California Imposes Sweeping Sanctions On Wells Fargo Amid Scandal

State Treasurer John Chiang, (right) at a news conference in Sacramento, Calif., in May. Rich Pedroncelli/AP hide caption

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Rich Pedroncelli/AP

California’s state treasurer has announced he is suspending major parts of the state’s business relationship with Wells Fargo because of a scandal involving unauthorized customer accounts.

In a letter to Wells Fargo, John Chiang asked, “how can I continue to entrust the public’s money to an organization which has shown such little regard for the legions of Californians who have placed their well-being in its care?”

As we reported, “Wells Fargo said earlier this month it had agreed to pay $185 million to settle charges that it opened some 2 million deposit and credit card accounts for its customers without their permission over a five-year period.”

The new sanctions include the bank’s “most highly profitable business relationships with the state,” as Chiang’s letter read.

In an interview with The Two-Way, California’s Deputy Treasurer for Public Finance, Tim Shaefer, laid out the sanctions against Wells Fargo. They fall into three categories.

First, Schaefer said that the state won’t “buy any more of their debt securities,” which he said currently amount to approximately $800 million dollars. He added that “we’re not going to go out and liquidate that tomorrow morning, because we don’t want to put the taxpayers of California at risk of a loss, but we’re not going to renew it. And that will all be gone over the next couple of months.”

Second, Shaefer said the state will no longer use Wells Fargo as a broker-dealer for buying securities. The value of that relationship is not clear, he says, but the state has “engaged in about $1.65 billion dollars worth of trades with them, in that way, over the last 18 months. That $1.65 billion would be expected to produce high hundreds of thousands of dollars if not low millions of dollars in revenue for them.”

Third, Shaefer said the state will no longer use Wells Fargo to underwrite bonds. Over the last 18 months, the state has appointed Wells Fargo to five bond offerings, he said. “Two of those were terminated Monday afternoon, so that left them with three.” Those remaining three have amounted to about $1.75 million during that time period, he added.

He said two major aspects of California’s relationship with the bank will remain in place. Local governments can still use Wells Fargo to wire money to the state government. And two major public pension funds – the California Public Employees’ Retirement System and the California State Teachers’ Retirement System – have at least $2.3 billion invested in the bank’s fixed income and equity. That money will remain where it is.

The message of these sanctions, Schaefer said, is that “ethics and responsibility in the community matter.”

In a statement to NPR after Chiang’s announcement, Wells Fargo said that it has “diligently and professionally worked with the state for the past 17 years to support the government and people of California” and “stand ready to continue delivering outstanding service.” It added that it is “very sorry and take full responsibility for the incidents in our retail bank.”

Yesterday, the company announced that its CEO and former retail-banking head will forfeit tens of millions of dollars in outstanding stock awards. CEO John Stumpf will forfeit such awards totaling about $41 million, while former retail-banking head Carrie will forfeit awards worth about $19 million. Neither will receive bonuses this year, the bank said.

Stumpf is scheduled to testify before the House Financial Services Committee on Thursday. As we reported, he was questioned by the Senate Banking Committee last week, which was “widely seen as something of a public relations disaster.”

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Tech Giants Team Up To Tackle The Ethics Of Artificial Intelligence

Composite image of a human eye and a circuit board.

Science Photo Library RM/Getty Images

Artificial intelligence is one of those tech terms that seems to inevitably conjure up images (and jokes) of computer overlords running sci-fi dystopias — or, more recently, robots taking over human jobs.

But AI is already here: It’s powering your voice-activated digital personal assistants and Web searches, guiding automated features on your car and translating foreign texts, detecting your friends in photos you post on social media and filtering your spam.

But as practical uses of AI have exploded in recent years, one critical element remains missing: an industrywide set of ethics standards or best practices to guide the growing field.

Now, the industry heavyweights are partnering to fill that gap. Called the Partnership on Artificial Intelligence to Benefit People and Society, the group consists of Amazon, Facebook, Google, Microsoft and IBM. Apple is also in talks to join.

Executives from four of the five founding members of the Partnership on AI (from left): Eric Horvitz of Microsoft, Francesca Rossi of IBM, Yann LeCun of Facebook and Mustafa Suleyman of Google’s DeepMind. Jon Simon/Feature Photo Service for IBM hide caption

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Jon Simon/Feature Photo Service for IBM

“We’ve been talking about this for many years — informally,” says IBM’s Vice President of Cognitive Computing Guruduth Banavar. “Finally we have this opportunity to formalize (the conversation).”

The group’s goal is to create the first industry-led consortium that would also include academic and nonprofit researchers, leading the effort to essentially ensure AI’s trustworthiness: driving research toward technologies that are ethical, secure and reliable — that help rather than hurt — while also helping to diffuse fears and misperceptions about it.

“We plan to discuss, we plan to publish, we plan to also potentially sponsor some research projects that dive into specific issues,” Banavar says, “but foremost, this is a platform for open discussion across industry.”

In a way, the extent to which AI took off over the past few years snuck up on many of us. AI scientists have long predicted the surge, but its timing was a moving target. Now, machines are besting humans at translation and texting. Competition is growing among voice-activated assistants: Apple’s Siri, Amazon’s Alexa, Microsoft’s Cortana. IBM’s Watson supercomputer is writing recipes and helping doctors treat cancer. Google’s DeepMind defeated a human at the complex Chinese game Go. Algorithms are getting into art.

“There have been situations already where companies had to essentially make up their own best practices,” says Subbarao Kambhampati, a computer science professor at Arizona State University and president of the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence.

The researchers talk, consult and confer; individual companies doing AI have formed ethics boards and committees. But industrywide coordination has not exited.

“These days, the AI technologies are touching so many aspects of our lives that people are making their own decisions and going forward,” Kambhampati says. “And most of the times, things work out well, but sometimes they haven’t worked out all that well.”

Like that time Microsoft made a Twitter chatbot that learned from its conversations and quickly derailed into offensive chaos. Or that time the Tesla car autopilot failed to recognize a white tractor-trailer against the bright sky, resulting in the driver’s death. Or when Google’s ads algorithms faced accusations of racism and sexism. The list goes on.

“When you train a learning algorithm on a bunch of data, then it will find a pattern that is in that data. This has been known, obviously, understood by everybody within AI,” Kambhampati says.

“But the fact that the impact of that may be unintended stereotyping, unintended discrimination is something that has become much more of an issue right now,” he says, “because these technologies are actually making very important decisions in our day-to-day life.”

Kambhampati, whose scientific society AAAI will also have a seat at the Partnership on AI, hopes that the new group will focus exactly on that — the current and short-term practical concerns, rather than the distant doomsday scenarios typically explored by ethicists.

IBM’s Banavar says the hope for the group is certainly to stick around for the long haul. But its goals are indeed near-term. He expects the Partnership on AI to create an education forum — online and in real life — for resources on AI. A specific plan for the group is expected to be published in the next few weeks, followed later by an event to kick-start the collaboration.

Of course, he acknowledges that the group’s work won’t stop any rogue uses of AI — its purpose, in effect, is advisory. But Banavar hopes the group’s work will make its way into educational curricula around the world that will inspire the new generations of AI researchers.

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Yay, It's Time For My Performance Review! (Said No One Ever)

Many employers have abandoned the old way of evaluating workers in recent years.

Neil Webb/Ikon Images/Getty Images

It’s once again time for the annual ritual of fear and loathing, also known as the performance review — at least for the companies that still do them.

Many have abandoned the old way of evaluating their employees in recent years. Last year, even General Electric — whose former CEO, Jack Welsh, championed the system often known as “rank and yank” — did away with its annual review.

So, what’s taking the old system’s place? A hodgepodge of experiments, essentially.

According to CEB, a research consultancy, only 4 percent of HR managers think their system of assessing employees is effective at measuring performance — and 83 percent say their systems need an overhaul.

It’s no wonder, since the way we work has changed so much, says Brian Kropp, who heads CEB’s human resources practice. “A lot of our performance management systems don’t do a really good job of capturing ideas or insights,” he says. “They capture hours or things that come off an assembly line, and the world just doesn’t work that way anymore.”

People work more in teams, or have different supervisors on different projects. Business — particularly in technology — also moves faster, which means an annual review is too little, too late. Kropp says that explains why many employers dropped annual numerical rankings in favor of more frequent, qualitative feedback several years ago. Not that they’re all happy with it.

  • Only 4 percent of human resource managers feel they have an effective performance management system, down from 23 percent in 2012.
  • 6 percent of organizations have eliminated performance ratings, up from 3 percent in 2014.
  • At a typical company, only one-third of the highest performers actually get the highest performance score based on their actual contributions to the company’s performance.

Source: CEB, a research consultancy

“What we’re finding, is that companies that have made that shift — after they’ve gone through a set of performance review cycles — the feedback that employees get from managers has gotten dramatically worse, the perceptions of fairness from a rewards perspective have gotten much worse,” Kropp says.

Not surprisingly, low performers were happy to get rid of rankings, even if most companies no longer automatically fire the worst performers. Top performers no longer felt rewarded.

“I think we’re right in the midst of a pretty significant transformation in the business landscape around performance management,” says talent-management consultant Kim Ruyle, with lots of experimentation with everything from no numerical grading, to enhanced, “continuous” review processes, to systems that incorporate peer or customer reviews from social media.

Whatever the form, Ruyle says, many systems fail because they start with the wrong psychology. Giving and getting grades is inherently threatening, activating what he calls “threat networks” in peoples’ brains: “Am I in trouble? Why don’t they like me?” Feeling this sort of anxiety makes them focus on fear and humiliation, rather than actual performance improvement.

The challenge is designing a system that doesn’t do that.

Gerald Ledford, senior researcher at the Center for Effective Organizations, which studies how to create just that. He says the vast majority of companies that no longer rank their employees replaced that with more frequent, less formal evaluations.

“If you’re meeting with someone monthly, you’re not going through a complicated rating process every time, and [the meetings] tend to be less threatening because it’s a more regular kind of event,” Ledford says.

He says giving more feedback comes with challenges; it demands more time of managers. It can also go too far, making workers feel that everything they say and do is being closely monitored, creating a feeling of being hemmed in.

Ideally, workers should not be too focused on getting high marks on evaluations; they should feel free to experiment and try new things.

“If were succeeding at every single thing we try, almost for sure it means we’re not trying risky enough activities — that we need some amount of failure,” says Bradley Staats, a business professor at the University of North Carolina.

To avoid that, he says, businesses need to gather data that look at a worker’s process rather than just outcomes.

“That end-of-project success or failure is an incomplete view,” he says. “We need to know — if it failed — why did it fail? We need to know, what was the learning that came out of it that we might use?”

Even if performance evaluation is effective, he says, it will likely never be popular with everyone. It is, after all, an evaluation.

“People don’t like negative feedback,” Staats says.

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The Philadelphia Folk Festival Sessions On World Cafe

Liz Longley performs onstage at the 55th annual Philadelphia Folk Festival. John Vettese/WXPN hide caption

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John Vettese/WXPN

  • Liz Longley, “Weightless”
  • Liz Longley, “Swing”
  • The Sheepdogs, “I’m Gonna Be Myself”
  • The Sheepdogs, “Help Us All”
  • Quiet Life, “Foggy”
  • Quiet Life, “Lost In The Light”

Hear three sessions recorded during World Cafe‘s yearly visit to the Camp Stage at the Philadelphia Folk Festival. This year’s event, the 55th annual installment of the festival, took place Aug. 18-21, 2016.

Liz Longley

Singer-songwriter Liz Longley recently released her new album Weightless, produced by Band Of Horses bassist Bill Reynolds. Longley, who’s originally from the Philadelphia suburbs, moved to Nashville in 2011 and put out her self-titled Sugar Hill Records debut in 2015. Enjoy her live performances of the new songs “Weightless” and “Swing.”

The Sheepdogs

The rock band The Sheepdogs is the pride of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. It’s a classic, driven band with a penchant for twin guitar leads. In 2011, The Sheepdogs won a contest for unsigned bands and got to be on the cover of Rolling Stone; the band has also had the honor of having one of its songs played as the goal song for Canada’s national hockey team. We’ll hear music from The Sheepdogs’ latest album, Future Nostalgia.

Quiet Life

Quiet Life is led by brothers Sean and Ryan Spellman, who put out their first album in 2007. The band’s latest album, Foggy, is a summery album written when Sean spent a couple of months on the shores of Rhode Island. It was recorded just outside Philadelphia in Dr. Dog‘s steamy, AC-less studio — perfect for a humid night at the folk festival. Hear the band perform two songs from the album in this session.

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What Meerkat Murder Tells Us About Human Violence

Three meerkats sitting at a zoo. A new study found meerkats are the most murderous mammals. Frank Bienewald/LightRocket via Getty Images hide caption

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Frank Bienewald/LightRocket via Getty Images

A new study of violent behavior in more than 1,000 mammal species found the meerkat is the mammal most likely to be murdered by one of its own kind.

The study, led by José María Gómez of the University of Grenada in Spain and published Wednesday in the journal Nature, analyzed more than 4 million deaths among 1,024 mammal species and compared them to findings in 600 studies of violence among humans from ancient times until today.

The findings tell us two things:

  1. Some amount of violence between humans is attributable to our place on the evolutionary tree.
  2. Meerkats are surprisingly murderous.

To be clear, the study’s authors did not set out to prove (or disprove) a theory of meerkat violence; they were investigating what mammalian data might tell us about humans. But Ed Yong at The Atlantic organized the study’s exhaustive list of mammals to make this helpful chart ranking animals by their murderousness.

Here are the 30 mammal species most likely to kill their own kind. #1 might surprise you. https://t.co/qdprrwBjvl pic.twitter.com/vB0e6NjdbZ

— Ed Yong (@edyong209) September 28, 2016

Some of the animals with reputations for docility are actually more dangerous to each other than creatures known for their aggression. Chinchillas kill each other more often than brown bears turn on their own kind. New Zealand sea lions are more murderous than actual lions.

And, as you can see, about 20 percent of meerkat deaths are murders. Their violence has been documented; a 2006 study described in National Geographic documented meerkat mothers killing the offspring of other females in order to maintain dominance.

In our worst times, humans display murderous behavior; the newly-published study found rates of lethal violence between 15 percent and 30 percent for human populations living between 500 and 3,000 years ago.

Today, the rate of lethal violence is much lower. As a companion article published Wednesday in Nature by evolutionary biologist Mark Pagel notes:

“Rates of homicide in modern societies that have police forces, legal systems, prisons and strong cultural attitudes that reject violence are, at less than 1 in 10,000 deaths (or 0.01%), about 200 times lower than the authors’ predictions for our state of nature.”

So, we are not, as a rule, as lethally violent toward our fellow man as meerkats are toward each other. But the study argues that, over all of human history, humans are still more lethally violent than the average mammal.

The authors used the fact that closely related species usually show similar rates of interpersonal violence to predict a 2 percent rate of lethal violence among humans. That means that 2 out of every 100 human deaths would be a murder taking into account only our place on the evolutionary tree, and nothing about political pressures, technology or social norms.

In comparison, among mammals in general just 0.3 percent of deaths are murders. For the common ancestor of primates, the rate is 2.3 percent.

With 2pecent as a human baseline, we come across as both uncommonly peaceful for primates, and uncommonly violent for mammals.

One critique of the human part of the paper, with its enormous data sets from 600 previous studies, is that the definition of murderous behaviors is too broad. The authors include infanticide, execution, cannibalism and battlefield deaths in their analysis.

Polly Wiessner, an anthropologist at the University of Utah told The Atlantic, “They have created a real soup of figures, throwing in individual conflicts with socially organized aggression, ritualized cannibalism, and more. The sources of data used for prehistoric violence are highly variable in reliability. When taken out of context, they are even more so.”

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Parents Speak Out, Say FBI Arrest Saved Son On Verge Of Joining ISIS

U.S. District Judge Michael Davis is shown in his chambers in Minneapolis last year. The judge allowed Abdullahi Yusuf, 20, to take part in a jihadi rehabilitation program after he pleaded guilty last year to a plan to join ISIS. Yusuf’s parents say the arrest of their son saved his life. They are encouraging other parents to speak out if they suspect their kids are being radicalized. Jeff Baenen/AP hide caption

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Jeff Baenen/AP

Life changed as Sadiik Yusuf knew it about two years ago, when the FBI appeared at his front door in Minneapolis to tell him his son Abdullahi had been stopped at the airport, suspected of trying to board a flight that would take him to Syria to fight with ISIS.

“My job has always been to drop Abdullahi off at school and to pick him up,” Sidiik told a group of community leaders last week during a meeting at the U.S. Attorney’s Office. “But that day, around noon there was a knock on the door. It was the FBI and I was asked if I was Abdullahi’s father and the FBI agents held out a picture.”

That’s how it all began for Sadiik Yusuf and his family: with a knock, a photograph, and the sudden realization that their son, now 20, was being lured to Syria by a shadowy group few at the time realized was targeting young Muslims in Minneapolis.

“As a family it was a very difficult day, it was a shocking and horrifying day,” he said through an interpreter, speaking publicly for the first time about what his family has endured. NPR was the only news organization present.

The meeting where Yusuf spoke out is part of a a broader effort by the Justice Department to convince parents of young people who might be radicalizing not to keep the changes they are noticing to themselves. If they see something, they should say something.

Attempt To Curb Recruiting

Justice Department officials, like Minnesota’s U.S. Attorney Andrew Luger, are convening meetings like this to see if they can spark a grassroots push to curb ISIS recruiting efforts.

Law enforcement sources tell NPR that dozens of young people from the Somali community in Minneapolis have been lured by ISIS and have either left Minnesota, been stopped trying to leave, or are under investigation for possibly planning to do so.

The Yusufs are the first family in the community to speak publicly about the experience. And they are going a step further. They are asking parents in their position to tell authorities if they suspect kids are falling under ISIS’ spell.

In a matter of months, Abdullahi Yusuf he went from normal senior in high school to pleading guilty to wanting to help a terrorist group. He is still awaiting sentencing and is the only young man in America to have been enrolled in a jihadi rehabilitation program aimed at getting him to understand why he fell under ISIS’ spell in the first place.

Given the turn of events, it wouldn’t be surprising if Sadiik Yusuf and his family harbored resentment toward the people who have put his son behind bars. This is the twist: Yusuf is not angry. He went before the community to say he believed the FBI saved his boy’s life.

“One hundred percent for sure, if he was not stopped or arrested that day he might not have lived today,” the elder Yusuf told the group. “One hundred percent for sure.”

Suspicion In Somali-American Community

As a general matter, the Somali-Americans in the Twin Cities are suspicious of the government’s intentions. Some have told reporters that they believe the ISIS cases in Minnesota are drummed up, the result of aggressive FBI racial profiling and elaborate entrapment schemes.

Others say they don’t believe terrorist are recruiting in the U.S. All this, in spite of the fact that earlier this year half a dozen young Somalis from the Twin Cities – including Sadiik’s son – pleaded guilty to trying to go to Syria to join ISIS and a jury found three of their friends guilty of terrorism crimes related to their efforts to go and fight.

“Communities like the Somali community in Minneapolis have a history of troubled and distrustful relationships with law enforcement,” says Quintan Wiktorowicz, one of the founders of Affinis Labs, a company that, among other things, works to counter violent extremism in communities. “So for one of the fathers and his family to come out in that kind of meeting is a very unique experience. It’s important. There are a lot of possible lessons other families can glean from this.

Countering Extremism At Home

Counter-terrorism officials have come to the conclusion that the best way to defeat ISIS recruiters isn’t on the battlefields of Syria, it is in communities in the U.S. That means that instead of rounding people up and arresting them, authorities are looking at alternatives to lengthy jail terms and testing prevention programs.

“This has got to be about more than identifying potential prosecutions,” President Obama’s top terrorism advisor, Lisa Monaco, told NPR. “If we don’t have trusted relationships with communities there’s no way a family, a brother, a sister, a coach, a teacher are going to be able to say, this kid looks like they are going down the wrong path, how do I help?”

Monaco says the Obama administration is stepping up funding for local programs that give parents, and kids, options before they go so far down the path of radicalization that bringing them back is more difficult.

Sadiik Yusuf, for his part, considers himself lucky. Two of his son’s friends who managed to leave Minnesota to join ISIS have died fighting in Syria.

“Today [Abdullahi] lives within the Twin Cities. I visit him. I help him. The whole family helps him,” his father tells the group. “Because he was stopped, because he was arrested, that is why he is alive today.”

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The U.S. Is Sending 600 More Troops To Iraq

U.S. Army Capt. Gerrard Spinney (right) speaks to his Iraqi army counterpart from the Ninawa Operations Command prior to a security meeting at Camp Swift, Iraq, earlier this month. 1st Lt. Daniel Johnson/AP hide caption

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1st Lt. Daniel Johnson/AP

U.S Secretary of Defense Ash Carter said the U.S. has agreed to send an additional 600 troops to Iraq, in anticipation of the major upcoming operation to retake the Islamic State-held city of Mosul.

These additional troops “will increase the number of U.S. forces in Iraq to around 5,000,” NPR’s Tom Bowman told our Newscast unit. American troop levels in Iraq peaked at 170,000 in November 2007.

Carter said the U.S. and Iraqi governments “have agreed that additional U.S. and coalition capabilities could help accelerate the campaign at this critical phase.”

After consultations w/ @HaiderAlAbadi #SecDef tells traveling press another 600 US troops will deploy to Iraq to support ISF in #ISIL fight pic.twitter.com/EHoblzFOQD

— Peter Cook (@PentagonPresSec) September 28, 2016

As Tom reported, “the White House has insisted that the American troops are not in a combat role. But some of the U.S. troops in Iraq are special operators, who accompany Iraqi troops on combat missions.” Two Americans have been killed in the country this year, Tom added.

Some of these new troops will provide training to their Iraqi counterparts. Here’s how Carter explained their role:

“The troops, in close coordination with the government of Iraq, will provide specific capabilities including logistics and maintenance support; train, advise and assist teams for Iraqi Security Forces and Kurdish Peshmerga for the upcoming Mosul operation; and expanded intelligence resources to help disrupt ISIL’s terrorist network in Iraq and beyond.”

Carter said at a news conference that all U.S. troops in Iraq faced serious risks. “We’re in a support role, but I need to make it clear once again: American forces combatting ISIL in Iraq are in harm’s way,” he said, according to The Associated Press. “No one should be in any doubt about that.”

White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters that President Obama approved the Pentagon’s request for an increase in troop levels, adding that they “intensify a strategy that’s already in place.”

The Islamic State group has been in control of the northern city of Mosul since 2014, and Tom reports that the operation is “expected to begin sometime in the fall.”

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Curious George Celebrates 75 Years Of Monkey Business

Curious George — who was originally named Fifi — turns 75 this year. Despite some dated themes (we’re looking at you, Man with the Yellow Hat) George is now a multi-million dollar franchise. Margaret Rey says she and her husband had no idea what Curious George would become. “We loved monkeys and just wrote a book about a monkey,” she said. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt hide caption

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Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Curious George famously managed all sorts of escapes — from policemen, firemen, zookeepers, and plenty other humans who didn’t like his mischief. But many readers don’t know that the husband-wife team who created the inquisitive little monkey — who’s celebrating his 75th birthday this year – had the most harrowing escape of all.

In 1939, artists Hans Augusto and Margret Rey were living in Paris, where they’d written a book with a side character named Fifi. The Reys thought this young, inquisitive monkey deserved his own story and wrote a manuscript for The Adventures of Fifi.

Aspects of Curious George’s story are no doubt problematic — George was taken from his home “in Africa” by the Man with the Yellow Hat, who thought to himself, “What a nice little monkey … I would like to take him home with me.” Houghton Mifflin Harcourt hide caption

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Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

But their plans were interrupted when the Nazis invaded France. As German born Jews, the Reys had to get out of Paris, but the trains had stopped running and they didn’t own a car. So Hans went to a bike shop — and found the only bike left was a tandem.

“Margret would have none of it,” says Louise Borden, author of The Journey that Saved Curious George. “So Hans bought spare parts and assembled two bicycles.”

The couple packed what could fit on their backs and fled for their lives on their hastily assembled bicycles. They rode for three days, sometimes sleeping outside. Eventually they were able to get on a train.

In her book, Borden recounts how, mid-escape, the Reys were stopped for questioning by a French official. Hans opened his satchel and showed him the manuscript about the curious monkey: “Ah! … un livre pour les enfants!” he exclaimed with a smile.

The Reys made their way out of France, and then to Spain, Portugal, Brazil and eventually, New York City. Through an editor they’d met in Europe, they signed a deal with publisher Houghton Mifflin. A year later, Curious George (who by now had swapped his French name for an American one) made his debut.

H. A. and Margret Rey were the husband-wife duo behind Curious George. Margret wrote the stories, and Hans illustrated them. Grummond Children’s Literature Collection/McCain Library and Archives/The University of Southern Mississippi hide caption

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Grummond Children’s Literature Collection/McCain Library and Archives/The University of Southern Mississippi

You can tell George’s story was written a long time ago. At the outset, we are told George lives “in Africa,” where he meets the Man With the Yellow Hat who thinks to himself, “What a nice little monkey … I would like to take him home with me.” So the man — who has a gun slung over his shoulder — pops George into a bag, onto a ship, and sails across the ocean where he keeps George in his apartment in the city.

That the books are a product of the time hasn’t stopped George from becoming a global icon, selling some 75 million books in more than 16 languages. The Reys wrote seven Curious George books — he takes a job, flies a kite, rides a bike, goes to the hospital, learns the alphabet and more.

Margret wrote the text of George’s escapades and Hans illustrated them. Hans, who had been a soldier in the German army during World War I, was considerably older than Margret. “I did better with my pencil than with my rifle,” he’d said. They both loved animals and trips to the zoo, but had different temperaments; she was a rebel, he was a dreamer, he had a Pied Piper quality to him, while she didn’t feel a strong connection to children.

“Hans was the quieter one,” says Borden. “He loved philosophy. He was a linguist. Margret was a woman with sparkle and energy and she always spoke her own mind.”

In 1991, Margret Rey told NPR that she and her husband had no idea what Curious George would become. “We loved monkeys and just wrote a book about a monkey,” she said.

After Hans died in 1977, Margret left the Curious George brand in the hands of their publisher. That’s where Curious George’s big second act — as a multi-million dollar franchise — began.

Today, George’s keepers include PBS, Universal Studios and Houghton Mifflin, where a staff of about 15 people work on new George books.

Part of George’s enduring appeal is that he remains a monkey, says Houghton Mifflin’s Mary Wilcox — that was important to the Reys.

“Sometimes there can be a temptation to treat him as though he is like a human character,” Wilcox explains. “Because many illustrated characters actually are. Mickey Mouse isn’t a rodent — he’s actually a person in a mouse suit so he can drive a car, he can have a conversation. So I think I’m being most respectful of their legacy when I’m saying: Nope, George doesn’t talk.”

A lot of George’s current success also rests on Frank Welker, who, for 10 years, has been voicing George on screen. (Welker is also the voice of the evil Megatron in Transformers so George, he says, is a “pure delight.”)

Welker says Curious George is an example of “a sweet, gentle story” coming out of a “very troubled time.”

Ema Ryan Yamazaki, who is making a documentary about the Reys, grew up in Japan, reading Curious George in Japanese. “I love that little monkey,” she says.

But George has an army of people taking care of him, and Yamazaki felt his creators’ story needed to be told. The filmmaker feels a certain responsibility to get it right — after all, Margret Rey would insist on it.

“She really took it upon herself to continue Curious George as their child and joint creation, to make sure he outlived both of them,” Yamazaki says.

The Curious George balloon makes its way through Philadelphia during the 2011 Thanksgiving day parade. Curious George is now a multi-million dollar franchise. Joseph Kaczmarek/AP hide caption

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Joseph Kaczmarek/AP

There’s no question that George lives on — today he’s the star of a movie, an Emmy award-winning TV series, a website, video games and, of course, many books.

Margret Rey once said, “We did only what we liked and by nice coincidence, the children liked the same thing.”

Nice coincidence indeed.

Beth Novey contributed to this story.

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We're No. 3: U.S. Infrastructure, Education Faulted In Global Competitiveness Index

The U.S. trails Switzerland and Singapore in economic competitiveness in a new global index that finds America’s infrastructure, health system and primary education are all lagging. The World Economic Forum’s index also notes three U.S. strengths: Its large market, financial sophistication and labor efficiency.

Out of 138 economies worldwide, the U.S. “does not rank in the top 10 on any of the basic requirements pillars (institutions, infrastructure, macroeconomic environment, health and primary education),” this year’s Global Competitiveness Index says. The authors add that the U.S.’s high ranking is supported by its “innovation, business sophistication, market size, financial market development, labor market efficiency, and higher education.”

It’s the third straight year at No. 3 for the U.S., which hasn’t ranked No. 1 in global economic competitiveness since 2008. In the past decade, the U.S. has fallen out of the top five twice: in 2006, when it was sixth, and 2012, when it was seventh.

Other notable findings in the index:

  • The Netherlands rose to No. 4, just ahead of Germany;
  • Japan fell from 6th to 8th;
  • China was ranked No. 28 for the third consecutive year;
  • India climbed to No. 39, reflecting a 32-slot jump in the past two years;
  • Panama rose eight slots to No. 42 — one spot ahead of Russia;
  • Mexico rose six slots to No. 51

The index is the heart of a nearly 400-page report that takes the world’s economic temperature as it ranks its economies. According to the WEF’s managing board member Richard Samans, this year’s edition identifies “a large challenge — how to build a more prosperous and inclusive world for all.”

The economic zeitgeist in 2016, Samans says, is one “of rising income inequality, mounting social and political tensions, and a general feeling of uncertainty about the future.”

Referring to the world’s current economic status as “the Fourth Industrial Revolution,” the report lists ways that economic gains can reach more of the world’s population. The list includes business that can carry out innovations, but also ” sound institutions, both public and private; basic infrastructure, health, and education; macroeconomic stability; and well-functioning labor, financial, and human capital markets.”

Here’s the top 10, along with the percentage that separates them from the world’s best:

1. Switzerland 0.00% from best

2. Singapore 1.56% from best

3. United States 1.90% from best

4. Netherlands 4.12% from best

5. Germany 4.13% from best

6. Sweden 4.78% from best

7. United Kingdom 5.47% from best

8. Japan 5.63% from best

9. Hong Kong SAR 5.71% from best

10. Finland 6.26% from best

And here are the bottom 10 economies:

129. Congo, Democratic Rep. 43.38% from best

130. Venezuela 43.76% from best

131. Liberia 44.77% from best

132. Sierra Leone 45.58% from best

133. Mozambique 46.11% from best

134. Malawi 47.02% from best

135. Burundi 47.33% from best

136. Chad 49.27% from best

137. Mauritania 49.33% from best

138. Yemen 52.84% from best

To compile the index, the Swiss-based World Economic Forum uses 12 economic “pillars” that range from four basic requirements — a country’s institutions; infrastructure; macroeconomic environment; and its health and primary education — to other factors: higher education and training; goods market efficiency; labor market efficiency; financial market development; technological readiness; market size; business sophistication; and innovation.

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