Tech Show Displays Ways VR, AI Edging into People’s Lives

Inside the sprawling Acer stall at Computex Taipei, Asia’s largest tech show, staff displayed a laptop computer that’s ready for virtual reality play yet thinner than most PCs for gaming.  At the same exhibition, the Taiwanese tech hardware maker showed how its internet cloud uses artificial intelligence to predict what customers will do when shopping and allow the shop to make decisions accordingly.

VR and AI usher in a new world of technology

Acer was riding two major new themes at the annual show: virtual reality, often abbreviated to VR, and artificial intelligence, or AI.

Demand from gamers, a lucrative market of people willing to pay more than $10,000 for a personal computer (PC), is driving the VR side, compelling Acer and its peers to install new lines of processors that support immersive, 3D play with headgear and hand controls.

“You can see that the company is moving into more gaming centric, VR, new experience innovation,” said Vincent Lin, senior director of Acer’s global product marketing. “Not all gaming notebooks or not all notebooks are VR ready. There are certain requirements needed to be VR ready. VR, certainly it’s a growth area. It’s supposed to like grow five times or something over next 3 years.”

Revenue is forecast to rise quickly

Silicon Valley investment advisory firm Digi-Capital forecasts a surge in global revenue from $20 billion this year to $108 billion in 2021 in virtual reality technology and a similar technology known as augmented reality. 

The anticipation of growth inspired 60 Computex exhibitors to show games, gear or PCs that support virtual reality. The technology that first popped into public view in the 1980s is normally aimed now at computer gamers, though scientific researchers have used VR as well as the related augmented reality to model processes they can’t duplicate in real life. 

Near Acer’s stall, Computex visitors donned thick, black head-mounted goggles to race cars or fire at things, yelling in excitement through the dimly lit booths as they tested new products. 

PCs will be thinner, quieter and quicker to support VR

Developers were excited about Nvidia’s newly announced graphics processors that are designed to make PCs thinner and quieter. They also noticed the seventh update of Intel’s Core i5 processor, which stands to make PCs faster.

At one stall, Hong Kong developer Zotac showed off backpacks that can hold a gamer’s VR hardware system to prevent any tripping over wires – which might happen to someone immersed in a 3D scenario and unable to see the real floor.

“Right now the way the virtual reality equipment is made, you’re tethered to a system. That means you have to worry about tripping over cables, wrapping them around yourself as well,” Zotac product marketer Buu Ly said. “With our VR backpack, that removes those barriers so you are more free to experience VR the way it was supposed to be experienced.”

AI attracting much interest this year

Artificial intelligence also made its way into the show, where about 1,600 exhibitors occupied 5,010 booths, this year as companies test a relatively new technology that teaches computers to make decisions based on patterns they detect through analysis of user commands. 

Voice-activated assistants on mobile phones use artificial intelligence by searching the phone for requested information, even sending commands across apps to get answers.

Computex organizers have not tallied the number of exhibitors showing AI technology, but analysts in Taipei say a number are pursuing servers that can speed up development of AI functions allowed by the likes of Nvidia’s Jetson TX computer processing module.

With a compound annual growth rate of 63 percent from 2016 to 2022, the artificial intelligence market should be worth $16.06 billion by 2022, according to forecasts by the research firm Markets and Markets.

“AI has caught much of the spotlight in various exhibitions around the world and has become one of major deployment highlights for many companies in recent years,” said Ray Han, industry analyst with the Marketing Intelligence & Consulting Institute in Taipei. “The next battlefield will lie on platforms or chips.”

Internet of things

One contender is Socionext, a Japanese developer that has developed a processor partly for AI and the Internet of things, or IoT, which means using phones or PCs to control other electronic objects. Five customers are evaluating whether to install the chip, said Fumitaka Shiraishi, a Socionext business project management group member. 

“Our chip is a processor chip, so not too specific for AI but also suitable for AI because of the low power,” Shiraishi said. 

Artificial intelligence can help the Internet of things by picking the most relevant points from vast fields of data collected.

“In the future five years, I think IoT devices also need to judge some information — not just sensing,” Shiraishi said. 

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New Graphene Water Filter Makes Salt Water Drinkable

The United Nations predicts that by 2025 nearly two billion people will be living in places where there’s not enough water to go around. And since on average water makes up about 60% of the human body, not having it has a host of devastating effects that go way beyond just being thirsty. That’s why some new technology to turn saltwater into drinkable water holds so much promise, VOA’s Kevin Enochs reports.

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Forget Butterfly Nets; Today’s Naturalists Capture Specimens on Phones

Your smartphone can help scientists keep tabs on changes happening in the natural world. More than one hundred thousand citizen scientists around the globe are snapping pictures of all kinds of plants and animals using the iNaturalist app. It is giving researchers an unprecedented amount of information about what lives where, and how that is changing with humanity’s expanding footprint. Steve Baragona has details.

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Solar Power Lights Up Syrian Refugee Camp in Jordan

Solar power is lighting up the night sky in Jordan and making life easier for the 20,000 Syrian refugees at a camp that once had no reliable source of electricity. Faith Lapidus reports.

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Vietnam to Sign Deals for Up to $17B in US Goods, Services

Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc said Tuesday that he would sign deals for U.S. goods and services worth $15 billion to $17 billion during his visit to Washington, mainly for high-technology products and for services.

“Vietnam will increase the import of high technologies and services from the United States, and on the occasion of this visit, many important deals will be made,” Phuc told a U.S. Chamber of Commerce dinner.

Phuc, who is due to meet with U.S. President Donald Trump on Wednesday at the end of a three-day visit to the United States, did not provide further details of the transactions.

GE Power Chief Executive Officer Steve Bolze told the dinner that General Electric Co. would sign deals worth about $6 billion with Vietnam, but also offered no details.

Phuc’s comments came after U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer expressed concern about the rapid growth of the U.S. trade deficit with Vietnam, saying this was a new challenge for the two countries and that he was looking to Phuc to help address it.

“Over the last decade, our bilateral trade deficit has risen from about $7 billion to nearly $32 billion,” Lighthizer said. “This concerning growth in our trade deficit presents new challenges and shows us that there is considerable potential to improve further our important trade relationship.”

Reducing deficits

Lighthizer and other Trump administration trade officials have pledged to work to reduce U.S. bilateral deficits with major trading partners. The $32 billion deficit with Vietnam last year — the sixth-largest U.S. trade deficit — reflects growing imports of Vietnamese semiconductors and other electronics products in addition to more traditional sectors such as footwear, apparel and furniture.

The trade issue has become a potential irritant in a relationship where Washington and Hanoi have stepped up security cooperation in recent years, given shared concerns about China’s increasingly assertive behavior in East Asia.

Phuc’s meeting with Trump makes him the first Southeast Asian leader to visit the White House under the new administration.

It reflected calls, letters, diplomatic contacts and lower-level visits that started long before Trump took office in Washington, where Vietnam retains a lobbyist at $30,000 a month.

Vietnam was disappointed when Trump ditched the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade pact, in which Hanoi was expected to be one of the main beneficiaries, and focused U.S. trade policy on reducing deficits.

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Mexico to Review Rules of Origin to Help NAFTA Renegotiation

Mexico’s foreign minister says the country is “inevitably” set to review rules of origin when renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement, giving a boost to President Donald Trump’s manufacturing push.

Foreign Relations Secretary Luis Videgaray said Tuesday at an event in Miami that NAFTA has allowed Mexican industry to enter the U.S. market with lax rules of origin. The rules dictate how much U.S. content a product assembled in Mexico must have in order to escape tariffs when being imported into the United States. Currently set at 62.5 percent for the auto industry, that number could increase.

“One part that must inevitably be reviewed is the chapter on rules of origin,” Videgaray said at the University of Miami. “Over time, the free trade agreement has sometimes been used — not always, of course, but sometimes — as a way to access the U.S. market perhaps with laxity in some ways of rules of origin.”

The Trump administration told Congress this month there would be 90 days of consultations on the renegotiation of the 23-year-old pact before beginning talks with Canada and Mexico. Annual trade of goods between Mexico and the U.S. was worth $525 billion in 2016, with the U.S. running a trade deficit of more than $63 billion.

The foreign minister said Mexico won’t entertain any talks on building a wall along the border. Videgaray maintained it is seen as an unfriendly sign and questioned its efficiency. Trump’s budget seeks $2.6 billion for border security technology, including money to design and build a wall along the southern border. Trump repeatedly promised voters during the campaign that Mexico would pay for a wall.

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Genetic Secrets of Ancient Egypt Unwrapped

DNA from mummies found at a site once known for its cult to the Egyptian god of the afterlife is unwrapping intriguing insight into the people of ancient Egypt, including a surprise discovery that they had scant genetic ties to sub-Saharan Africa.

Scientists on Tuesday said they examined genome data from 90 mummies from the Abusir el-Malek archaeological site, located about 70 miles (115 km) south of Cairo, in the most sophisticated genetic study of ancient Egyptians ever conducted.

The DNA was extracted from the teeth and bones of mummies from a vast burial ground associated with the green-skinned god Osiris. The oldest were from about 1388 BC during the New Kingdom, a high point in ancient Egyptian influence and culture.

Genomes provide a surprise

The most recent were from about 426 AD, centuries after Egypt had become a Roman Empire province.

“There has been much discussion about the genetic ancestry of ancient Egyptians,” said archeogeneticist Johannes Krause of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Germany, who led the study published in the journal Nature Communications.

“Are modern Egyptians direct descendants of ancient Egyptians? Was there genetic continuity in Egypt through time? Did foreign invaders change the genetic makeup: for example, did Egyptians become more ‘European’ after Alexander the Great conquered Egypt?” Krause added. “Ancient DNA can address those questions.”

The genomes showed that, unlike modern Egyptians, ancient Egyptians had little to no genetic kinship with sub-Saharan populations, some of which like ancient Ethiopia were known to have had significant interactions with Egypt.

The closest genetic ties were to the peoples of the ancient Near East, spanning parts of Iraq and Turkey as well as Israel, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon.

Middle-class mummies

Egypt, located in North Africa at a crossroads of continents in the ancient Mediterranean world, for millennia boasted one of the most advanced civilizations in antiquity, known for military might, wondrous architecture including massive pyramids and imposing temples, art, hieroglyphs and a pantheon of deities.

Mummification was used to preserve the bodies of the dead for the afterlife. The mummies in the study were of middle-class people, not royalty.

The researchers found genetic continuity spanning the New Kingdom and Roman times, with the amount of sub-Saharan ancestry increasing substantially about 700 years ago, for unclear reasons.

“There was no detectable change for those 1,800 years of Egyptian history,” Krause said. “The big change happened between then and now.”

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Android Creator Unveils New Phone, Home Assistant Device

Andy Rubin, the co-creator of the Android mobile phone operating system, has launched a new company called Essential Products to sell a high-end smartphone and a home assistant device.

Palo Alto-based Essential said the new Essential Phone features an edge-to-edge screen, a titanium-and-ceramic case and dual cameras. The phone sells for $699 and will run the Android operating system. The price pits it against high-end smartphones including Apple Inc’s iPhone and Samsung’s Galaxy S8.

Essential also launched a household assistant called Home that looks like an angled hockey puck with a screen. The device will compete against the Amazon.com Echo and Alphabet’s Google Home speaker, which are powered by the Alexa and the Google Assistant voice services respectively.

Essential confirmed the Home device will let the user choose between Alexa, Google Assistant or Siri. It was not immediately clear how Siri would be available on Essential. While Amazon and Google have released the software needed to embed their assistants on devices they do not make, Apple has not done so.

Essential declined to elaborate on how it plans to embed Siri on the device, and Apple declined to comment.

The Essential Home takes a page from Apple’s privacy play book. Like an iPhone, the Home will do much of the processing for voice and image recognition on the device itself rather than sending data to remote servers.

Essential also said the Home device will communicate with home appliances like lights and thermostats directly over the home network, rather than sending data to remote servers.

Apple’s HomeKit system takes similar approach. Rubin, Essential’s CEO, co-founded Android and sold it to Google in 2005. He ran Google’s mobile efforts until 2013 before a brief stint running the firm’s robotics division. He left Google in 2014 to focus on starting hardware companies. Investors in Essential include Chinese tech company Tencent Holdings, iPhone contract manufacturer Foxconn, Redpoint Ventures and Altimeter Capital.

Essential plans to announce a ship date for the devices in the next few weeks. The company did not say whether it planned to sell the phone directly to customers online or in physical stores.

Essential for the first time revealed its staff on its website, listing Wolfgang Muller as head of channel sales.

Muller previously ran North American retail operations for phone maker HTC, according to his LinkedIn profile, suggesting that Essential plans to sell phones through retail stores, carriers or both.

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Senate Democrats Ask Trump for Answers on China Trademarks

A group of Senate Democrats sent a letter to U.S. President Donald Trump on Tuesday, requesting information about a raft of trademark approvals from China this year that they say may violate the U.S. Constitution’s ban on gifts from foreign governments.

“China’s rapid approvals after years of court battles have raised questions as to whether the trademarks will prevent you from standing up to China on behalf of American workers and their businesses,” the eight senators, led by Michigan Democrat Debbie Stabenow and Connecticut Democrat Richard Blumenthal, wrote.

China’s most recent nod for a Trump trademark, covering clothing, came on May 6, bringing to 40 the number of marks China has granted or provisionally granted to the president and a related company, DTTM Operations LLC, since his inauguration. If there are no objections, provisional approvals are formally registered after 90 days. China has also rejected or partially rejected nine Trump trademarks since the inauguration.

Trademarks give the holder monopoly rights to a brand in a given market. In many jurisdictions, like China, they can also be filed defensively, to prevent squatters from using a name. Because trademarks are granted at the discretion of foreign governments and can be enormously valuable, they can be problematic for U.S. officials, who are barred by the emoluments clause of the constitution from accepting anything of value from foreign states without congressional approval.

In their letter, the senators were particularly interested in any special efforts Trump, his Chinese lawyers, or the U.S. Embassy in China, which sometimes advocates for U.S. firms, may have made to secure approval for the president’s trademarks. They cited an Associated Press report quoting one of Trump’s lawyers in China, Spring Chang, who said that “government relations are an important part of trademark strategy in China.”

Concern about favoritism is particularly sharp in China, where the courts and bureaucracy are designed to reflect the will of the ruling Communist Party. China has defended its handling of Trump’s intellectual property interests, saying it followed the law in processing his applications, though some trademark lawyers viewed the pace as unusually quick and well-coordinated. In addition, China approved one trademark for Trump-branded construction services after a 10-year legal battle that turned in his favor only after he declared his candidacy.

Alan Garten, chief legal officer of The Trump Organization, did not respond immediately to a request for comment. He has previously said that Trump’s trademark activity in China predates his election and noted that Trump has stepped away from managing his company. However, the president retains an ownership stake in his global branding and real estate empire.

In April, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a watchdog group, added “gratuitous Chinese trademarks” to its lawsuit against the president for alleged emoluments violations. Trump has dismissed the suit as without merit.

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Scientists ‘Supercharge’ Powerful Antibiotic

Scientists have tweaked a powerful antibiotic, called vancomycin, so it is once more powerful against life-threatening bacterial infections.  Researchers say the more powerful compound could eliminate the threat of antibiotic resistance for many years to come.

Antibiotic resistance, in which microbes no longer respond to drugs, is quickly becoming a global health emergency.  Of particular concern are so-called “superbugs,” a handful of pathogens that patients acquire in hospitals and other health care settings.  Patients recovering from surgery are particularly vulnerable to the resistant, hospital-borne infections, which put them at high risk of death.  

Researchers at The Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California, modified vancomycin, invented 60 years ago and considered a last resort treatment against many of these infections.   They made a key change to its molecular structure, interfering with how the bacterium, enterococcus, makes protective cells walls.

In a new study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, investigators describe how the change made vancomycin 1,000 times more effective against both drug-resistant enterococci and the original forms of the microorganism.

‘Total cures’

The modification is in addition to two previous changes made by the Scripps team that improved the drug’s potency, so less of it is needed to treat an infection.  

Lead researcher Dale Boger, who co-chairs the institution’s Department of Chemistry, said it is difficult for enterococcus to find a way around three independent mechanisms of action.  “Even if they found a solution to one of those,” said Boger, “the organisms would still be killed by the other two.”

The challenge now for researchers is to reduce the number of steps it takes in the lab to boost vancomycin’s effectiveness.  Having redesigned the antibiotic’s molecular structure, Boger called streamlining its production the “easy part.”

Even if researchers are unable to simplify the way the improvements are made, Boger said efforts to supercharge vancomycin are worth it for the antibiotic’s lifesaving powers, calling the drugs “total cures” against bacterial infection.

Given the growing failure of antibiotics to treat common infections, Boger said making the super-charged vancomycin molecule is important, even if it’s labor-intensive.

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BA Debacle Puts Spotlight on Airlines’ Old IT Systems, Cuts

The catastrophic IT failure at British Airways that ruined travel plans for 75,000 people has raised questions about some older airlines’ focus on costs to the detriment of investment in new computer systems.

As British Airways resumed full service Tuesday, shares in its parent company, International Airlines Group, dropped 3 percent as investors appeared to worry that the company’s quality of service may have been undermined by recent efforts to save money.

 

Disaster struck on Saturday, when the company’s computer systems went down and there was no functioning back-up. The airline cancelled all flights and only managed to resume full service on Tuesday.

 

“Although cost cutting has been good for the share price in the last year, it will come back to bite IAG if it stops them from doing what they are supposed to do: Fly passengers to their destinations,” said Kathleen Brooks, the research director at City Index.

 

IAG has been battling tough competition, even as it has faced pressure on its earnings from a weaker pound following Britain’s decision to leave the European Union. The company issued a profit warning following the Brexit vote nearly a year ago.

 

Cost pressures aggravated an already complicated situation. Renewing IT systems is complex, time-consuming and expensive — a factor that prompts many companies to put it off as long as possible, said Loizos Heracleous, a professor of strategy at Warwick Business School.

 

The problem with IT systems is recurring across the industry, particularly among established airlines. In August, Delta Air lines cancelled hundreds of flights when a power outage likewise knocked out its computer systems worldwide.

 

Airlines face challenges with their IT systems also due to linkages across their systems. There’s further demand on the system when companies consolidate — as has been the case among airlines — since “IT issues get heightened and any vulnerabilities are exposed.”

 

Such troubles give an advantage to newer airlines such as Ryanair, a cost-cutting BA rival that focuses on short haul budget flights.

 

“The ability to set up an airline from scratch by-passes a lot of the legacy issues, because you can go for state-of-the-art systems,” Heracleous said. “Newer airlines can also invest in IT systems that are more easily upgradeable and scaleable. An airline such as Ryanair, that is also financially successful, has more leeway to divert needed resources towards upgrading its IT systems.”

 

Capitalizing on BA’s troubles, Ryanair said it had seen “strong bookings” over the weekend. Its Twitter account rubbed salt into the wound with tweets that poked fun and added the hashtag “ShouldHaveFlownRyanair.”

 

The company’s chief marketing officer, Kenny Jacobs, admitted on the BBC “we had a bit of fun on social media.”

 

“We don’t take social media seriously but we do take IT very seriously and that is why we’ve never had an outage,” he told the BBC.

 

Ryanair posted a 6 percent increase in annual profits Tuesday to 1.3 billion euros ($1.4 billion) despite “difficult trading conditions,” caused by terror attacks in European cities and a sharp decline in the British pound.

 

BA, meanwhile, is counting up the cost of an IT debacle that some have estimated could run into the tens of millions. There are also all those news clips of passengers swearing they will never fly the airline again.

 

“The whole sorry episode has undeniably put a dent in BA’s reputation for delivering a premium service,” said George Salmon, equity analyst at Hargreaves Lansdown.

 

 

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Goldman Sachs Criticized for Venezuelan Bond Deal

The head of Venezuela’s opposition-led congress on Monday blasted U.S.-based bank Goldman Sachs for a financial transaction that he said would prop up his country’s unpopular socialist government while exacerbating difficulties for ordinary Venezuelans.

National Assembly President Julio Borges denounced the bank for “trying to make a quick buck off the suffering of the Venezuelan people,” he said in an open letter to the bank’s leader, criticizing last week’s deeply discounted purchase of $2.8 billion in Venezuelan bonds.

Borges said in the letter that he would recommend “to any future democratic government of Venezuela not to recognize or pay on these bonds.”

As The Wall Street Journal first reported Sunday, Goldman Sachs Group Inc. last Thursday closed a deal in which it agreed to pay Venezuela’s Central Bank $865 million for the bonds issued by state-owned oil company Petroleos de Venezuela SA (Pdvsa) in 2014. That’s a rate of 31 cents on the dollar. A London-based intermediary, Dinosaur Group, handled the transaction, The Journal noted in a follow-up story.

In seeking money to satisfy creditors such as Russia and China, the Venezuelan government was considering “all options,” The Journal quoted the country’s oil minister as saying last week.  

Borges said the assembly would begin a probe into the deal. Venezuela’s opposition leaders repeatedly have asked foreign governments and investors not to do business with the Maduro administration, which it has accused of human rights abuses.

 

Venezuela has been wracked by nearly two months of street demonstrations, sparked by the jailing of Maduro’s political rivals, delayed elections and widespread shortages of food, medicine and other basics. At least 60 people have died in the protests.

Goldman Sachs defended its actions in a statement it emailed to Voice of America:

“We bought these bonds, which were issued in 2014, on the secondary market from a broker and did not interact with the Venezuelan government. … Many investors make similar investments daily through mutual funds, index funds and ETFs which also hold Pdvsa bonds. We recognize that the situation is complex and evolving and that Venezuela is in crisis. We agree that life there has to get better, and we made the investment in part because we believe it will.”

Keeping score

Borges warned that any future Venezuelan government “would not forget where Goldman Sachs stood when it had to choose between supporting the Maduro dictatorship and democracy for our country,” The Wall Street Journal quoted the lawmaker as saying.

Venezuelan economist Ángel García Banchs, a Central University of Venezuela professor and Econometrica think tank director, said the bank “is making a financial bet [that] the government is going to fall. This bet, I think, is correct” – and will pay off for the institution and its investors, he predicted.

But García questioned the ethics of the deal, calling it “a very serious mistake.”

Similarly, José Méndez, a Venezuelan petroleum engineer who studied at the George Washington University in Washington, described the investment as “criminal behavior.”

“Really, these are criminal operations against the republic,” Méndez said. “How is it possible that Goldman Sachs is [paying] 31 cents for every dollar that must be extracted from the bloodstream of the Venezuelan nation? That cannot be.”

VOA Spanish Service correspondent Alvaro Algarra contributed to this report from Caracas, Venezuela.

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Could Big Data Help Solve Hunger in Africa?

Computer algorithms power much of modern life from our Facebook feeds to international stock exchanges. Could they help end malnutrition and hunger in Africa? The International Center for Tropical Agriculture thinks so.

 

The International Centre for Tropical Agriculture has spent the past four years developing the Nutrition Early Warning System, or NEWS.

The goal is to catch the subtle signs of a hunger crisis brewing in Africa as much as a year in advance.

 

CIAT says the system uses machine learning. As more information is fed into the system, the algorithms will get better at identifying patterns and trends. The system will get smarter.

 

Information Technology expert Andy Jarvis leads the project.

“The cutting edge side of this is really about bringing in streams of information from multiple sources and making sense of it. … But it is a huge volume of information and what it does, the novelty then, is making sense of that using things like artificial intelligence, machine learning, and condensing it into simple messages,” he said.

 

Other nutrition surveillance systems exist, like FEWSnet, the Famine Early Warning System Network which was created in the mid-1980’s.

 

But CIAT says NEWS will be able to draw insights from a massive amount of diverse data enabling it to identify hunger risks faster than traditional methods.

 

“What is different about NEWS is that it pays attention to malnutrition, not just drought or famine, but the nutrition outcome that really matters, malnutrition especially in women and children. For the first time, we are saying these are the options way ahead of time. That gives policy makers an opportunity to really do what they intend to do which is make the lives of women and children better in Africa,” said Dr. Mercy Lung’aho, a CIAT nutrition expert.

 

While food emergencies like famine and drought grab headlines, the International Centre for Tropical Agriculture says chronic malnutrition affects one in four people in Africa, taking a serious toll on economic growth and leaving them especially vulnerable in times of crisis.

Senior policy officer Olufunso Somorin is with the Africa Development Bank.

“In 2030, 13 years from now, Africa is going to have 200 million children below the age of five. Now once a child is stunted or misses a level of nourishment at that age, it affects that child psychologically, economically, socially. So a stunted child in the future is actually a stunted economy. So linking issues of nutrition at individual level to Africa’s development and transformation on a broader scale is important,” said Somorin.

 

CIAT says African governments will be able to access NEWS via “nutrition dashboards” where they can get risk assessments, alerts, and recommendations.

The system is expected to become operational in four African countries, South Sudan, Ethiopia, Somalia and Nigeria, by year’s end.

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Overlooked and Insidious: Back-bay Flooding Plagues Millions

Marty Mozzo gets a gorgeous show each night when the sun sets over wetlands near his property on the bay side of a barrier island.

When he and his wife bought the house in 2008, she looked at the marsh, where the only sign of water was a tiny trickle nearly a half mile away.

“Do you think this will flood?” she asked.

“How could it?” he replied. “Look how far away the water is.”

Within weeks of moving in, a storm stranded them for two days with water on all sides. Theirs is one of several neighborhoods in Ocean City, New Jersey, where residents have adopted unofficial flood etiquette: Don’t drive too fast through flooded streets or you’ll create wakes that slam into houses, scatter garbage cans, and damage lawns and gardens.

They are among millions of people worldwide whose lives and land are being dampened by back-bay flooding — inundation of waterfront areas behind barrier islands where wind and tides can create flooding during storms or even on sunny days. It’s a type of flooding that tends to be overshadowed by oceanfront storm damage that grabs headlines — and government spending — with dramatic video of crashing waves and splintered houses.

“This insidious flooding is increasing, and it is an important social issue, but it is not getting enough attention paid to it,” said S. Jeffress Williams, a coastal scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey. “Flooding is happening with increasing frequency in back-bay areas. It happens very rapidly; it’s just not as dramatic.”

Williams, who lives on Cape Cod in Massachusetts, said back-bay flooding is happening just as frequently, if not more so, than oceanfront flooding.

“Over the last 15 or 20 years I have seen, especially when you get a full moon and a high tide, roads, backyards and parks all get flooded, much more so than we ever had before,” he said.

Nearly five years after Superstorm Sandy delivered a wake-up call, the problem of back-bay flooding is coming into sharper focus. Studies are under way, money is starting to flow toward the problem, and the realization that destruction of wetlands for development along such shores is partly to blame is leading to discussion about building codes.

Sandy created a vast swath of destruction along the coasts of New Jersey and New York in 2012. But it also wreaked havoc along the back bays, where miles of lagoons exposed thousands of waterfront homes to flooding damage.

Property owners in Toms River, New Jersey, received more than $568 million in payments from the Federal Emergency Management Agency after Sandy. Neighboring Brick Township received more than $267 million. Both towns have limited oceanfront exposure but extensive back-bay exposure, and they represented the largest damage totals in Ocean County, the region of New Jersey that took the hardest hit from Sandy.

President Donald Trump’s budget proposal, released last week, would cut a combined $452 million from the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration and the Homeland Security department for research grants, flood mapping and analysis. If enacted by Congress, many environmental groups worry, less money will be available to study back-bay flooding.

‘Complicated’ solutions

Jeff Gebert, chief of coastal planning for U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Philadelphia division, acknowledged that before Sandy, back-bay flooding was not as high on the agency’s radar, due in part to the lack of easy engineering solutions.

As of January, the Army Corps map of recent storm protection and navigation projects in New Jersey showed 10 either completed or under way, with six more planned. But none were done in back bays.

The picture is largely the same nationwide, he said, “because the solution to back-bay flooding is much more complicated” than simply pumping sand onto oceanfront beaches.

A 2010 study by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration found that more than 123 million people — or about 39 percent of the U.S. population — lived in coastal zone counties, a number projected to grow by 8 percent by 2020. The greater proportion of those people live on or near the bay sides of barrier islands, scientists say, than on the oceanfront.

Unlike oceanfront flooding, where crashing waves from storm-driven seas pound the beaches, back bays flood gradually and comparatively quietly as water levels rise. The effect is worsened during storms that continue through numerous tide cycles in which water piles up in the back bays without being able to drain out to sea.

Tides and wind can inundate some of these areas even when the sun shines.

“The water sneaks up the backside of barrier islands and the flooding you get is sometimes actually greater than on the ocean sides due to the topography of the islands,” said Guy Nordenson, a structural engineer specializing in climate change adaptation whose firm has worked with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on flood prevention projects. “That is the case all the way up and down the East Coast to Miami Beach.”

New Jersey has funded some smaller resiliency projects in areas including back bays, but none was designed specifically for flood control. It hopes the study under way will identify a range of possible solutions.

Sandy, Gebert said, “woke people up. It galvanized attention on the vulnerability of back-bay areas.”

The Army Corps and state officials began a three-year study of back-bay flooding in December in New Jersey that seeks cost-effective solutions that can be replicated elsewhere. Similar studies are under way or were recently completed in New York, Virginia, Texas, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Maryland and Washington, D.C.

Many traditional engineering solutions that are used along the oceanfront are of limited benefit against back-bay flooding. Houses are being elevated and roadways repaved to make them higher. But the bulkheads, sea walls and sand dunes used along the ocean can’t be replicated in many back-bay areas because of limited space and resistance from homeowners who prize waterfront views.

“There’s just not as much you can do,” said the Geological Survey’s Williams. “We used to have broad wetlands that could absorb this water, but we’ve built right up to the edge of the water in many places. Now you’re faced with armoring the waterfront or relocating, and relocating is popular with no one.”

New rules as sea levels rise

Any new homes need to be built in these areas with sea level rise in mind, said Princeton geosciences professor Michael Oppenheimer.

“They need to design buildings that are essentially floodable, where it’s OK that the first floor gets flooded every now and again,” he said. “These places do get wet on a regular basis.”

Globally, sea levels have been rising over the past century, NOAA says, and the rate has increased in recent decades. In New Jersey, seas have risen by 1.3 feet (0.4 meters) over the past 100 years, said Benjamin Horton, a Rutgers University professor and leading expert on climate change and sea level rise. That is a faster pace than for the past 2,000 years combined, he said.

Horton and other Rutgers researchers project that by 2050, seas off New Jersey will rise by an additional 1.4 feet (0.4 meters).

Jim and Maryann O’Neill moved from Philadelphia to a section of Stafford Township, New Jersey, in 1994 for a quiet existence near the water. But they’re now much nearer to it than they bargained for.

In January 2016, a coastal storm inundated the O’Neills’ neighborhood; a March 2017 storm submerged the roads and deposited fish on the pavement in front of their house. And that was two years after the town raised the road by their house by 8 inches.

They’ve had to build a boardwalk from their back stairs to the edge of their property because the yard has been underwater or muddy — “like quicksand,” said Jim O’Neill — virtually every day for the past five years.

Maryann, 75, recently learned how to use an app that notifies her when the tides are rising. The O’Neills routinely have to move their car to the highest spot around — the bridge leading to their neighborhood. They have already rusted through three pickup trucks and three cars in the past 13 years.

In Ocean City, officials will spend $40.3 million over the next five years on drainage improvements and road work that includes elevating roadways, new pipes and pumping stations. Such work in his neighborhood has cut down on flooding, Mozzo acknowledged.

“We put $20 million into back-bay dredging for five years,” Mayor Jay Gillian said. “When you talk about $20 million in one seaside resort for just one thing, that speaks volumes about how much these coastal places need.”

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Border Closure Hurts Afghan-Pakistan Produce Trade

Cross-border fighting between Afghanistan and Pakistan has suspended trade worth millions of dollars and stranded hundreds of trucks loaded with fruits and vegetables at the border, where the produce stands to spoil in the rising heat.

Pakistan had temporarily closed the Chaman border crossing, across from Afghanistan’s Spinboldak, after a frontier skirmish earlier this month between Afghan and Pakistani border guards left more than 10 people dead. Global economic institutions say South Asia is one of the world’s least economically connected regions, and the periodic closures of border crossings complicate things further.

Summer is peak time for fruit and vegetable production in the two countries. Under normal circumstances around this time of the year, a significant portion of Afghanistan’s grapes and pomegranates is ferried overland to Pakistan.

Pakistan’s mangoes and vegetables go the opposite direction, along with bilateral trade in many other commodities — some legal and some otherwise.

Part of the Afghan fruit produce is sold in Chaman and nearby villages; the remainder finds its way to markets across Pakistan.

It’s a long-established system that relies heavily on trust: Pakistani fruit traders send advance payments to their Afghan counterparts, who then send the fruit after it’s harvested. But so far this year, the Chaman businessmen say they have not cut the usual deals because the border closure have created the risk of coming up empty-handed.

Amant Khan, a fruit trader in Chaman, said he suffered losses last year as tensions rose between the two countries.

“This season we did not give the grape or melon dealers anything,” he said. “In fact, we decided not to do business with Afghanistan.”

For traders in Waish Mandi, a thriving Afghan market town across from Chaman, these are hard financial times, too. Hundreds of people, who used to benefit from border trade, have lost work. Unable to move their merchandise across the border, goods worth millions of dollars are stranded in truck containers.

Apart from the fruit trade, bilateral trade between Afghanistan and Pakistanonce worth $3 billion a year has dropped to $1.2 billion, said Khan Jan Alkozai, president of the Afghanistan Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

Pakistan’s own fruit exports to Central Asia via Afghanistan, which usually average 2 million pounds, also suffer because of border closures, Alkozai said.

Daro Khan, former vice president for the Afghanistan-Pakistan Joint Chamber of Commerce, said Pakistani farmers and businessman have not recovered from losses due to border closures last year.

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India’s Limits on Selling Cattle Could Hurt Industry, Diets

A new ban imposed by India’s government on the sale of cows and buffaloes for slaughter to protect animals considered holy by many Hindus is drawing widespread protests from state governments and animal-related industries.

Many state governments criticized the ban as a blow to beef and leather exports that will leave hundreds of thousands jobless and deprive millions of Christians, Muslims and poor Hindus of a cheap source of protein.

 

The rules, which took effect Friday, require that cattle traders pledge that any cows or buffalos sold are not intended for slaughter.

 

At least one state government is planning a challenge in court. Some have said the ban infringes on states’ commercial autonomy and are calling for a nationwide protest.

 

Others say the ban will hurt farmers who will be forced to continue feeding aged animals, and that millions of unproductive cattle will be turned out on the streets.

 

The new rules also propose the setting up of a vast animal monitoring bureaucracy, including animal inspectors and veterinarians, to ensure the rules are followed. Traditionally, cattle fairs and markets allow the sale of animals headed to abattoirs to provide raw materials used in dozens of industries, including leather making, soap and fertilizer.

 

The state governments have appealed to Prime Minister Narendra Modi to repeal the order, which they say was issued without consultations with them. Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party has been pushing a Hindu nationalist agenda since it came to power in 2014.

 

Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, the top elected official in southern Kerala state, wrote to Modi on Sunday describing the restrictions as a “drastic move” that would have “far-reaching consequences and would be detrimental to democracy.”

 

He said the move amounts to “an intrusion into the rights of the states” in India’s federal structure and violates the principles of the Indian Constitution.

 

The government of West Bengal state also protested the move, saying the Modi government cannot make such decisions unilaterally.

 

Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee said the state would not accept the imposition of such restrictions on its commercial authority. She described it as a step by the Modi government to “destroy the federal structure of the country.”

 

“We won’t accept the decision. It is unconstitutional. We will challenge it legally,” Banerjee told reporters Monday.

 

Hindus, who form 80 percent of India’s 1.3 billion people, consider cows to be sacred, and for many eating beef is taboo. In many Indian states, the slaughtering of cows and selling of beef is either restricted or banned. India has the highest number of vegetarians in the world as a result of Hinduism’s predominance, although not all Hindus are vegetarians.

 

While the eating of beef is not a crime in many states, slaughtering a cow carries a punishment of up to seven years in jail throughout the country. In Gujarat state, lawmakers have approved a bill increasing the punishment for killing a cow to life imprisonment.

 

Critics say the new rules, ostensibly to protect the way animals are treated and transported, are in keeping with demands of Hindu nationalists, who have long been pressing for a nationwide ban on the sale of beef. The past two years have also seen a rise in vigilante attacks on Muslims and lower caste Hindus involved in the cattle trade. Several deaths have occurred.

 

On Monday, police arrested seven people on suspicion of assaulting two Muslim men who were transporting meat in western Maharashtra state. The men were beaten and forced to chant Hindu slogans by a vigilante group on Sunday, police said.

 

Meanwhile, leather and meat industry groups said the ban could push them out of business.

 

Fauzan Alavi of the All India Meat and Livestock Exporters Association said beef exports, which had been growing rapidly, have already been affected. “Such a drastic move is bound to hit the industry,” Alavi said Sunday.

 

The government “has handed a death certificate to us,” said Ramesh K. Juneja of the Council of Leather Exports.

 

 

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