Month: January 2019

Hit by Sanctions, Asia’s Iran Crude Oil Imports Drop to 3-Year Low in 2018

Iranian crude oil imports by Asia’s top four buyers dropped to the lowest volume in three years in 2018 amid U.S. sanctions on Tehran, but China and India stepped up imports in December after getting waivers from Washington.

Asia’s top four buyers of Iranian crude — China, India, Japan and South Korea — imported a total 1.31 million barrels per day (bpd) in 2018, down 21 percent from the previous year, data from the countries showed.

That was the lowest since about 1 million bpd in 2015, when a previous round of sanctions on Iran led to a sharp drop in Asian imports, Reuters data showed.

The United States reimposed sanctions on Iran’s oil exports last November as it wants to negotiate a new nuclear deal with the country. U.S. officials have said they intend to reduce the Islamic Republic’s oil exports to zero.

On a monthly basis, Asia’s imports from Iran rebounded to a three-month high of 761,593 bpd in December as China and India stepped up purchases after Washington granted eight countries waivers from the Iranian sanctions for 180 days from the start of November.

“We expect Iranian exports to Asia to remain stable at around 800,000 barrels per day until May, when the waivers expire,” said Energy Aspects analyst Riccardo Fabiani.

In December, China’s imports climbed above 500,000 bpd for the first time in three months, while India’s imports rose above 302,000 bpd.

Japan and South Korea did not import any Iranian crude that month because they were still sorting out payment and shipping issues, but the countries have resumed oil lifting from Iran this month.

During the 180-day period, China can import up to 360,000 bpd of Iranian oil, while India’s imports are restricted to 300,000 bpd. South Korea can import up to 200,000 bpd of Iranian condensate.

“After May, it will all depend on the U.S. administration’s decisions, which at the moment remain completely obscure. On balance, they are likely to extend the current waivers, although rumors are that there could be a significant cut in waivered volumes,” Fabiani said.

As a precaution, Indian Oil Corp, the country’s top refiner, is looking for an annual deal to buy U.S. crude as it seeks to broaden its oil purchasing options, its chairman said Wednesday.

Facebook Takes Down Vast Iran-Led Manipulation Campaign

Facebook said Thursday it took down hundreds of “inauthentic” accounts from Iran that were part of a vast manipulation campaign operating in more than 20 countries.

The world’s biggest social network said it removed 783 pages, groups and accounts “for engaging in coordinated inauthentic behavior tied to Iran.”

The pages were part of a campaign to promote Iranian interests in various countries by creating fake identities as residents of those nations, according to a statement by Nathaniel Gleicher, head of cybersecurity policy at Facebook.

The announcement was the latest by Facebook as it seeks to stamp out efforts by state actors and others to manipulate the social network using fraudulent accounts.

“We are constantly working to detect and stop this type of activity because we don’t want our services to be used to manipulate people,” Gleicher said.

“We’re taking down these pages, groups and accounts based on their behavior, not the content they post. In this case, the people behind this activity coordinated with one another and used fake accounts to misrepresent themselves, and that was the basis for our action.”

The operators “typically represented themselves as locals, often using fake accounts, and posted news stories on current events,” including “commentary that repurposed Iranian state media’s reporting on topics like Israel-Palestine relations and the conflicts in Syria and Yemen,” Gleicher said.

“Although the people behind this activity attempted to conceal their identities, our manual review linked these accounts to Iran.”

The operation dating back to as early as 2010 had 262 pages, 356 accounts, and three groups on Facebook, as well as 162 accounts on Instagram and were followed by about two million users.

Facebook said the fake accounts were part of an influence campaign that operated in Afghanistan, Albania, Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Libya, Mexico, Morocco, Pakistan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Serbia, South Africa, Spain, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, U.S., and Yemen.

Facebook began looking into these kinds of activities after revelations of Russian influence campaigns during the 2016 U.S. election, aimed at sowing discord.

Nearly Half of US Adults Have Heart or Blood Vessel Disease

A new report estimates that nearly half of all U.S. adults have some form of heart or blood vessel disease, a medical milestone that’s mostly due to recent guidelines that expanded how many people have high blood pressure.


The American Heart Association said Thursday that more than 121 million adults had cardiovascular disease in 2016. Taking out those with only high blood pressure leaves 24 million, or 9 percent of adults, who have other forms of disease such as heart failure or clogged arteries.


Measuring the burden of diseases shows areas that need to improve, the heart association’s chief science and medical officer, Dr. Mariell Jessup, said in a statement.


High blood pressure, which had long been defined as a top reading of at least 140 or a bottom one of 90, dropped to 130 over 80 under guidelines adopted in 2017. It raises the risk for heart attacks, strokes and many other problems, and only about half of those with the condition have it under control.


Being diagnosed with high blood pressure doesn’t necessarily mean you need medication right away; the first step is aiming for a healthier lifestyle, even for those who are prescribed medicine. Poor diets, lack of exercise and other bad habits cause 90 percent of high blood pressure.


The report is an annual statistics update by the heart association, the National Institutes of Health and others.


Other highlights:


Heart and blood vessel disease is linked to 1 of every 3 deaths in the United States and kills more Americans than all forms of cancer and respiratory diseases like pneumonia combined.
Certain groups have higher rates than others; 57 percent of black women and 60 percent of black males.
Coronary heart disease, or clogged or hardened arteries, caused 43 percent of cardiovascular deaths in the U.S., followed by stroke (17 percent), high blood pressure (10 percent) and heart failure (9 percent).


Ghirardelli, Russel Stover Fined over Chocolate Packaging

Ghirardelli and Russell Stover have agreed to pay $750,000 in fines after prosecutors in California said they offered a little chocolate in a lot of wrapping.

Prosecutors in Sacramento, San Joaquin, Shasta, Fresno, Santa Cruz and Yolo counties sued the candy makers, alleging they misled consumers by selling chocolate products in containers that were oversized or “predominantly empty.”

Prosecutors also alleged that Ghirardelli offered one chocolate product containing less cocoa than advertised.

The firms didn’t acknowledge any wrongdoing but agreed to change their packaging under a settlement approved earlier this month. Some packages will shrink or will have a transparent window so consumers can look inside.

San Francisco-based Ghirardelli and Kansas City-based Russell Stover are owned by a Swiss company, Lindt & Sprungli.

Apple Busts Facebook for Distributing Data-Sucking App

Apple says Facebook can no longer distribute an app that paid users, including teenagers, to extensively track their phone and web use.

In doing so, Apple closed off Facebook’s efforts to sidestep Apple’s app store and its tighter rules on privacy.

The tech blog TechCrunch reported late Tuesday that Facebook paid people about $20 a month to install and use the Facebook Research app. While Facebook says this was done with permission, the company has a history of defining “permission” loosely and obscuring what data it collects.

“I don’t think they make it very clear to users precisely what level of access they were granting when they gave permission,” mobile app security researcher Will Strafach said Wednesday. “There is simply no way the users understood this.”

He said Facebook’s claim that users understood the scope of data collection was “muddying the waters.”

Facebook says fewer than 5 percent of the app’s users were teens and they had parental permission. Nonetheless, the revelation is yet another blemish on Facebook’s track record on privacy and could invite further regulatory scrutiny.

And it comes less than a week after court documents revealed that Facebook allowed children to rack up huge bills on digital games and that it had rejected recommendations for addressing it for fear of hurting revenue growth.

For now, the app appears to be available for Android phones, though not through Google’s main app store. Google had no comment Wednesday.

Apple said Facebook was distributing Facebook Research through an internal-distribution mechanism meant for company employees, not outsiders. Apple has revoked that capability.

TechCrunch reported separately Wednesday that Google was using the same privileged access to Apple’s mobile operating system for a market-research app, Screenwise Meter. Asked about it by The Associated Press, Google said it had disabled the app on Apple devices and apologized for its “mistake.”

The company said Google had always been “upfront with users” about how it used data collected by the app, which offered users points that could be accrued for gift cards. In contrast to the Facebook Research app, Google said its Screenwise Meter app never asked users to let the company circumvent network encryption, meaning it is far less intrusive.

Facebook is still permitted to distribute apps through Apple’s app store, though such apps are reviewed by Apple ahead of time. And Apple’s move Wednesday restricts Facebook’s ability to test those apps — including core apps such as Facebook and Instagram — before they are released through the app store.

Facebook previously pulled an app called Onavo Protect from Apple’s app store because of its stricter requirements. But Strafach, who dismantled the Facebook Research app on TechCrunch’s behalf, told the AP that it was mostly Onavo repackaged and rebranded, as the two apps shared about 98 percent of their code.

As of Wednesday, a disclosure form on Betabound, one of the services that distributed Facebook Research, informed prospective users that by installing Facebook Research, they are letting Facebook collect a range of data. This includes information on apps users have installed, when they use them and what they do on them. Information is also collected on how other people interact with users and their content within those apps, according to the disclosure.

Betabound warned that Facebook may collect information even when an app or web browser uses encryption.

Strafach said emails, social media activities, private messages and just about anything else could be intercepted. He said the only data absolutely safe from snooping are from services, such as Signal and Apple’s iMessages, that fully encrypt messages prior to transmission, a method known as end-to-end encryption.

Strafach, who is CEO of Guardian Mobile Firewall, said he was aghast to discover Facebook caught red-handed violating Apple’s trust.

He said such traffic-capturing tools are only supposed to be for trusted partners to use internally. Instead, he said Facebook was scooping up all incoming and outgoing data traffic from unwitting members of the public — in an app geared toward teenagers.

“This is very flagrantly not allowed,” Strafach said. “It’s mind-blowing how defiant Facebook was acting.”


Trump Order Asks Federal Fund Recipients to Buy US Goods

President Donald Trump will sign an executive order Thursday pushing those who receive federal funds to “buy American.” The aim is to boost U.S. manufacturing.

Peter Navarro, director of the White House National Trade Council, told reporters during a telephone briefing the policies are helping workers who “are blue collar, Trump people.” Later he amended that, saying he “every American is a Trump person” because Trump’s economic policies affect everyone.


Navarro said the order would affect federal financial assistance, which includes everything from loans and grants to insurance and interest subsidies.


He says some 30 federal agencies award over $700 billion in such aid each year. Recipients working on projects like bridges and sewer systems will be encouraged to use American products.



WHO: Cervical Cancer Preventable, Can Be Eliminated

Ahead of World Cancer Day (February 4), the World Health Organization (WHO) is calling for accelerated action to eliminate cervical cancer, a preventable disease that kills more than 300,000 women every year.

Cervical cancer ranks among leading causes of death for women worldwide.  Nine in 10 deaths occur in poor and middle-income countries.  The disease is caused by the human papillomavirus and is transmitted through sexual contact.

The WHO says cervical cancer can be cured if the infection is diagnosed and treated at an early stage. But, as with some ailments in life, prevention is the best cure.  And, in the case of cervical cancer, an effective vaccine is available that can prevent the disease when given to girls between the ages of nine and 14.  

The WHO’s Immunization Program technical officer, Paul Bloem, says the vaccine is widely administered in rich countries.  While countries with the highest burden of cervical cancer in Africa and Asia are lagging behind, he says progress is being made.

“In countries, such as Rwanda, a trailblazer in Africa, that reaches over 90 percent since five, six years.  Bhutan, that reaches also 90 percent of its girls.  Malaysia, that reaches 97 percent of its girls.  So, there are some extremely good examples that show that this vaccine is accepted and can be delivered in low-income settings,” he said.  

Bloem says four countries in Africa – Ethiopia, Tanzania, Zimbabwe and Senegal – introduced the vaccine last year.  He says 11 more countries in Africa and Asia will start using it next year.

Princess Nothemba Simelela, WHO Assistant Director-General for Family, Women, Children and Adolescents, says a big problem in developing countries is the lack of skilled people to test and diagnose cervical cancer in women.

She says that women in remote, rural areas often have difficulty reaching clinics where they can be tested and treated for the disease.  But she told VOA there are strategies governments can employ to overcome that.

“We can have mobile outreach clinics.  Sometimes, what you have is days on which women can be called or young girls can be brought in, specifically to get this attention,” she said.

Simelela says another strategy that governments can employ is to use school health programs. For instance, she says, Rwanda and South Africa bring the vaccine into the schools where access is available to the largest number of girls in the age groups that need to be reached.


Survey: 2018 ‘Worst Year Ever’ for Smartphone Market

Global smartphone sales saw their worst contraction ever in 2018, and the outlook for 2019 isn’t much better, new surveys show.

Worldwide handset volumes declined 4.1 percent in 2018 to a total of 1.4 billion units shipped for the full year, according to research firm IDC, which sees a potential for further declines this year.

“Globally the smartphone market is a mess right now,” said IDC analyst Ryan Reith.

“Outside of a handful of high-growth markets like India, Indonesia, (South) Korea and Vietnam, we did not see a lot of positive activity in 2018.”

Reith said the market has been hit by consumers waiting longer to replace their phones, frustration around the high cost of premium devices, and political and economic uncertainty.

The Chinese market, which accounts for roughly 30 percent of smartphone sales, was especially hard hit with a 10 percent drop, according to IDC’s survey, which was released Wednesday.

IDC said the top five smartphone makers have become stronger and now account for 69 percent of worldwide sales, up from 63 percent a year ago.

Samsung remained the number one handset maker with a 20.8 percent share despite an eight percent sales slump for the year, IDC said.

Apple managed to recapture the number two position with a 14.9 percent market share, moving ahead of Huawei at 14.7 percent, the survey found.

IDC said fourth-quarter smartphone sales fell 4.9 percent – the fifth consecutive quarter of decline.

“The challenging holiday quarter closes out the worst year ever for smartphone shipments,” IDC said in its report.

A separate report by Counterpoint Research showed similar findings, estimating a seven percent drop in the fourth quarter and four percent drop for the full year.

“The collective smartphone shipment growth of emerging markets such as India, Indonesia, Vietnam, Russia and others was not enough to offset the decline in China,” said Counterpoint associate director Tarun Pathak.


Extreme Cold Causes Misery Across US

Hundreds of millions of Americans spent Wednesday seeking relief from some of the coldest weather ever recorded in the continental United States. 

Officials said temperatures were below the freezing mark in 85 percent of the country, excluding Alaska and Hawaii.

Chicago recorded a low temperature of about minus 23 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 30 Celsius) — not a record, but close to it. Minneapolis recorded minus 27 F (minus 32 C). In Sioux Falls, S.D., the mercury dropped to minus 25 F (minus 31 C).

Wind chills reportedly made it feel like minus 50 F (minus 45 C) or worse in several parts of the Midwest.

Downtown Chicago streets were largely deserted after most offices told employees to stay home. Trains and buses operated with few passengers; engineers set fires along tracks to keep commuter trains moving. The hardiest commuters ventured out only after covering nearly every square inch of flesh to protect against the extreme chill, which froze ice crystals on eyelashes and eyebrows in minutes.

The city used transit buses, with nurses on board, as emergency warming centers for the homeless.   


Doctors in Minneapolis said they were treating cases of what they called fourth-degree frostbite, in which limbs are frostbitten down to the bone.

Mail carriers, known for making deliveries through rain, sleet and snow, draw the line at life-threatening cold. The U.S. Postal Service canceled mail service in parts of 11 states Wednesday.

With nine weather-related deaths reported so far, the cold was spreading east into New England and the mid-Atlantic states. Commuters and schoolchildren could expect to wake up to temperatures in the single or low double digits Fahrenheit in Washington, Baltimore, New York and Boston.

Meteorologists blamed the weather on a breakup of the polar vortex — cold air above the North Pole that has been pushed south across North America because of a blast of desert heat from North Africa.

Experts said it was possible that climate change was playing a part in the extreme cold. But they said it was hard to pinpoint the cause of a single weather event such as this week’s cold blast.

“It is not out of bounds with the historical record,” University of Miami professor Ben Kirtman said. “You get storms that are bigger than other storms. There is a big part of this that is part of the natural variability of the climate.”


WATCH: Polar Vortex Sends Frigid Air Through North America

Government scientists said increased moisture in the atmosphere because of global warming might bring on a higher number of severe snowstorms in the winter and more powerful hurricanes in the summer.

This week’s cold weather will be just a memory within a few days. Forecasters predicted temperatures in the mid-40s F on Sunday and low 50s F on Monday in Chicago. In Washington, the temperatures are expected to be in the mid- to upper 50s for those two days.

Some information for this report from the Associated Press.

Siberian Cave Findings Shed Light on Extinct Human Species 

Scientists using sophisticated techniques to determine the age of bone fragments, teeth and artifacts unearthed in a Siberian cave have provided new insight into a mysterious extinct human species that may have been more advanced than previously known. 


Research published Wednesday shed light on the species called Denisovans, known only from scrappy remains from Denisova Cave in the foothills of the Altai Mountains in Russia. 


While still enigmatic, they left a genetic mark on our species, Homo sapiens, particularly among indigenous populations in Papua New Guinea and Australia that retain a small but significant percentage of Denisovan DNA, evidence of past interbreeding between the species. 


Fossils and DNA traces demonstrated Denisovans were present in the cave from at least 200,000 to 50,000 years ago, and Neanderthals, a closely related extinct human species, were present there between 200,000 and 80,000 years ago, the new research found. Stone tools indicated one or both species may have occupied the cave starting 300,000 years ago.  

Scientists last year described a Denisova Cave bone fragment of a girl whose mother was a Neanderthal and father a Denisovan, evidence of interbreeding. The girl, nicknamed “Denny,” lived around 100,000 years ago, the new research showed. 


Pendants made of animal teeth and bone points from the cave were determined to be between 43,000 and 49,000 years old. They may have been crafted by Denisovans, suggesting a degree of intellectual sophistication. 


“Traditionally these objects are associated in Western Europe with the expansion of our species, and are seen as hallmarks of behavioral modernity, but in this case Denisovans may be their authors,” said archaeological scientist Katerina Douka of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Germany. 


Our species arose in Africa roughly 300,000 years ago, later spreading worldwide. There is no evidence Homo sapiens had reached Denisova Cave when these objects were made. 


Denisovans are known only from three teeth and one finger bone. 


“New fossils would be especially welcome, as we know almost nothing about the physical appearance of Denisovans, aside from them having rather chunky teeth,” said geochronologist Zenobia Jacobs of the University of Wollongong in Australia.  


“Their DNA in modern Australian Aboriginal and New Guinean people tantalizingly suggests they may have been quite widespread in Asia, and possibly even southeast Asia, but we need to find some hard evidence of their presence in these regions to flesh out the full story of the Denisovans,” added University of Wollongong geochronologist Richard “Bert” Roberts.  


The research was published in the journal Nature.

Study: E-cigs Beat Patches, Gums in Helping Smokers Quit

A major new study provides the strongest evidence yet that vaping can help smokers quit cigarettes, with e-cigarettes proving nearly twice as effective as nicotine gums and patches. 


The British research, published Wednesday in the New England Journal of Medicine, could influence what doctors tell their patients and shape the debate in the U.S., where the Food and Drug Administration has come under pressure to more tightly regulate the burgeoning industry amid a surge in teenage vaping. 


We know that patients are asking about e-cigarettes and many doctors haven't been sure what to say,'' said Dr. Nancy Rigotti, a tobacco treatment specialist at Harvard Medical School who was not involved in the study.I think they now have more evidence to endorse e-cigarettes.” 


At the same time, Rigotti and other experts cautioned that no vaping products have been approved in the U.S. to help smokers quit. 

Top cause of preventable death


Smoking is the No. 1 cause of preventable death worldwide, blamed for nearly 6 million deaths a year. Quitting is notoriously difficult, even with decades-old nicotine aids and newer prescription drugs. More than 55 percent of U.S. smokers try to quit each year, and only about 7 percent succeed, according to government figures. 


Electronic cigarettes, which have been available in the U.S. since about 2007 and have grown into a $6.6 billion-a-year industry, are battery-powered devices that typically heat a flavored nicotine solution into an inhalable vapor.  


Most experts agree the vapor is less harmful than cigarette smoke since it doesn’t contain most of the cancer-causing byproducts of burning tobacco. But there is virtually no research on the long-term effects of the chemicals in the vapor, some of which are toxic. 


At the same time, there have been conflicting studies on whether e-cigarettes actually help smokers kick the habit. Last year, an influential panel of U.S. experts concluded there was only “limited evidence” of their effectiveness.  

In the new study, researchers tracked nearly 900 middle-age smokers who were randomly assigned to receive either e-cigarettes or nicotine replacement products, including patches, gums and lozenges. After one year, 18 percent of e-cigarette users were smoke-free, versus 9.9 percent of those using the other products.  


“Anything which helps smokers to avoid heart disease and cancer and lung disease is a good thing, and e-cigarettes can do that,” said Peter Hajek, study co-author and an addiction specialist at Queen Mary University of London. 

More rigorous


The study was more rigorous than previous ones, which largely surveyed smokers about e-cigarette use. Participants in this experiment underwent chemical breath testing. 


Smokers in the e-cigarette group received a $26 starter kit, while those in the nicotine-replacement group received a three-month supply of the product of their choice, costing about $159. Participants were responsible for buying follow-up supplies. 


“If you have a method of helping people with smoking cessation that is both more effective and less costly, that should be of great interest to anyone providing health services,” said Kenneth Warner, a retired University of Michigan public health professor who was not involved in the study. 


Several factors may have boosted the results: All the participants were recruited from a government smoking-cessation program and were presumably motivated to quit. They also received four weeks of anti-smoking counseling.  


The researchers didn’t test e-cigarettes against new drugs such as Pfizer’s Chantix, which has shown higher rates of success than older nicotine-based treatments. 


Funding for the study came from the British government, which has embraced e-cigarettes as a potential tool to combat smoking through state-run health services. Some of the authors have been paid consultants to makers of anti-smoking products. 

Long-term questions


U.S. health authorities have been more reluctant about backing the products, in part because of the long-term effects are unknown. 


“We need more studies about their safety profile, and I don’t think anyone should be changing practice based on one study,” said Belinda Borrelli, a psychologist specializing in smoking cessation at Boston University. 


The American Heart Association backed e-cigarettes in 2014 as a last resort to help smokers quit after trying counseling and approved products. The American Cancer Society took a similar position last year. 


An editorial accompanying the study and co-written by Borrelli recommended e-cigarettes only after smokers have tried and failed to quit with FDA-approved products. Also, doctors should have a clear timeline for stopping e-cigarette use. 


Borrelli noted that after one year, 80 percent of the e-cigarette users in the study were still using the devices. Nine percent of the participants in the other group were still using gums and other nicotine-replacement products.    

No vaping company has announced plans to seek FDA approval of its products as a quit-smoking aid. Winning such an endorsement would require large studies that can take years and cost millions of dollars. 


The FDA has largely taken a hands-off approach toward vaping. It has not scientifically reviewed any of the e-cigarettes on the market and has put off some key regulations until 2022. FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb has said he doesn’t want to over-regulate an emerging industry that could provide a safer option for adult smokers. 


The delay has come under intense criticism amid an explosion in teenage vaping, driven chiefly by devices like Juul, which resembles a flash drive. Federal law prohibits sales to those under 18, but 1 in 5 high school students reported vaping last year, according to a government survey. It showed teenage use surged 78 percent from 2017 to 2018. 

Tank vs. cartridge


Matthew Myers of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids noted that the British study used so-called tank-based e-cigarettes, which allow users to customize their flavors and nicotine levels. Those devices have largely been overtaken in the U.S. by Juul and similar devices that have prefilled nicotine cartridges, or pods. Any benefit of e-cigarettes depends on the individual product and how it is used, he said. 


It is a fundamental mistake to think that all e-cigarettes are alike,'' Myers said.And in the absence of FDA regulation, a consumer has no way of knowing if the product they are using has the potential to help them or not.” 


Myers’ group is one of several anti-smoking organizations suing the FDA to immediately begin reviewing e-cigarettes. 


Ian Armitage was skeptical about e-cigarettes as a way to stop smoking, saying he tried vaping several years ago but gave it up after experiencing twitching and shakes from nicotine withdrawal. 


I tried it for a whole month, but it just wasn't doing it for me,'' said Armitage, an audio-visual technician in Washington.I still wanted a cigarette afterward.” 


Armitage, who has smoked for 15 years, said he also tried nicotine patches but found they irritated his skin.

Loss of US Newspapers Seen Contributing to Political Polarization

The steady loss of local newspapers and journalists across the country contributes to the nation’s political polarization, a new study has found. 


With fewer opportunities to find out about local politicians, citizens are more likely to turn to national sources like cable news and apply their feelings about national politics to people running for the town council or state legislature, according to research published in the Journal of Communication. 


The result is much less ticket splitting by voters. In 1992, 37 percent of states with Senate races elected a senator from a different party than the presidential candidate the state supported. In 2016, for the first time in a century, no state did that, the study found. 


“The voting behavior was more polarized, less likely to include split ticket voting, if a newspaper had died in the community,” said Johanna Dunaway, a communications professor at Texas A&M University, who conducted the research with colleagues from Colorado State and Louisiana State universities. 


Researchers reached that conclusion by comparing voting data from 66 communities where newspapers have closed in the past two decades to 77 areas where local newspapers continue to operate, she said. 


“We have this loss of engagement at the local level,” she said. 

Industry troubles


The struggling news industry has seen 1,800 newspapers shut down since 2004, the vast majority of them community weeklies, said Penelope Muse Abernathy, a University of North Carolina professor who studies the contraction. Many larger daily newspapers that have remained open have effectively become ghosts, with much smaller staffs that are unable to offer the breadth of coverage they once did. About 7,100 newspapers remain. 


Researchers are only beginning to measure the public impact of such losses. Among the other findings is less voter participation among news-deprived citizens in off-year elections where local offices are decided, Abernathy said. Another study suggested a link to increased government spending in communities where “watchdog” journalists have disappeared, she said. 


Dunaway said voters in communities without newspapers are more likely to be influenced by national labels — if they like Republicans like President Donald Trump, for example, that approval will probably extend to Republicans lower on the ballot. 


The diminished news sources also alter politicians’ strategies, Dunaway said. 


“They have to rely on party ‘brand names,’ ” she said, and are less focused on how they can do best for their districts. 

Drought Threatens Thousands of Flamingo Chicks in S. Africa 

Rescuers are moving hundreds of dehydrated lesser flamingo chicks from their breeding ground at a drought-stricken South African dam to a bird sanctuary in Cape Town, to save them from death by starvation and lack of water. 


Their birthplace, Kamfers Dam in the Northern Cape, is one of only three breeding grounds for the famously pink birds in southern Africa, the other two being in Namibia and Botswana, according to researcher Katta Ludynia.  

The rescued chicks take three to four months to fledge, and it is not yet clear whether they will eventually be released back into the wild in Cape Town or transported back hundreds of kilometers to their home in Kimberley, she said. 


“There are still several thousand birds breeding in the dam in areas that still have water,” said Katta Ludynia, research manager at the Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds (SANCCOB). “It now depends on the water levels whether these birds will pull through.” 


Ludynia said the sanctuary was caring for around 550 chicks, most of them dehydrated when they arrived Monday after having been abandoned by parents who went off in search of food. 


The chicks are being moved to the sanctuary by plane and road.  

SANCCOB is one of several centers across South Africa caring for around 2,000 chicks that were rescued from the dam. 


Although it hosts the biggest population of lesser flamingoes in southern Africa, Kamfers Dam, north of Kimberley, is often dry and depends mainly on rainwater. It also gets some water from a sewerage works that releases water into its wetlands. 

“The dam in Kimberley is so important because it is manageable, so we can secure the water level there. That might be the only site the flamingos can breed in southern Africa, if the drought continues in other areas,” Ludynia said.

Key US Senator Says Tariffs on Steel, Aluminum Should Go 

Republican U.S. Senator Chuck Grassley on Wednesday called on the Trump administration to lift tariffs on steel and aluminum imports from Canada and Mexico before Congress begins considering legislation to implement the new U.S.-Mexico-Canada (USMCA) trade deal. 

The three countries on Nov. 30 signed the pact replacing the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which governs more than $1.2 trillion in trade. The agreement must be approved by the U.S. Congress and Canadian and Mexican legislators before becoming law. 

“Unfortunately, our producers are unlikely to realize the market access promises of USMCA while the Section 232 tariffs on steel and aluminum imports from Canada and Mexico remain,” Grassley, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, said in a statement. His committee is in charge of shepherding the pact to approval in the Senate. 

U.S. farmers — hardest hit by President Donald Trump’s trade wars with China, a key buyer of American agricultural products, as well as Mexico and Canada — have long complained that with tariffs remaining in place, they will not be able to benefit fully from the new trade deal. 

“Before Congress considers legislation to implement USMCA, the administration should lift tariffs on steel and aluminum imports from our top two trading partners and secure the elimination of retaliatory tariffs that stand to wipe out gains our farmers have made over the past 2½ decades,” Grassley said. 

Trump had vowed to revamp NAFTA during his 2016 presidential campaign. At times during the USMCA negotiations, he threatened to tear up NAFTA and withdraw the United States from the pact completely, which would have left trade among the three neighbors in disarray. 

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce in 2017 said that exiting NAFTA without a new deal could devastate American agriculture, cost hundreds of thousands of jobs and “be an economic, political and national security disaster.” 

Grassley, a powerful senator from farming state of Iowa, said U.S. farmers, under pressure because of tariffs imposed by Mexico and Canada, as well as China, needed relief fast. 

“We’ll be working all hands on deck to get the job done. But we need the administration to help us pave the way,” he added. 

Zimbabwe Public Workers Divided Over Strike After Talks Fail

Zimbabwe’s public sector unions were divided on Wednesday over whether to launch a national strike after wage talks with the government failed, leaving the country on edge over the possibility of more unrest.

Zimbabwe was rocked by violent protests for three days in mid-January that led to a brutal security crackdown.

The security forces’ heavy-handed response raised fears that under President Emmerson Mnangagwa, the country was sliding back into the kind of authoritarianism seen during Robert Mugabe’s 37-year rule.

Mnangagwa’s spokesman said troops would stay on the streets and the state would block the internet again if violence flared.

Teachers and other state workers are demanding wage rises and payments in dollars to help them stave off spiralling inflation and an economic crisis that has sapped supplies of cash, fuel and medicines in state hospitals.

Rights groups say at least 12 people were killed this month after a three-day stay-at-home strike over a fuel price hike led to street protests and a crackdown by security services. The government says three people died.

At a meeting with unions, the government proposed to give land to build houses and food hampers for employees, union officials said. Public sector unions had on Monday issued the government with a 48-hour ultimatum to make a new salary offer or face a strike.

The Apex Council, which represents 17 public sector unions, then failed to agree on whether to hold a strike during a short meeting that broke down as officials accused each other of either working for the opposition or the government.

“The Apex Council meeting ended prematurely and people walked out. There is no consensus. How do we go on strike when our fellow unions are coming and saying some unions were paid?” said Raymond Majongwe, secretary general of the Progressive Teachers Union of Zimbabwe.

He said his union was among those accused by colleagues of being paid by the opposition and donors to go on strike and cause violence, charges he denied.

The biggest teachers union has called for a strike on Feb. 5.

‘Bread and butter’

Mnangagwa — who came to power in November 2017 after long-time ruler Mugabe was forced to resign in a coup — promised to revive the economy and break with Mugabe politics. But frustration over the economic crisis is building and analysts say the pace of economic and political reform is too slow for impatient citizens.

Mnangagwa on Wedneaday picked a 24-member advisory council to advise him on economic reforms, a government source said.

The 76-year-old leader has promised to investigate the crackdown on protesters and to bring in measures to tackle the economic crisis but the opposition does not trust him.

His spokesman said it would take time to rebuild an economy that had been suffering for decades.

“There are key bread and butter questions which government cannot dodge, things are tough,” George Charamba told a state-owned Harare radio station.

“But it would be a sad day to think that the only way that we can remedy such a problem is by causing further damage to that already damaged economy through mayhem, through looting, through chaos.”

Charamba said police and soldiers would stay on the streets and that government would shut the internet again if violence broke out. He previously said the crackdown was a foretaste of how the government would react to future protests.


‘Yellow Vests’ Put French Government on Spot Over Power Prices

France’s energy regulator is proposing a 5.9 percent increase in regulated power prices but faces opposition from the government which had promised not to increase the cost after the “yellow vest” protests.

Following the first wave of protests in November over the cost of living, the government scrapped fuel tax hikes planned for 2019. It also said last month that it would prevent utility EDF from raising power prices this winter.

But capping regulated power prices is more complicated as these are set by the independent CRE energy regulator via a formula which includes the cost of generation, transport and distribution. A third of retail power bills is made up of taxes.

The government has three months to respond to the CRE proposal, but said Wednesday it would keep its promise.

“We will use legal delays in order to protect households from too big an increase in their power bill at a time of high consumption,” an environment ministry official said.

Thousands of “yellow vest” demonstrators again marched in Paris and other French cities last Saturday in protests that brought sporadic clashes with police and suggested that President Emmanuel Macron has yet to defuse public discontent after 11 weeks of demonstrations.

Confirming a report in financial daily Les Echos, a CRE official said the regulator proposes a 7.7 percent increase excluding taxes from March 1, or 5.9 percent tax included.

The proposed increase would be the highest in years and would be applicable to the 25.6 million consumers who still subscribe to EDF’s regulated tariffs.

EDF shares were up 3.4 percent and were the sixth-best performer in the SBF 120 index.

The proposed rise mainly reflects the increase of wholesale power market prices. A doubling of back-up power capacity prices also contributed.

Year-ahead wholesale power prices have risen from 35 euros per megawatt hour in early 2017 to 41 euros in early 2018 and 59 euros in December 2018.

EDF has been losing some 100,000 customers a month to competitors, but at the end of September the former monopolist still had a 79.3 percent market share.

Power price freezes by previous governments have been overruled by the courts as smaller power vendors challenged them, saying they distort competition.

CRE said one way for the state to limit power bills would be to reduce the CSPE tax, which helps finance renewable energy subsidies and social tariffs for low-income families. It accounts for 15 percent of a consumer’s bills, and raised 3 billion euros ($3.4 billion) last year.

CRE said Spain and Italy were also increasing power tariffs by up to eight percent. At 171 euros/MW, regulated French pre-tax power prices are below the 200 euro EU average and just two-thirds of the 300-290 euros paid in Germany and Belgium.

Again, Bill to Ensure Equal Pay for Women Introduced in Congress

Democrats in the U.S. Congress introduced a bill on Wednesday morning to ensure equal pay for women and transparency from employers. 

The legislation would require employers to prove that current pay disparities between the sexes are job-related. 

Women make up nearly half the workforce in the United States and earn more college degrees than men each year, according to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR), which conducts research on social science and analyzes policy. 

On average, white women working full time earn 80.5 cents for every dollar earned by a white man in the same position. Black women earn 61 cents, and Hispanic women earn 53 cents for every dollar earned by a white man. 

Rep. Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut has introduced the Paycheck Fairness Act to every sitting Congress since 1997. 

“For more than two decades we pushed, we battled to strengthen the 1963 Equal Pay Act,” DeLauro said to members of Congress. “Nothing is more right, and nothing would make more of a difference to working families in this country.” 

The bill also prevents employers from firing or retaliating against employees who discuss pay, and it prevents employers asking candidates about prior salaries so new salaries are not based on prior discrimination. 

Additionally, it supports employers by implementing wage data collection technologies and salary negotiation training programs for female employees. 

Economic boost predicted

Enforcing equal pay for women would add $513 billion to the national economy and cut poverty in houses with working women in half, according to an IWPR report. 

If this bill or subsequent bills fail to pass, the IWPR predicts it will take until 2059 for white women, 2119 for black women and 2224 for Hispanic women to reach equal pay with white men. 

This version of the bill was introduced before the most female Congress in history, on the 10-year anniversary the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act that allowed workers to challenge pay discrimination in the courts.

Debra L. Ness, president of the National Partnership, a nonprofit organization that fights for policies to improve the lives of American women, spoke before Congress on behalf of the bill. 

“If we’re going to prioritize the concerns of the women across this country, then we have got to do more than just think about the wage gap,” Ness said. “Join us in this fight.”

World’s Worst Air in South African Coal Community

South Africa’s coal-mining heartland has the worst air quality in the world, according to a recent study by environmental organization Greenpeace. The 12 large coal mines in this area make it the world’s hotspot for toxic nitrogen dioxide emissions. Residents and health experts say the effects of this are ruining their health and their lives. VOA’s Anita Powell went to the coal heartland of Middelburg, South Africa, and filed this report.

South Korea’s Difficult Road Ahead to Combat Fine Dust

South Korea’s initial attempt at countermeasures to end the country’s current fine dust problem failed this week. Officials had sought to create artificial rain to address the current heavy air pollution many in Seoul blame on neighboring China. It’s an issue becoming more and more critical for residents.

Kim Byung-gon, a Professor at Gangneung-Wonju National University Department of Atmospheric and Environmental Sciences told VOA that while fine dust particles from China are part of the problem, it isn’t the only thing causing South Korea’s bad air.

“Fine dust occurs when pollutants emitted from China and internal (South Korean) pollutants stay in the air,” said Kim, who also noted that the exact cause of Seoul’s pollution problem has yet to be fully identified.

Dong Jong-in, a professor in the Department of Atmospheric and Environmental Sciences at the University of Seoul, said that while domestic factors do affect the overall particulate matter in the air, “fine dust that has flowed from the outside [the country] in the upper air stream is the key factor.”

As a result of continued concern by residents about the on-going increase in bad air quality days, South Korean President Moon Jae-in has announced that resolving the country’s fine dust problem will be one of the policy tasks his administration will undertake.

Choking on air

For three consecutive days in mid-January, the South Korean government issued alerts to citizens, warning of high levels of micro-dust in the air and urging them to stay inside, or if they had to be outside, to wear masks and keep exposure to a minimum.

During these days, thick, fine dust blanketed most of the country. The pollution was not only visible to the naked eye, but could be felt in the back of one’s throat according to one resident who spoke to South Korea’s Yonhap News.

“The air is so murky and my throat hurts that I even feel depressed. It’s as if there is a really thick fog,” the individual said.

Dong Jong-in said the air over the Korean peninsula had been quite dusty for some time. South Korean authorities had monitored overall dust levels and saw some improvement between 2012 and 2013, but since then and the inclusion of PM2.5 particles (ultrafine dust particles that are considered hazardous) in 2015 there has been a marked increase in pollution levels.

“As coal fuel use increases in China, patterns of ultrafine dust rise when west-winds blow. In the past, this was only a problem in winter, but the dusty season has widened to the late autumn and spring,” said Dong.

This is a concern, said Kim Byung-gon, because there are risks that come with increased exposure. “[World Health Organization] studies have indicated that it (ultrafine dust) acts as a primary carcinogen.”

Dong added that the “fine dust affects not only the respiratory system, but also blood vessels, heart, is implicated with brain disease, and dementia… it will also harm children and pregnant women.”

Resolving the problem

Last week, a plane flew into the airspace west of Seoul carrying silver iodide, a chemical that helps water droplets form in clouds. Authorities say it released 24 bursts of the chemical above clouds in hopes of inducing rain.

The Korea Meteorological Administration (KMA) said the initial results were “disappointing.”

While the KMA did detect a weak, misty rain for several minutes, “there was no observation of significant precipitation.”

“Aside from its success or failure, the test was an opportunity to accumulate the necessary technology for faster commercialization of cloud seeding,” the KMA added.

The agency is expected to release a full report next month and to carry out 14 more tests this year in hopes of perfecting the technology by 2024.

Kim Byung-gon said the government’s plan does have some merit, since several countries around the globe employ such tactics.

However, “Artificial rainfall itself is difficult,” Kim said, “a sufficient amount of rain should be falling to wash away the dust… I do not think it will be easy.”

He added that utilizing cleaner fuel, reducing automobile emission pollutants, and addressing factory pollutants must also be part of any solution to the problem at hand.

Lee Ju-Hyun contributed to this report.

Brazil’s Vale Eyed Dam Design Changes in 2009

Brazilian miner Vale SA identified concerns around its tailings dams in 2009 and studied but did not implement several steps that could have prevented or lessened the damage from last week’s deadly disaster, according to a corporate presentation seen by Reuters.


A tailings dam, used to store the muddy detritus of the mining process, collapsed on Friday, killing at least 65 in one of Brazil’s largest industrial accidents on record.            


The Brumadinho disaster, coming just over three years after a similar incident at another mine partially controlled by Vale, has fueled calls for a management overhaul and erased more than 70 billion reais ($18.61 billion) in Vale’s market value.      

But a decade ago, the world’s largest iron ore miner was considering ways to use fewer tailings dams, including alternative uses for the waste rock, according to the 73-page presentation.

The presentation pointed to the rising volume of tailings produced at the company’s mines, with some locations producing hundreds of thousands of tons of tailings daily.


The report suggested Vale make building materials from tailings, including bricks, a step that would give the company another revenue source and lessen the volume needing to be stored using dams.


The 2009 Vale report had recommended the company undertake a project to be called “Zero Dams” that would have involved drying out tailings, among other steps. It was not known whether the report reached the top levels of Vale management nor why it was not implemented.


Vale declined to comment. The report’s author, Paulo Ricardo Behrens da Franca, left Vale a year after submitting it and now works as an industry consultant. Reached by Reuters, he did not comment.


‘Inherently Dangerous Structures’

Vale’s Brumadinho facility was built using the cheapest and least-stable type of tailings dam design, a commonly used structure in mining known as “upstream construction.”


Chile, Peru and other earthquake-prone countries ban the design, in which tailings are used to progressively construct dam walls the more a mine is excavated. Brazil is not as earthquake-prone as its western neighbors, but even small seismic activity has been shown to affect tailings dams.

Because these types of tailings dams are waterlogged, they are easily susceptible to cracks and other damage that can cause bursts like the one that occurred last week near Brumadinho.

“A tailings dam may look safe, but it’s still retaining a lot of moisture behind it,” said Dermot Ross-Brown, a mining industry engineer who teaches at the Colorado School of Mines. “They’re inherently dangerous structures.”


Tailings dams tend to be shorter in height than conventional water dams, but often are far wider in span.


The disaster’s cause remains unknown. Vale said the dam had not received tailings for about two and a half years and was in the process of decommissioning, a step that should have lessened risk, engineers said.


“It’s really puzzling to me this happened as the (dam) was closing,” said Cameron Scott of SRK Consulting, a mining engineering firm. “This disaster will make future mine permitting harder.”


The dam had passed a September 2018 inspection by the German firm TUEV SUED AG and Vale Chief Executive Fabio Schvartsman said equipment had shown the dam was stable on Jan.



On Tuesday, Brazilian state prosecutors arrested three Vale employees and two TUEV SUED employees.                



Brazil has nearly 4,000 dams that are classified as having “high damage potential” or being at high risk, with 205 of those dams containing mineral waste, the country’s Regional Development Minister Gustavo Canuto said.             

Analysts and engineers said that the Brumadinho disaster will hopefully push the industry to stop storing wet tailings and instead move toward the more-expensive-but-safer process of storing dry tailings.

That process requires drying the tailings and storing them on-site, abrogating the risk of a dam burst. The approach is becoming more popular in Canada and other countries with stricter mining regulations.    

“The industry doesn’t yet fully realize the risk its taking on with those type of wet tailings dams,” said Matt Fuller of Tierra Group International Ltd, a tailings engineering consulting firm.


Officials in Brazil’s Minas Gerais state, where the disaster occurred, say they are now going to push for legislation requiring dry mining and forcing miners to tear down tailings dams when they are located above communities.

A similar proposal failed last summer, with its defeat attributed by the bill’s sponsor to lobbying pressure from mining companies.


Brazil is still reeling from the 2015 collapse of a larger dam, owned by the Samarco Mineracao SA joint venture between Vale and BHP, that killed 19 people.


After Samarco, the International Council on Mining and Metals (ICMM) issued updated guidelines for its members to try to safeguard tailings dams used to store waste left over from mining operations.


The ICCM said on Saturday that the mining industry still has “lessons to learn” from Samarco and similar events.            

Mining companies typically hire engineering firms that specialize in tailings dams to build the structures, not necessarily dam contractors themselves, a step that some industry observers hope changes soon.     

“The mining companies are not placing dam safety at the forefront of their preoccupations,” said Emmanuel Grenier, a spokesman for the International Coalition of Large Dams (ICOLD), a non-governmental organization focused on dam engineering.

The group “is recommending that dams, especially large dams, be built by dam professionals, but it is too rarely the case for tailing dams,” Grenier said.

($1 = 3.7614 reais)

Apple Opens New Chapter Amid Weakening iPhone Demand

Apple hoped to offset slowing demand for iPhones by raising the prices of its most important product, but that strategy seems to have backfired after sales sagged during the holiday shopping season.

Results released Tuesday revealed the magnitude of the iPhone slump – a 15 percent drop in revenue from the previous year. That decline in Apple’s most profitable product caused Apple’s total earnings for the October-December quarter to dip slightly to $20 billion.

Now, CEO Tim Cook is grappling with his toughest challenge since replacing co-founder Steve Jobs 7 years ago. Even as he tries to boost iPhone sales, Cook also must prove that Apple can still thrive even if demand doesn’t rebound. 

It figures to be an uphill battle, given Apple’s stock has lost one-third of its value in less than four months, erasing about $370 billion in shareholder wealth. 

Cook rattled Wall Street in early January by disclosing the company had missed its own revenue projections for the first time in 15 years. The last time that happened, the iPod was just beginning to transform Apple.

​”This is the defining moment for Cook,” said Wedbush Securities analyst Daniel Ives. “He has lost some credibility on Wall Street, so now he will have to do some hand-holding as the company enters this next chapter.” 

The results for the October-December period were slightly above the expectations analysts lowered after Cook’s Jan. 2 warning. Besides the profit decline, Apple’s revenue fell 5 percent from the prior year to $84 billion.

It marked the first time in more than two years that Apple’s quarterly revenue has dropped from the past year. The erosion was caused by the decline of the iPhone, whose sales plunged to $52 billion, down by more than $9 billion from the previous year. 

The past quarter’s letdown intensified the focus on Apple’s forecast for the opening three months of the year as investors try to get a better grasp on iPhone sales until the next models are released in autumn.

Apple predicted its revenue for the January-March period will range from $55 billion to $59 billion. Analysts surveyed by FactSet had been anticipating revenue of about $59 billion.

Investors liked what they read and heard, helping Apple’s stock recoup some of their recent losses. The stock gained nearly 6 percent to $163.50 in extended trading after the report came out.

“We wouldn’t change our position with anyone’s,” Cook reassured analysts during a conference call reviewing the past quarter and the upcoming months.

The company didn’t forecast how many iPhones it will sell, something Apple has done since the product first hit the market in 2007 and transformed society, as well as technology.

Apple is no longer disclosing how many iPhones it shipped after the quarter is completed, a change that Cook announced in November. That unexpected move raised suspicions that Apple was trying to conceal a forthcoming slump in iPhone sales – fears that were realized during the holiday season.

Cook traces most of Apple’s iPhone problems to a weakening economy in China, the company’s second biggest market behind the U.S. The company is also facing tougher competition in China, where homegrown companies such as Huawei and Xiaomi have been winning over consumers in that country with smartphones that have many of the same features as iPhones at lower prices.

Although a trade war started by President Donald Trump last year has hurt China and potentially caused some consumers there to boycott U.S. products, many analysts believe the iPhone’s malaise stems from other issues too.

Among them are higher prices – Apple’s most expensive iPhone now costs $1,350 – for models that aren’t that much better than the previous generation, giving consumers little incentive to stop using the device they already own until it wears out. Apple also gave old iPhones new life last by offering to replace aging batteries for $29, a 70 percent discount.

​”The upgrade cycle has extended, there is no doubt about that,” Cook conceded.

Apple is banking that investors will realize the company can still reap huge profits by selling various services on the 1.4 billion devices running on its software.

That’s one reason why Cook has been touting the robust growth of Apple’s division that collects commissions from paid apps, processes payments, and sells hardware warranty plans and music streaming subscriptions. Apple Music now has more than 50 million subscribers, second to Spotify’s 87 million streaming subscribers through September.

Apple is also preparing to launch a video streaming service to compete against Netflix, though Cook said he wasn’t ready to provide details Tuesday.

The company’s services revenue in the past quarter climbed 19 percent from the prior year to $10.9 billion – more than any other category besides the iPhone.