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PODCAST: Drought hurts corn production, lobstermen at odds

A rotting ear of corn sits on a struggling corn plant in a drought-stricken farm field in Bondurant, Iowa.

The Agriculture Department has just slashed its forecast for corn production this year by a worse the expected 17 percent because of the drought in the Midwest. Corn prices are at record levels and corn is America's biggest crop. But that could part of the problem.

The U.S. drought and expected corn shortage are driving up prices around the globe. And yet federal support for corn ethanol -- a fuel additive -- means some 40 percent of U.S. corn will be turned into ethanol this year. The head of the U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organization has formally asked Americans to give the rest of the world a break, and suspend our ethanol subsidies.

Corn prices may be rising, but lobster prices are at rock bottom lows. And that's causing a cross-border fight between Maine lobstermen and Canadian ones. The Canadian lobsterman have been blocking their American counterparts from dropping off their catch at Canadian processing plants. They don't want to add more lobsters into the mix -- and further depress prices.

More bad news for the U.S. Postal Service. It lost another $5.2 billion last quarter. There's a debate over whether -- and to what extent -- Congress should step in to help.

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau put out new rules governing the companies that service your mortgage. CFPB action director Richard Cordray says even five years after the housing crash, dealing with your mortgage company can still be a nightmare for homeowners. The new rules require mortgage services to improve customer service -- "direct, ongoing access" to staff members to help people trying to stave off foreclosure. Companies are also given a new mandate to quickly correct errors and supply information more quickly than has been the norm. Servicers will be requires to stop foreclosure proceedings if homeowners apply for a loan modification program.

JCPenney said this morning its sales were down 22 percent last quarter. That's the second straight quarter of steep sales declines. And it's being blamed in large part on the company's new pricing strategy, which is, in a nutshell -- no more special sales, just the same low prices everyday.

In tech news,  the rover Curiosity has been on Mars less than a week and yet somehow it's already time to upgrade the operating system. Suffice it to say, it's not getting an advance version of Windows 8. According to the website "Computerworld," there is a good reason for the upgrade: basically, the rover needs to go from "landing mode" to "surface mode. Programmers on earth are just starting the delicate process. With each keystroke, you can bet they're praying they don't see their equivalent of the Windows "blue screen of death."

If you think Apple's automated voice recognizing attendant Siri can a bit bossy, you might like Winston -- a new conversational assitantant that's just been released as a mobile app. So far Winston doesn't have anywhere near the functionality of Siri. But he does have her beat on charm.

This week, the head of the Boston Federal Reserve Bank did something kind of unusual: he said what he thought. Eric Rosengren talked to the Wall Street Journal -- he said he thought the Fed ought to do more to stimulate the economy right now. Whoa. Stand back! In the traditional world of the Fed, this is high drama. Conventionally, the Fed board acts by consensus -- Chairman Ben Bernanke represents them all. But there are board members who aren't quite on board with that "consensus." And lately those folks seem more vocal -- usually through speeches, occasionally through media interviews. Joe Gagnon has held a number of high-ranking staff jobs at the Federal Reserve Board, most recently in 2009. Now he's a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics. He discusses the inner workings of the Federal Reserve committee.

The ink is barely dry on the 2010 Census, but the process of planning and tweaking the next population count is already underway. This week, the Census Bureau unveiled some ideas for changing how it collects data on race and ethnicity.

If you think about things we're not going to be using in the years ahead -- small change like pennies might be one of them. So might DVDs. But if you look at the success of the company Coinstar -- which owns the DVD rental kiosk company Redbox -- you might come to a different conclusion. Both businesses use machines to sell their products rather than human employees.

And finally to Newcastle, Calif., where there were about 60 people dining at a Denny's on Monday when a mysterious woman approached the manager. She said she wanted to pay for everyone's meal. She didn't say why and she was gone before anyone could thank her. The manager says the bill was about $300 -- the woman left a $40 dollar tip.

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