Month: July 2023

Two Super Moons, Blue Moon, Meteor Shower to Grace August Skies

A dazzling array of celestial events is in store for stargazers in August: two supermoons, a rare blue moon, and a once-in-a-year meteor shower.

Those turning their eyes to the heavens will not have to wait long for the first nighttime showing. On August 1, the full moon will rise in the southeast. 

When Tuesday’s moon is at its fullest, it will also be making its closest pass to Earth in its orbit, known as perigee. This will make the moon appear about 8% larger than a typical full moon and will earn it the label of a “supermoon.” 

In North America, August’s full moon is often called the sturgeon moon because the freshwater fish are typically in high numbers during the month. It is also known as the grain moon, corn moon and harvest moon.

The second full moon of the month will come on the night of August 30. Whenever there is an extra full moon during a month, it is called a blue moon.

The next time there will be two full moons in one month will be in May 2026. 

August’s blue moon will also be a supermoon, providing a rare occurrence of two such moons appearing in the same month. Stargazers will have to wait until 2037 before there are another two supermoons in a single month.

Also gracing the sky in August is the annual Perseid meteor shower. It will reach its peak in the Northern Hemisphere on the nights of August 12-13. Stargazers who have access to a dark sky can expect to see between 50 to 75 meteors in an hour. Viewers do not need a telescope; they can spot the colorful display with the naked eye during a clear night.

This year’s meteor shower will have excellent conditions, with the crescent moon not set to rise until the early morning hours. 

The Perseid meteors come from leftover comet particles and parts of broken asteroids, according to NASA. Every year, Earth passes through the rocky debris, causing the particles to collide with Earth and disintegrate into bright streaks in the sky.

The meteors appear to come from the constellation Perseus, which is how they got their name.

August will also see the return of Saturn and Jupiter to the night sky.  

Saturn will be at what astronomers call “opposition” — when Earth is directly between the planet and the sun — on August 27. On that night, Saturn will rise when the sun sets and will be visible in the sky throughout the night.

Some information in this report came from The Associated Press.


Biden Goes West to Talk About Administration’s Efforts to Combat Climate Change

President Joe Biden will travel to Arizona, New Mexico and Utah next week and is expected to talk about his administration’s efforts to combat climate change as the region endures a brutally hot summer with soaring temperatures, the White House said Monday.

Biden is expected to discuss the Inflation Reduction Act, America’s most significant response to climate change, and the push toward more clean energy manufacturing. The act aims to spur clean energy on a scale that will bend the arc of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.

July has been the hottest month ever recorded. Biden last week announced new steps to protect workers in extreme heat, including measures to improve weather forecasts and make drinking water more accessible.

Members of Biden’s administration also are fanning out over the next few weeks around the anniversary of the landmark climate change and health care legislation to extol the administration’s successes as the Democratic president seeks reelection in 2024.

Vice President Kamala Harris heads to Wisconsin this week with Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo to talk about broadband infrastructure investments. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack goes to Oregon to highlight wildfire defense grants, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg will go to Illinois and Texas, and Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona heads to Maryland to talk about career and technical education programs.

The Inflation Reduction Act included roughly $375 billion over a decade to combat climate change and capped the cost of a month’s supply of insulin at $35 for older Americans and other Medicare beneficiaries. It also helps an estimated 13 million Americans pay for health care insurance by extending subsidies provided during the coronavirus pandemic.

The measure is paid for by new taxes on large companies and stepped-up IRS enforcement of wealthy individuals and entities, with additional funds going to reduce the federal deficit.

Pee-wee Herman Actor Paul Reubens Dies of Cancer at Age 70

 Paul Reubens, the actor and comedian whose character Pee-wee Herman became a cultural phenomenon through films and TV shows, has died.

Reubens died Sunday night after a six-year struggle with cancer that he did not make public, his publicist said in a statement.

“Please accept my apology for not going public with what I’ve been facing the last six years,” Reubens said in a statement released with the announcement of his death. “I have always felt a huge amount of love and respect from my friends, fans and supporters. I have loved you all so much and enjoyed making art for you.”

The character with his too-tight gray suit, white chunky loafers and red bow tie was best known for the film “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure” and the TV series “Pee-wee’s Playhouse.”

Herman created Pee-wee when he was part of the Los Angeles improv group The Groundlings in the late 1970s. The live “Pee-wee Herman Show” debuted at a Los Angeles theater in 1981 and was a success with both kids during matinees and adults at a midnight show. HBO would air the show as a special.

Reubens took Pee-wee to the big screen in 1985’s “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure.” The film, in which Pee-wee’s cherished bike is stolen, was said to be loosely based on Vittorio De Sica’s Italian neo-realist classic, “The Bicycle Thief.” The film, directed by Tim Burton and co-written by Phil Hartman of “Saturday Night Live,” sent Pee-wee on a nationwide escapade. The movie was a success, grossing $40 million, and continued to spawn a cult following for its oddball whimsy.

A sequel followed three years later in the less well-received “Big Top Pee-wee,” in which Pee-wee seeks to join a circus. Reubens’ character wouldn’t get another movie starring role until 2016’s Pee-wee’s Big Holiday,” for Netflix. Judd Apatow produced Pee-wee’s big-screen revival.

His television series, “Pee-wee’s Playhouse,” ran for five seasons, earned 22 Emmys and attracted not only children but adults to Saturday-morning TV.

Both silly and subversive and championing nonconformity, the Pee-wee universe was a trippy place, populated by things such as a talking armchair and a friendly pterodactyl. The host, who is fond of secret words and loves fruit salad so much he once married it, is prone to lines like, “I know you are, but what am I?” and “Why don’t you take a picture; it’ll last longer?” The act was a hit because it worked on multiple levels, even though Reubens insists that wasn’t the plan.

“It’s for kids,” Reubens told The Associated Press in 2010. “People have tried to get me for years to go, ‘It wasn’t really for kids, right?’ Even the original show was for kids. I always censored myself to have it be kid-friendly.

“The whole thing has been just a gut feeling from the beginning,” Reubens told the AP. “That’s all it ever is and I think always ever be. Much as people want me to dissect it and explain it, I can’t. One, I don’t know, and two, I don’t want to know, and three, I feel like I’ll hex myself if I know.”

China Curbs Drone Exports, Citing Ukraine, Concern About Military Use

China imposed restrictions Monday on exports of long-range civilian drones, citing Russia’s war in Ukraine and concern that drones might be converted to military use. 

Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s government is friendly with Moscow but says it is neutral in the 18-month-old war. It has been stung by reports that both sides might be using Chinese-made drones for reconnaissance and possibly attacks. 

Export controls will take effect Tuesday to prevent use of drones for “non-peaceful purposes,” the Ministry of Commerce said in a statement. It said exports still will be allowed but didn’t say what restrictions it would apply. 

China is a leading developer and exporter of drones. DJI Technology Co., one of the global industry’s top competitors, announced in April 2022 it was pulling out of Russia and Ukraine to prevent its drones from being used in combat. 

“The risk of some high specification and high-performance civilian unmanned aerial vehicles being converted to military use is constantly increasing,” the Ministry of Commerce said. 

Restrictions will apply to drones that can fly beyond the natural sight distance of operators or stay aloft more than 30 minutes, have attachments that can throw objects and weigh more than seven kilograms (15½ pounds), according to the ministry. 

“Since the crisis in Ukraine, some Chinese civilian drone companies have voluntarily suspended their operations in conflict areas,” the Ministry of Commerce said. It accused the United States and Western media of spreading “false information” about Chinese drone exports. 

The government defended its dealings Friday with Russia as “normal economic and trade cooperation” after a U.S. intelligence report said Beijing possibly provided equipment used in Ukraine that might have military applications. 

The report cited Russian customs data that showed Chinese state-owned military contractors supplied drones, navigation equipment, fighter jet parts and other goods. 

The Biden administration has warned Beijing of unspecified consequences if it supports the Kremlin’s war effort. Last week’s report didn’t say whether any of the trade cited might trigger U.S. retaliation. 

Xi and Russian President Vladimir Putin declared before the February 2022 invasion that their governments had a “no-limits” friendship. Beijing has blocked efforts to censure Moscow in the United Nations and has repeated Russian justifications for the attack. 

China has “always opposed the use of civilian drones for military purposes,” the Ministry of Commerce said. “The moderate expansion of drone control by China this time is an important measure to demonstrate the responsibility of a responsible major country.” 

The Ukrainian government appealed to DJI in March 2022 to stop selling drones it said the Russian ministry was using to target missile attacks. DJI rejected claims it leaked data on Ukraine’s military positions to Russia. 

WHO: Afghanistan, Pakistan Close to Eradicating Polio  

Afghanistan and Pakistan have reported a very small number of polio infections in their region this year, fueling expectations the neighboring countries could be just months away from interrupting the endemic transmission of the crippling virus.

Pakistani authorities have reported a three-year-old child with paralytic polio, the only case in the country in the first seven months of 2023 compared to 20 cases last year.

Afghan health officials have confirmed five cases of polio paralysis in children, which is an increase from two reported infections in 2022.

“Pakistan and Afghanistan have never been this close to reaching the goal of eradicating wild poliovirus (WPV1) concurrently,” said Dr. Hamid Jafari, the World Health Organization’s director of polio eradication for the eastern Mediterranean region.

“And both countries need to reach this goal together – with the full support of the political, administrative, and security apparatus — if we are to finally eradicate wild poliovirus from the world,” Jafari told VOA in written comments.

Out of the 34 Afghan provinces, poliovirus transmission is limited to two eastern provinces, Nangarhar and Kunar, bordering Pakistan. According to official data, all five WPV1 cases detected this year are in Nangarhar.

“Immunity gaps, resulting from significant disruption of immunization campaigns during 2021 and 2022, have left children in the region at risk of polio and other vaccine-preventable diseases,” Jafari said.

Before the Taliban’s return to power in August 2021, Islamist militants routinely attacked health volunteers who fanned out across the country to administer vaccines. In October 2021, the Taliban backed a WHO vaccination campaign in Afghanistan, enabling the polio program to resume nationwide immunizations later that year.

It has since reached millions of children in the south and other regions of the country who had not received immunizations for at least four years, Jafari noted. He added that the Afghan vaccination program has also increased the number of site testing for poliovirus in wastewater, allowing timely detection and response, Jafari said.

“The quality of vaccination campaigns has improved remarkably since late 2022 in the east region of Afghanistan, and if such quality campaigns are sustained, endemic transmission in the region will be interrupted in the coming months,” said the senior WHO official.

“Cross-border coordination with Pakistan will continue to be essential throughout 2023 given the circulation of WPV1 on both sides of the border and the large population movement between the two countries,” Jafari stated.

He said that the “last mile” had always proven to be the most challenging phase of any national effort to interrupt polio transmission.


Since January 2021, all reported cases in Pakistan, a country of about 230 million people, have been from seven polio-endemic districts in the southern area of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province out of 171 districts nationwide.

Despite detections of poliovirus in wastewater samples in other Pakistani districts, circulation has yet to be established outside the seven endemic districts.

“This is the result of very effective outbreak responses in each affected district outside the seven endemic districts,” Jafari said. He added that the polio program in Pakistan was “capitalizing on the momentum of recent success and continues to strive for zero polio.”

On Tuesday, Pakistan will launch its latest vaccination campaign to eliminate the highly contagious virus in a country where the disease paralyzed approximately 20,000 children in the early 1990s.

A polio program spokesperson told VOA the campaign aims to immunize nearly 8 million children under five across 61 districts in two phases. He said the government had deployed around 65,000 “front-line workers” to administer polio drops to the targeted population.

Pakistan has repeatedly come close to eradicating polio, but long-running propaganda in conservative rural areas that the vaccines cause sterility in children, coupled with deadly militant attacks on vaccinators, have set back the mission. Anti-state militants allege polio vaccinators gather intelligence on their hideouts.

The global polio eradication program identifies Pakistan, Afghanistan, parts of Somalia, and Yemen as areas where outbreaks are difficult to control.

Smoking Declines as Tobacco Control Measures Kick-In

Smoking rates are falling, and lives are being saved as more countries implement policies and control measures to curb the global tobacco epidemic, according to a World Health Organization report issued Monday that rates country progress in tobacco control. 

New data show that the adoption of the WHO’s package of six tobacco control measures 15 years ago has protected millions of people from the harmful effects of tobacco use.

The measures, which were launched in 2008, call on governments to monitor tobacco use and prevention policies, protect people from tobacco smoke, offer help to quit tobacco use, warn people about the dangers of tobacco, enforce bans on tobacco advertising, promotion, and sponsorship, and to raise taxes on tobacco.

“Without this decline, there would be an estimated 300 million more smokers in the world today,” said Ruediger Krech, WHO director for health promotion.

He said more than 5.6 billion people, that is 71% of the world population, live in countries that have implemented at least one of these lifesaving protective measures. 

“What an achievement,” he said.  “This policy package has literally changed our lives.  It means that families can go out to restaurants without worrying about their children breathing secondhand smoke.

“It means that people that want help to quit smoking can get the support that they need.  More than that,” he said, “it means that we are protected from the many deadly diseases caused by secondhand smoke.”

However, he noted that 2.3 billion people live in the 44 countries that have not implemented any tobacco control measures “leaving them at risk of the health and economic burden of tobacco use.” 

Until recently, only Turkey and Brazil had succeeded in enacting all six of the so-called MPOWER tobacco control measures.  WHO reports Mauritius and the Netherlands now have joined this elite group, becoming the first African country and the first high-income country to achieve this best-practice level.

Kailesh Kumar Singh Jagutpal, Mauritius Minister of Health and Wellness said his country was one of the first signatories of the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control in 2004.  Since then, he said his government has been continuously implementing the articles contained in the agreement.

He said Mauritius began amending its legislation and tobacco control laws in 2008 to blunt the heavy toll smoking was taking on his country’s aging population.

“The prevalence of cardiovascular diseases, cancers, stroke, diabetes, hypertension is quite high in Mauritius.  We are also experiencing aging of the population…So, these combined effects of an aging population, significant effect of co-morbidity forced the government to take bold action.” 

Jagutpal said his government has been using WHO-recommended measures to discourage smoking to good effect.   These include banning the advertising, promotion, and sponsorship of tobacco products; prohibiting the sale of cigarettes to minors, helping people to quit tobacco use, creating smoke-free places, and raising taxes on cigarettes.

The minister said these measures are working, with surveys showing that smoking has declined from 30% in 1987 to 18.3% in 2021. 

WHO’s report on the global tobacco epidemic focuses on protecting the public from secondhand smoke.  It finds a growing number of countries are passing laws designating smoke-free indoor public places.  

Krech said nearly 40% of countries have achieved this goal.  “Today, 74 countries protect their populations, making up to 25% of the world’s population with comprehensive smoke-free legislation in public indoor areas like health care, education facilities, as well as hospitality venues like restaurants and cafes.”

But he warned the battle against the global tobacco epidemic was far from over.  

“Tobacco use continues to be one of the biggest public health threats with 8.7 million people dying from tobacco related diseases every year, 1.3 million of these deaths are amongst non-smokers that are subjected to secondhand smoke.” 

Krech said tobacco remained the leading cause of preventable death in the world, largely due to relentless marketing campaigns by the tobacco industry.  

He urged governments to “push back against the tobacco and nicotine industries,” who lobby against public health measures by using different ploys “to hook children on to e-cigarettes and vaping to make them nicotine dependent.”

Then, of course, he said “they will switch to cigarettes afterward.”

Record Heat Shows Plight of Americans Suffering Without Air Conditioning

As Denver neared triple-digit temperatures, Ben Gallegos sat shirtless on his porch swatting flies off his legs and spritzing himself with a misting fan to try to get through the heat. Gallegos, like many in the nation’s poorest neighborhoods, doesn’t have air conditioning. 

The 68-year-old covers his windows with mattress foam to insulate against the heat and sleeps in the concrete basement. He knows high temperatures can cause heat stroke and death, and his lung condition makes him more susceptible. But the retired brick layer, who survives on about $1,000 a month, says air conditioning is out of reach. 

“Take me about 12 years to save up for something like that,” he said. “If it’s hard to breath, I’ll get down to emergency.” 

As climate change fans hotter and longer heat waves, breaking record temperatures across the U.S. and leaving dozens dead, the poorest Americans suffer the hottest days with the fewest defenses. Air conditioning, once a luxury, is now a matter of survival. 

As Phoenix weathered its 27th consecutive day above 110 degrees (43 Celsius) Wednesday, the nine who died indoors didn’t have functioning air conditioning, or it was turned off. Last year, all 86 heat-related deaths indoors were in uncooled environments. 

“To explain it fairly simply: Heat kills,” said Kristie Ebi, a University of Washington professor who researches heat and health. “Once the heat wave starts, mortality starts in about 24 hours.” 

It’s the poorest and people of color, from Kansas City to Detroit to New York City and beyond, who are far more likely to face grueling heat without air conditioning, according to a Boston University analysis of 115 U.S. metro areas. 

“The temperature differences … between lower-income neighborhoods, neighborhoods of color and their wealthier, whiter counterparts have pretty severe consequences,” said Cate Mingoya-LaFortune of Groundwork USA, an environmental justice organization. “There are these really big consequences like death. … But there’s also ambient misery.” 

Some have window units that can offer respite, but “in the dead of heat, it don’t do nothing,” said Melody Clark, who stopped Friday to get food at a Kansas City, Kansas, nonprofit as temperatures soared to 101. When the central air conditioning at her rental house broke, her landlord installed a window unit. But it doesn’t do much during the day. 

So the 45-year-old wets her hair, cooks outside on a propane grill and keeps the lights off indoors. At night she flips the box unit on, hauling her bed into the room where it’s located to sleep. 

As far as her two teenagers, she said: “They aren’t little bitty. We aren’t dying in the heat. … They don’t complain.” 

While billions in federal funding have been allocated to subsidize utility costs and the installation of cooling systems, experts say they often only support a fraction of the most vulnerable families and some still require prohibitive upfront costs. Installing a centralized heat pump system for heating and cooling can easily reach $25,000. 

President Joe Biden announced steps on Thursday to defend against extreme heat, highlighting the expansion of the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, which funnels money through states to help poorer households pay utility bills. 

While the program is critical, said Michelle Graff, who studies the subsidy at Cleveland State University, only about 16% of the nation’s eligible population is actually reached. Nearly half of states don’t offer the federal dollars for summer cooling. 

“So people are engaging in coping mechanisms, like they’re turning on their air conditioners later and leaving their homes hotter,” Graff said. 

As temperatures rise, so does the cost of cooling. And temperatures are already hotter in America’s low-income neighborhoods. Researchers at the University of San Diego analyzed 1,056 counties and in over 70%, the poorest areas and those with higher Black, Hispanic and Asian populations were significantly hotter. That’s in part because those neighborhoods lack tree coverage. 

At noon Friday, Katrice Sullivan sat on the porch of her rented house on Detroit’s westside. It was hot and muggy, but even steamier inside the house. Even if she had air conditioning, Sullivan said she’d choose her moments to run it to keep her electricity bill down. 

The 37-year-old factory worker sometimes sits in her car with the air conditioner running. “Some people here spend every dollar for food, so air conditioning is something they can’t afford,” she said. 

In the federal Inflation Reduction Act, billions were set aside for tax credits and rebates to help families install energy-efficient cooling systems, but some of those are yet to be available. Rebates are the kind of state and federal point-of-sale discounts that Amanda Morian has looked into for her 640-square-foot home. 

Morian, who has a 13-week-old baby susceptible to hot weather, is desperate to keep her house in Denver’s Globeville suburb cool. She got estimates from four different companies for installing a cooling system, but every project was between $20,000 and $25,000, she said. Even with subsidies she can’t afford it. 

Instead, she bought thermal curtains, ceiling fans and runs a window unit. At night she tries to do skin-to-skin touch to regulate the baby’s body temperature. 

“All of those are just to take the edge off, its not enough to actually make it cool. It’s enough to keep us from dying,” she said. 

Wildlife Lovers Urged to Join UK’s Annual Butterfly Count

Wildlife enthusiasts across Britain are being encouraged to log sightings of butterflies and some moths, as the world’s largest annual survey of the increasingly endangered pollinating insects returns.

The U.K.-wide “Big Butterfly Count” — which this year runs from July 14 to August 6 — helps conservationists assess the health of the country’s natural environment, amid mounting evidence it is increasingly imperiled. 

Volunteers download a chart helping them to identify different butterfly species and then record their sightings in gardens, parks and elsewhere using a smartphone app and other online tools.

It comes as experts warn the often brightly colored winged insects are in rapid decline in Britain as they fail to cope with unprecedented environmental change. 

“It’s a pretty worrying picture,” Richard Fox, head of science at the Butterfly Conservation charity, which runs the nationwide citizen-led survey, told AFP at Orley Common, a vast park in Devon, southwest England.

“The major causes of the decline are what we humans have done to the landscape in the U.K. over the past 50, 60, 70 years,” he added from the site, which is seeing fewer butterflies despite offering an ideal habitat for them. 

A report published this year that Fox co-authored, based on 23 million items of data, revealed that four in every five U.K. butterfly species have decreased since the 1970s. 

Half of the country’s 58 species are listed as threatened, according to a conservation “red list.” 

‘Citizen scientists’

The UK, one of the world’s most nature-depleted countries, has lost almost half of its biodiversity over recent decades, according to a 2021 U.K. parliament report.

Agriculture, and its use of fertilizers and pesticides, alongside changes to landscapes including the removal of hedge rows to maximize space for growing crops, is partly blamed.

Counting butterflies, which are among the most monitored insects globally, has helped track the grim trend. 

Volunteers have been contributing to the effort since the 1970s, but recording is more popular than ever, in part thanks to evolving technology.

The Big Butterfly Count launched in 2010 and claims to have become the world’s biggest such survey. 

Over 64,000 “citizen scientists” participated last year, submitting 96,257 counts of butterflies and day-flying moths from across Britain.

Butterfly Conservation and the U.K. Centre for Ecology and Hydrology have developed an iRecord Butterflies app to help identify and geo-locate different butterfly species sightings.

It has logged nearly 1 million submissions since launching in 2014.

Butterflies help identify the health of an ecosystem because they react quickly to environmental changes and are seen as an early warning system for other wildlife losses, conservationists note.

“One of the great things about butterflies and of this fantastic data that we have about butterflies is that they act as indicators about all the other groups,” Fox explained. 

“So we know a bit about how our bees are doing, we know a little about how bugs, and beetles, and flies, and wasps, and other important insects are doing.”

‘We’ll starve’

Amy Walkden, Butterfly Conservation’s branch secretary in Devon, is one of many enthusiasts monitoring the insects year-round with the help of her 8-year-old daughter, Robin.

“Having a yearly record of what is around and what is not around I think is really good scientific data to indicate changes such as global warming, habitat destruction,” she said. 

Her daughter Robin appears equally aware of their value.

“If we don’t have any butterflies and all the buzzy things, then the things that eat butterflies won’t have any food,” she noted.

“The food chain is basically what we eat and if there is none of them, we’ll starve and we won’t really be able to survive, will we?”

Fox hopes that the latest annual count will help prompt policy makers to take more action, although he concedes the scale of the task is “enormous.”

The U.K. government has said it wants to reverse biodiversity loss and climate change, partly by planting tens of millions of trees in the next three years.

Fox called the plan “fantastic” but said other areas such as low intensity agri-environment schemes are also needed, “so that the public money paid to farmers will benefit the environment and support biodiversity.”

“There’s a lot more we can do there to make sure that the margins around fields are being managed in a way to turn around the fortunes of our more common and widespread butterflies,” he added.

‘Barbie’ Tops Box Office Again, ‘Oppenheimer’ in 2nd Place

A week later, the “Barbenheimer” boom has not abated. 

Seven days after Greta Gerwig’s “Barbie” and Christopher Nolan’s “Oppenheimer” conspired to set box office records, the two films held unusually strongly in theaters. “Barbie” took in a massive $93 million in its second weekend, according to studio estimates Sunday. “Oppenheimer” stayed in second with a robust $46.2 million. Sales for the two movies dipped 43% and 44%, respectably — well shy of the usual week-two drops. 

“Barbenheimer” has proven to be not a one-weekend phenomenon but an ongoing box-office bonanza. The two movies combined have already surpassed $1 billion in worldwide ticket sales. Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst for data firm Comscore, call it “a touchstone moment for movies, moviegoers and movie theaters.” 

“Having two movies from rival studios linked in this way and both boosting each other’s fortunes — both box-office wise and it terms of their profile — I don’t know if there’s a comp for this in the annals of box-office history,” said Dergarabedian. “There’s really no comparison for this.” 

Following its year-best $162 million opening, the pink-infused pop sensation of “Barbie” saw remarkably sustained business through the week and into the weekend. The film outpaced Nolan’s “The Dark Knight” to have the best first 11 days in theaters of any Warner Bros. release ever. 

“Barbie” has rapidly accumulated $351.4 million in U.S. and Canadian theaters, a rate that will soon make it the biggest box-office hit of the summer. Every day it’s played, “Barbie” has made at least $20 million. 

And the “Barbie” effect isn’t just in North America. The film made $122.2 million internationally over the weekend. Its global tally has reached $775 million. It’s the kind of business that astounds even veteran studio executives. 

“That’s a crazy number,” said Jeff Goldstein, distribution chief for Warner Bros. “There’s just a built-in audience that wants to be part of the zeitgeist of the moment. Wherever you go, people are wearing pink. Pink is taking over the world.” 

Amid the frenzy, “Barbie” is already attracting a lot of repeat moviegoers. Goldstein estimates that 12% of sales are people going back with friends or family to see it again. 

For a movie industry that has be trying to regain its pre-pandemic footing — and that now finds itself largely shuttered due to actors and screenwriters strikes — the sensations of “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer” have showed what’s possible when everything lines up just right. 

“Post-pandemic, there’s no ceiling and there’s no floor,” said Goldstein. “The movies that miss, really miss big time and the movies that work really work big time.” 

Universal Pictures’ “Oppenheimer,” meanwhile, is performing more like a superhero movie than a three-hour film about scientists talking. 

Nolan’s drama starring Cillian Murphy as atomic bomb physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer has accrued $174.1 million domestically thus far. With an additional $72.4 million in international cinemas, “Oppenheimer” has already surpassed $400 million globally. 

Showings in IMAX have typically been sold out. “Oppenheimer” has made $80 million worldwide on IMAX. The large-format exhibitor said Sunday that it will extend the film’s run through Aug. 13. 

The week’s top new release, Walt Disney Co.’s “Haunted Mansion,” an adaptation of the Disney theme park attraction, was easily overshadowed by the “Barbenheimer” blitz. The film, which cost about $150 million, debuted with $24 million domestically and $9 million in overseas sales. “Haunted Mansion,” directed by Justin Simien (“Dear White People,” “Bad Hair”) and starring an ensemble of LaKeith Stanfield, Tiffany Haddish, Owen Wilson, Danny DeVito and Rosario Dawson, struggled to overcome mediocre reviews. 

“Talk to Me,” the A24 supernatural horror film, fared better. It debuted with $10 million. The film, directed by Australian filmmakers Danny and Michael Philippou and starring Sophie Wilde, was a midnight premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in January and received terrific reviews from critics (95% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes). It was made for a modest $4.5 million. 

While theaters being flush with moviegoers has been a huge boon to the film industry, it’s been tougher sledding for Tom Cruise, the so-called savior of the movies last summer with “Top Gun: Maverick.” “Mission Impossible: Dead Reckoning Part I,” which debuted the week before the arrival of “Barbenheimer,” grossed $10.7 million in its third weekend. The film starring Cruise and directed by Christopher McQuarrie, has grossed $139.2 million domestically and $309.3 million oveseas. 

Instead, the sleeper hit “Sound of Freedom” has been the best performing non-“Barbenheimer” release in theaters. The Angel Studios’ release, which is counting crowdfunding pay-it-forward sales in its box office totals, made $12.4 million in its fourth weekend, bringing its haul thus far to nearly $150 million. 

Estimated ticket sales for Friday through Sunday at U.S. and Canadian theaters, according to Comscore. Final domestic figures will be released Monday. 

  1. “Barbie,” $93 million. 

  2. “Opppenheimer,” $46.2 million. 

  3. “Haunted Mansion,” $24.2 million. 

  4. “Sound of Freedom,” $12.4 million. 

  5. “Mission: Impossible — Dead Reckoning Part One,” $10.7 million. 

  6. “Talk to Me,” $10 million. 

  7. “Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny,” $4 million. 

  8. “Elemental,” $3.4 million. 

  9. “Insidious: The Red Door,” $3.2 million. 

  10. “Rocky Aur Rani Ki Prem Kahani,” $1.6 million. 

AM Radio Fights to Keep Its Spot on US Car Dashboards

There has been a steady decline in the number of AM radio stations in the United States. Over the decades, urban and mainstream broadcasters have moved to the FM band, which has better audio fidelity, although more limited range. Now, there is a new threat to the remaining AM stations. Some automakers want to kick AM off their dashboard radios, deeming it obsolete. VOA’s chief national correspondent, Steve Herman, in the state of Texas, has been tuning in to some traditional rural stations, as well as those broadcasting in languages others than English in the big cities. Camera – Steve Herman and Jonathan Zizzo.

Morocco Makes History in 1-0 Defeat of South Korea at Women’s World Cup

ADELAIDE, AUSTRALIA — Morocco made history in multiple ways during its 1-0 victory over South Korea in the Women’s World Cup on Sunday.

Defender Nouhaila Benzina became the first player to wear a Hijab in a World Cup game at the senior level, and her teammate Ibtissam Jraïdi scored the Atlas Lionesses’ first World Cup goal. The Moroccans scored in the 6th minute and were able to make it stand up for the remainder of the match.

After a lopsided 6-0 loss against Germany, the victory keeps No. 72-ranked Morocco in contention to advance to the knockout stage of the tournament.

Key moments

Morocco scored its first ever World Cup goal in the sixth minute when Ibtissam Jraïdi met a cross from Hanane Aït El Haj with a glancing header toward the far post.

South Korea had the majority of the possession but was unable to translate the advantage into many scoring opportunities. Its best chance at equalizing came in the 87th minute when 16-year-old New Jersey resident Casey Phair pushed a shot just wide of the post. Phair, the youngest player to appear at a World Cup, went on as a late substitute.

Why it matters

After dropping its opening match 6-0 to Germany, Morocco’s victory temporarily moves it level with Germany and Colombia on three points ahead of the matchup later Sunday between those teams in Sydney. Morocco becomes the first Arab Nation ever to win a game at a Women’s World Cup and remains in contention to advance to the round of 16.

South Korea is all but eliminated from the tournament after its second loss of the tournament.

What’s next

Morocco will take on Colombia on the final day of the group stage Thursday in Perth in a match that may decide which of the two teams advances to the round of 16. South Korea will play Germany in Brisbane. The two matches will kick off simultaneously.

Mangrove Forest Thrives Around What Was Once Latin America’s Largest Landfill

It was once Latin America’s largest landfill. Now, a decade after Rio de Janeiro shut it down and redoubled efforts to recover the surrounding expanse of highly polluted swamp, crabs, snails, fish and birds are once again populating the mangrove forest.

“If we didn’t say this used to be a landfill, people would think it’s a farm. The only thing missing is cattle,” jokes Elias Gouveia, an engineer with Comlurb, the city’s garbage collection agency that is shepherding the plantation project. “This is an environmental lesson that we must learn from: Nature is remarkable. If we don’t pollute nature, it heals itself.”

Gouveia, who has worked with Comlurb for 38 years, witnessed the Gramacho landfill recovery project’s timid first steps in the late 1990s.

The former landfill is located right by the 148 square miles (383 square kilometers) Guanabara Bay. Between the landfill’s inauguration in 1968 and 1996, some 80 million tons of garbage were dumped in the area, polluting the bay and surrounding rivers with trash and runoff.

In 1996, the city began implementing measures to limit the levels of pollution in the landfill, starting with treating some of the leachate, the toxic byproduct of mountains of rotting trash. But garbage continued to pile up until 2012, when the city finally shut it down.

“When I got there, the mangrove was almost completely devastated, due to the leachate, which had been released for a long time, and the garbage that arrived from Guanabara Bay,” recalled Mario Moscatelli, a biologist hired by the city in 1997 to assist officials in the ambitious undertaking.

The bay was once home to a thriving artisanal fishing industry and popular palm-lined beaches. But it has since become a dump for waste from shipyards and two commercial ports. At low tide, household trash, including old washing machines and soggy couches, float atop vast islands of accumulated sewage and sediment.

The landfill, where mountains of trash once attracted hundreds of pickers, was gradually covered with clay. Comlurb employees started removing garbage, building a rainwater drainage system, and replanting mangroves, an ecosystem that has proved particularly resilient — and successful — in similar environmental recovery projects.

Mangroves are of particular interest for environmental restoration for their capacity to capture and store large amounts of planet-warming carbon dioxide, Gouveia explained.

Experts say mangroves can bury even more carbon in the sediment than a tropical rainforest, making it a great tool to fight climate change.

To help preserve the rejuvenated mangrove from the trash coming from nearby communities, where residents sometimes throw garbage into the rivers, the city used clay from the swamp to build a network of fences. To this day, Comlurb employees continue to maintain and strengthen the fences, which are regularly damaged by trespassers looking for crabs.

Leachate still leaks from the now-covered landfill, which Comlurb is collecting and treating in one of its wastewater stations.

Comlurb and its private partner, Statled Brasil, have successfully recovered some 60 hectares, an area six times bigger than what they started with in the late 1990s.

“We have turned things around,” Gouveia said. “Before, [the landfill] was polluting the bay and the rivers. Now, it is the bay and the rivers that are polluting us.”

Climate Change Likely Why Dangerous Fungus Spreading Fast, Scientists Say

SEATTLE — In 2016, hospitals in New York state identified a rare and dangerous fungal infection never before found in the United States. Research laboratories quickly mobilized to review historical specimens and found the fungus had been present in the country since at least 2013.

In the years since, New York City has emerged as ground zero for Candida auris infections. And until 2021, the state recorded the most confirmed cases in the country year after year, even as the illness has spread to other places, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data analyzed by The Associated Press.

Candida auris is a globally emerging public health threat that can cause severe illness, including bloodstream, wound and respiratory infections. Its mortality rate has been estimated at 30% to 60%, and it’s a particular risk in health care settings for people with serious medical problems.

Last year, the most cases were found in Nevada and California, but the fungus was identified clinically in patients in 29 states. New York state remains a major hot spot.

A prominent theory for the sudden explosion of Candida auris, which was not found in humans anywhere until 2009, is climate change.

Humans and other mammals have warmer body temperatures than most fungal pathogens can tolerate, so they have historically been protected from most infections. However, rising temperatures can allow fungi to develop tolerance to warmer environments, and over time humans may lose resistance. Some researchers think this is what is happening with Candida auris.

When Candida auris was first spreading, said Meghan Marie Lyman, a CDC medical epidemiologist for the mycotic diseases branch, the cases were linked to people who had traveled to the U.S. from other places. Now, most cases are acquired locally — generally spreading among patients in health care settings.

In the U.S., there were 2,377 confirmed clinical cases diagnosed last year — an increase of more than 1,200% since 2017. But Candida auris is becoming a global problem. In Europe, a survey last year found case numbers nearly doubled from 2020 to 2021.

“The number of cases has increased, but also the geographic distribution has increased,” Lyman said. She noted that while screenings and surveillance have improved, the skyrocketing case numbers reflect a true increase.

In March, a CDC press release noted the seriousness of the problem, citing the pathogen’s resistance to traditional antifungal treatments and the alarming rate of its spread. Public health agencies are focused primarily on strategies to urgently mitigate transmission in health care settings.

Dr. Luis Ostrosky, a professor of infectious diseases at McGovern Medical School at UTHealth Houston, thinks Candida auris is “kind of our nightmare scenario.”

“It’s a potentially multidrug resistant pathogen with the ability to spread very efficiently in health care settings,” he said. “We’ve never had a pathogen like this in the fungal infection area.”

Ostrosky has treated about 10 patients with the fungal infection but has consulted on many more. He said he has seen it spread through an entire ICU in two weeks.

The fungus poses a significant threat to human health, researchers say.

Immunocompromised patients in hospitals are most at risk, but so are people in long-term care centers and nursing homes, which generally have less access to diagnostics and infection control experts.

Candida auris is not only challenging to treat, but also difficult to diagnose. It is rare and many clinicians are not aware it exists.

Beyond the increase in cases, popular culture has helped increase awareness of fungal infections. A popular HBO series, The Last of Us, is a drama about the survivors of a fungal outbreak.

“I think the way to think about how global warming is putting selection pressure on microbes is to think about how many more really hot days we are experiencing,” said Arturo Casadevall, a microbiologist, immunologist and professor at Johns Hopkins University. “Each day at (37.7 degrees Celsius) provides a selection event for all microbes affected — and the more days when high temperatures are experienced, the greater probability that some will adapt and survive.” 

Two Supermoons in August Mean Double the Stargazing Fun

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — The cosmos is offering up a double feature in August: a pair of supermoons culminating in a rare blue moon.

Catch the first show Tuesday evening as the full moon rises in the southeast, appearing slightly brighter and bigger than normal. That’s because it will be closer than usual, just 357,530 kilometers (222,159 miles) away, thus the supermoon label.

The moon will be even closer the night of Aug. 30 — a scant 357,344 kilometers (222,043 miles) distant. Because it’s the second full moon in the same month, it will be what’s called a blue moon.

“Warm summer nights are the ideal time to watch the full moon rise in the eastern sky within minutes of sunset. And it happens twice in August,” said retired NASA astrophysicist Fred Espenak, dubbed Mr. Eclipse for his eclipse-chasing expertise.

The last time two full supermoons graced the sky in the same month was in 2018. It won’t happen again until 2037, according to Italian astronomer Gianluca Masi, founder of the Virtual Telescope Project.

Masi will provide a live webcast of Tuesday evening’s supermoon as it rises over the Coliseum in Rome.

“My plans are to capture the beauty of this … hopefully bringing the emotion of the show to our viewers,” Masi said in an email. “The supermoon offers us a great opportunity to look up and discover the sky.”

This year’s first supermoon was in July. The fourth and last will be in September. The two in August will be closer than either of those.

Provided clear skies, binoculars or backyard telescopes can enhance the experience, Espenak said, revealing such features as lunar maria — the dark plains formed by ancient volcanic lava flows — and rays emanating from lunar craters.

According to the Old Farmer’s Almanac, the August full moon is traditionally known as the sturgeon moon. That’s because of the abundance of that fish in the Great Lakes in August  hundreds of years ago.

In US, Homeless Students’ Education Took Hard Hit During Pandemic

PHOENIX — By the time Aaliyah Ibarra started second grade, her family had moved five times in four years in search of stable housing. As she was about to start a new school, her mother, Bridget Ibarra, saw how much it was affecting her education.

At 8 years old, her daughter did not know the alphabet.

“She was in second grade and couldn’t tell me any of the letters. I would point them out and she didn’t know,” Bridget Ibarra said. “She would sing the song in order, but as soon as I mixed them up, she had no idea.”

“I just didn’t know what letters were which,” says Aaliyah, now 9. “I know them now.”

The family’s struggles coincided with the COVID-19 pandemic that forced Aaliyah to begin her school experience online. Unfamiliar with a computer, Aaliyah was regularly kicked out of the virtual classroom, her mother said. Teachers complained she was not looking at the screen and took too many breaks.

Zoom school was especially difficult for Aaliyah because she was homeless — and like thousands of students nationally, her school didn’t know.

Homeless students often fell through the cracks during the tumult of the pandemic, when many schools struggled to keep track of families with unstable housing. Not being identified as homeless meant students lost out on eligibility for crucial support such as transportation, free uniforms, laundry services and other help.

Years later, the effects have cascaded. As students nationwide have struggled to make up for missed learning, educators have lost critical time identifying who needs the most help. Schools are offering tutoring and counseling but now have limited time to spend federal pandemic relief money for homeless students, said Barbara Duffield, executive director of SchoolHouse Connection, a national homelessness organization.

“There is urgency because of the losses that have occurred over the pandemic — loss in learning, the gaps in attendance and the health crisis,” she said. Many education leaders, Duffield said, don’t even know about federal money earmarked for homeless students — and the programs expire next year.

The number of children identified as homeless by schools nationwide dropped by 21% from the 2018-19 school year to the 2020-21 school year, according to federal data. But the decrease, representing more than 288,000 students, likely includes many kids whose homelessness was unknown to schools. Federal counts of homeless people living on the street or in shelters also appeared to decrease in 2021 due to pandemic disruptions, but by 2022, those numbers shot up to the highest in a decade.

In Bridget Ibarra’s case, she chose not to tell the school her kids were homeless — and she says teachers, disconnected from students by a screen, never asked. She was worried if officials knew the family was staying in a shelter, and the school was obliged by law to provide transportation, the family would face pressure to enroll in a different school that was closer.

She knew how hard the disruptions were on her kids.

“I know they didn’t enjoy moving as often as we did. They would say things like, ‘We’re moving again? We just moved!'” Ibarra said.

“When I moved, I missed my friends and my teacher,” Aaliyah said.

The stigma and fear associated with homelessness also can lead families not to tell anyone they lack secure housing, Duffield said.

“If we don’t identify children proactively, we can’t ensure that they have everything they need to be successful in school and even go to school,” she said.

Before the pandemic, Ibarra and her two children moved in with her brother in Phoenix because she was having trouble making ends meet. Then her brother died unexpectedly. At the time, Ibarra was pregnant with her third child and couldn’t afford the rent with what she earned working at a fast-food restaurant.

The family spent the next six months at Maggie’s Place, a shelter in North Phoenix that caters to pregnant women. The four of them, including Aaliyah’s infant brother, moved next to Homeward Bound, an apartment-like shelter for families, where they were living when the pandemic hit a few months before Aaliyah started kindergarten.

Aaliyah’s school, David Crockett Elementary, stuck with online learning her entire kindergarten year. Aaliyah and her older brother, joined by several other children, spent most of their school days on computers in a mixed-grade makeshift classroom at the shelter.

“It was like she wasn’t even in school,” Ibarra said. 

While the shelter helped the family meet their basic needs, Ibarra said she asked the school repeatedly for extra academic help for her daughter. She blamed the struggles partly on online learning, but she also felt the school was giving all their attention to Aaliyah’s older brother because he already was designated as a special education student with an individualized education program, or IEP.

The principal, Sean Hannafin, said school officials met frequently with the children’s mom. He said they offered the support they had available, but it was hard to determine online which students had needs that required intervention.

“The best thing we could do was take that data and flag them for when we returned in person, because you need a certain amount of time to observe a child in a classroom,” he said. “The online setting is not the place to observe.”

A federal law aimed at ensuring homeless students have equal access to education provides rights and services to children without a “fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence.”

Many students aren’t identified as homeless when their parents or guardians enroll them. At school, teachers, cafeteria staff, aides or bus drivers often notice other students whose well-being may need looking into. Students may have unwashed clothes, or many late arrivals or absences.

But with children learning online, teachers and staff often didn’t see those things.

Overall, the drop in the student homelessness count began before the pandemic, but it was much steeper in the first full school year after COVID-19 hit. The percentage of enrolled students identified as homeless in the U.S. dropped from 2.7% in 2018-19 to 2.2% in 2020-21.

Over that timeframe, Arizona had one of the biggest drops in the number of students identified as homeless, from about 21,000 to nearly 14,000. But there were signs many families were in distress. KateLynn Dean, who works at Homeward Bound, said the shelter saw huge numbers of families dealing with homelessness for the first time during the pandemic.

Eventually, Bridget Ibarra had to enroll Aaliyah in a different school.

After getting kicked out of low-income housing last year when their property owner sold the building, the family lived with Ibarra’s mother before finding another low-income unit in Chandler, more than 32 kilometers east of Phoenix.

Once the family moved, enrolling in school was far from easy. Aaliyah missed the first three weeks of the school year last fall because of delays obtaining transcripts, and Ibarra insisted she not start the year without a plan to address her delays in reading and writing. Aaliyah spent that time playing and sitting around the house.

“Honestly, Aaliyah said she didn’t care how long, because she didn’t want to go to that school anyway,” her mother said. She said Aaliyah missed her friends and was tired of moving.

At Aaliyah’s new school, Frye Elementary, Principal Alexis Cruz Freeman saw for herself how hard it was to keep in touch with families when children were not in classrooms. Several students disappeared altogether. But she said families have started reengaging with school. The state of Arizona reported more than 22,000 students were identified as homeless in the last school year — twice as many as the year before.

Ibarra said she tried to shield as much discomfort about their living situation from her kids as possible. It worked. Aaliyah doesn’t remember much about the places they’ve stayed except the people that surrounded her family.

Aaliyah has gained ground academically at her new school, Cruz Freeman said. She still has trouble pronouncing and recognizing some words. But by the end of the school year, she was able to read a text and write four sentences based on its meaning. She is also performing at grade level in math.

The principal considers her a success story in part because of her mother’s support.

“She was an advocate for her children, which is all that we can ever ask for,” Cruz Freeman said.

Millions of Shiite Muslims Mark Mourning Day of Ashoura

TEHRAN, Iran — Millions of Shiite Muslims in Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and around the world on Friday commemorated Ashoura, a remembrance of the 7th-century martyrdom of the Prophet Muhammad’s grandson, Hussein, that gave birth to their faith.

In Afghanistan, the Taliban cut mobile phone services in key cities holding commemorations for fear of militants targeting Shiites, whom Sunni extremists consider heretics. Security forces in neighboring Pakistan also stood on high alert as the commemorations there have seen attacks in the past.

Not all Shiites, however, were to mark the day on Friday. Iraq, Lebanon and Syria planned their remembrances for Saturday, which will see a major suburb of Beirut shut down and the faithful descend on the Iraqi city of Karbala, where Hussein is entombed in a gold-domed shrine.

Shiites represent over 10% of the world’s 1.8 billion Muslims and view Hussein as the rightful successor to the Prophet Muhammad. Hussein’s death in battle at the hands of Sunnis at Karbala, south of Baghdad, ingrained a deep rift in Islam and continues to this day to play a key role in shaping Shiite identity. 

More than 1,340 years after Hussein’s martyrdom, Baghdad, Tehran, Islamabad and other major capitals in the Middle East were adorned with symbols of Shiite piety and repentance: red flags for Hussein’s blood, symbolic black funeral tents and black dress for mourning, processions of men and boys expressing fervor in the ritual of chest-beating and self-flagellation with chains. 

In Iran, where the theocratic government views itself as the protector of Shiites worldwide, the story of Hussein’s martyrdom takes on political connotations amid its tensions with the West over its advancing nuclear program.

Iranian state television aired images of commemorations across the Islamic Republic, tying the event to criticisms of the West, Israel and the U.S. drone strike that killed Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani in 2020. Anchor Wesam Bahrani on Iran’s state-run English-language broadcaster Press TV referred to America as the “biggest opponent of Islam” and criticized Muslim countries allied with the U.S.

In the suburb of Sayida Zeinab near Syria’s capital, Damascus, security forces guarded checkpoints after a bomb hidden in a motorcycle exploded Thursday, killing at least six people and wounding dozens more. On Tuesday, another bomb in a motorcycle wounded two people. The suburb is home to a shrine to Zeinab, the daughter of the first Shiite imam, Ali, and granddaughter of the Prophet Muhammad.

On Friday, the Islamic State claimed responsibility for the recent attacks in a statement, claiming that Thursday’s attack killed about 10 and wounded about 40 others “during their annual polytheistic rituals.” The group’s extreme interpretation of Islam holds Shiite Muslims to be apostates.

Iraq will see the main observance of the Ashoura on Saturday in Karbala, where hundreds of thousands are expected and many will rush toward the shrine to symbolize their desire to answer Hussein’s last cries for help in battle. Convoys of the faithful arrived throughout the day Friday.

In Pakistan, authorities stepped up security as an Interior Ministry alert warned that “terrorists” could target Ashoura processions in major cities. Security was tight in the capital, Islamabad, where police were deployed at a key Shiite place of worship.

“The Imam’s lesson is … hold on to patience,” said Anam Batool, a mourner who took part in a commemoration in Islamabad. “After that, resist falsehood, stand with the truth. Where you must raise your voice against oppression, raise your voice there.” 

FBI Warns About China Theft of US AI Technology

China is pilfering U.S.-developed artificial intelligence (AI) technology to enhance its own aspirations and to conduct foreign influence operations, senior FBI officials said Friday.

The officials said China and other U.S. adversaries are targeting American businesses, universities and government research facilities to get their hands on cutting-edge AI research and products.

“Nation-state adversaries, particularly China, pose a significant threat to American companies and national security by stealing our AI technology and data to advance their own AI programs and enable foreign influence campaigns,” a senior FBI official said during a background briefing call with reporters.

China has a national plan to surpass the U.S. as the world’s top AI power by 2030, but U.S. officials say much of its progress is based on stolen or otherwise acquired U.S. technology.

“What we’re seeing is efforts across multiple vectors, across multiple industries, across multiple avenues to try to solicit and acquire U.S. technology … to be able to re-create and develop and advance their AI programs,” the senior FBI official said.

The briefing was aimed at giving the FBI’s view of the threat landscape, not to react to any recent events, officials said.

FBI Director Christopher Wray sounded the alarm about China’s AI intentions at a cybersecurity summit in Atlanta on Wednesday. He warned that after “years stealing both our innovation and massive troves of data,” the Chinese are well-positioned “to use the fruits of their widespread hacking to power, with AI, even more powerful hacking efforts.”

China has denied the allegations.

The senior FBI official briefing reporters said that while the bureau remains focused on foreign acquisition of U.S. AI technology and talent, it has concern about future threats from foreign adversaries who exploit that technology.

“However, if and when the technology is acquired, their ability to deploy it in an instance such as [the 2024 presidential election] is something that we are concerned about and do closely monitor.”

With the recent surge in AI use, the U.S. government is grappling with its benefits and risks. At a White House summit earlier this month, top AI executives agreed to institute guidelines to ensure the technology is developed safely.

Even as the technology evolves, cybercriminals are actively using AI in a variety of ways, from creating malicious code to crafting convincing phishing emails and carrying out insider trading of securities, officials said.

“The bulk of the caseload that we’re seeing now and the scope of activity has in large part been on criminal actor use and deployment of AI models in furtherance of their traditional criminal schemes,” the senior FBI official said.

The FBI warned that violent extremists and traditional terrorist actors are experimenting with the use of various AI tools to build explosives, he said.

“Some have gone as far as to post information about their engagements with the AI models and the success which they’ve had defeating security measures in most cases or in a number of cases,” he said.

The FBI has observed a wave of fake AI-generated websites with millions of followers that carry malware to trick unsuspecting users, he said. The bureau is investigating the websites.

Wray cited a recent case in which a Dark Net user created malicious code using ChatGPT.

The user “then instructed other cybercriminals on how to use it to re-create malware strains and techniques based on common variants,” Wray said.

“And that’s really just the tip of the iceberg,” he said. “We assess that AI is going to enable threat actors to develop increasingly powerful, sophisticated, customizable and scalable capabilities — and it’s not going to take them long to do it.”

EU Looks to Ban Harmful Chemicals in Imported Toys

The EU is looking to prohibit chemicals deemed unsafe for children — especially ones that disrupt growth hormones — in imported toys under new rules proposed Friday by the European Commission.

China is overwhelmingly the biggest manufacturer of toys imported into the European Union, accounting for 83% of the value of toys brought in in 2021, according to the official EU statistics agency Eurostat.

“Enforcement will be stepped up thanks to digital technologies, allowing unsafe toys to be more easily detected, notably at EU borders,” EU internal market commissioner Thierry Breton said.

The commission’s proposed Toy Safety Regulation aims to address loopholes in existing EU legislation dating from 2009 that dictates safety standards in toys sold across the 27-nation bloc.

It also seeks to update the rules to better address online sales.

A commission statement emphasized that toys bought in the EU are “already among the safest ones in the world.”

But it said more needed to be done, given “the high number of unsafe toys that are still sold in the EU, especially online,” and particularly imported ones.

The proposed revision zeroes in on “chemicals that affect the endocrine system, and chemicals affecting the respiratory system or are toxic to a specific organ” in toys.

The endocrine system comprises glands that produce hormones. In children, chemicals that disrupt its normal operation can affect growth, thyroid functions and puberty, and contribute to diabetes or obesity.

To ensure that all toys sold in the European Union are safe, the commission is suggesting a requirement for importers to procure “digital product passports” that would assist in inspecting shipments.

The European Consumer Organisation (BEUC) strongly welcomed the commission’s initiative and noted that if it became EU law “it would be the first time ever — worldwide — that both known and suspected hormone-disrupting chemicals are banned from an entire product group.”

It said a consumer group’s test of babies’ teething toys in May found 11 out of 20 toys released such chemicals.

The head of the European Consumer Voice in Standardisation, Stephen Russell, said: “For years, we and BEUC have criticized the all-too-weak provision of toy safety legislation when it comes to chemicals.

“It is very welcome to see the European Commission now proposes to phase out hormone-disrupting chemicals from an entire product group.”

Prospect of AI Producing News Articles Concerns Digital Experts 

Google’s work developing an artificial intelligence tool that would produce news articles is concerning some digital experts, who say such devices risk inadvertently spreading propaganda or threatening source safety. 

The New York Times reported last week that Google is testing a new product, known internally by the working title Genesis, that employs artificial intelligence, or AI, to produce news articles.

Genesis can take in information, like details about current events, and create news content, the Times reported. Google already has pitched the product to the Times and other organizations, The Washington Post and News Corp, which owns The Wall Street Journal.

The launch of the generative AI chatbot ChatGPT last fall has sparked debate about how artificial intelligence can and should fit into the world — including in the news industry.

AI tools can help reporters research by quickly analyzing data and extracting it from PDF files in a process known as scraping.  AI can also help journalists’ fact-check sources. 

But the apprehension — including potentially spreading propaganda or ignoring the nuance humans bring to reporting — appears to be weightier. These worries extend beyond Google’s Genesis tool to encapsulate the use of AI in news gathering more broadly.

If AI-produced articles are not carefully checked, they could unwittingly include disinformation or misinformation, according to John Scott-Railton, who researches disinformation at the Citizen Lab in Toronto.  

“It’s sort of a shame that the places that are the most friction-free for AI to scrape and draw from — non-paywalled content — are the places where disinformation and propaganda get targeted,” Scott-Railton told VOA. “Getting people out of the loop does not make spotting disinformation easier.”

Paul M. Barrett, deputy director at New York University’s Stern Center for Business and Human Rights, agrees that artificial intelligence can turbocharge the dissemination of falsehoods. 

“It’s going to be easier to generate myths and disinformation,” he told VOA. “The supply of misleading content is, I think, going to go up.”

In an emailed statement to VOA, a Google spokesperson said, “In partnership with news publishers, especially smaller publishers, we’re in the earliest stages of exploring ideas to potentially provide AI-enabled tools to help their journalists with their work.”

“Our goal is to give journalists the choice of using these emerging technologies in a way that enhances their work and productivity,” the spokesperson said. “Quite simply these tools are not intended to, and cannot, replace the essential role journalists have in reporting, creating and fact-checking their articles.”

The implications for a news outlet’s credibility are another important consideration regarding the use of artificial intelligence.

News outlets are presently struggling with a credibility crisis. Half of Americans believe that national news outlets try to mislead or misinform audiences through their reporting, according to a February report from Gallup and the Knight Foundation.

“I’m puzzled that anyone thinks that the solution to this problem is to introduce a much less credible tool, with a much shakier command of facts, into newsrooms,” said Scott-Railton, who was previously a Google Ideas fellow.

Reports show that AI chatbots regularly produce responses that are entirely wrong or made up. AI researchers refer to this habit as a “hallucination.”

Digital experts are also cautious about what security risks may be posed by using AI tools to produce news articles. Anonymous sources, for instance, might face retaliation if their identities are revealed.

“All users of AI-powered systems need to be very conscious of what information they are providing to the system,” Barrett said.

“The journalist would have to be cautious and wary of disclosing to these AI systems information such as the identity of a confidential source, or, I would say, even information that the journalist wants to make sure doesn’t become public,” he said. 

Scott-Railton said he thinks AI probably has a future in most industries, but it’s important not to rush the process, especially in news. 

“What scares me is that the lessons learned in this case will come at the cost of well-earned reputations, will come at the cost of factual accuracy when it actually counts,” he said.  

Saguaro Cacti Collapsing in Arizona Extreme Heat, Scientist Says

Arizona’s saguaro cacti, a symbol of the U.S. West, are leaning, losing arms and in some cases falling over during the state’s record streak of extreme heat, a scientist said on Tuesday.

Summer monsoon rains the cacti rely on have failed to arrive, testing the desert giants’ ability to survive in the wild as well as in cities after temperatures above 43 Celsius degrees (110 Fahrenheit) for 25 days in Phoenix, said Tania Hernandez.

“These plants are adapted to this heat, but at some point the heat needs to cool down and the water needs to come,” said Hernandez, a research scientist at Phoenix’s 140-acre (57-hectare) Desert Botanical Garden, which has over 2/3 of all cactus species, including saguaros which can grow to over 12 meters (40 feet).

Plant physiologists at the Phoenix garden are studying how much heat cacti can take. Until recently many thought the plants were perfectly adapted to high temperatures and drought. Arizona’s heat wave is testing those assumptions.

Cacti need to cool down at night or through rain and mist. If that does not happen they sustain internal damage. Plants now suffering from prolonged, excessive heat may take months or years to die, Hernandez said.

Cacti in Phoenix are being studied as the city is a heat island, mimicking higher temperatures plants in the wild are expected to face with future climate change, Hernandez said.

Vietnam Orders Social Media Firms to Cut ‘Toxic’ Content Using AI

HO CHI MINH CITY, VIETNAM – Vietnam’s demand that international social media firms use artificial intelligence to identify and remove “toxic” online content is part of an ever expanding and alarming campaign to pressure overseas platforms to suppress freedom of speech in the country, rights groups, experts and activists say.

Vietnam is a lucrative market for overseas social media platforms. Of the country’s population of nearly 100 million there are 75.6 million Facebook users, according to Singapore-based research firm Data Reportal. And since Vietnamese authorities have rolled out tighter restrictions on online content and ordered social media firms to remove content the government deems anti-state, social media sites have largely complied with government demands to silence online critiques of the government, experts and rights groups told VOA.

“Toxic” is a term used broadly to refer to online content which the state deems to be false, violent, offensive, or anti-state, according to local media reports.

During a mid-year review conference on June 30, Vietnam’s Information Ministry ordered international tech firms to use artificial intelligence to find and remove so-called toxic content automatically, according to a report from state-run broadcaster Vietnam Television. Details have not been revealed on how or when companies must comply with the new order.

Le Quang Tu Do, the head of the Authority of Broadcasting and Electronic Information, had noted during an April 6 news conference that Vietnamese authorities have economic, technical and diplomatic tools to act against international platforms, according to a local media report. According to the report he said the government could cut off social platforms from advertisers, banks, and e-commerce, block domains and servers, and advise the public to cease using platforms with toxic content.

“The point of these measures is for international platforms without offices in Vietnam, like Facebook and YouTube, to abide by the law,” Do said.

Pat de Brun, Amnesty International’s deputy director of Amnesty Tech, told VOA the latest demand is consistent with Vietnam’s yearslong strategy to increase pressure on social media companies. De Brun said it is the government’s broad definition of what is toxic, rather than use of artificial intelligence, that is of most human rights concern because it silences speech that can include criticism of government and policies.

“Vietnamese authorities have used exceptionally broad categories to determine content that they find inappropriate and which they seek to censor. … Very, very often this content is protected speech under international human rights law,” de Brun said. “It’s really alarming to see that these companies have relented in the face of this pressure again and again.”

During the first half of this year, Facebook removed 2,549 posts, YouTube removed 6,101 videos, and TikTok took down 415 links, according to an Information Ministry statement.

Online suppression

Nguyen Khac Giang, a research fellow at Singapore’s ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, told VOA that heightened online censorship has been led by the conservative faction within Vietnam’s Communist Party, which gained power in 2016.

Nguyen Phu Trong was elected as general secretary in 2016, putting a conservative in the top position within the one-party state. Along with Trong, other conservative-minded leaders rose within government the same year, pushing out reformists, Giang said. Efforts to control the online sphere led to 2018’s Law on Cybersecurity, which expands government control of online content and attempts to localize user data in Vietnam. The government also established Force 47 in 2017, a military unit with reportedly 10,000 members assigned to monitor online space.

On July 19, local media reported that the information ministry proposed taking away the internet access of people who commit violations online especially via livestream on social media sites.

Activists often see their posts removed, lose access to their accounts, and the government also arrests Vietnamese bloggers, journalists, and critics living in the country for their online speech. They are often charged under Article 117 of Vietnam’s Criminal Code, which criminalizes “making, storing, distributing or disseminating information, documents and items against the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.”

According to The 88 Project, a U.S.-based human rights group, 191 activists are in jail in Vietnam, many of whom have been arrested for online advocacy and charged under Article 117.

“If you look at the way that social media is controlled in Vietnam, it is very starkly contrasted with what happened before 2016,” Giang said. “What we are seeing now is only a signal of what we’ve been seeing for a long time.”

Giang said the government order is a tool to pressure social media companies to use artificial intelligence to limit content, but he warned that online censorship and limits on public discussion could cause political instability by eliminating a channel for public feedback.

“The story here is that they want the social media platforms to take more responsibility for whatever happens on social media in Vietnam,” Giang said. “If they don’t allow people to report on wrongdoings … how can the [government] know about it?”

Vietnamese singer and dissident Do Nguyen Mai Khoi, now living in the United States, has been contacting Facebook since 2018 for activists who have lost accounts or had posts censored, or are the victims of coordinated online attacks by pro-government Facebook users. Although she has received some help from the company in the past, responses to her requests have become more infrequent.

“[Facebook] should use their leverage,” she added. “If Vietnam closed Facebook, everyone would get angry and there’d be a big wave of revolution or protests.”

Representatives of Meta Platforms Inc., Facebook’s parent company, did not respond to VOA requests for comment.

Vietnam is also a top concern in the region for the harsh punishment of online speech, Dhevy Sivaprakasam, Asia Pacific policy counsel at Access Now, a nonprofit defending digital rights, said.

“I think it’s one of the most egregious examples of persecution on the online space,” she said.