Playing midterm politics with ISIS

Oct 31, 2014 16:19 UTC

With elections, come the scare tactics.

From Arizona to Arkansas to Colorado to Florida to Iowa to North Carolina, politicians are pinning their aspirations to fear of the reviled Islamist State. Alas, in an exhibition of fortitude, the United States Congress has shelved the issue until after the Nov. 4 vote. With temporary authorization of President Obama’s plan to arm and train moderate Syrian rebels expiring Dec. 11, it is still unclear whether a vote on further funding will occur on Nov. 12, when Congress returns from recess, or in January, after a new Congress is sworn in.

Unfortunately, arming rebels in northwest Syria is but a small part of the battle, as you can see from the map below. In total, six different groups are warring for control in Syria and Iraq, with the situation changing daily.


This set of Reuters graphics allows you to visualize the grim data. Use the combined graph/map interactive to see how often and where the U.S.-led alliance has stepped up air strikes since August. The graphics also show a map of Kobani and aerial images of the Turkish border crossing elucidate the Kurdish humanitarian disaster; the threat to the Mosul Dam, the largest in Iraq; and the recent precipitous increase in attacks by ISIS.

As with the Ebola scare, the threat to the U.S. is sufficient for political fear mongering, but not dire enough to engage intelligently. As Patricia Zengerle and Roberta Rampton write for Reuters, “Any debate on the issue, which will force members to take a public stand, is politically risky.” Hardly a profile in courage.


How Americans fare on the ignorance index

Oct 30, 2014 16:02 UTC

Guess how many U.S. girls aged 15-19 give birth each year. Go ahead, guess. If you calculated the number at 3 percent you’re correct; if you guessed 24 percent, you’re American.

The idea that nearly a quarter of high school teens are walking around pregnant at any given time is one of a number of topics about which Americans are woefully misinformed, according to Ipsos MORI polling results released Wednesday. In a comparison of 14 industrialized countries, the United States trailed only Italy in the pollsters’ index of ignorance about the realities of modern life.

As this Reuters graphic shows, people in the U.S. significantly miss the mark on the proportion of the population that is comprised of immigrants, guessing 32 percent against the true number of 13 percent. Americans also overestimate the number of Muslims in the population, 15 percent versus only 1 percent in reality, and underestimate the number of Christians, 56 percent to 78 percent.

Reuters’s Ben Hirschler quotes Bobby Duffy of the Ipsos Social Research Institute that succinctly describes the problem: “People are just not very good at math and they find it particularly hard to make estimates about very large numbers or very small numbers.”

Do you think you’re better informed than your fellow countrypeople? Take the perils of perception quiz and find out how you stack up across a range of issues.



Get your facts right

The housing market is changing. Should you rent or buy?

Oct 29, 2014 16:32 UTC

Analysts may huff and they puff, but is the market blowing another housing bubble?

Earlier this month Trulia, the online real estate marketplace, released a report detailing its research into the wisdom of buying versus renting. Which option should you choose? As it turns out, buying makes more sense than renting in all 100 of the markets studied, but the devil is in the details.

Using a 30-year, fixed-rate mortgage with a 20 percent down payment as the baseline, Trulia found that on average buying is 38 percent cheaper than renting. However, the advantage dissipates rather dramatically as the size of the down payment and the number of years buyers plan to remain in the dwelling grow smaller. An interactive map compares different scenarios.

Does this mean you should start putting open houses on your calendar? Not necessarily. As this Reuters graphic shows, August prices for the Standard & Poor’s/Case-Shiller 20-city index grew at a 5.6 percent year-over-year average. All 20 markets showed price increases, although the rate of  increase slowed for the eighth straight month, which Jed Kolko, Trulia’s chief economist, sees as evidence that we aren’t on the verge of a bubble. As price increases decelerate, speculation shrinks as well.

Taken together, the evidence suggests that buying is advantageous, but not so urgent that one needs to pounce now in order to avoid being left out in the cold.

U.S. home prices, August 2014

Why Twitter’s millions just weren’t enough

Oct 28, 2014 15:55 UTC

Remember that mantra about the soft bigotry of low expectations? Twitter probably does. Yesterday, the micro-blogging site announced third quarter earnings, precisely hitting its Earnings Per Share forecast and beating estimates with $361 million in revenue— better than double the $169 million quarter it posted a year ago.

Good news, right? Not for the fickle financiers of Wall Street. Shares were off 14 percent in early trading Tuesday amid cuts in ratings and price targets by a number of brokerages. And then there were posts like these: “Twitter disappoints by meeting expectations, stock tanks— Henry Blodget (@hblodget) October 27, 2014

So why was good enough not good enough? Analysts point to a disappointing lack of innovation and stalling user growth. As this Reuters graphic shows, the social microblogging platform added 13 million active monthly users during the quarter, up to 284 million. However, this represented just a 4.8 percent increase form the previous quarter, sparking concerns that its user base is plateauing.

“We have an aspirational goal to build the largest daily audience in the world,” CEO Dick Costolo told CNBC. A fine goal, and 284 million sounds like a big number … until you realize that Facebook bests that number by a billion.

Twitter user growth

Finally, some good news from Europe’s banks

Oct 27, 2014 16:20 UTC

Yesterday was anything but a day of rest for the European Central Bank.

Sunday’s announcement of stress test results by the ECB was largely heralded as good news by analysts, with only 13 of 130 large eurozone banks found at risk after a seven-month review of their finances.

In total, 25 banks representing a 25 billion euro shortfall failed the test at the end of last year, but since then a dozen banks have raised the 15 billion euros necessary to be deemed safe. And as Bloomberg points out, the report’s footnotes flag five more banks that “don’t need to proceed with finding funds beyond what they’ve already raised, or have also reduced balance sheets adequately or are being wound down.”

The Chair of the Supervisory Board of the European Central Bank, Daniele Nouy, cast the test as an effort to achieve clarity: “I would say that this exercise was not about the number of banks that would fail. But it was about transparency and the full knowledge by the investors about the content of the balance sheet of the banks.”

In the spirit of full knowledge, this Reuters interactive allows you to sort, select and compare results by bank, country, ownership, shortfall and much more.

So relax, unwind, and dive into some data. What better way to alleviate the stress of a Monday?

A euro logo sculpture stands in front the headquarters of the European Central Bank (ECB) in Frankfurt October 26, 2014. REUTERS/Ralph Orlowski





Numbers of interest

Michael Corones
Oct 24, 2014 20:54 UTC

Welcome to our inaugural weekend Data Dive–a shortlist of charts from around the web culled from the week that went.

Who’s afraid of the big, bad.. um?

It’s not only about wolves and ogres anymore. Just like barbecue recipes and fashion, regional and cultural biases affect attitudes of all sorts, including existential malaise. Quartz’s cartographer of the apocalypse unpacks Pew data about what worries whom the most to give us the world’s greatest fears, mapped by country.(Hint: Africans care more about viruses; Europeans about nukes.)

 That airbag scare? It’s not over yet. 

The number of vehicles affected by the massive Takata airbag recall are changing so quickly—now over 12 million worldwide—you should just use the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s VIN look-up tool to make sure you’re safe.

You say news, I say conspiracy

Fortunes have been made and comedy careers launched under the maxim that “liberals and conservatives inhabit different worlds.” New Pew polling on political polarization and media habits quantifies just how disparate views on the news can be.

It’s game odds on

It’s been 29 years since Kansas City played in—and won!—a World Series. With the Fall Classic center stage this weekend, ESPN celebrates 29 reasons to root for this Royals team.

Apple earnings: Even better than we thought

Analysts cast iPad sales as the lone weakness in Apple’s earnings, but the company’s just-released line of tablets are poised to help provide a blockbuster holiday season. MarketWatch gives us five amazing numbers from Apple’s earnings release and Reuters compares tablet sales.


Big Pharma’s race to develop an Ebola vaccine

Michael Corones
Oct 24, 2014 15:49 UTC

The news last night that a New York City physician, Craig Spencer, tested positive for Ebola brought a whole new wave of freakout about the deadly virus.  How breathless is the coverage?  Joe Coscarelli puts it in perspective in “The Most Ignorant American Ebola Panic of the Moment.”

Meanwhile, the World Health Organization made real news this week as it announced large-scale clinical trials, due to start in January, 2015, in the rush to vaccinate against the further spread of Ebola in West Africa.

Not surprisingly, Bavarian Nordic and NewLink Genetics, the two biggest gainers in this Reuters graphic of 13 biotech companies with experimental Ebola drugs and vaccines, both saw stock prices surge in recent weeks.

Are these companies just profiting off misery? As The New York Times pointed out yesterday, testing and scaling up the production of drugs takes real money, and bringing a new vaccine to market can cost as much as $1.5 billion.

This often pays off for Big Pharma, as patented, brand-name drugs can be worth worth billions, For diseases like Ebola, though, it can take a humanitarian disaster to create the necessary urgency to act.

Sure we can be cynical. But to view the success of stocks like Bavarian Nordic and NewLink Genetics as the profits of doom is to ignore the economic realities that go into discovering and administering a real-world cure.



What you need to know about the airbag recall

Michael Corones
Oct 23, 2014 16:29 UTC

That airbag recall just keeps getting scarier. Just in time for Halloween, the alarming news is spreading for owners of vehicles with Takata airbags, with a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration recall at 7.8 million vehicles and counting. Two deaths have already been linked to the airbag defects, with Takata notifying the NHTSA  that the propellant — intended to burn quickly and produce gas to inflate the air bag — is defective. When a crash occurs, the propellant can rupture its container, shooting metal parts at the driver or front-seat occupant.

Yesterday, the NHTSA released a list of affected manufacturers and models and provided a page of links to manufacturers VIN look-ups.

As this Reuters graphic shows, Hondas are most at risk, with over 5 million vehicles affected by the recall, but Toyota, Nissan, BMW, Mazda, Mitsubishi, Subaru, Chrysler, Ford and General Motors all have cars on the list—and today Audi said it is voluntarily  recalling 850,000 A4s worldwide.

Tests have shown that the airbags are at higher risk of failure in high humidity, so the NHTSA said, “The message comes with urgency, especially for owners of vehicles affected by regional recalls in the following areas: Florida, Puerto Rico, limited areas near the Gulf of Mexico in Texas, Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, and Louisiana, as well as Guam, Saipan, American Samoa, Virgin Islands and Hawaii.”

Frustratingly, the recalls are so widespread that replacement parts are sparse, and a GM spokesperson says the process takes six hours. So this could take a while. Even more frustrating, Takata  did not disclose the danger of exploding air bags for years after the first reported incident in 2004 and three additional ruptures reported to Honda in 2007,

Meanwhile, the NHTSA appears to be doing its best to fall down on the job. The New York Times reported Tuesday that “calls to an operator on the agency’s hotline — 1-888-327-4236 — were routinely put on hold” and the industry-wide VIN look-up tool on is down due to “intermittent network issues.” Seems like one of those cases where there isn’t enough blame to go around.



For consumers, less pain in the pocket

Michael Corones
Oct 22, 2014 15:48 UTC

Halloween is just over a week away, which means the holidays are almost upon us. How painful will traveling, shopping and gorging be to our pocketbooks this year?

Consumer prices edged higher in September, up 1.7 percent year-over-year, according to data released today by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

As this Reuters graphic shows, tumbling gas prices (off 1 percent month-over-month) helped temper increases in food and housing prices to keep the month-over-month increases for all items at 0.1 percent.

Additionally, the misery index, which combines the unemployment and inflation rates, continues to decline, which should help dull the pain felt by those who aren’t feeling this recovery.

If there’s anything for the average consumer to glean here, it’s that this is a good year to wrangle an invitation to Thanksgiving: gas prices are down and food prices are up. If only the misery index could help predict how insufferable one’s family members will be.


Why the U.S. is spending $1 trillion on nukes

Michael Corones
Oct 21, 2014 15:59 UTC


Here’s a fun post to take your mind off Ebola and Washington’s myriad foreign policy problems.

A mere five years ago, in the announcement awarding President Obama the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize, the Norwegian Nobel Committee said it “attached special importance to Obama’s vision of and work for a world without nuclear weapons.”

So for many, the Sept. 21 New York Times Headline, “U.S. Ramping Up Major Renewal in Nuclear Arms“, seemed, err, at odds with the hope and change we’d been promised.

What’s going on? Could there be a pragmatic explanation, or is this just good, old-fashioned bloodthirstiness?  Adam Mount at the Council on Foreign Relations calls the administration’s record on nuclear issues “deeply ambivalent,” but explains that the nation’s nuclear arsenal is becoming obsolete and that ”the United States is preparing to upgrade nearly every bomber, submarine, missile, and warhead in the arsenal in the next decades.” This modernization, he adds, “will drive the cost of the arsenal 75 percent higher in the next ten years than the last, and up to $1 trillion over the next thirty years.”

As this Reuters graphic shows, the Congressional Budget Office estimates the 10-year costs of maintaining and modernizing our existing arsenal at $355 billion, with another $215 billion slated for “other nuclear-related activities.”

The Times story reveals some pretty alarming anecdotal details about our crumbling nuclear facilities, but National Nuclear Security Administration numbers quantify the scope of the problem:

  • 43,000 employees spread over eight weapons facilities
  • 2540 total lane-miles of paved roads—nearly the distance from Washington, D.C. to Los Angeles
  • 275,000 total lane-miles of unpaved roads—enough for 11 laps around the equator
  • 8,000,000 feet of fencing—enough to encircle the D.C. Beltway 24 times
  • 2160 square miles of land—about the size of Delaware
  • 38.5 million square feet of facility space—six Pentagons worth
  • 9.5 trillion BTUs of energy consumed annually—enough to power 250,000 homes
  • 15.2 million square feet of hazardous materials—enough to fill 15 Washington Monuments

So while it’s true that a trillion dollars over thirty years sounds aggressive, the silver lining is that much of that money is going to ensure that our decaying infrastructure doesn’t harm Americans on their own homeland.

See, now Ebola and ISIS are the least of your worries!

This post has been corrected to reflect the fact that U.S. nuclear facilities are surrounded by 8,000,000 feet of fencing, not 8,000,000 miles of fencing.







So long as they don’t connect any of the nuclear lauch devices to the internet (so no hackers) and so long as they don’t use computers to automate any of the nuclear launch devices (so no program bugs), civilization might be able to survive this upgrade.

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