Month: February 2024

Tax-Free Status of Movie, Music and Games Traded Online Is on Table as WTO Nations Meet in Abu Dhabi

Geneva — Since late last century and the early days of the web, providers of digital media like Netflix and Spotify have had a free pass when it comes to international taxes on films, video games and music that are shipped across borders through the internet.

But now, a global consensus on the issue may be starting to crack.

As the World Trade Organization opens its latest biannual meeting of government ministers Monday, its longtime moratorium on duties on e-commerce products — which has been renewed almost automatically since 1998 — is coming under pressure as never before.

This week in Abu Dhabi, the WTO’s 164 member countries will take up a number of key issues: Subsidies that encourage overfishing. Reforms to make agricultural markets fairer and more eco-friendly. And efforts to revive the Geneva-based trade body’s system of resolving disputes among countries.

All of those are tall orders, but the moratorium on e-commerce duties is perhaps the matter most in play. It centers on “electronic transmissions” — music, movies, video games and the like — more than on physical goods. But the rulebook isn’t clear on the entire array of products affected.

“This is so important to millions of businesses, especially small- and medium-sized businesses,” WTO Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala said. “Some members believe that this should be extended and made permanent. Others believe … there are reasons why it should not.” 

“That’s why there’s been a debate and hopefully — because it touches on lives of many people — we hope that ministers would be able to make the appropriate decision,” she told reporters recently.

Under WTO’s rules, major decisions require consensus. The e-commerce moratorium can’t just sail through automatically. Countries must actively vote in favor for the extension to take effect.

Four proposals are on the table: Two would extend the suspension of duties. Two — separately presented by South Africa and India, two countries that have been pushing their interests hard at the WTO — would not.

Proponents say the moratorium benefits consumers by helping keep costs down and promotes the wider rollout of digital services in countries both rich and poor.

Critics say it deprives debt-burdened governments in developing countries of tax revenue, though there’s debate over just how much state coffers would stand to gain.

The WTO itself says that on average, the potential loss would be less than one-third of 1% of total government revenue.

The stakes are high. A WTO report published in December said the value of “digitally delivered services” exports grew by more than 8% from 2005 to 2022 — higher than goods exports (5.6%) and other-services exports (4.2%).

Growth has been uneven, though. Most developing countries don’t have digital networks as extensive as those in the rich world. Those countries see less need to extend the moratorium — and might reap needed tax revenue if it ends.

South Africa’s proposal, which seeks to end the moratorium, calls for the creation of a fund to receive voluntary contributions to bridge the “digital divide.” It also wants to require “leading platforms” to boost the promotion of “historically disadvantaged” small- and medium-sized enterprises.

Industry, at least in the United States, is pushing hard to extend the moratorium. In a Feb. 13 letter to Biden administration officials, nearly two dozen industry groups, including the Motion Picture Association, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Entertainment Software Association — a video-game industry group — urged the United States to give its “full support” to a renewal.

“Accepting anything short of a multilateral extension of the moratorium that applies to all WTO members would open the door to the introduction of new customs duties and related cross-border restrictions that would hurt U.S. workers in industries across the entire economy,” the letter said.

A collapse would deal a “major blow to the credibility and durability” of the WTO and would mark the first time that its members “changed the rules to make it substantially harder to conduct trade,” wrote the groups, which said their members include companies that combined employ over 100 million workers. 

Japan’s ‘Naked Men’ Festival Succumbs to Aging of Population

Ōshū, Japan — Steam rose as hundreds of naked men tussled over a bag of wooden talismans, performing a dramatic end to a thousand-year-old ritual in Japan that took place for the last time. 

Their passionate chants of “Jasso, joyasa” (meaning “Evil, be gone”) echoed through a cedar forest in northern Japan’s Iwate region, where the secluded Kokuseki Temple has decided to end the popular annual rite. 

Organizing the event, which draws hundreds of participants and thousands of tourists every year, has become a heavy burden for the aging local faithful, who find it hard to keep up with the rigors of the ritual.  

The “Sominsai” festival, regarded as one of the strangest festivals in Japan, is the latest tradition impacted by the country’s aging population crisis that has hit rural communities hard.  

“It is very difficult to organize a festival of this scale,” said Daigo Fujinami, a resident monk of the temple that opened in 729.  

“You can see what happened today — so many people are here and it’s all exciting. But behind the scenes, there are many rituals and so much work that have to be done,” he said.  

“I cannot be blind to the difficult reality.”  

Aging population 

More than 1 in 10 people in Japan are 80 years old or older, and almost a third of its population is older than 65, according to the World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs Report 2023.

The aging of Japan’s population has forced the closure of countless schools, shops and services, particularly in small or rural communities.  

Kokuseki Temple’s Sominsai festival used to take place from the seventh day of Lunar New Year to the following morning.  

But during the Covid pandemic, it was scaled down to prayer ceremonies and smaller rituals. 

The final festival was a shortened version, ending around 11 p.m., but it drew the biggest crowd in recent memory, local residents said.  

As the sun set, men in white loincloths came to the mountain temple, bathed in a creek and marched around temple’s ground. 

They clenched their fists against the chill of a winter breeze, all the while chanting “Jasso, joyasa.” 

Some held small cameras to record their experience, while dozens of television crews followed the men through the temple’s stone steps and dirt pathways. 

As the festival reached its climax, hundreds of men packed inside the wooden temple shouting, chanting and aggressively jostling over a bag of talismans. 

Changing norms

Toshiaki Kikuchi, a local resident who claimed the talismans and who helped organize the festival for years, said he hoped the ritual would return in the future.  

“Even under a different format, I hope to maintain this tradition,” he said. “There are many things that you can appreciate only if you take part.” 

Many participants and visitors voiced both sadness and understanding about the festival’s ending. 

“This is the last of this great festival that has lasted 1,000 years. I really wanted to participate in this festival,” Yasuo Nishimura, 49, a caregiver from Osaka, told AFP. 

Other temples across Japan continue to host similar festivals where men wear loincloths and bathe in freezing water or fight over talismans. 

Some festivals are adjusting their rules in line with changing demographics and social norms so that they can continue to exist — such as letting women take part in previously male-only ceremonies.  

Starting next year, Kokuseki Temple will replace the festival with prayer ceremonies and other ways to continue its spiritual practices. 

“Japan is facing a falling birthrate, aging population, and lack of young people to continue various things,” Nishimura said. “Perhaps it is difficult to continue the same way as in the past.” 

Productivity Surge Helps Explain US Economy’s Surprising Resilience 

Washington — Trying to keep up with customer demand, Batesville Tool & Die began seeking 70 people to hire last year. It wasn’t easy. Attracting factory workers to a community of 7,300 in the Indiana countryside was a tough sell, especially having to compete with big-name manufacturers nearby like Honda and Cummins Engine. 

Job seekers were scarce. 

“You could count on one hand how many people in the town were unemployed,” said Jody Fledderman, the CEO. “It was just crazy.” 

Batesville Tool & Die managed to fill just 40 of its vacancies. 

Enter the robots. The company invested in machines that could mimic human workers and in vision systems, which helped its robots “see” what they were doing. 

The Batesville experience has been replicated countlessly across the United States the past couple of years. Worker shortages have led many companies to invest in machines. They’ve also been training the workers they do have to use advanced technology so they can produce more with less. 

The result has been an unexpected productivity boom, which helps explain a great economic mystery: How has the world’s largest economy stayed so healthy, with brisk growth and low unemployment, despite brutally high interest rates that are intended to tame inflation but that typically cause a recession? 

To economists, strong productivity growth provides an almost magical elixir. When companies roll out more efficient technology, their workers can become more productive: They increase their output per hour. A result is that companies can often boost profits and raise pay without having to jack up prices. Inflation can remain in check. 

The Fed’s aggressive streak of rate hikes — 11 of them starting in March 2022 — managed to bring inflation from a four-decade high of 9.1% to 3.1%. But, to the surprise to the economists who’d forecast a recession, the higher borrowing costs have caused little economic hardship. 

Perhaps the likeliest explanation is the greater efficiencies that companies like Batesville Tool & Die have managed to achieve. Before productivity began its resurgent growth last year, a rule of thumb was that average hourly pay could rise no more than 3.5% annually for inflation to stay within the Fed’s 2% target. That would mean that today’s roughly 4% average annual pay growth would have to shrink. Higher productivity means there’s now more leeway for wage growth to stay elevated without igniting inflation. 

The productivity boom marks a shift from the pre-pandemic years, when annual productivity growth averaged a tepid 1.5%. Everything changed as the economy rocketed out of the 2020 pandemic recession with unexpected vigor, and businesses struggled to re-hire the many workers they had shed. 

The resulting worker shortage sent wages surging. Inflation jumped, too, as factories and ports buckled under the strain of rising consumer orders. 

Desperate, many companies turned to automation. The efficiency payoff began to arrive almost a year ago. Labor productivity rose at a 3.6% annual pace from last April through June, 4.9% from July through September and 3.2% from October through December. 

At Reata Engineering & Machine Works, “efficiency was kind of forced on us,” CEO Grady Cope said. With the job market roaring, the company, based in Englewood, Colorado, couldn’t hire fast enough. Meantime, its customers were starting to balk at paying higher prices. 

So Reata installed robots and other technology. Software allowed it to automate the delivery of price quotes to customers. That process used to require two weeks. Now, it can be done in 24 hours. 

Many economists and business people say they’re hopeful that the productivity boom can continue. Artificial intelligence, they note, is only beginning to penetrate factory floors, warehouses, stores and offices and could accelerate efficiency gains. 

Automation raises fears that machines will replace human workers, killing jobs. Some workers supplanted by robots do often struggle to find new work and end up settling for lower pay. 

Yet history suggests that in the long run, technological improvements actually create more jobs than they destroy. People are needed to build, upgrade, repair and operate sophisticated machines. Some displaced workers are trained to shift into such jobs. And that transition is likely to be eased this time by the retirement of the vast baby boom generation, which is causing labor shortages. 

Some of today’s productivity gains may be coming not just from advanced technology but also from more satisfied workers. The tight labor markets of the past three years allowed Americans to change jobs and find others that pay better and make them happier and more productive. 

Justin Thompson, of Kalamazoo, Michigan, felt burned out by his job as a police officer, with its 16-hour workdays .”I was literally running myself into the ground,” he said. 

Thompson’s wife saw a job posting for operations manager at a charter airline. Even without airline experience, his wife felt he could use skills he gains as a Marine Corps infantryman — handling logistics for missions — during tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. 

She was right. Omni Air International hired him in 2019. 

Thompson, 43, loves the new job, which allows him to work from home when he’s not traveling. And his Marine experience — which included developing ways to improve efficiency — has proved invaluable. 

Other workers have switched from low-skill jobs to those that allow them to be more productive. 

At Reata Engineering, staffers were trained to use new sophisticated equipment. 

“The whole point is not to lay people off,” said Cope, the CEO of Reata Engineering. “The point is to make people do jobs that are more interesting” — and pay better, too. 

Eva Peron Maintains Grip on Argentina Decades After Her 1952 Death

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina — Early every morning, just as she reaches her workplace at a labor union in Buenos Aires, Ángeles Celerier heads to the chapel and prays to Saint Cajetan, Saint Teresa and Eva Perón.

Perón — unlike the others — has not been canonized by the Vatican, but this doesn’t matter to Celerier.

“For me, she is the saint of the people,” the 56-year-old Argentine said.

Many union members think of Evita as their patron or gaze at her photos with nostalgia, feeling that she and her husband, three-time President Juan Domingo Perón, brought prosperity to their country through an equality and social justice-driven movement that was named after him in the 1940s: Peronism.

That movement is currently the biggest opposition force in Argentina. And some political observers attribute the recent vote to elect President Javier Milei as a means to defeat Peronism and its previous hold on the presidency.

“For us, she is the spiritual reservoir of the people,” said Julio Piumato, human rights director at the largest union in Argentina. He signed a 2019 document requesting Evita’s beatification.

“No other figure has a deeper significance,” Piumato said. “The humble sectors are synthesized in Evita.”

According to the union leader, between 1946 and 1952, when Evita died of cancer at age 33 and Perón concluded his first term, the couple dignified the working class and prioritized social justice.

“Saints show us paths to reach Christ and intercede before God for us,” reads the beatification request delivered to the archbishop. “In our homeland, one generation after another continues to be converted by the humanist and Christian message of the standard bearer of the humble.”

Aside from a 1996 movie starring Madonna or Andrew Lloyd Weber’s 1978 musical, many foreigners know relatively little about this former first lady who died 71 years ago.

But in Argentina, Evita is a constant presence. Her face is printed on 100-peso bills, decorates a mural on a key government building, and greets guests from an altar placed in a restaurant called Saint Evita.

“I carry her image in my wallet, and I have it at home in a small picture frame with a candle,” Celerier said. “I ask her for protection.”

How a first lady turned into a champion of the poor

The secret behind the fascination that she awakens might be hidden in her name.

Long before becoming first lady, she called herself María Eva, a girl who left the town of Los Toldos to try her luck as an actress in Buenos Aires. As a modest film star she was known as Eva Duarte and afterwards became Eva Perón, the president’s wife. Then came Evita.

“Evita is the one who is close to the people,” said Santiago Regolo, a researcher at Museum Evita. “People began to call her that, and that construction is linked to the political and social work that distinguished her from the women who preceded her and take her as an example to this day.”

Evita was the one who paid visits to elders and single mothers. The one who handed out toys for children and bread for families. The one who promoted paid vacations for workers who had never been able to afford a break and gave a final push to achieve the women’s right to vote in 1947.

She has also inspired some feminists — who carry her photo along with their green scarves during protests — as well as a political organization that asks for social transformation using her image as a logo.

“Having Evita on our flag represents being with those in the lower classes and trying to vindicate her name over time,” said Iván Tchorek, from the Evita Movement, which has 155,000 members nationwide and was created after an economic crisis in 2001.

She’s relevant as ever, Tchorek said, because Peronism is. Thousands of workers like him recently led a general strike against the right-wing Milei, who defeated Peronist candidate Sergio Massa last November. Soon after, Milei issued a decree that would revoke or modify hundreds of existing laws in order to limit the power of unions and deregulate an economy that has traditionally featured heavy state intervention.

Even as a union standard-bearer in polarized times, Evita and her memory have the ability to transcend politics. “Certain issues are linked to matters of a sentimental, sacralized nature,” Regolo said. “She is seen as a companion, a sister, a mother for the humble.”

At her home in an impoverished neighborhood outside Buenos Aires, 71-year-old Rita Cantero says she almost met Evita. When her mother asked the first lady for help, she was pregnant with her.

“My mother used to say that Evita was very supportive, that people really liked her for the service she provided.”

Aware of the challenges of being a single mother, Rafaela Escobar attended a public event held by Evita in a plaza near her home. After being able to approach her and confide in her distress, Evita hugged her and said: “Don’t worry, I will help.”

Three weeks later, Escobar received a cradle and clothes for her unborn child.

Cantero says her mother never met Evita again, but she sent her letters and the first lady replied with envelopes carrying money.

“For us she is like a saint,” Cantero said. “Many judged her because she was a woman, but she was an honest, hard-working girl. She fought for our nation and was the force of Perón.”

Evita’s mixed legacy and the fight over her embalmed body

Perón died two decades after Evita, in 1974, but his name continues to spark both admiration and hatred, yearning and blame.

His critics — among them legislator Fernando Iglesias, who has published several books contending Peronism ruined the country — claim that Perón was an authoritarian leader and his movement’s social assistance disguised corruption and patronage while generating too much dependence on the government.

Critics address Eva too. Her foundation pressed donors for resources, some say. She was careerist and a hypocrite, others assert. On the one hand, she claimed to defend the poor and on the other, she dressed in Dior.

“Would she be the saint of the lazy?” a user tweeted when the union requested her beatification. “Patron of criminals,” someone else wrote.

Erasing her from history was once a command. After a coup overthrew Perón in 1955, it was forbidden to say her name, display her image or keep her gifts. The military removed her embalmed body from a union’s headquarters, where it was initially kept, and sent it to Europe.

The body came back after 14 years, and when the military took over again in the 1970s, it was given to her family under one condition: She would be buried 8 meters underground, sealed in a marble crypt so that no one would ever see her again.

“Evita is the best thing that could have happened to this country,” said Carolina Castro, 22, holding back tears next to Evita’s grave in Recoleta Cemetery, where Argentines and foreigners alike honor her with flowers, letters and rosaries.

According to Castro’s mother, 56-year-old Andrea Vellesi, Evita is a sensitive topic because their family is going through a difficult time. “I have never been in such anguish,” Vellesi said about economic measures that Milei recently decreed and that she claims hurt her business.

Víctor Biscia, 36, says that he doesn’t keep photos of Evita at home, but he does have images of the late President Néstor Kirchner and his wife and successor Cristina Fernández, another Peronist couple that prompts devotion and resentment among Argentines.

“They were key to achieving rights that are being curtailed by the current government,” said Biscia, who thinks of Fernández as a sort of 21st century Evita.

“She reflects a lot of what we are as Argentines,” says Gimena Villagra, 27, standing next to Evita’s tomb. “I don’t think there’s anyone for whom she doesn’t mean something.”

Dior Postpones Hong Kong Fashion Show ‘Indefinitely’

HONG KONG — Dior has postponed a fashion show set to be held in Hong Kong next month, a city official confirmed Saturday, dealing a blow to the financial hub’s ambitions to boost its economy through major events.

Hong Kong is courting top international celebrities and brands in the hope of rebooting its reputation, which has been battered by years of social unrest and strict pandemic curbs. 

The Dior fashion show — meant to feature artistic director Kim Jones and the men’s autumn collection — was to be one of several “mega events” touted last month by Hong Kong’s culture, sports and tourism chief, Kevin Yeung, as part of the city’s drive to become an event capital. 

But Yeung’s office confirmed to AFP on Saturday that it had “just been notified” by organizers that the fashion show would not go ahead as scheduled on March 23. 

“Large-scale events are postponed from time to time, and we continue to welcome large-scale events to take place in Hong Kong,” a spokesperson for Yeung’s office said. 

Dior said the show had been “postponed indefinitely” without giving specifics, according to a company statement quoted by the South China Morning Post. 

According to the South China Morning Post, the event was expected to cost about $100 million ($12.8 million U.S.) and draw nearly 1,000 attendees.  

Louis Vuitton in November held its men’s pre-fall 2024 show in Hong Kong, led by creative director Pharrell Williams and drawing celebrity guests from China and South Korea. 

The much-hyped runway show was seen as a boon to Hong Kong’s international image and a sign of the luxury giant’s commitment to Asian markets. 

Chip Giant TSMC Shifts From Hotspot Taiwan With Japan Plant

TOKYO — Chip giant Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. opened its first semiconductor plant in Japan Saturday as part of its ongoing global expansion.

“We are deeply grateful for the seamless support provided by you at every step,” TSMC Chairman Mark Liu said after thanking the Japanese government, local community and business partners, including electronic giant Sony and auto-parts maker Denso. The company’s founder, Morris Chang, was also present at the ceremony in Kikuyo.

This comes as Japan is trying to regain its presence in the chip production industry.

Japan Advanced Semiconductor Manufacturing, or JASM, is set to be up and running later this year. TSMC also announced plans for a second plant in Japan earlier this month, with production expected to start in about three years. Private sector investment totals $20 billion for both plants. Both plants are in the Kumamoto region, southwestern Japan.

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida sent a congratulatory video message, calling the plant’s opening “a giant first step.” He stressed Japan’s friendly relations with Taiwan and the importance of cutting-edge semiconductor technology.

Japan had previously promised TSMC 476 billion yen ($3 billion) in government funding to encourage the semiconductor giant to invest. Kishida confirmed a second package, raising Japan’s support to more than 1 trillion yen ($7 billion).

Although TSMC is building its second plant in the U.S. and has announced a plan for its first in Europe, Japan could prove an attractive option.

Closer to Taiwan geographically, Japan is an important U.S. ally. Neighboring China claims the self-governing island as its own territory and says it must come under Beijing’s control. The long-running divide is a flashpoint in U.S.-China relations.

The move is also important for Japan, which has recently earmarked about 5 trillion yen ($33 billion) to revive its chips industry.

Four decades ago, Japan dominated in chips, headlined by Toshiba Corp. and NEC controlling half the world’s production. That’s declined lately to under 10%, due to competition from South Korean, U.S. and European manufacturers, as well as from TSMC.

The coronavirus pandemic negatively affected the supply of electronic chips, stalling plants, including automakers, with Japan almost entirely dependent on chip imports. This pushed Japan to seek chip production in pursuit of self-sufficiency.

Sony Semiconductor Solutions Corporation, Denso Corporation and top automaker Toyota Motor Corporation are investing in TSMC’s Japan plant, with the Taiwanese giant retaining an 86.5% ownership of JASM.

Once the two plants are up and running, they’re expected to create 3,400 high-tech jobs directly, according to TSMC.

Ensuring access to an ample supply of the most advanced chips is vital with the growing popularity of electric vehicles and artificial intelligence. Some analysts note Japan still leads in crucial aspects of the industry, as seen in Tokyo Electron, which manufactures the machinery used to produce chips.

Still, it’s clear the Japanese government is intent on playing catchup. Tokyo is supporting various semiconductor projects nationwide, such as those involving Western Digital and Micron of the U.S., and Japanese companies such as Renesas Electronics, Canon and Sumitomo.

Study Finds Seniors Enjoy Virtual Reality 

POMPANO BEACH, Florida — Retired Army Colonel Farrell Patrick taught computer science at West Point during the 1970s and then at two private universities through the 1990s, so he isn’t surprised by the progress technology has made over the decades. 

But when the 91-year-old got his first virtual reality experience recently, he was stunned. Sitting in a conference room at John Knox Village, a suburban Fort Lauderdale, Florida, retirement community, Patrick sat up straight as his eyes and ears experienced what it would be like to be in a Navy fighter jet flying off the Florida coast. 

“Oh, my God, that’s beautiful,” he blurted before the VR program brought the jet in for a landing on an aircraft carrier. 

John Knox Village was one of 17 senior communities around the country that participated in a recently published Stanford University study that found that large majorities of 245 participants between 65 and 103 years old enjoyed virtual reality, improving both their emotions and their interactions with staff. 

The study is part of a larger effort to adapt VR so it can be beneficial to seniors’ health and emotional well-being and help lessen the impact dementia has on some of them. 

Variety of experiences

During the testing, seniors picked from seven-minute virtual experiences such as parachuting, riding in a tank, watching stage performances, playing with puppies and kittens, or visiting places like Paris or Egypt. The participants wore headsets that gave them 360-degree views and sounds, making it seem as if they had been all but dropped into the actual experience. 

“It brought back memories of my travels and … brought back memories of my experience growing up on a farm,” Terry Colli, a former public relations director at the Canadian Embassy in Washington, D.C., said of his 2022 experience. Colli, 76, liked swiveling in a chair to get a panoramic view. “That was kind of amazing.” 

Anne Selby, a 79-year-old retired counselor and artist, found VR “stimulated virtually every area of my brain, all of the senses.” 

“I particularly enjoyed the ones dealing with pets because I have a cat and I’ve had pets most of my life,” she said. 

Stanford’s peer-reviewed study, working with the company Mynd Immersive, found that almost 80% of seniors reported having a more positive attitude after their VR session and almost 60% said they felt less isolated socially. The enjoyment lessened somewhat for older respondents whose sight and hearing had deteriorated. Those who found VR less enjoyable were also more likely to dislike technology in general. 

In addition, almost 75% of caregivers said residents’ moods improved after using VR. More than 80% of residents and almost 95% caregivers said talking about their VR experience enhanced their relationships with each other. 

“For the majority of our respondents, it was their first time using virtual reality. They enjoyed it. They were likely to recommend it to others, and they looked forward to doing it again,” said Ryan Moore, a Stanford doctoral candidate who helped lead the research. 

“We are proving VR to be a tool that really does help with the well-being of our elders,” said Chris Brickler, Mynd’s CEO and co-founder. The Texas-based company is one of a handful that specializes in virtual reality for seniors. “It is far different than a two-dimensional television or an iPad.” 

Residents with dementia

Separate from the study, John Knox Village uses virtual reality in its unit that houses seniors who have Alzheimer’s disease and other dementia. It helps spur memories that lead to conversations with caregivers. 

“It is like they come back to life when they tell their story.” said Hana Salem, the facility’s meaningful-life coordinator. She said others who don’t talk much perk up when given a VR experience putting them in nature. 

“They’ll start laughing and saying, ‘Ooh, I’m going to catch the butterflies,’ ” Salem said. Catching butterflies is also part of a game Mynd developed that helps seniors enhance their mobility and flexibility as they stand and reach for objects. 

“It’s more fun for these seniors to come in and catch butterflies and work on shoulder rehab than it is to go pick up a weight,” Brickler said. 

Brickler said his company’s systems will soon attach to Google Earth, so seniors can virtually visit neighborhoods where they lived, schools they attended and places they have visited, sparking further conversations with caregivers. 

Such virtual visits “can bring back a tremendous amount of joy, a tremendous amount of memories. And when the therapist or the other caregiver can work with that older adult and talk through things we see, we definitely see that it provides an uplift,” Brickler said. 

The company has worked on the biggest complaints seniors in the study had about VR — the headsets were too heavy, the heat they generated made their foreheads sweat, and sometimes the experience created nausea, he said. The new headsets weigh about 6 ounces (189 grams) instead of a pound (454 grams), they have a built-in fan for cooling, and the videos aren’t as jumpy. 

The findings that seniors in their 80s and 90s enjoy VR less than those in their 70s might lead to changes for them, such as requiring less neck rotation to see all of the scenery and making the visuals bigger, Moore said. 

On a recent afternoon at John Knox, a handful of seniors who live independently took turns again using virtual reality. Pete Audet experienced what it would be like to fly in a wingsuit, soaring over show-capped mountains before landing in a field. 

“Oooh, running stop!” exclaimed Audet, a 76-year-old retired information technology worker. He thinks other seniors “will really enjoy it. But they just need to learn how to use it.” 

His wife, Karen, “played” with puppies and was so entranced by her virtual walk around Paris that she didn’t hear questions being asked of her. 

“I was there. But I was here!” said Karen Audet, an 82-year-old retired elementary school teacher. 

Farrell, the retired Army computer expert, said he hopes to live to 100 because he believes the next five years will see momentous change in VR. Still a technology enthusiast, he believes the cost of systems will drop dramatically and become part of everyday living, even for seniors. 

“It is not going to be as elementary as it is now. It is going to be very realistic and very responsive,” he said. “It will probably be connected to your brain.” 

Army Doctor, Black Hawk Pilot Holds Record for Longest US Spaceflight 

pentagon — U.S. Army Colonel Frank Rubio, who holds the record for the longest U.S. spaceflight, recounted the “awesome” experience of re-entering Earth’s atmosphere on Thursday during a Pentagon ceremony honoring his achievement.

“Colonel Rubio is a stellar example of someone who has made the absolute most of every opportunity,” Army Secretary Christine Wormuth said as she presented him with an honor known as the Army Astronaut Device. “It’s truly a privilege to have him representing the Army and the United States.”

The Army awards the astronaut device to soldiers who complete at least one mission in space. Rubio joins Colonel Anne McClain and Colonel Andrew Morgan as the only active-duty soldiers authorized to wear it.

Rubio returned to Earth late last year on a Russian spacecraft after 371 days in the International Space Station.

The doctor and Black Hawk helicopter pilot flew more than 600 hours in dangerous combat deployments in Bosnia, Afghanistan and Iraq before joining NASA in 2017 to become an astronaut.

While becoming an astronaut is a childhood dream for many who go to space, Rubio said he fell in love with the space mission much later in life.

“It’s few things where you can say, ‘Hey, my job helps represent humanity.’ And that’s a pretty powerful thing to be a part of,” Rubio told reporters at the Pentagon.

While he now holds the record for longest spaceflight by an American, he certainly wasn’t trying to earn that title. Rubio’s six-month mission was extended to 371 days after his initial ride home sprang a leak.

His year in space led to incredible highlights, he said, from hurtling into space on top of 300 tons of rocket fuel during the launch, to spacewalks, to re-entering Earth’s atmosphere.

“You essentially become a meteorite, right, and you have a plasma layer a couple of inches below you, because of the heat that’s generated. All those things were awesome,” he said in response to a question from VOA.

Rubio is the son of Salvadoran immigrants, and he credits the Army for giving him the chance to reach for the stars.

“I think it is the American Dream. It really represents the fact that we have so many opportunities, and again, I really value the fact that it’s the opportunity that’s given, not the results,” he said. “And I think if you put in the hard work, if you dedicate yourself and you sacrifice, really almost anything is possible.”

Rubio told reporters on Thursday that he hopes to continue contributing to NASA’s mission on the ground and back in space. 

Second IVF Provider in Alabama Pauses Some Services After Ruling on Embryos

montgomery, alabama — A second in vitro fertilization provider in the U.S. state of Alabama is pausing parts of its care to patients after the state Supreme Court ruled that frozen embryos are legally considered children. 

Alabama Fertility Services said in a statement Thursday that it has “made the impossibly difficult decision to hold new IVF treatments due to the legal risk to our clinic and our embryologists.” 

The decision comes a day after the University of Alabama at Birmingham health system said in a statement that it was pausing IVF treatments so it could evaluate whether its patients or doctors could face criminal charges or punitive damages. 

“We are contacting patients that will be affected today to find solutions for them and we are working as hard as we can to alert our legislators as to the far reaching negative impact of this ruling on the women of Alabama,” Alabama Fertility said. “AFS will not close. We will continue to fight for our patients and the families of Alabama.” 

Doctors and patients have been grappling with shock and fear this week as they try to determine what they can and can’t do after the ruling by the all-Republican Alabama Supreme Court that raises questions about the future of IVF. 

Alabama Fertility Services’ decision left Gabby Goidel, who was days from an expected egg retrieval, calling clinics across the South looking for a place to continue IVF care. 

“I freaked out. I started crying,” Goidel said. “I felt in an extreme limbo state,”

The Alabama ruling came down Friday, the same day Goidel began a 10-day series of injections ahead of egg retrieval, with the hopes of getting pregnant through IVF next month. She found a place in Texas that will continue her care and plans to travel there Thursday night. 

Goidel experienced three miscarriages and she and her husband turned to IVF as a way of fulfilling their dream of becoming parents. 

“It’s not pro-family in any way,” Goidel said of the Alabama ruling. 

Dr. Michael C. Allemand, a reproductive endocrinologist at Alabama Fertility, said Wednesday that IVF is often the best treatment for patients who desperately want a child, and the ruling threatens doctors’ ability to provide that care. 

“The moments that our patients are wanting to have by growing their families — Christmas mornings with grandparents, kindergarten, going in the first day of school, with little backpacks — all that stuff is what this is about. Those are the real moments that this ruling could deprive patients of,” he said. 

Justices — citing language in the Alabama Constitution that the state recognizes the “rights of the unborn child” — said three couples could sue for wrongful death when their frozen embryos were destroyed in an accident at a storage facility. 

“Unborn children are ‘children’ … without exception based on developmental stage, physical location, or any other ancillary characteristics,” Justice Jay Mitchell wrote in Friday’s majority ruling. Mitchell said the court had previously ruled that a fetus killed when a woman is pregnant is covered under Alabama’s Wrongful Death of a Minor Act and nothing excludes “extrauterine children from the Act’s coverage.” 

While the court case centered on whether embryos were covered under the wrongful death of a minor statute, some said treating the embryo as a child — rather than property — could have broader implications and call into question many of the practices of IVF. 

New Clues Discovered About Silent Brain Changes That Precede Alzheimer’s 

WASHINGTON — Alzheimer’s quietly ravages the brain long before symptoms appear, and now scientists have new clues about the dominolike sequence of those changes — a potential window to one day intervene. 

A large study in China tracked middle-aged and older adults for 20 years, using regular brain scans, spinal taps and other tests. 

Compared to those who remained cognitively healthy, people who eventually developed the mind-robbing disease had higher levels of an Alzheimer’s-linked protein in their spinal fluid 18 years prior to diagnosis, researchers reported Wednesday. Then every few years afterward, the study detected another so-called biomarker of brewing trouble. 

Scientists don’t know exactly how Alzheimer’s forms. One early hallmark is that sticky protein called beta-amyloid, which over time builds up into brain-clogging plaques. Amyloid alone isn’t enough to damage memory — plenty of healthy people’s brains harbor a lot of plaque. An abnormal tau protein that forms neuron-killing tangles is one of several co-conspirators. 

The new research, published in The New England Journal of Medicine, offers a timeline for how those abnormalities pile up. 

The study’s importance “cannot be overstated,” said Dr. Richard Mayeux, an Alzheimer’s specialist at Columbia University who wasn’t involved in the research. 

“Knowledge of the timing of these physiological events is critical” for testing new ways of treating and maybe eventually even preventing Alzheimer’s, he wrote in an accompanying editorial. 

The findings have no practical implications yet. 

First treatment

More than 6 million Americans, and millions more worldwide, have Alzheimer’s, the most common form of dementia. There’s no cure. But last year, a drug named Leqembi became the first to be approved, with clear evidence that it could slow the worsening of early Alzheimer’s — albeit for a few months. 

It works by clearing away some of that gunky amyloid protein. The approach also is being tested to see if it’s possible to delay Alzheimer’s onset if high-risk people are treated before symptoms appear. Still, other drugs are being developed to target tau. 

Tracking silent brain changes is key for such research. Scientists already knew that in rare, inherited forms of Alzheimer’s that strike younger people, a toxic form of amyloid starts accumulating about two decades ahead of symptoms, and at some point later, tau kicks in. 

The new findings show the order in which such biomarker changes occurred with more common old-age Alzheimer’s. 

Researchers with Beijing’s Innovation Center for Neurological Disorders compared 648 people eventually diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and an equal number who remained healthy. The amyloid finding in future Alzheimer’s patients was the first, 18 years or 14 years prior to diagnosis depending on the test used. 

Differences in tau were detected next, followed by a marker of trouble in how neurons communicate. A few years after that, differences in brain shrinkage and cognitive test scores between the two groups became apparent, the study found. 

“The more we know about viable Alzheimer’s treatment targets and when to address them, the better and faster we will be able to develop new therapies and preventions,” said Claire Sexton, the Alzheimer’s Association’s senior director of scientific programs. She noted that blood tests are coming soon that promise to also help by making it easier to track amyloid and tau. 

Head of Boeing’s 737 MAX Program Leaves After Midair Incident

WASHINGTON — Boeing said on Wednesday it was replacing the head of its troubled 737 MAX program effective immediately, the first major executive departure since the January 5 midair panel blowout of a new Alaska Airlines MAX 9. 

Ed Clark, who had been with the plane-maker for nearly 18 years, departed as Boeing has been dealing with its latest crisis and has vowed to ramp up quality efforts. 

Regulators have curbed the plane-maker’s production, and lawmakers and customers have been scrutinizing production and safety measures.  

Boeing has scrambled to explain and strengthen safety procedures after a door panel detached during flight on a new Alaska Airlines 737 MAX 9, forcing pilots to make an emergency landing while passengers were exposed to a gaping hole 16,000 feet above the ground.  

Clark’s departure came after Boeing’s board met this week and approved the changes, according to sources familiar with the matter. He oversaw the company’s production facility in Renton, Washington, where the plane involved in the accident was completed. 

Clark was previously chief mechanic and engineer for the 737 before being named head of the program in 2021. He was the fifth person in four years to run the 737 program. 

Katie Ringgold is replacing him as vice president and general manager of the 737 program, according to a memo seen by Reuters sent to staff by Boeing Commercial Airplanes CEO Stan Deal, who said the plane-maker was working to ensure “that every airplane we deliver meets or exceeds all quality and safety requirements. Our customers demand, and deserve, nothing less.” 

The latest mishap occurred as Boeing was still working to rebuild its reputation following the 20-month grounding of the 737 MAX following two fatal crashes that killed a total of 346 people. That grounding was lifted in November 2020.  

Airline industry executives have expressed frustration with Boeing’s quality control. The only other major manufacturer of commercial aircraft is France’s Airbus. 

The memo was first reported by the Seattle Times. 

The FAA grounded the MAX 9 for several weeks in January and has capped Boeing’s production of the MAX while it audits the plane-maker’s manufacturing process, which has suffered a string of quality issues in recent years. 

The door panel that flew off the MAX 9 appeared to be missing four key bolts, according to a preliminary report from the U.S. National Safety Transportation Board in early February. The panel is a plug-in placed on some 737 MAX 9s instead of an additional emergency exit.  

According to the report, the door plug in question was removed to repair rivet damage, but the NTSB has not found evidence the bolts were reinstalled. 

The disclosure has prompted anger among Boeing’s airline customers. Some, including Alaska Airlines, announced they would conduct enhanced quality oversight of planes before they leave the Boeing factory. 

Private US Spacecraft Enters Orbit around the Moon Ahead Of Landing Attempt

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — A private U.S. lunar lander reached the moon and eased into a low orbit Wednesday, a day before it will attempt an even greater feat — landing on the gray, dusty surface.

A smooth touchdown would put the U.S. back in business on the moon for the first time since NASA astronauts closed out the Apollo program in 1972. The company, if successful, also would become the first private outfit to ace a moon landing.

Launched last week, Intuitive Machines’ lander fired its engine on the back side of the moon while out of contact with Earth. Flight controllers at the company’s Houston headquarters had to wait until the spacecraft emerged to learn whether the lander was in orbit or hurtling aimlessly away.

Intuitive Machines confirmed its lander, nicknamed Odysseus, was circling the moon with experiments from NASA and other clients. The lander is part of a NASA program to kickstart the lunar economy; the space agency is paying $118 million to get its experiments on the moon on this mission.

On Thursday, controllers will lower the orbit from just under 60 miles (92 kilometers) to 6 miles (10 kilometers) — a crucial maneuver occurring again on the moon’s far side — before aiming for a touchdown near the moon’s south pole. It’s a dicey place to land with all the craters and cliffs, but deemed prime real estate for astronauts since the permanently shadowed craters are believed to hold frozen water.

The moon is littered with wreckage from failed landings. Some missions never even got that far. Another U.S. company — Astrobotic Technology — tried to send a lander to the moon last month, but it didn’t get there because of a fuel leak. The crippled lander came crashing back through the atmosphere, burning up over the Pacific.

A rundown on the moon’s winners and losers:

First victories

The Soviet Union’s Luna 9 successfully touches down on the moon in 1966, after its predecessors crash or miss the moon altogether. The U.S. follows four months later with Surveyor 1. Both countries achieve more robotic landings, as the race heats up to land men.

Apollo rules

NASA clinches the space race with the Soviets in 1969 with a moon landing by Apollo 11’s Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin. Twelve astronauts explore the surface over six missions, before the program ends with Apollo 17 in 1972. Still the only country to send humans to the moon, the U.S. hopes to return crews to the surface by the end of 2026 or so, a year after a lunar fly-around by astronauts.

China emerges

China, in 2013, becomes the third country to successfully land on the moon, delivering a rover named Yutu, Chinese for jade rabbit. China follows with the Yutu-2 rover in 2019, this time touching down on the moon’s unexplored far side — an impressive first. A sample return mission on the moon’s near side in 2020 yields nearly 4 pounds (1.7 kilograms) of lunar rocks and dirt. Another sample return mission should be launching soon, but this time to the far side. Seen as NASA’s biggest moon rival, China aims to put its astronauts on the moon by 2030. 

Russia stumbles 

In 2023, Russia tries for its first moon landing in nearly a half-century, but the Luna 25 spacecraft smashes into the moon. The country’s previous lander — 1976’s Luna 24 — not only landed, but returned moon rocks to Earth. 

India triumphs on take 2  

After its first lander slams into the moon in 2019, India regroups and launches Chandrayaan-3 (Hindi for moon craft) in 2023. The craft successfully touches down, making India the fourth country to score a lunar landing. The win comes just four days after Russia’s crash-landing. 

Japan lands sideways 

Japan becomes the fifth country to land successfully on the moon, with its spacecraft touching down in January. The craft lands on the wrong side, compromising its ability to generate solar power, but manages to crank out pictures and science before falling silent when the long lunar night sets in. 

Private tries 

A privately funded lander from Israel, named Beresheet, Hebrew for “in the beginning,” crashes into the moon in 2019. A Japanese entrepreneur’s company, ispace, launches a lunar lander in 2023, but it, too, wrecks. Astrobotic Technology, a Pittsburgh company, launches its lander in January, but a fuel leak prevents a landing and dooms the craft. Astrobotic and Intuitive Machines plan more moon deliveries. 

Commercial Spaceship Set for Lunar Touchdown, in Test for US Industry

WASHINGTON — A company from Texas is poised to attempt a feat that until now has only been accomplished by a handful of national space agencies but could soon become commonplace for the private sector: landing on the moon.

If all goes to plan, Houston-based Intuitive Machines will guide its spaceship named Odysseus to a gentle touchdown near the lunar south pole on Thursday at 2249 GMT, then run experiments for NASA that will help pave the way for the return of astronauts later this decade.

A previous effort by another U.S. company last month ended in failure, raising the stakes to demonstrate private industry has what it takes to put an American lander on Earth’s cosmic companion for the first time since the Apollo era.

“Accepting risk was a challenge posed by the United States to the commercial business sector,” Intuitive Machines CEO Steve Altemus said ahead of launch. “Our collective aim is to return to the moon for the first time in 52 years.”

The company plans to run a live stream on its website, with flight controllers expected to confirm landing around 15 seconds after the milestone is achieved, because of the time it takes for radio signals to return.

As it approaches the surface, Odysseus will shoot out an external “EagleCam” that captures images of the lander in the final seconds of its descent.

About the size of a big golf cart, Odysseus is hexagon-shaped and stands on six legs.

It launched on Feb. 15 atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, and boasts a new type of supercooled liquid oxygen, liquid methane propulsion system that allowed it to race through space in quick time, snapping pictures of our planet along the way.

Its destination, Malapert A, is an impact crater 300 kilometers (180 miles) from the lunar south pole.

NASA hopes to eventually build a long-term presence and harvest ice there for both drinking water and rocket fuel under Artemis, its flagship Moon-to-Mars program.

The U.S. space agency paid Intuitive Machines $118 million to ship science hardware to better understand and mitigate environmental risks for astronauts, the first of whom are scheduled to land no sooner than 2026.

Instruments include cameras to investigate how the lunar surface changes as a result of the engine plume from a spaceship, and a device to analyze clouds of charged dust particles that hang over the surface at twilight as a result of solar radiation.

The rest of the cargo was paid for by Intuitive Machines’ private clients and includes 125 stainless steel mini moons by the artist Jeff Koons.

After touchdown, the experiments are expected to run for roughly seven days before lunar night sets in on the south pole, with the lack of solar power rendering Odysseus inoperable.

Dubbed IM-1, the mission is the second under a NASA initiative called Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS), which it created to delegate cargo services to the private sector to achieve savings and stimulate a wider lunar economy.

Four more CLPS launches are expected this year, which would make 2024 among the busiest ever for moon landings.

The first, by Pittsburgh-based Astrobotic, launched in January, but its Peregrine spacecraft sprung a fuel leak and it was eventually brought back to burn up in Earth’s atmosphere.

Spaceships landing on the moon have to navigate treacherous boulders and craters and, absent an atmosphere to support parachutes, must rely on thrusters to control their descent. Roughly half of the more than 50 attempts have failed.

The Soviet Union was the first country to achieve a survivable landing on a celestial body when its Luna 9 spaceship touched down and transmitted pictures back from the moon in February 1966.

Next came the United States, which is still the only country to also put people on the surface.

In America’s long absence, China has landed three times since 2013. India reached the moon in 2023, and Japan was the latest, last month.

Alabama Supreme Court Rules Frozen Embryos Are ‘Children’ Under State Law

Montgomery, Alabama — The Alabama Supreme Court has ruled that frozen embryos can be considered children under state law, a ruling critics said could have sweeping implications for fertility treatments. 

The decision was issued in a pair of wrongful death cases brought by three couples who had frozen embryos destroyed in an accident at a fertility clinic. Justices, citing anti-abortion language in the Alabama Constitution, ruled that an 1872 state law allowing parents to sue over the death of a minor child “applies to all unborn children, regardless of their location.” 

“Unborn children are ‘children’ … without exception based on developmental stage, physical location, or any other ancillary characteristics,” Justice Jay Mitchell wrote in the majority ruling Friday from the all-Republican court. 

Mitchell said the court had previously ruled that fetuses killed while a woman is pregnant are covered under Alabama’s Wrongful Death of a Minor Act and nothing excludes “extrauterine children from the Act’s coverage.” 

The ruling brought a rush of warnings about the potential impact on fertility treatments and the freezing of embryos, which had previously been considered property by the courts. 

“This ruling is stating that a fertilized egg, which is a clump of cells, is now a person. It really puts into question the practice of IVF,” Barbara Collura, CEO of RESOLVE: The National Infertility Association, said in an interview Tuesday. The group called the decision a “terrifying development for the 1 in 6 people impacted by infertility” who need in-vitro fertilization. 

She said it raises questions for providers and patients, including if they can freeze future embryos created during fertility treatment or if patients could ever donate or destroy unused embryos. 

The plaintiffs in the Alabama case had undergone IVF treatments that led to the creation of several embryos, some of which were implanted and resulted in healthy births. The couples had paid to keep others frozen in a storage facility at the Mobile Infirmary Medical Center. A patient in 2020 wandered into the area and removed several embryos, dropping them on the floor and “killing them,” the ruling said. 

The justices ruled that wrongful death lawsuits by the couples could proceed. 

An anti-abortion group cheered the decision. “Each person, from the tiniest embryo to an elder nearing the end of his life, has incalculable value that deserves and is guaranteed legal protection,” Lila Rose, president and founder of Live Action said in a statement. 

Chief Justice Tom Parker issued a concurring opinion that quoted the Bible as he discussed the meaning of the phrase “the sanctity of unborn life” in the Alabama Constitution. 

“Even before birth, all human beings bear the image of God, and their lives cannot be destroyed without effacing his glory,” Parker said. 

Justice Greg Cook, who filed the only full dissent to the majority opinion, said the 1872 law did not define “minor child” and was being stretched from the original intent to cover frozen embryos. 

“Moreover, there are other significant reasons to be concerned about the main opinion’s holding. No court — anywhere in the country — has reached the conclusion the main opinion reaches,” he wrote, adding the ruling “almost certainly ends the creation of frozen embryos through in vitro fertilization (IVF) in Alabama.” 

The Alabama Supreme Court decision partly hinged on anti-abortion language added to the Alabama Constitution in 2018, stating that it is the “public policy of this state to ensure the protection of the rights of the unborn child.” 

Supporters at the time said it would “be a declaration of voters’ beliefs” and would have no impact unless states gain more control over abortion access. States gained control of abortion access in 2022. Critics at the time said it would have broad ramifications for civil and criminal law beyond abortion access and that it was essentially a “personhood” measure that would establish constitutional rights for fertilized eggs.