, with Rovio aggressively pushing Angry Birds outside the mobile market in merchandise, movies and Disney-like experiences, the question remains if Angry Birds 2 is an attempt to continue the excitement around the franchise or if it's just trying to kill two pigs with one bird. 




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.


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, Pops 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.

Correction: A previous version of this story misidentified Pops Staples. 


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.


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. 



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