Month: August 2017

US Agency Names 4 Firms to Build Border Wall Prototypes

U.S. Customs and Border Protection selected four construction companies Thursday to erect prototypes of the Mexican border wall that President Donald Trump has said he intends to build to deter illegal immigration and smuggling.

The four firms, from four different U.S. states, are to build solid-concrete prototypes of the border wall within 30 days, once they are given a notice to proceed. Those four sample walls will then be tested for strength and “permeability,” according to the agency’s acting deputy commissioner, Ronald Vitiello.

The border protection agency is separately screening applicants for other contracts to build prototype walls made from alternate materials.

Trump has said he thinks the 10-meter-tall wall should have windows, or even be fully transparent, so Border Patrol officers in the United States can observe suspicious activities on the other side of the barrier.

“We’re going to use all the things that we think will work the best,” Vitiello said.

Thursday’s announcement was the latest step forward in a bureaucratic process that has been delayed multiple times. The administration once said construction of the full border wall would begin in June, but it was not until mid-March that the first requests for proposals went out to contractors, seeking conceptual designs for the border barrier, which has been shrouded in political controversy.

Congress has appropriated $20 million to CBP for use in preparing the prototypes, both of concrete and other materials. No funds have yet been budgeted for the full border wall, likely a multibillion-dollar undertaking that would be one of the largest public works projects in U.S. history.

The four companies selected Thursday to build concrete prototypes were Caddell Construction of Montgomery, Alabama; Fisher Industries of Tempe, Arizona; Texas Sterling Construction of Houston; and W.G. Yates & Sons of Philadelphia.

Tesla Starts Production of Solar Cells in Buffalo, New York

Tesla Inc. is starting production of the cells for its solar roof tiles at its factory in Buffalo, New York.


The company has already begun installing its solar roofs, which look like regular roofs but are made of glass tiles. But until now, it has been making them on a small scale near its vehicle factory in Fremont, California.


Tesla’s Chief Technical Officer, JB Straubel, says the company now has several hundred workers and machinery installed in its 1.2 million-square-foot factory in Buffalo.


“By the end of this year we will have the ramp-up of solar roof modules started in a substantial way,” Straubel told The Associated Press Thursday. “This is an interim milestone that we’re pretty proud of.”


The Buffalo plant was originally begun by Silevo, a solar panel startup, on the site of an old steel mill. Solar panel maker SolarCity Corp. bought Silevo in 2014. Then Tesla acquired SolarCity for around $2 billion late last year.

SolarCity was run by cousins of Tesla CEO Elon Musk, who sat on SolarCity’s board.


“This factory, and the opportunity to build solar modules and cells in the U.S., was part of why this project made sense,” Straubel said.


Tesla’s partner, Panasonic Corp., will make the photovoltaic cells, which look similar to computer chips. Tesla workers will combine the cells into modules that fit into the roof tiles. The tiles will eventually be made in Buffalo as well, along with more traditional solar panels. Panasonic is also working with Tesla at its Gigafactory battery plant in Nevada.


Straubel says Tesla eventually hopes to reach 2 gigawatts of cell production annually at the Buffalo plant. That’s higher than its initial target of 1 gigawatt by 2019. Straubel said Tesla has been working on making the factory more efficient.


One gigawatt is equivalent to the annual output of a large nuclear or coal-fired power plant, Straubel said, “so it’s like we’re eliminating one of those every single year.”


Straubel wouldn’t say how many customers have ordered solar roof tiles, but said demand is strong and it will take Tesla through the end of next year to meet its current orders. Both he and Musk have had the tiles installed on their roofs.


Tesla shares were up less than 1 percent to $355.65 in afternoon trading.

French Labor Reform Gives Firms Flexibility

The French government said on Thursday it would cap unfair dismissal payouts and give companies more flexibility to adapt pay and working hours to market conditions in a labor reform France’s biggest union said was disappointing.

The reform, President Emmanuel Macron’s first major policy step since his election in May, is also the first big test of his plans to reform the euro zone’s second-biggest economy.

For decades governments of the left and right have tried to reform France’s strict labor rules, but have always diluted them in the face of street protests.

The government said in a document presenting the reform that it will make it possible to adapt work time, remuneration and workplace mobility to market conditions based on agreements reached by simplified majority between employers and workers.

Workers compensation for dismissal judged in a labor court to be unfair would be set at three months of wages for two-years in the company with the amount rising progressively depending on how long a worker was with the firm, unions said.

However, normal severance pay would be increased from 20 percent of wages for each year in a company to 25 percent, Liberation reported.

The government consulted with unions for weeks as it drafted the reform, and only the hardline CGT union, the country’s second biggest, said from the start that it would hold a protest, set for Sept. 12.

France’s biggest union, the reformist CFDT, said that it would not call a strike against the reform but described the reform as a missed opportunity to improve labor relations.

“CFDT disappointed,” the union’s leader Laurent Berger told reporters after a meeting with the government, but he added: “Taking to the streets is not the only mode of action for unions.”

Studying Black Holes in a Bathtub

Mysterious black holes, thought to reside in the center of every galaxy, are difficult to study because even the closest one, in the center of our own Milky Way, is still some 27,000 light years away. But researchers at the University of Nottingham’s Quantum Gravity Laboratory have found that some of the physical phenomena linked to black holes can be studied in an ordinary bathtub. VOA’s George Putic has more.

Trump’s Immigrant Crackdown Could Slow Houston Rebuilding

In the coming weeks, as Houston turns its attention to rebuilding areas devastated by Tropical Storm Harvey, people like Jay De Leon are likely to play an outsized role — if they stay around.

De Leon, 47, owns a small construction business in Houston, and he and his 10 employees do exactly the kind of demolition and refurbishing the city will need. But like a large number of construction workers in Texas, De Leon and most of his workers live in the United States illegally, and that could make things complicated.

The Pew Research Center estimated last year that 28 percent of Texas’s construction workforce is undocumented, while other studies have put the number as high as 50 percent. Construction employed 23 percent of working undocumented adults in Texas at the end of 2014, higher than any other sector, according to the Migration Policy Institute.

Undocumented immigrants nervous

However, undocumented immigrants are growing increasingly nervous in Texas because of an immigration crackdown by the Trump administration that has cast a wide net.

In addition, a new Texas law that would have taken effect later this week bars cities from embracing so-called sanctuary policies, where they offer safe harbor to illegal immigrants, and allows local police to inquire about a person’s immigration status. A federal judge Wednesday temporarily blocked most of the law from taking effect.

De Leon, who has lived in the country for 20 years and has two citizen children, says the changes have spooked the city’s migrant workforce. In recent weeks, he said, one of his employees left the state and another returned to Mexico. Both feared that if they stayed they risked arrest.

Departing workers, he says, pose a problem for Houston in the wake of Harvey, which has caused flood damage to commercial buildings, houses, roads and bridges expected to run into tens of billions of dollars.

“The situation that Houston is going through now with the hurricane is going to be the trial by fire for the Republicans and the governor that approved these radical laws,” De Leon said. “They will need our migrant labor to rebuild the city. I believe that without us it will be impossible.”

Undocumented workers perform a wide range of construction jobs, from framing and dry-walling to plumbing and wiring.

Shortage of U.S. trained workers

Stan Marek, chief executive of Marek Construction in Texas, said his company doesn’t hire undocumented immigrants and has long had difficulty finding enough trained U.S. workers.

“It’s a crisis,” Marek said. “We are looking at several thousand homes that have flood damage. There is no way the existing (legal) workforce can make a dent in it.”

Marek would like to see the federal government grant emergency work authorization for undocumented workers in the rebuilding effort, he said. Otherwise, those immigrants are likely to be hired by firms that do not pay payroll taxes or provide benefits like workers’ compensation and legally mandated overtime.

It isn’t yet possible to estimate how many construction jobs will be added in Texas as it rebuilds, but in the 12 months after Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, Louisiana added 14,800 jobs in the sector, U.S. government data shows.

About 25 percent of the construction workers involved in the cleanup of New Orleans were undocumented, according to a study by researchers at Tulane and UC Berkeley universities. Those without papers were “especially at risk of exploitation,” the study found.

Worker exodus

The labor shortages are likely to grow worse, many builders warn. Earlier this year, a group of Hispanic contractors sent a letter to Texas Governor Greg Abbott warning that the pending ban on sanctuary city policies would make it “difficult to find and retain experienced workers.”

Javier Arrias, chairman of the Hispanic Contractors Association de Tejas and one of the letter’s signers, told Reuters that “many construction workers are already moving to other states.”

Abbott’s office did not respond to a request for comment about the role undocumented workers might play in the recovery.

Elizabeth Theiss, president of Houston-based anti-immigration group Stop the Magnet, sees another option besides looking to workers in the country illegally. She says the rebuilding effort should be used to help train U.S. veterans and other citizens who need jobs.

Theiss acknowledged that reconstruction might proceed more slowly, at least initially, if immigrants without work documents are not part of the effort, but she noted that rebuilding would be slow under any scenario.

Personal hardships

Whatever role undocumented people play in rebuilding Houston, they could face hardships rebuilding their own lives.

While the Federal Emergency Management Agency provides emergency food, water and medicine to anyone, regardless of immigration status, cash assistance and other longer term aid is only available to citizens and immigrants in households where at least one family member has legal status.

Immigrant advocates are launching private fundraising drives to help fill the void.

“It is deeply tragic and un-American that so many of those working men and women who will be rebuilding Houston and the rest of the state will be doing so while facing tragedy in their own lives,” said Jose Garza, executive director of the Workers Defense Project.

De Leon said his family was lucky and did not suffer flood damage. He is now busy rounding up supplies for immigrant families stuck at shelters who are afraid to seek out more help from authorities.

In the end, he says, President Donald Trump has to know “it’s going to be impossible to rebuild Houston without the labor force of immigrants. It is illogical, what he says with his words and what really has to happen.”

Michigan, North Dakota Among States Likely to be Hurt by NAFTA Changes

Michigan is likely to be the state most hurt by changes to the NAFTA trade agreement, according to a Fitch Ratings report released Wednesday, as U.S. President Donald Trump renewed threats to scrap the deal.

Trump has threatened three times in the past week to abandon the North American Free Trade Agreement, revisiting his view that the United States would probably have to start the process of exiting the accord to reach a fair deal for his country.

A second round of talks starts Friday in Mexico City to renegotiate the 1994 accord binding the United States, Mexico and Canada.

Business groups have largely praised NAFTA and hope to persuade all three governments to make minimal changes to the pact. U.S.-Canada-Mexico trade has quadrupled since NAFTA took effect in 1994, surpassing $1 trillion in 2015.

Michigan’s auto sector

While several other states export a significant amount of products to Canada and Mexico, Michigan is an outlier in Fitch’s analysis because of the state’s global role in the automotive sector and proximity to Canada, the report said.

Sixty-five percent of the Michigan’s exports went to Canada and Mexico in 2016, totaling 7.4 percent of its gross state product, it said.

“Any state that is particularly export dependent or exposed to trade, if there’s a falloff in trade it’s going to hit income and sales taxes and that’s going to weaken state revenues,” said Michael D’Arcy, a director of U.S. public finance at Fitch. “Cuts would have to be made.”

Anna Heaton, a spokeswoman for Republican Michigan Governor Rick Snyder, said in a statement to Reuters that Canada, Michigan’s No.1 trading partner, has been important to the state’s economic recovery but he understands that sometimes policies need to change.

11 states trade heavily with Canada

According to the report, 11 U.S. states send at least 30 percent of their exports to Canada. By merchandise value, 82 percent of North Dakota’s exports went to Canada in 2016. Forty-three percent of New Mexico’s exports were sent to Mexico.

Several states also import a substantial amount of Canadian goods.

“A unilateral U.S. withdrawal from NAFTA would sharply increase import tariffs overnight, entailing potentially substantial costs for U.S. importers and consumers,” the report said.

Major metropolitan areas could also be affected by U.S. trade policy changes, with Texas’s El Paso MSA, or metropolitan statistical area, left vulnerable to NAFTA changes, the report said. Exports to Canada and Mexico accounted for 91 percent of the MSA’s exports.

US-funded Ethiopian Abattoir Hopes to Help Herders During Drought

An abattoir located among herding communities in Ethiopia’s eastern Somali region, known more for droughts and famine than business opportunities, is an unusual stop for a U.S. aid administrator.

But USAID chief Mark Green stopped at the Jijiga Export Slaughter House (JESH) during a visit to the town of Jijiga on Wednesday to see the effects of a crippling drought that has pushed some areas to the south to the brink of famine.

The abattoir buys goats, sheep, cows and camels for slaughter from herders for export to the Middle East, giving families cash to buy food during the drought.

A $1.5-million loan from Feed the Future, a $1 billion-a-year agricultural program launched during U.S. President Barack Obama’s presidency in 2010, helped purchase refrigerators and trucks for the facility, which employs 100 people from local villages.

To Green, the slaughterhouse represents what USAID can do to help attract private-sector money into investments that boost the productivity of small farmers in developing countries.

While at the abattoir, Green announced 12 countries that will benefit from Feed The Future investments in 2017, signaling that the program will survive proposed deep cuts to USAID’s budget this year.

The 12 countries are Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Ghana, Guatemala, Honduras, Kenya, Mali, Nepal, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal and Uganda.

Green said investments like the Jijinga slaughterhouse not only created markets for American businesses but helped communities out of poverty. Herders can earn as much as $80 per goat when they sell to the slaughterhouse.

“I’m under no illusions; the development journey in many places in the world is a long one, but I want us to always be thinking what we can do that nudges something towards a day when people get to take care of themselves,” he said.

“This is a place where we see some of the benefits and the potential for Feed the Future,” Green added.

JESH Chief Executive Faisal Guhad said the abattoir had been open for a year but was forced to close for three months last year because of the drought.

The facility currently processes about 10,000 animals a month. Guhad said he hoped to quadruple that in the second year of operation.

Demand for Ethiopian goat meat was currently high because of the annual haj pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca, said Guhad.

“We opened at the wrong time. El Nino happened to us and we started again after it rained,” said Guhad. “We’re now in the second month of starting again.”

The facility employs about 108 people from the community and plans to increase hiring to 200, said Guhad.

In the Jijinga area, planting for the March to May rains, known as the belg, is already delayed, and aid workers say they have seen a growing number of women and children at food distribution centers. The hunger crisis is predicted to worsen until the harvest begins in September.

Many parts of the Ethiopian highlands are still recovering from the 2016 drought, which was attributed to the El Niño weather phenomenon in the Pacific Ocean.

Growing Commerce With India Gives Vietnam New Defense Against China

A flood of Indian business in fast-growing Vietnam has solidified commercial ties to help Hanoi upgrade an alliance with a powerful Asian neighbor and offset dependence on its historic rival, the more massive China.

Indian investment in Vietnam has reached $2 billion and bilateral trade hit $10 billion over the year ending in March on its way to $15 billion by 2020, said Radha Krishnan, vice chairman of the Indian Business Chamber of Vietnam.

“As of now that is very easily achievable,” Krishnan said. “The last three … years exports from Vietnam to India have picked up momentum.”

Vietnam has many trade partners

Last year the two countries agreed to upgrade a “strategic partnership,” giving Vietnam more Indian market access, and they will drop import tariffs in 2022 as part of a trade deal with a bloc of Southeast Asian countries.

Those totals hardly match those of Vietnam’s long-time investment sources such as Taiwan, South Korea and China. But their growth offers Vietnam a line to the world’s second-largest country, helping to reduce dependence on China, which is the world’s second-largest economy and Vietnam’s biggest trading partner.

China-Vietnam set a trade target of $100 billion in 2016, but the pair disputes a swathe of the South China Sea. Their dispute sparked clashes in 1974, 1988 and 2014.

“The Vietnamese government, they don’t want to get an unbalanced investment portfolio where any particular country or region is dominant, because then it just unbalances everything else — foreign policy, domestic politics and everything,” said Frederick Burke, partner with the international law firm Baker McKenzie in Ho Chi Minh City.

“As far as people who think about strategic issues are concerned, they would like the Indians to be probably more present in the market, because they’re probably behind mainland China in particular,” he said. “Everybody wants to balance the two out, be friends with both. That’s the ideal situation.”

Robust trade but also continuing disputes with China

Vietnam depends on China for cheap mass market goods, as well as raw materials for export manufacturing. The two Communist countries fought a border war in the 1970s shortly after what was then South Vietnam lost the Paracel Islands to China. That archipelago is part of the South China Sea.

In 2014, the placement of a Chinese oil rig in the South China Sea east of Vietnam touched off a boat-ramming incident and deadly anti-China riots on land. In June, a Chinese military official cut short his Vietnam visit as the host drilled for oil offshore.

Over the past two decades, Indian farming, garment and pharmaceutical investment have reached Vietnam because of its eager partners, Krishnan said. Low-cost but advanced Indian technology has helped Vietnam farm in dry weather, produce sugar and process cashews, he said. Tata Power of India runs a $1.8 billion thermal power plant in Vietnam.

For the past three years, the overseas subsidiary of India’s government-run ONGC has worked with PetroVietnam Exploration Production Corporation to search for oil and gas in the South China Sea.

About 80,000 Indians visit Vietnam every year, often as tourists looking for business opportunities, and 20,000 go the other way, sometimes as travelers to Buddhist landmarks, Krishnan said.

India has its own reasons for strengthening trade with Vietnam

India, for its part, is keen to resist China’s expansion in Asia. The two Asian powers are easing just this week a more than two-month-old military standoff in Bhutan. China claims the area in question, and Bhutan called on India to help when the Chinese came to work on a highway project.

Countries that build trade, investment and economic ties do not always become political allies, but in the India-Vietnam case, that fate is “natural,” said Alexander Huang, strategic studies professor at Tamkang University in Taiwan. China, he added, is unlikely to flinch at India because Vietnam is chasing stronger ties with other powerful countries, as well.

“You don’t need to be a grand strategist to think of diversifying your market,” Huang said. “Of course it will have some kind of impact, but so far I do not see one to the degree that will fundamentally change the Chinese perception over Vietnam, because the United States is improving relationships with Vietnam, Japan is improving relationships with Vietnam.”

A need to resist continued Chinese expansion

Beijing’s “belligerence” and escalation of territorial disputes in the seas to the Bhutan border have “served to bring a coalition of China-wary states closer,” said Mohan Malik,professor at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Honolulu.

Elsewhere in Asia, Indonesia, Myanmar and the Philippines have also tried to balance foreign policies between China and the West, often through trade and investment.

China is expected to keep a special eye out for India’s maritime ties with Vietnam. The Indian oil company could work again in the waters off Vietnam, Krishnan said. Officials in Hanoi, he said, would try to protect that investment and others.

“I don’t think it’s going to be a big problem per se,” said Krishnan. “We are very, very positive that both governments will be able to handle that very, very positively. I don’t think investments made in Vietnam by a foreign country or company will be at risk.”

‘Reprogrammed’ Stem Cells Fight Parkinson’s Disease in Monkeys

Scientists have successfully used “reprogrammed” stem cells to restore functioning brain cells in monkeys, raising hopes the technique could be used in the future to help patients with Parkinson’s disease.

Since Parkinson’s is caused by a lack of dopamine made by brain cells, researchers have long hoped to use stem cells to restore normal production of the neurotransmitter chemical.

Now, for the first time, Japanese researchers have shown that human induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS) can be administered safely and effectively to treat primates with symptoms of the debilitating disease.

So-called iPS cells are made by removing mature cells from an individual — often from the skin — and reprogramming them to behave like embryonic stem cells. They can then be coaxed into dopamine-producing brain cells.

The scientists from Kyoto University, a world-leader in iPS technology, said their experiment indicated that this approach could potentially be used for the clinical treatment of human patients with Parkinson’s.

In addition to boosting dopamine production, the tests showed improved movement in affected monkeys and no tumors in their brains for at least two years.

The human iPS cells used in the experiment worked whether they came from healthy individuals or Parkinson’s disease patients, the Japanese team reported in the journal Nature on Wednesday.

“This is extremely promising research demonstrating that a safe and highly effective cell therapy for Parkinson’s can be produced in the lab,” said Tilo Kunath of the MRC Center for Regenerative Medicine, University of Edinburgh, who was not involved in the research.

The next step will be to test the treatment in a first-in-human clinical trial, which Jun Takahashi of Kyoto University told Reuters he hoped to start by the end of 2018.

Any widespread use of the new therapy is still many years away, but the research has significantly reduced previous uncertainties about iPS-derived cell grafts.

The fact that this research uses iPS cells rather human embryonic stem cells means the treatment would be acceptable in countries such as Ireland and much of Latin America, where embryonic cells are banned.

Excitement about the promise of stem cells has led to hundreds of medical centers springing up around the world claiming to be able to repair damaged tissue in conditions such as multiple sclerosis and Parkinson’s.

While some treatments for cancer and skin grafts have been approved by regulators, many other potential therapies are only in early-stage development, prompting a warning last month by health experts about the dangers of “stem-cell tourism.”

Dream Chaser Spacecraft in Captive-carry Test Over Desert

A test version of a spacecraft resembling a mini space shuttle was carried aloft over the Mojave Desert by a helicopter Wednesday in a precursor to a free flight in which it will be released to autonomously land on a runway as it would in a return from orbit.


Sierra Nevada Corp.’s Dream Chaser craft was lifted off the ground at 7:21 a.m., at NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center on Edwards Air Force Base, California, and was carried to the same altitude and flight conditions it will experience before release in a free flight.


A control team sent commands to the wingless vehicle and collected data before the helicopter brought it down at 9:02 a.m., the company said.


“Everything we have seen points to a successful test with useful data for the next round of testing,” director of flight operations Lee “Bru” Archambault said in a statement.


A second captive-carry test is scheduled this year and if it is successful, a free flight test will follow.


The Dream Chaser is being developed to carry cargo to and from the International Space Station without a crew aboard. The version flown Wednesday is for tests in the atmosphere. The version that will be launched into space is still in development.


With the addition of life-support equipment, a Dream Chaser could transport a crew of seven.


Last month, Sierra Nevada selected United Launch Alliance’s Atlas 5 rocket to launch the first two Dream Chaser cargo missions, which are scheduled to blast off from Cape Canaveral, Florida, in 2020 and 2021. Those missions will land at Kennedy Space Center.


The Dream Chaser is a type of craft known as a “lifting body” in which aerodynamic lift is generated by its shape rather than wings like those of a conventional aircraft. Tail fins angling upward at the rear of the craft provide control.


NASA proved the lifting body concept by flying a series of wingless aircraft at Edwards in the 1960s and ’70s.


The Dream Chaser is 30 feet (9 meters) long, about one quarter the length of a space shuttle.


Sierra Nevada is headquartered in Sparks, Nevada, and the Dream Chaser is being developed by the company’s Louisville, Colorado-based Space Systems business.

Famed T. rex ‘Sue’ Will Get New Look at Chicago’s Field Museum

The world’s biggest T. rex is getting ready for a cutting-edge makeover.

The Field Museum in Chicago said Wednesday that it would take down and remount the 40½-foot-long (12.3-meter) Tyrannosaurus nicknamed Sue, perhaps the world’s most famous dinosaur fossil, in a way that embodies the latest understanding of this ferocious Cretaceous Period predator.

The big T. rex will move to a new exhibition space in the museum, while a cast of the skeleton of the largest-known dinosaur, Patagotitan mayorum, will take the spot Sue now occupies in the museum’s Stanley Field Hall.

Patagotitan, a long-necked, four-legged plant-eater that was 122 feet (37.2 meters) long and weighed 70 tons, lived in Argentina 100 million years ago, more than 30 million years before T. rex stalked western North America. The biggest land animal on record, it was a member of a dinosaur group called titanosaurs.

The museum next spring will unveil the fiberglass Patagotitan skeleton, which is being cast from fossils of seven Patagotitan individuals, and for two years will display some of the genuine fossils, including an 8-foot (2.4-meter) thighbone.

Named for the woman who discovered the fossils in South Dakota in 1990, Sue is the largest, most complete and best-preserved Tyrannosaurus rex ever unearthed. The museum bought the fossils at auction for $8.4 million.

Sue will be taken down in February and put up again with noteworthy changes in anatomy and stance in its new exhibition hall in spring 2019, museum scientists said.

“We are making several adjustments to the skeleton to reflect new and improved knowledge,” said paleontologist Pete Makovicky, the museum’s associate curator of dinosaurs.

The most striking change, Makovicky said, will be the addition of gastralia, bones resembling an additional set of ribs spanning the belly that may have provided structural support to help the dinosaur breathe. Adding these bones will illustrate just how massive Sue was and that it boasted a bulging belly, he added.

The scientists concluded that the bone mounted as Sue’s wishbone was misidentified in 2000, and they will replace it with the dinosaur’s actual wishbone, or furcula, the fused collarbones typical of meat-eating dinosaurs and their evolutionary descendants, the birds.

They also will adjust the ribs to produce a slimmer, less barrel-shaped chest and arrange the right leg so Sue is not crouching as much.

“Often when you do something as expensive as mounting a vertebrate fossil skeleton for display, you only get one shot at it. I’m happy we’re going to fix and update this incredible fossil,” said paleontologist Bill Simpson, who heads the museum’s geological collections.

Lifespan and bite force

Makovicky noted the accumulation of knowledge about T. rex and its cousins since 2000.

“We now know more about tyrannosaur lifespans — around 30 years; how they grew — very fast as teenagers; and using computer models of Sue, we revised their body mass upward to 9 or more tons, from 5 to 7 tons,” Makovicky said.

Ongoing research is examining the molecular composition of cartilage preserved in T. rex bones, and recent studies have shown it possessed the most powerful bite of any land animal ever, Makovicky added.

When the Patagotitan skeleton is mounted, visitors will be able to walk underneath it and touch it. Its head will reach the museum’s second-floor balcony nearly 30 feet (9 meters) up.

Another Patagotitan skeleton is displayed at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

The museum said a $16.5 million gift from the Kenneth C. Griffin Charitable Fund, established by the founder and chief executive of hedge fund firm Citadel LLC, enabled it to carry out Sue’s makeover and add the Patagotitan. The changes coincide with the museum’s 125th anniversary in 2018.

Alexa, Cortana Talk to Each Other in Amazon-Microsoft Deal

Microsoft and Amazon are pairing their voice assistants together in a collaboration announced Wednesday.

Both companies say later this fall, users will be able to access Alexa using Cortana on Windows 10 computers and on Android and Apple devices. They’ll also be able to access Cortana on Alexa-enabled devices such as the Amazon Echo.

Microsoft says the tie-up will allow Alexa customers to get access to Cortana features such as for booking meetings or accessing work calendars. Cortana users, in turn, can ask Alexa to switch on smart home devices or shop on Amazon’s website.

The use of voice assistants is growing. Google and Amazon already have smart speakers on the market. Apple has HomePod coming with its Siri assistant, while Samsung plans one with Microsoft’s Cortana.

Amazon has little to lose from the partnership, and Microsoft’s Cortana — which has been largely limited to laptops — might get discovered by more users because of it, said Carolina Milanesi, a mobile technology analyst at Creative Strategies.

“Cortana might get a little bit more out of it because it gets Cortana out of the PC,” she said. “For Cortana to really get to be more important, it needs to be consistently used every day for different tasks.”

Milanesi said that for Amazon especially, which wants more people to consider Alexa as their first choice, the partnership also might be designed to send a message to customers and rivals.

“They both get something out of it, which is mainly showing Apple and Google that they’re willing to work together to get stronger,” Milanesi said.

US Economic Growth Upgraded to 3 Percent Rate in Q2

The U.S. economy rebounded sharply in the spring, growing at the fastest pace in more than two years amid brisk consumer spending on autos and other goods.


The gross domestic product, the broadest measure of economic health, grew at an annual rate of 3 percent in the April-June quarter, the Commerce Department reported Wednesday. It was the best showing since a 3.2 percent gain in the first quarter of 2015.


The result is a healthy upward revision from the government’s initial estimate of 2.6 percent growth in the second quarter. The growth rate in the January-March quarter was a lackluster 1.2 percent.


Improvements in consumer spending, particularly on autos, and business investment powered second-quarter growth. Those revisions offset a bigger drag from spending by state and local governments.

This was the second of three estimates the government will provide for second quarter growth. Even with the upward revision, the weak start to the year means that growth over the past six months has averaged 2.1 percent, the same modest pace seen for the recovery that began in mid-2009.


During last year’s presidential campaign, Donald Trump attacked the Obama administration’s economic record, pledging to double GDP growth to 4 percent or better. His first budget, sent to Congress earlier this year, projects growth rates will climb to a sustained annual rate of 3 percent, a goal that many private economists believe is still too optimistic.

 The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office sees growth averaging 1.9 percent over the next decade, a forecast much closer to estimates made by private economists.


Many economists had been forecasting growth in the current July-September quarter would be around 3 percent. Some are now saying that the devastation from Hurricane Harvey could shave about a half-percentage point off growth this quarter. However, analysts believe the pace of growth will bounce back once the rebuilding begins and oil refineries get back to full production, bringing down prices.

For the entire year, Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s Analytics, is forecasting growth of 2.1 percent. That would mark an improvement over last year when the economy grew a meager 1.5 percent, the poorest showing since 2009 when GDP shrank by 2.9 percent.

Zandi is forecasting that growth in 2018 will be an even stronger 2.8 percent. But he said 0.4 percentage point of that forecast reflects an assumption that the Trump administration will win a tax cut package that will take effect in early 2018. The economy will also be boosted by higher spending on the military and infrastructure projects, he said.


“For the first time since the Great Recession ended in mid-2009, the economy is not facing any significant headwinds,” Zandi said.



Source: US Sanctions on Venezuela Oil Company CFO Tangle Financial Deals

U.S. sanctions on the finance boss of Venezuela’s oil company PDVSA have led to some exports to the United States being blocked as banks and investment funds refuse to provide letters of credit to potential buyers, three financial sources said.

U.S. businesses are barred from dealing with a sanctioned person or company and one of the sources said the sanctions on PDVSA’s Finance Vice President Simon Zerpa were deterring some businesses from investments with the company as so many of its transactions are linked to the finance department he leads.

A Venezuelan oil shipment to the United States was blocked this month as lenders refused to provide letters of credit to PDVSA customers, the sources said.

Letters of credit, issued by banks, guarantee to a seller that a buyer will pay a specified amount on time when a shipment is accepted. Without a letter of credit, shipments cannot be delivered and the shipper does not get paid. Blocking letters of credit for PDVSA oil chokes off cash that is desperately needed in the OPEC nation.

Petróleos de Venezuela, S.A., commonly known as PDVSA, is the financial motor of President Nicolas Maduro’s leftist government, and it is operating within one of the deepest economic recessions Venezuela has ever experienced and widespread political unrest.

In one instance, U.S. refiner PBF Energy was unable to get a letter of credit for a Venezuelan crude cargo to be received at a U.S. port.

The Suezmax tanker Karvounis has been anchored in the U.S. Gulf for more than a month. It partially discharged its cargo on Aug. 23 in New Orleans, according to Thomson Reuters vessel tracking data. A trader close to the deal said PBF Energy ultimately agreed to a prepayment, removing the need for a credit letter. It was unclear what would happen with the rest of the cargo.

Some U.S. customers can import without a letter of credit if they pay up front.

In July, the United States imposed sanctions on 13 senior Venezuelan officials, including the head of Venezuela’s army, the national police chief, the director of elections, and Zerpa.

At the time, a U.S. official warned that the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump was readying tougher measures that could be part of a “steady drumbeat” of responses to the Venezuelan crisis.

The most serious potential future step would be financial sanctions that would halt dollar payments for the country’ oil, starving the government of hard currency, or a total ban on oil imports to the United States, Venezuela’s biggest customer.

This month the United States imposed its first economic sanctions on Venezuela, banning debt trades for government-issued bonds and bonds issued by PDVSA. 

The problem could spread to more cargoes if banks refuse to extend credit to companies that have a commercial relationship with PDVSA, the sources said.

The sources said foreign oil companies funding projects in Venezuela and financial entities negotiating with PDVSA were avoiding signing agreements that could involve Zerpa.

Major oil company China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) has pulled back from funding some operations at its joint venture in Venezuela, a source at PDVSA said.

Neither PDVSA nor the Information Ministry responded to requests for comment. Zerpa was not immediately available to comment.

“PDVSA will face additional trouble just by keeping a sanctioned individual as CFO,” said Jorge Piedrahita, chief executive of broker-dealer Gear Capital Partners, who has been involved with Venezuelan debt for many years.

“Even the Russians and China’s Development Bank should be worried about signing something with him as they can be subject to collateral damage from sanctions just by association.”

A close Maduro ally, Zerpa, 34, rose to prominence by leading the bilateral Venezuela-China fund through which Caracas borrows from Beijing and repays loans in oil and fuel. Venezuela has borrowed over $60 billion from China, earning Zerpa the nickname “Zerpa the Chinese.”

Two additional financial sources said having Zerpa as the company’s head of finance had made it impossible for U.S. entities to assist PDVSA in debt refinancing, even before the U.S. economic sanctions.

Even basic activities, such as a conference call with bondholders, are now essentially unthinkable, the sources said.

Sanctions against Zerpa are having a knock-on effect on Wall Street, affecting imports of food and medicine to Venezuela made through funds headed by Zerpa, according to Delcy Rodriguez, president of Maduro’s new legislative assembly.

“This wasn’t done to affect Venezuelan officials but rather the entire population,” Rodriguez said on Monday.

Zerpa has held several high-profile posts including heading Venezuela’s state economic development bank Bandes and off-budget investment fund Fonden.

Opposition lawmakers have said he is an example of how the late Hugo Chavez’s “21st century socialism” has allowed unprepared political figures to wield power over financial deals.

“I have a negative opinion of him because of the way he handled the Chinese fund,” said opposition lawmaker Angel Alvarado, describing Zerpa as Maduro’s “finance tsar.”

U.S. pressure could force PDVSA to remove Zerpa from his post, at least on paper. However, PDVSA has had issues in the past that have led investors to tread cautiously with Venezuela.

“In part, the sanctions codify an already existing situation in which PDVSA and the Republic have little to no access to international financial markets due to the combination of political risk, unsustainable policies, concerns about legality

of new issues and reputational risk from providing funds to the Venezuelan government,” investment firm Torino Capital wrote in a report to clients after Friday’s sanctions.

Trump to Promote Tax Reform

U.S. President Donald Trump is traveling to the state of Missouri to try to build support for his goal of reforming the country’s tax code.

Administration officials say the president will focus on explaining the need for tax reform, but not the specifics of a plan to do so, during a speech Wednesday in the city of Springfield.  They say he will promote tax cuts as a way to help American workers.

Trump has in the past proposed cutting the corporate tax rate from 35 percent to 15 percent.

The U.S. tax code has not undergone a significant overhaul since 1986.

Trump’s Republican Party controls both houses of the U.S. Congress, but failed in its earlier efforts to overhaul another major program as leaders were unable to get enough votes to change the health care system.

Study: Cities and Companies Team Up to Tackle Urban Water Crises

With rising urban populations and ever scarcer water supplies, cities and companies are teaming up to invest billions of dollars in water management projects, a report said on Tuesday.

Around two thirds of cities from London to Los Angeles are working with the private sector to address water and climate change stresses with 80 cities seeking $9.5 billion of investment for water projects, according to a report by the Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP), a non-profit environmental research group.

Water investment opportunities are greatest in Latin America, with Quito in Ecuador seeking $800 million to manage its water supply, including building three hydropower stations and cleaning up its contaminated rivers and streams.

City in India prepares for future

The cities most concerned about their water supply lie in Asia and the Pacific, the report found, with serious risks also identified in Africa and Latin America.

The key issues for cities include declining water quality, water shortages and flooding.

The Indian city of Chennai faced extreme floods in 2015 which killed hundreds and left survivors without access to clean water, while businesses were also severely disrupted.

The city is now investing in boosting its resilience to future water crises, with water conservation education, building a storm water management system and new infrastructure.

“We are seeing critical shifts in leadership from cities and companies in response to the very real threat of flooding, for example, to local economies,” said Morgan Gillespy, head of CDP’s Water Program.

Climate change is another underlying threat to all cities with an increase in extreme weather events from droughts to floods, with cities in North America more concerned than those in Europe, the report found.

Tropical Storm Harvey, pounding the U.S. Gulf Coast, has killed at least eight people, led to mass evacuations and paralyzed Houston, the fourth most-populous U.S. city.

The storm is most likely linked to climate change, said the U.N. weather agency.

Companies are also concerned about the effects of climate change on water supplies, with $14 billion of water impacts such as loss of production reported by companies last year, the report found.

WATCH: Worrying About Water

UN predicts global water shortfall

The United Nations predicts a 40 percent shortfall in global water supply by 2030, while global demand is set to increase by 55 percent due to growing domestic use, manufacturing and electricity generation.

“From our work with cities around the world, water has consistently come up as a key resilience challenge,” said Claire Bonham-Carter, Principal and City Resilience Lead at AECOM, a global infrastructure firm and partner on the report.

“Many of them, regardless of size, from Mexico City, Mexico to Berkeley, California, are addressing both long-term water supply issues as well as chronic urban flooding.”

World’s Biggest Drone Drug Deliveries Take Off in Tanzania

Tanzania is set to launch the world’s largest drone delivery network in January, with drones parachuting blood and medicines out of the skies to save lives.

California’s Zipline will make 2,000 deliveries a day to more than 1,000 health facilities across the east African country, including blood, vaccines and malaria and AIDS drugs, following the success of a smaller project in nearby Rwanda.

“It’s the right move,” Lilian Mvule, 51, said by phone, recalling how her granddaughter died from malaria two years ago.

“She needed urgent blood transfusion from a group O, which was not available,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Malaria is a major killer in Tanzania, and children under age 5 often need blood transfusions when they develop malaria-induced anemia. If supplies are out of stock, as is often the case with rare blood types, they can die.

Tanzania is larger than Nigeria and four times the size of the United Kingdom, making it hard for the cash-strapped government to ensure all of its 5,000-plus clinics are fully stocked, particularly in remote rural areas.

The drones fly at 100 kph (62 mph), much faster than traveling by road. Small packages are dropped from the sky using a biodegradable parachute.

The government also hopes to save the lives of thousands of women who die from profuse bleeding after giving birth.

Tanzania has one of the world’s worst maternal mortality rates, with 556 deaths per 100,000 deliveries, government data show.

“It’s a problem we can help solve with on-demand drone delivery,” Zipline’s chief executive, Keller Rinaudo, said in a statement. “African nations are showing the world how it’s done.”

Companies in the United States and elsewhere are keen to use drones to cut delivery times and costs, but there are hurdles ranging from the risk of collisions with airplanes to ensuring battery safety and longevity.

The drones will cut the drug delivery bill for Tanzania’s capital, Dodoma, one of two regions where the project will first roll out, by $58,000 a year, according to Britain’s Department for International Development, one of the project’s backers.

The initiative could also ease tensions between frustrated patients and health workers.

“We always accuse nurses of stealing drugs,” said Angela Kitebi, who lives 40 kilometers east of Dodoma. “We don’t realize that the drugs are not getting here on time due to bad roads.”

Are Consumers Ready to Give Augmented Reality a Try?

You might have gotten a taste of “augmented reality,” the blending of the virtual and physical worlds, as you chased on-screen monsters at real-world landmarks in last year’s gaming sensation, “Pokemon Go.”

Upcoming augmented reality apps will follow that same principle of superimposing virtual images over real-life settings. That could let you see how furniture will look in your real living room before you buy it, for instance.

While “Pokemon Go” didn’t require special hardware or software, more advanced AR apps will. Google and Apple are both developing technology to enable that. Google’s AR technology is already on Android phones from Lenovo and Asus. On Tuesday, Google announced plans to bring AR to even more phones, including Samsung’s popular S8 and Google’s own Pixel, though it didn’t give a timetable beyond promising an update by the end of the year.

As a result, Apple might pull ahead as it extends AR to all recent iPhones and iPads in a software update expected next month, iOS 11. Hundreds of millions of AR-ready devices will suddenly be in the hands of consumers.

But how many are ready to give AR a try?

Early applications

Of the dozen or so apps demoed recently for Android and iPhones, the ones showing the most promise are furniture apps.

From a catalog or a website, it’s hard to tell whether a sofa or a bed will actually fit in your room. Even if it fits, will it be far enough from other pieces of furniture for someone to walk through?

With AR, you can go to your living room or bedroom and add an item you’re thinking of buying. The phone maps out the dimensions of your room and scales the virtual item automatically; there’s no need to pull out a tape measure. The online furnishing store Wayfair has the WayfairView for Android phones, while Ikea is coming out with one for Apple devices. Wayfair says it’s exploring bringing the app to iPhones and iPads, too.

As for whimsical, Holo for Android lets you pose next to virtual tigers and cartoon characters. For iPhones and iPads, the Food Network will let you add frosting and sprinkles to virtual cupcakes. You can also add balloons and eyes — who does that? — and share creations on social media.

Games and education are also popular categories. On Apple devices, a companion to AMC’s “The Walking Dead” creates zombies alongside real people for you to shoot. On Android, apps being built for classrooms will let students explore the solar system, volcanoes and more.

Beyond virtual reality

Virtual reality is a technology that immerses you in a different world, rather than trying to supplement the real world with virtual images, as AR does. VR was supposed to be the next big thing, but the appeal has been limited outside of games and industrial applications. You need special headsets, which might make you dizzy if you wear one too long.

And VR isn’t very social. Put on the headset, and you shut out everyone else around you. Part of the appeal of “Pokemon Go” was the ability to run into strangers who were also playing. Augmented reality can be a shared experience, as friends look on the phone screen with you.

Being available vs. Being used

While AR shows more promise than VR, there has yet to be a “killer app” that everyone must have, the way smartphones have become essential for navigation and everyday snapshots.

Rather, people will discover AR over time, perhaps a few years. Someone renovating or moving might discover the furniture apps. New parents might discover educational apps. Those people might then go on to discover more AR apps to try out. But just hearing that AR is available might not be enough for someone to check it out.

Consider mobile payments. Most phones now have the capability, but people still tend to pull out plastic when shopping. There’s no doubt more people are using mobile payments and more retailers are accepting them, but it’s far from commonplace.

Expect augmented reality to also take time to take off.

Climate to Push Forest-eating Beetles to Northern US, Canada, Scientists Predict

Forests in the northeastern United States and southern Canada could be ravaged by tree-killing beetles in coming decades as a warming climate expands the pest’s habitat, a study has found.

Over the next 60 years, southern pine beetles could infest forests in new areas of the United States and Canada, disrupting industries and ecosystems alike, it said.

Warmer winter nights allow spread

The red-brown insects, the size of a grain of rice, known to feast on pine-tree bark, has typically only thrived in the hotter climate of Central America and the southeastern United States.

But in recent years warmer than usual winter nights have allowed it to survive the cold months and spread as far north as the U.S. state of New York. The coldest winter night has warmed by 6 to 7 degrees Fahrenheit (3 to 4 degrees Celsius) over the past 50 years in various parts of the United States, the study’s authors said.

Using computer-based climate models, they predicted the beetles should gradually march north along the Atlantic coast, infesting forests including in the U.S. states of Maine and Ohio all the way to Canada’s Nova Scotia.

Pest moves fast

By 2080, the pest should proliferate to red — and jack-pine forests in a 270,000 square miles (700,000 square km) area of the United States and Canada — roughly the size of Afghanistan, the researchers wrote in Nature Climate Change.

That would not only upend ecosystems, but also disrupt several key industries “in already struggling rural areas,” said lead author Corey Lesk, a researcher at Columbia University in New York.

“Residents of these regions could see a direct hit to their pocketbooks,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation on Tuesday in a phone interview.

Infestations costly to timber industry

Where the southern pine beetle has struck in the past, timber industries have been hard hit.

Infestations of pine beetles have cost an estimated $100 million a year in timber losses from 1990 to 2004 in the southeastern United States, according to the U.S. Forest Service.

Thousands of adult beetles can kill a tree in two to four months as the insects carve S-shaped tunnels under the bark, depriving their host of needed nutrients.

The tourism industry would also likely suffer, said Lesk, with the potential destruction of iconic forests including the Pine Barrens of New Jersey and Long Island.

Europe faces same problem

In Europe, previous research has shown that bark beetles have similarly been chewing through pine and spruce trees in forests from the Swiss Alps to Belarus alongside temperature increases.

Land managers have found the best way to fight off bark beetles has been thinning high-density forests and cutting out infested trees, though with limited success, the researchers said.

“The key question is whether those strategies would be able to keep up with rapid advance of the pest into regions with little or no experience managing it,” Lesk said.


US Spacecraft Readies for Fiery Plunge into Saturn After 13-year Mission

The U.S. space agency’s Cassini spacecraft will end its 13-year mission to Saturn in mid-September by transmitting data until the final moment before it plunges into the ringed planet’s atmosphere, officials said Tuesday.

Cassini, the first spacecraft to orbit Saturn, will make the last of 22 farewell dives between the planet’s rings and surface on Sept. 15. The spacecraft will then burn up as it heads straight into the gas giant’s crushing atmosphere.

Cassini’s final dive will end a mission that provided groundbreaking discoveries that included seasonal changes on Saturn, the moon Titan’s resemblance to a primordial Earth, and a global ocean on the moon Enceladus with ice plumes spouting from its surface.

“The mission has been insanely, wildly, beautifully successful, and it’s coming to an end in about two weeks,” Curt Niebur, Cassini program scientist, said on a telephone conference call with reporters from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California.

Cassini’s final photo as it heads into Saturn’s atmosphere will likely be of propellers, or gaps in the rings caused by moonlets, said project scientist Linda Spilker.

The spacecraft will provide near real-time data on the atmosphere until it loses contact with Earth at 4:54 a.m. PDT (1154 GMT) on Sept. 15, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration said.

Spilker said Cassini’s latest data on the rings had shown they had a lighter mass than forecast. That suggests they are younger than expected, at about 120 million years, and thus were created after the birth of the solar system, she said.

During its final orbits between the atmosphere and the rings, Cassini also studied Saturn’s atmosphere and took measurements to determine the size of the planet’s rocky core.

Cassini has been probing Saturn, the sixth planet from the sun, and its entourage of 62 known moons since July 2004. It has provided enough data for almost 4,000 scientific papers.

Since the craft is running low on fuel, NASA is crashing it into Saturn to avoid any chance Cassini could someday collide with Titan, Enceladus or any other moon that has the potential to support indigenous microbial life.

By destroying the spacecraft, NASA will ensure that any hitchhiking Earth microbes still alive on Cassini will not contaminate the moons for future study.