Month: March 2017

Extra Portion of SpaceX Rocket Recovered from Launch, Musk Says

Elon Musk’s SpaceX on Thursday salvaged half of the $6 million nosecone of its rocket, in what the space entrepreneur deemed an important feat in the drive to recover more of its launch hardware and cut the cost of space flights.

Shortly after the main section of SpaceX’s first recycled Falcon 9 booster landed itself on a platform in the ocean, half of the rocket’s nosecone, which protected a communications satellite during launch, splashed down via parachute nearby.

“That was the cherry on the cake,” Musk, who serves as chief executive and lead designer of Space Exploration Technologies, told reporters after launch from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Measuring 43 feet (13 meters) long and 17 feet (5 meters) in diameter, the nosecone is big enough to hold a school bus. It separates into two pieces, exposing the satellite, about 4 minutes after liftoff.


As a test, SpaceX outfitted the fairing with thrusters and a steerable parachute.

“It’s its own little spacecraft,” Musk said. “The thrusters maintain its orientation as it re-enters and then … the parachute steers it to a particular location.”

SpaceX has focused most of its efforts and more than $1 billion into developing technologies to recover the Falcon 9’s main section, which accounts for about 75 percent of the $62 million rocket. Musk’s goal is to cut the cost of spaceflight so that humanity can migrate beyond Earth.

“I hope people will start to think about it as a real goal to establish a civilization on Mars,” he said.

Landing on ‘bouncy castle’

After some debate about whether the nosecone could be recovered, Musk said he told his engineering team, “Imagine you had $6 million in cash on a pallet flying through the air that’s just going to smash into the ocean. Would you try to recover that? Yes, you would.”

Musk envisions deploying a kind of “bouncy castle” for the fairing to land on so it can be recovered intact and reused.

The company plans up to six more flights of recycled boosters this year, including two that will strapped alongside a third, new first stage for the debut test flight of a heavy-lift rocket.

Originally slated to fly in 2013, Falcon Heavy is now expected to fly late this summer.

“At first it sounded easy: We’ll just take two first stages and use them as strap-on boosters,” Musk said. “It was actually shockingly difficult to go from single core to a triple-core vehicle.”

SpaceX also may try to land the rocket’s upper-stage section, a feat the company has never attempted. “Odds of success low, but maybe worth a shot,” Musk wrote Friday on Twitter.

Privately owned SpaceX also is developing a commercial space taxi to fly astronauts to the International Space Station, a venture to send two space tourists on a trip around the moon and a Mars lander that is slated to launch in 2020.

Zika Vaccine Trials Enter Next Phase

U.S. researchers have begun enrolling people in the next phase of testing for a vaccine to protect against Zika, the mosquito-borne virus that can cause birth defects in pregnant women.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institutes of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), told reporters Friday that the Zika vaccine had cleared preliminary safety hurdles and would now be tested on human volunteers to see whether it is effective.

In the study, funded by the U.S. government, researchers aim to enroll more than 2,400 healthy volunteers from areas where mosquitoes carry the Zika virus — parts of the southern United States, Puerto Rico, Brazil, Peru, Costa Rica, Panama and Mexico.

Researchers at the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) said the trial would begin with a small number of people testing different doses or strengths of vaccine. Once the dosage is decided, the larger part of the study could begin by June, when the volunteers will receive either the vaccine or a placebo.

Participants will be monitored for two years to see whether the vaccine protects against Zika infection.

The vaccine being tested is a new type, called a DNA vaccine. Traditionally, vaccines are made using killed or weakened viruses, which increase the recipients’ ability to fight off an active infection.

The DNA vaccine contains no actual virus, but has genes extracted from Zika viruses. Once inside the body, the genes form particles resembling Zika that cannot cause infection. If all goes well, the gene particles should induce volunteers’ immune systems to produce antibodies capable of repelling the full virus.

NIH researchers also are studying more traditional Zika vaccines, but those are not yet ready for human trials.       

The DNA vaccine trial is expected to cost $100 million, but Fauci said the government was in talks with pharmaceutical companies to share the costs of the final stage of testing, in return for rights to manufacture the vaccine in the future.

Zika typically causes no symptoms or only mild ones, such as fever and body aches. If the virus infects a pregnant woman, however, it can result in birth defects in newborns, including microcephaly, which is characterized by an abnormally small head and brain, accompanied by marked developmental disorders.

Zika is primarily transmitted by mosquitoes, but it can also be transmitted via sexual contact.

Snapchat Adds More Accessible Search Feature

Snap Inc. said Friday that its Snapchat messaging app would add an option for users to search through photos and videos that users have posted to the public.

The move came days after larger rival Facebook Inc. stepped up efforts to encourage users to take more photos and edit them with digital stickers that show the influence of Snapchat.

Snapchat will enable users to search for photos and videos known as “Snaps” posted to the “Our Story” option on the app, by creating new “Stories” using machine learning technology, the company said in a blog post.

The “Our Story” option is derived from Snap’s widely copied “Stories” feature that is a slideshow of user content that disappears after 24 hours.

“Our Story” allows users to post their Snaps as part of a larger public collection, which users will be able to search through with the latest update.

For instance, users can use the search feature to find “Snaps” related to events such as local basketball games and topics such as puppies.

The search feature, which was rolled out in some cities Friday, is an addition to curated “Stories,” where public “Snaps” about major events like Wimbledon or the Coachella music festival already appear.

Snapchat popularized the sharing of digitally decorated photographs on social media, especially among teenagers, but faces intense competition from larger Facebook and Facebook-owned Instagram.

Users will now be able to search for over 1 million “Stories” on Snapchat, Snap said, making the app more accessible.

Snap’s shares were up 1.5 percent in afternoon trading, while Facebook’s stock was down marginally.

White House Financial Disclosures: Kushner Retains Scores of Real Estate Holdings

President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and daughter are holding onto scores of real estate investments — part of a portfolio of at least $240 million in assets — while they serve in White House jobs, according to financial disclosures released publicly late Friday.

Jared Kushner, Trump’s senior adviser, resigned from more than 260 entities and sold off 58 businesses or investments that lawyers identified as posing potential conflicts of interest, the documents show.

But his lawyers, in consultation with the Office of Government Ethics, determined that his real estate assets, many of them in New York City, are unlikely to pose the kinds of conflicts that would trigger a need to divest.

“The remaining conflicts, from a practical perspective, are pretty narrow and very manageable,” said Jamie Gorelick, an attorney who has been working on the ethics agreements for Kushner and Ivanka Trump.

Kushner began selling off the most problematic pieces of his portfolio shortly after Trump won the election, and some of those business deals predate what is required to be captured in the financial disclosure forms.

For example, Kushner sold his stake in a Manhattan skyscraper to a trust his mother oversees. Jared Kushner, Ivanka Trump and their three minor children have no financial interest in that trust, his lawyer said.

The Kushner Companies, now run by Jared Kushner’s relatives, are seeking investment partners for a massive redevelopment.

The White House on Friday began released financial disclosure forms for more than 100 or its top administration officials — a mix of people far wealthier, and therefore more entangled in businesses that could conflict with their government duties, than people in previous administrations.

White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer described the business people who have joined the administration as “very blessed and very successful,” and said the disclosure forms will show that they have set aside “a lot” to go into public service.

The financial disclosures — required by law to be made public — give a snapshot of the employees’ finances as they entered the White House. What’s not being provided: the Office of Government Ethics agreements with those employees on what they must do to avoid potential conflicts of interest.

Those documents will never be made public, White House lawyers said, although the public will eventually have access to “certificates of divestiture” issued to employees who are seeking capital gains tax deferrals for selling off certain assets.

Kushner, for example, received certificates of divestitures for his financial interests in several assets, including several funds tied to Thrive Capital, his brother Joshua Kushner’s investment firm.

He and Ivanka Trump built up companies the documents show are worth at least $50 million each and have stepped away from their businesses while in government service. Like the president himself, however, they retain a financial interest in many of them. Ivanka Trump agreed this week to become a federal employee and will file her own financial disclosure at a later date.

Jared Kushner’s disclosure shows he took on tens of millions of dollars of bank debt in 2015 and 2016, including liabilities with several international banks whose interests could come before the Trump administration.

Financial information for members of Trump’s Cabinet who needed Senate confirmation has, in most cases, been available for weeks through the Office of Government Ethics.

The president must also file periodic financial disclosures, but he is not required to make another disclosure until next year.

Georgian Entrepreneurs Look to Silicon Valley for Funding

Boris Kiknadze, chief executive of Pawwwn, took a deep breath as he looked out to the crowd of Silicon Valley venture capitalists and began his pitch.

With just 10 minutes to speak, Kiknadze rapidly described his business idea — Pawwwn, an online payment and management system to make transactions easier for pawnshop owners and their customers. The pain point for pawn shops is payment. Pawwwn takes away that pain, he said.

For months, Kiknadze and his co-founder had developed Pawwwn in his home country of Georgia before getting on a plane for San Francisco. Since the firm launched in March, Kiknadze has had 20 customers trying out the service.

But with 1,400 pawnshops in Georgia and 12,000 more in the U.S., Kiknadze saw a big opportunity. And to achieve that, he needs cash — $1 million, which he said he would use to launch Pawwwn in the U.S.

Competing for investors

Kiknadze is part of Startup Georgia, a project administered by Georgia’s Innovation and Technology Agency, that connects U.S. experts and investors with startups in Georgia.

More than 250 entrepreneurs tried out in Georgia to qualify for a week of training in Tbilisi, the nation’s capital. Among those 50 who participated in the training, 20 were selected for seed funding and three months of additional training with a Silicon Valley expert with weekly videoconferencing meetings.

Of those, eight were chosen to travel to the U.S. for a boot camp and to pitch to investors directly.

Georgia, a country of fewer than 4 million people, is looking to the success of small countries, such as Estonia and Israel, to pitch itself as a burgeoning tech hub, said Mark Iwanowski, founder and president of Global Visions-Silicon Valley, which provided the U.S. support for the program.

For U.S. investors, typically reluctant to invest beyond U.S. tech hubs, there is an opportunity to get more value in overseas companies, where labor costs are lower, he said. To attract these investors, foreign companies need to incorporate in the U.S. and set up a team here.

Over the past week in Silicon Valley, the Georgian entrepreneurs received one-on-one mentorship training as they refined their pitches. They heard from lawyers on protecting intellectual property and listened to venture capitalists talk about how to approach investors.

“If a venture capitalist says they love it, it kind of doesn’t mean anything,” said Steve Goldberg, operating partner at Venrock, a venture firm. “My advice is to have people on the team who understand venture-speak.”

“Understand what the investor is looking for,” said Ron Weissman of Band of Angels, Silicon Valley’s oldest seed fund. He suggested approaching investors seeking a conversation — “I’m not here to raise money. I’m here to get a sense of what it would take to interest you.”

Tech’s next ‘unicorn’?

That is the kind of approach honed by Vamekh Kherkheulidze, founder and medical adviser to ORsim, a Georgian operating room virtual reality simulator.

By slipping on a virtual reality headset and a special glove that gives all the sensations of holding instruments and operating on a person, medical students can better learn how to become surgeons, Kherkheulidze said. And that’s important, because there’s a shortage of surgeons both in the U.S. and worldwide.

From potential investors, ORsim is looking “for supporters,” he said. “We promote new ways of education and we want investors who understand that.”

Still, his ambition is big. “We want to expand and expand fast,” Kherkheulidze said. Already, ORsim, with $35,000 in pre-seed funding from Startup Georgia, has an appendectomy simulator.

“Our hope is to be a unicorn,” Kherkheulidze said, referring to the term used to describe startups worth more than $1 billion in valuation. But in addition to greatly improving surgical training worldwide, he sees his company as a way to help his home country.

“If we are worth $1 billion, you can increase the economy. What was Skype’s influence in Estonia?” he said, referring to the Estonian internet communication service bought by Microsoft for more than $8 billion.

After the pitches, the entrepreneurs mingled with investors. No one got investment on the spot, but most are hopeful and are following up with meetings next week.

British Robot Helps Autistic Children With Social Skills

“This is nice, it tickles me,” Kaspar the social robot tells four-year-old Finn as they play together at an autism school north of London.

Kaspar, developed by the University of Hertfordshire, also sings songs, imitates eating, plays the tambourine and combs his hair during their sessions, aimed at helping Finn with his social interaction and communication.

If Finn gets too rough, the similarly sized Kaspar cries: “Ouch, that hurt me.” A therapist is on hand to encourage the child to rectify his behavior by tickling the robot’s feet.

Finn is one of around 170 autistic children that Kaspar has helped in a handful of schools and hospitals over the last 10 years.

But with approximately 700,000 people in Britain on the autism spectrum, according to the National Autistic Society who will mark World Autism Day on Sunday, the university want Kaspar to help more people.

“Our vision is that every child in a school or a home or in a hospital could get a Kaspar if they wanted to,” Kerstin Dautenhahn, professor of artificial intelligence at the University of Hertfordshire, told Reuters.

Achieving that goal will largely depend on the results of a two-year clinical trial with the Hertfordshire Community NHS Trust, which, if successful, could see Kaspar working in hospitals nationwide.

TRACKS, an independent charity and specialist early-years center for children with autism in Stevenage, have seen positive results from working with Kaspar, who sports a blue cap and plaid shirt for play sessions.

“We were trying to teach a little boy how to eat with his peers. He usually struggled with it because of his anxiety issues,” said deputy principal Alice Lynch. “We started doing it with Kaspar and he really, really enjoyed feeding Kaspar, making him eat when he was hungry, things like that. Now he’s started to integrate into the classroom and eat alongside his peers. So, things like that are just a massive progression.”

Many children with autism find it hard to decipher basic human communication and emotion so Kaspar’s designers avoided making him too lifelike and instead opted for simplified, easy-to-process features.

Autism support groups have been impressed.

“Many autistic people are drawn to technology, particularly the predictability it provides, which means it can be a very useful means of engaging children, and adults too,” Carol Povey, director of the National Autistic Society’s Centre for Autism, told Reuters.

“This robot is one of a number of emerging technologies which have the potential to make a huge difference to people on the autism spectrum.”

Cholera Spreads in Famine-threatened Somalia

Deadly cholera is spreading through drought-ravaged Somalia as clean water sources dry up, a top aid official said, deepening a humanitarian crisis in a country that is on the verge of famine.

The Horn of Africa nation has recorded more than 18,000 cases of cholera so far this year, up from around 15,000 in all of 2016 and 5,000 in a normal year, Johan Heffinck, the Somalia head of EU Humanitarian Aid, said in an email on Thursday.

The current strain of the disease is unusually deadly, killing around 1 in 45 patients.

Somalia is suffering from a severe drought that means more than half of its 12 million citizens are expected to need aid by July. Families have been forced to drink slimy, infected water after the rains failed and wells and rivers dried up.

“We are very close to famine,” Heffinck said.

The Security Information Network (FSIN), which is co-sponsored by the United Nations food agency, said in a report on Friday Somalia was one of four African countries at high risk of famine.

Somalia’s rainy season normally runs from March to May, but there has been no rain this month.

The drought has hit particularly hard in the breakaway northern region of Somaliland, where the rains began to fail in 2015, killing off animals that nomadic families rely on to survive.

‘This is the last bottle’

Listless, skinny children last week lay in crowded wards in the main hospital in the regional capital Hargeisa.

Three-year-old Nimaan Hassid had diarrhea for 20 days before his mother brought him to hospital. He weighs only 6.5 kilograms, less than half the normal weight for his age.

Doctors say he is suffering from severe malnutrition but his grandmother, 60-year-old Fadumo Hussein, told Reuters the family has no money for food or clean water.

“We don’t have mineral water to give to the sick child. This is the last bottle,” she said, carefully pouring it into a feeding tube inserted through his nose.

In the malnutrition ward in the general hospital of Somaliland’s second city Burao, Doctor Hamud Ahmed said children were also being hit hard by diseases like tuberculosis, meningitis and measles.

Children’s admissions reached almost 60 in March, up fourfold from October.

“This is due to the drought,” Ahmed said. “When families lose all their livestock and children do not get milk, this is the famine that causes the children to suffer.”

If the rains fail, the country could tip into famine.

Somalia’s last famine, in 2011, killed more than 260,000 people. Heffinck said aid agencies were working overtime to try to prevent a similar disaster, trucking in clean water and stepping up the distribution of food and cash.

“The big difference this time is that we have started the preparation and scaling up of the relief operations earlier,” he said.

Trump Set to Overturn Online Privacy Protections, Stirring Debate

U.S. President Donald Trump is poised to sign legislation overturning privacy protections for Internet users, a move supporters say will level the playing field for providers but critics argue will hurt consumers.

The bill eliminates Obama-era regulations that required Internet service providers, or ISPs, to get permission before collecting or selling sensitive user data, such as Internet browsing history.

Supporters say the bill will create a more even field for ISPs, which are regulated by the Federal Communications Commission. Other Internet companies, such as Facebook and Google, are managed by the Federal Trade Commission, which places fewer restrictions on how they can collect and sell user data.

“Having two privacy cops on the beat will create confusion within the Internet ecosystem and will end up harming consumers,” said Rep. Marsha Blackburn, a Republican from Tennessee, on Tuesday.

Democrats, groups object 

Supporters also argue that the reaction has been overblown, noting that the Obama-era FCC rules, which had been approved in December, hadn’t even been put in place yet.

The bill passed Congress this week with the overwhelming support of Republicans. White House officials have previously said Trump will sign the legislation, despite objections from Democrats and privacy advocate groups.

“This legislation will seriously undermine the privacy protections of the overwhelming majority of Americans who believe that their private information should be just that — private — and not for sale without their knowledge,” a group of 46 Democratic lawmakers said this week in a letter urging Trump to veto the bill.

Tom Wheeler, the former head of the FCC, wrote an opinion piece for The New York Times calling the repeal a “dream for cable and telephone companies, which want to capitalize on the value of such personal information.”

U.S. Internet companies have long profited from U.S. privacy regulations, which are generally considered weaker than those in parts of the developed world, such as the European Union.

Big companies make big money from data

Companies such as Apple, Microsoft, Facebook and Amazon “profit heavily from the mining of consumer data,” says Evan Swarztrauber with the Internet privacy advocacy group TechFreedom.

“It’s at least arguable that the U.S. has more successful tech firms than the EU because the U.S. has a more relaxed privacy framework, which allows for more innovation and experimentation,” he says.

But profit should not be the only consideration, according to critics, such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital rights group.

“Should President Donald Trump sign S.J. Res. 34 into law, big Internet providers will be given new powers to harvest your personal information in extraordinarily creepy ways,” Ernesto Falcon, a legislative counsel at EFF, said in an online post.

Bill has limited international impact

Falcon slammed lawmakers who “have decided to give our personal information to an already highly profitable cable and telephone industry so that they can increase their profits with our data.”

The bill itself has limited international impact. Falcon says the bigger concern for global web users is state-sponsored surveillance, such as that conducted by the NSA.

“No real amount of commercial deregulation or regulation would offset the loss of privacy rights that state-sponsored surveillance violates in terms of international issues,” he told VOA.


How Ebola Impacted Liberia’s Appetite for Bushmeat

When Ebola struck Liberia, consumption of bushmeat dropped dramatically. But in an odd twist, poorer households cut their consumption much more than well-to-do households.

The findings have implications for public health, as well as wildlife conservation. Education campaigns about the risks and consequences of bushmeat hunting have focused on rural villagers near protected nature reserves.

But, it turns out, the more tenacious consumers may be the wealthier city-dwellers.

Bushmeat — wild animals like monkeys, duikers and pangolins — is an essential protein source for many rural West Africans, but it’s also a favorite of urbanites.

Satisfying that demand has created, in some places, “empty forests” that are otherwise pristine but are devoid of critical wildlife.

In addition, bushmeat can spread diseases like Ebola because, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “human infections have been associated with hunting, butchering and processing meat from infected animals.”

Before the 2015 Ebola outbreak, Jessica Junker and her colleagues at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology based in Leipzig, Germany, had studied Liberians’ preferences for bushmeat compared to chicken or fish.

Tradition, taste

“We asked people, ‘If you were at a party and you could choose the type of meat you could eat there, what would you like to eat?'” Junker told VOA. That scenario aimed to take cost out of the equation.

Bushmeat often topped the list.

People prefer the taste, Junker said. Bushmeat also is often cheaper than domesticated meat. Plus, it’s a traditional part of their diet.

“Many people have told me, ‘Well, we’ve always eaten bushmeat. Our fathers have eaten bushmeat,'” Junker said.

When Ebola hit, she decided it would be a good time to see how attitudes toward eating wildlife had changed.

Bushmeat consumption dropped, as expected. However, it dropped less among wealthier people.

Rich or poor, before Ebola, people said they ate bushmeat every other day on average. During the outbreak, that dropped to once a month among the lowest-income survey respondents, but once a week among the highest-income respondents.

It’s not clear why that should be, but Junker notes that poorer people hunt bushmeat themselves. “During the Ebola crisis, a lot of people didn’t leave their houses,” she said.

In the cities, it was illegal to sell bushmeat. But “there was an underground bushmeat market,” she said. “If you wanted to get bushmeat, you could still get it,” as long as you had money.

Awareness campaigns

The study was published in the journal PLOS Neglected Tropical Diseases.

It presents a challenge for those seeking to preserve wildlife or protect public health.

“If you really like something, you’re not very likely to change that,” Junker said. “Ebola is quite a drastic event, but it doesn’t change your preference. You stop eating it because it’s dangerous.”

She says her group would like to repeat the survey now that the crisis is over. They suspect that people have gone back to their old eating habits.

And, she notes, the study suggests education efforts may need a change in focus.

“Most of the awareness campaigns nowadays are centered around protected areas where the animals actually live. But maybe those are not the people who then consume the bushmeat,” she noted. “It might be people much farther away in the urban centers and who need to be educated about the impact this has.”

Oculus Co-founder Palmer Luckey Leaves Facebook

Palmer Luckey, the co-founder of Facebook’s Oculus virtual-reality business, is leaving the company.

Facebook didn’t give a reason for Luckey’s departure. His last day is Friday.

Luckey, who is 24, is leaving Facebook in the heels of controversies. Earlier this year, a federal jury found that Oculus, Luckey and co-founder Brendan Iribe violating the intellectual property rights of video-game maker ZeniMax Media. The jury awarded $500 million in damages, including $50 million from Luckey.

Luckey was also criticized for a donation of $10,000 to a pro-Donald Trump group called Nimble America, which created offensive memes online during the 2016 election season.

Facebook bought Oculus in 2014 for $2 billion. Oculus makes the stand-alone Rift virtual-reality headset along with the Gear VR headset for Samsung.

Cargo Vessels Evade Detection, Raising Fears of Huge Trafficking Operations

Hundreds of ships are switching off their tracking devices and taking unexplained routes, raising concern the trafficking of arms, migrants and drugs is going undetected.

Ninety percent of the world’s trade is carried by sea. Every vessel has an identification number administered by the United Nations’ International Maritime Organization or IMO. But crews are able to change the digital identity of their ship, making it possible to conceal previous journeys.

The Israeli firm Windward has developed software to track the changes. Its CEO, Ami Daniel, showed VOA several examples of suspicious shipping activity, including one vessel that changed its entire identity in the middle of a voyage from a Chinese port to North Korea.

“It’s intentionally changing all of identification numbers. Also its name, and its size, and its flag and its owner. Everything that’s recognizable in its digital footprint. This is obviously someone who is trying to circumvent sanctions [on North Korea],” says Daniel.

Transfers at sea

In a joint investigation with the Times of London newspaper, Windward showed that in January and February more than 1,000 cargo transfers took place at sea. Security experts fear traffickers are transporting drugs, weapons, and even people.

Suspicious activity can be highlighted by comparing a vessel’s journey with all its previous voyages. In mid-January a Cyprus-flagged ship designed to carry fish deviated from its usual route between West Africa and northern Europe to visit Ukraine, deactivating its tracking system on several occasions.

“It’s leaving Ukraine, transiting all through the Bosphorus Straits into Europe, then drifting off Malta,” explains Daniel, as the Windward system plots the route of the reefer [refrigerated] vessel on the screen. “On the way it turns off transmission a few times … then it comes into this place east of Gibraltar. This area is known for ship-to-ship transfers and smuggling, because of the proximity to North Africa.”

Under global regulations all vessels must report their last port of call when arriving in a new port.

“But as you can understand, when it does ship-to-ship transfers here, it doesn’t actually call into any port, right, because it’s the middle of the ocean. So it’s finding a way to bypass what it already has to report to the authorities,” Daniel said.

Finally the vessel sails to a remote Scottish island called Islay, but again it anchors around 400 meters off a tiny deserted bay. The specific purpose of this voyage hasn’t yet been identified.

Lack of political will

Daniel shows another example of a vessel leaving the Libyan port of Tobruk before drifting just off the Greek island of Crete, raising suspicions that it is involved in people smuggling.

But he says using information like this to investigate suspicious shipping activities requires political will as well as technological advances.

“Regulation, coordination, legislation. And then proof in the court of law. And not all of this necessarily exists. The high seas, which means 200 nautical miles onwards by definition, are not regulated right now. The U.N. is still working on it.”

Meanwhile the scale of smuggling around the United States’ coastline was underlined this month, as the Coast Guard intercepted 660 kilos of cocaine off the coast of Florida, with a street value of an estimated $420 million.



Power-short Zambia Launches Switch to 100 Percent LED Bulbs

Zambia is attempting to convert the nation to energy-saving light emitting diode (LED) lightbulbs to help plug crippling power shortages that have hit mining and agriculture and imposed daily rationing on parts of the country.

If all homes and industries switch to the longer-lasting bulbs, the country could save up to 200 megawatts of electricity annually — about 30 percent of its power deficit — according to the state-owned Zambia Electricity Supply Corporation (ZESCO).

The company is planning to distribute 5 million free LED bulbs by June in exchange for conventional ones, at a cost of $20 million. The aim is to replace every incandescent bulb in the country.

“With such initiative, we are going to save a lot of energy. Just imagine moving from 40 watts energy consumption for an ordinary bulb to … only 5 watts for LEDs,” Thomas Sinkamba, manager of the LEDs rollout at ZESCO, told Reuters.

So far, 3 million of the low-energy bulbs have been bought for $5 million, ZESCO senior manager Bessie Banda said.

The government in January banned the manufacture, sale and import of energy-hungry incandescent lightbulbs and several other inefficient devices.

It has also lifted import taxes on LED bulbs, solar panels and other energy-saving equipment, while imposing taxes on inefficient electrical devices.

Rozaia Mapika, a 53-year old a meat seller living in Lusaka, who received six LED bulbs free in December under the government scheme, said the new lightbulbs have cut her monthly electricity bill.

“We used to spend 300 Zambian kwacha [$30] monthly on electricity [for] household use,” said Mapika, who uses electricity for cooking, heating and lighting.

“Now, we are not exceeding more than 240 ZMW [$25] per month,” she told Reuters.

Some people, however, are concerned about the safe disposal of long-lasting LED bulbs and their impact on people’s health.

“[LED lightbulbs] contain mercury, which is highly toxic even in small doses,” said Robert Chimambo a board member for the Zambia Climate Change Network.

The LED bulbs are more expensive to buy than conventional bulbs, costing $5 compared to $1.50. But they last six times longer, promoters said.

Providing the bulbs free of charge is key to driving the switchover in a country where about 65 percent of the population live on less than $1.90 a day.

Powering a nation

The country’s electricity demand in the last five years has risen to 1,800 megawatts, up from 1,600 megawatts, as more areas have been electrified, putting increased pressure on the national electricity grid, according ZESCO.

The rising demand, coupled with two years of drought that lowered water levels in the country’s hydroelectric dams, have led to the country’s power shortages.

Electricity from the national grid has been rationed for up to six hours a day in parts of the country as a way to cushion the shortfall.

“Increased economic activities and [not enough] rainfall have severely impacted the power deficit,” Sinkamba said.

Insufficient investment in electricity generation has also worsened the country’s power deficits, the ministry of finance said in November.

The demand for power is likely to grow, as the government attempts to roll out electricity supplies to more people.

More than two-thirds of Zambia’s 15.5 million people have no access to any power, according to USAID, the U.S. government’s aid agency, which is working with Zambia to help improve its power supplies.

Justine Mukosa, a manager at the government’s Rural Electrification Authority, said that as demand for power increases nationally, other energy sources will be needed to reduce pressure on the national grid.

“We need to intensify other energy sources like solar mini-grid, wind energy and others,” Mukosa said.

Environmental Groups Sue Trump Administration for Approving Keystone Pipeline

Several environmental groups filed lawsuits against the Trump administration on Thursday to challenge its decision to approve construction of TransCanada Corp’s controversial Keystone XL crude oil pipeline.

In two separate filings to a federal court in Montana, environmental groups argued that the U.S. State Department, which granted the permit needed for the pipeline to cross the Canadian border, relied on an “outdated and incomplete environmental impact statement” when making its decision earlier this month.

By approving the pipeline without public input and an up-to-date environmental assessment, the administration violated the National Environmental Policy Act, groups including the Center for Biological Diversity, Sierra Club and the Northern Plains Resource Council said in their legal filing.

“They have relied on an arbitrary, stale, and incomplete environmental review completed over three years ago, for a process that ended with the State Department’s denial of a cross-border permit,” the court filing says.

In the other filing, the Indigenous Environmental Network and North Coast Rivers Alliance sought injunctive relief, restraining Transcanada from taking any action that would harm the “physical environment in connection with the project pending a full hearing on the merits.”

Trump surrounded by supporters

U.S. President Donald Trump announced the presidential permit for the Keystone XL at the White House last week. TransCanada’s Chief Executive Officer Russ Girling and Sean McGarvey, president of North America’s Building Trades Unions, stood nearby.

Trump, a Republican, said the project would lower consumer fuel prices, create jobs and reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil.

His Democratic predecessor, former president Barack Obama, rejected the pipeline, saying it would lead to an increase in greenhouse gas emissions and do nothing to reduce fuel prices for U.S. motorists.

“This tar sands pipeline poses a direct threat to our climate, our clean water, wildlife, and thousands of landowners and communities along the route of this dirty and dangerous project, and it must and will be stopped,” said Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club, one of the groups that filed the lawsuit.

Earlier lawsuit targets coal leases

The lawsuits came on the heels of a lawsuit filed on Wednesday challenging other recent moves to undo Obama’s climate change regulations.

Conservation groups and the Northern Cheyenne Native American tribe of Montana sued the administration on Wednesday for violating the National Environmental Policy Act when it lifted a moratorium on coal leases on federal land.

All lawsuits have been filed in U.S. District Court in Montana’s Great Falls Division.

New York Report: Trump Tax Proposal Would Mostly Benefit Wealthy

Nearly all of New York City’s millionaires would receive big tax cuts under President Donald Trump’s proposed tax overhaul, while more than one-third of moderate- and middle-income families would face increases, according to a government report issued Thursday.

City Comptroller Scott Stringer said Trump’s overall plan, as proposed during the Republican president’s campaign, would give more than $5 billion of tax cuts to city dwellers. But almost two-thirds of that would go to those earning more than $500,000. That group bears just over one-half of the total tax burden.

“We already have astounding wealth gaps across the city and across the country,” Stringer said at a news conference. “The Trump tax code, if implemented, would only exacerbate it.”

The lower taxes for wealthier residents would be achieved through lower marginal tax rates on ordinary and capital gains income and the elimination of the alternative minimum tax (AMT) — a federal income tax that’s required in addition to baseline income tax for certain individuals or entities for which exemptions allow lower payments of standard income tax.

Last week, U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said Trump’s objective was a tax cut for the middle class, not the top 1 percent. He said he was aiming for passage of a comprehensive tax overhaul by the time Congress takes its August recess.

Six-figure tax cut

Stringer’s office analyzed tax returns of 365,000 New York City households. It found that 92 percent of the city’s millionaires would receive, on average, a tax cut of at least $113,000.

Nearly half of single parents who make $25,000 to $50,000 would experience a tax increase, it said.

The tax cuts, which would reduce federal revenue by more than $2 trillion over 10 years, are driving proposed budget cuts that would leave the city, home to 60,000 homeless people, with a weakened social safety net, Stringer said.

“I find it incredible that this guy, who comes from New York City, who has major investments here, can’t see what his proposal will do to his hometown,” he said. “And then when you scratch the surface, you realize that part of his agenda and who benefits from it is Donald Trump himself.”

Based on the limited information available from Trump’s now-public 2005 federal tax return, his proposal to eliminate the AMT would have benefited him by $31 million that year. In contrast, under his tax plan, a single mother raising two children on less than $50,000 a year would face a tax increase of $464.

White House Defends Plan to Eliminate Obama-era Internet Privacy Rules

The White House on Thursday defended a bill recently passed by Congress to repeal Obama-era internet privacy protections, saying the move was meant to create a fair playing field for telecommunication companies.

White House spokesman Sean Spicer, during a Thursday news briefing, reiterated President Donald Trump’s support for the plan to repeal a rule forbidding internet service providers from collecting personal data on users.

Spicer said the Obama administration’s rules reclassified internet service providers as common carriers, similar to hotels and other retail stores, treating them unfairly compared with edge providers, like Google and Facebook.

Repealing the rules, he said, will “allow service providers to be treated fairly and consumer protection and privacy concerns to be reviewed on a level playing field.”

Critics of the repeal bill say it could put the internet browsing histories of private citizens up for sale to the highest bidder.

“Apparently [House Republicans] see no problem with cable and phone companies snooping on your private medical and financial information, your religious activities or your sex life,” said Craig Aaron, president and CEO of net neutrality group Free Press Action Fund. “They voted to take away the privacy rights of hundreds of millions of Americans just so a few giant companies could pad their already considerable profits.”

Win for telecoms

Repealing the rules, which were instituted just prior to last year’s presidential election by the Federal Communications Commission but hadn’t yet taken effect, could be seen as a win for major telecom companies like Verizon and AT&T, which can use the consumer data to target digital ads more effectively.

The companies have said the privacy rules put them at a disadvantage compared with websites like Facebook and Google, which aren’t normally regulated by the FCC and weren’t affected by the rules.

Spicer called the rules “federal overreach” instituted by “bureaucrats in Washington to take the interests of one group of companies over the interests of others, picking winners and losers.”

“[Trump] will continue to fight Washington red tape that stifles American innovation, job creation and economic growth,” Spicer said.

Long Now Foundation Thinks 10,000 Years Ahead

In a cave in a mountain in western Texas, the Long Now Foundation is building a clock – a big clock, 150 meters tall. The clock will tick only once each year, go bong once a century, and once a millennium, it will send out a cuckoo. Its creators plan for it to last at least 10,000 years.

But they’re not doing it just to build a better clock.

“The goal of the Long Now Foundation,” explains its Executive Director Alexander Rose, “is fundamentally to foster long term responsibility and to think about the future in much deeper terms.”

He calls the enormous, slow-ticking timepiece an icon of long-term thinking, one of many projects Long Now has launched on that scale.

“There’s certain problems such as climate change, or education or things like that that can only be solved if you’re thinking on a multi-generational or even longer time frame,” he said.


Ferrets and mammoths

One of those long-term projects is an effort to save the black-footed ferret. This endangered, New World weasel is vulnerable to the old-world disease known as plague.

The Long Now’s Revive and Restore project is exploring how to genetically modify the ferret’s DNA to resist plague.

Rose says that Revive and Restore is also looking for ways to bring back the woolly mammoth. 

“We’re sitting on the cusp of one of the very first times in human history where we can do that. That project has been pulling together different scientists as well as ecologists to figure out not only what species we could do but what we should do to help the environment.”

Disappearing languages are another Long Now priority. This century, thousands of rare human languages may disappear. The Long Now is partnering with linguists and native speakers to preserve these languages on line. The foundation also has created language “decoder rings.” Each of these palm-sized disks, made from long-lasting nickel, holds miniaturized language pages for over 1,000 languages.

University of Colorado archives director Heather Ryan has assisted what’s called the Rosetta Project. She says the Rosetta Disks are a great thought experiment for long-term thinking. And if we ever lose our on-line experts, she says, they may also be practical.

“Looking 10,000 years into the future, somebody could come across and . . . pick up the fact that there’s information etched on here. We can then find clues to all the languages of human civilization over time,” Ryan said.

In the here and now

To foster long-term responsibility, the Long Now Foundation sponsors talks and podcasts with visionaries, such as Dr. Larry Brilliant. The physician and epidemiologist is a former hippie and current philanthropist, who helped the World Health Organization eradicate smallpox.

Audience members say hearing these long-term thinkers gets them thinking about their future. One teenage boy announces, “Eventually, I want to make a difference in the world.” A man in the crowd observes, “We have to have a long-term view in order to have a long term life.”


As for pessimists who wonder, what’s the point of thinking 10,000 years ahead, when the world might not survive another 10 months, another member of the audience answers with a laugh, “Makes you wonder, but you’ve always got to keep your eye on the future or else you’ll be stuck. And you can’t get anything done if you’re stuck.”

By helping people care, dream and do, the Long Now Foundation plans to make the world a better place for a long time to come.

Twitter Eases 140-character Limit in Replies

Twitter has found more creative ways to ease its 140-character limit without officially raising it.


Now, the company says that when you reply to someone – or to a group – usernames will no longer count toward those 140 characters. This will be especially helpful with group conversations, where replying to two, three or more users at a time could be especially difficult with the character constraints.


When users reply, the names of the people they are replying to will be on top of the text of the actual tweet, rather than a part of it.


Last year, Twitter said it would stop counting photos, videos, quote tweets, polls and GIF animations toward the character limit. Twitter also said it would stop counting usernames, but the change did not go into effect until now.


Twitter, which has been struggling to attract new users, has been trying to appeal to both proponents and opponents by sticking to the current limit while allowing more freedom to express thoughts, or rants, through images and other media.


Twitter’s character limit was created so that tweets could fit into a single text message, back in the heyday of SMS messaging. But now, most people use Twitter through its mobile app. There isn’t the same technical constraint, just a desire on Twitter’s part to stay true to its roots.


Of course, there are ways to get around the limit , such as sending out multi-part tweets, or taking screenshots of text typed elsewhere.

The Long Now Thinks Very Far Ahead

In the U.S., people often measure “success” as fifteen minutes of fame, or a blockbuster financial quarter. This focus on short term results doesn’t always build the skills needed to solve long-term problems, such as reducing disease outbreaks or maintaining species diversity. Concerns about the nation’s short attention span have prompted some visionaries to create a playfully serious way to think ahead. From San Francisco, Shelley Schlender reports about the Long Now Foundation.

Britain’s Young Royals Promote Conversation on Mental Health

Prince William, his wife Kate and his brother Prince Harry are spearheading a campaign to encourage people to talk openly about mental health issues.


The young royals released 10 films Thursday as part of their Heads Together campaign to change the national conversation on mental health.


The videos feature celebrities and members of the public talking about the breakthrough conversation that helped them come to terms with their mental health problems.


The former England cricket captain Andrew Flintoff and former Prime Minister Tony Blair’s spin doctor Alastair Campbell are among those seen speaking about their experiences of anxiety or depression.


The films can be viewed on the Heads Together website and YouTube page.


Vote to Repeal US Broadband Privacy Rules Sparks Interest in VPNs

The vote by the U.S. Congress to repeal rules that limit how internet service providers can use customer data has generated renewed interest in an old internet technology: virtual private networks, or VPNs.

VPNs cloak a customer’s web-surfing history by making an encrypted connection to a private server, which then searches the Web on the customer’s behalf without revealing the destination addresses. VPNs are often used to connect to a secure business network, or in countries such as China and

Turkey to bypass government restrictions on Web surfing.

Privacy-conscious techies are now talking of using VPNs as a matter of course to guard against broadband providers collecting data about which internet sites and services they are using.

“Time to start using a VPN at home,” Vijaya Gadde, general counsel of Twitter Inc, said in a tweet on Tuesday that was retweeted by Twitter Chief Executive Jack Dorsey.

Gadde was not immediately available for comment. Twitter said she was commenting in her personal capacity and not on behalf of the company.

The Republican-led U.S. House of Representatives voted 215-205 on Tuesday to repeal rules adopted last year by the Federal Communications Commission under then-President Barack Obama to require broadband providers to obtain consumer consent before using their data for advertising or marketing.

The U.S. Senate, also controlled by Republicans, voted 50-48 last week to reverse the rules. The White House said President Donald Trump supported the repeal measure.

Supporters of the repeal said the FCC unfairly required internet service providers like AT&T Inc, Comcast Corp and Verizon Communications Inc to do more to protect customers’ privacy than websites like Alphabet Inc’s

Google or Facebook Inc.

Critics said the repeal would weaken consumers’ privacy protections.

VPN advantages, drawbacks

Protected data includes a customer’s web-browsing history, which in turn can be used to discover other types of information, including health and financial data.

Some smaller broadband providers are now seizing on privacy as a competitive advantage. Sonic, a California-based broadband provider, offers a free VPN service to its customers so they can connect to its network when they are not home. That ensures that when Sonic users log on to wi-fi at a coffee shop or hotel, for example, their data is not collected by that establishment’s

broadband provider.

“We see VPN as being important for our customers when they’re not on our network. They can take it with them on the road,” CEO Dane Jasper said.

In many areas of the country, there is no option to choose an independent broadband provider and consumers will have to pay for a VPN service to shield their browsing habits.

Private Internet Access, a VPN provider, took a visible stand against the repeal measure when it bought a full-page ad in the New York Times on Sunday. But the company, which boasts about a million subscribers, potentially stands to benefit from the legislation, acknowledged marketing director Caleb Chen.

VPNs have drawbacks. They funnel all user traffic through one point, so they are an attractive target for hackers and spies. The biggest obstacle to their routine use as a privacy safeguard is that they can be too much of a hassle to set up for many customers. They also cost money.

“The further along toward being a computer scientist you have to be to use a VPN, the smaller a portion of the population we’re talking about that can use it,” said Ernesto Falcon, a legislative counsel for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which opposed the bill.

Montana Tribe Sues Trump Administration Over Coal Decision

A Native American tribe in Montana filed a lawsuit against the Trump administration Wednesday, challenging its decision to lift a moratorium on coal leases on public land without first consulting with tribal leaders.

The Northern Cheyenne Tribe, located in southern Montana, said the administration lifted the moratorium without hearing the tribe’s concerns about the impact the coal-leasing program has on the tribe, its members and lands.

Earlier this month, the tribe sent a letter to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, who signed the order lifting the moratorium Tuesday, asking to meet with him to discuss the issue. Zinke did not respond to the letter.

“It is alarming and unacceptable for the United States, which has a solemn obligation as the Northern Cheyenne’s trustee, to sign up for many decades of harmful coal mining near and around our homeland without first consulting with our Nation,” Tribal Chairman Jace Killsback said.

Although coal leasing can resume on federal lands, Killsback said the tribe, which filed the lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Great Falls, Montana, will bear the brunt of the impact.

“The Northern Cheyenne rarely shares in the economic benefits to the region generated by coal industry and other energy development projects,” he said.

Approximately 426 million tons of federal coal are located near the Northern Cheyenne Reservation at the Decker and Spring Creek mines in Montana, the tribe said.

Neighboring tribe, the Crow, rely on coal production to support their local economy and have called for the relaxation of coal regulations for years.

In a press call Wednesday, Zinke said the new executive orders are a boon for the Crow people, who rely on coal as their predominant industry.

“A war on coal is a war on the Crow people,” he said. He did not respond to a query about the Northern Cheyenne lawsuit.

In a separate lawsuit filed Wednesday by environmental group Earthjustice, a coalition of conservation groups challenged the administration’s moratorium decision, arguing that it imperils public health for the benefit of coal companies.

“No one voted to pollute our public lands, air or drinking water in the last election, yet the Trump administration is doing the bidding of powerful polluters as nearly its first order of business,” Earthjustice attorney Jenny Harbine said in a statement.

China Objects to THAAD, South South Korea’s Tourism, Imports Suffer

Beijing’s reported economic retaliation against South Korea for deploying the U.S. Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile system continues to target certain sectors, like imports of Korean cosmetics, canceling K-pop concerts, and a ban on Chinese tour groups to South Korea.

At Seoul’s Namsam Tower, smaller than usual crowds gather to watch the daily Korean cultural performances and to look out at the sprawling modern metropolis from the highest point in the city.

Buses of visitors from countries like Malaysia, Vietnam and Hong Kong still arrive at this popular site, but there are fewer visitors overall than in the past because Chinese tourists have virtually disappeared in the last month.

Fewer Chinese visitors

Chinese tourists accounted for nearly half of the 17 million visitors to South Korea last year. But the latest government figures indicate the number of tourists from China fell by nearly 20 percent in March. Local travel agencies, airlines, hotels, cruise lines, and duty-free operators have all been affected.

WATCH: Video report by Brian Padden

In Seoul, some tour groups and restaurants that cater exclusively to Chinese visitors have temporally shut down. Even travel agencies not directly affected by the abrupt decline of Chinese visitors are worried this could hurt South Korea’s image as a tourist destination.

“While it is comfortable for me to work as a tour guide because my guests do not need to line up and can avoid the inconvenience, it is always good to have many tourists visiting South Korea. It is sad,” said Kim Sun-hee, a Malaysian tour group guide.

THAAD reprisal

Chinese officials have objected to the advance weapons system as an unnecessary and provocative regional military escalation, and voiced concern that the system’s powerful radar could be used to spy on them and other countries as well. Washington and Seoul insist THAAD is needed to defend against North Korea’s increasing nuclear and missile capabilities.

Beijing has also been accused of limiting some imports of Korean cosmetics and other products, and canceling K-pop concerts. Shares of the Korean cosmetics conglomerate AmorePacific dropped significantly in the wake of the reported Chinese retaliation, as did the stock value of the Korean automaker Hyundai after photos of a vandalized Hyundai car circulated widely on Chinese social media.

And the Lotte Group, the South Korean department store chain that provided the military with a plot of land for the THAAD deployment has had more than 50 of its stores closed in China.

Quiet pressure

Beijing has not acknowledged imposing a tourist ban, but travel agencies in Seoul have been told by their partners in Beijing that tours have been canceled because of pressure from the China government.

Shon Ho-kwon, the president of Modetour International Inc. in Seoul, said he was told officials from the China National Tourism Administration contacted virtually every travel agency and “made a verbal warning that there will be many disadvantages if (the agencies) continued selling South Korea tourism products.”

“There is no document to prove this, but clearly it is understood that China is making such suggestions,” Shon said.

A prolonged dispute between South Korea and China, its largest trading partner, could significantly hurt both economies in the long run.

“South Korea last year had about $4 billion in investment in China. China had about $2 billion that they invested in South Korea,” said James Kim, research fellow at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul.

But there is no resolution in sight with some travel agencies reporting no Chinese reservations for the upcoming spring holidays, which had been the busiest tourist season of the year.

Youmi Kim contributed to this report.