Dating App Tinder Cited for Age Discrimination

A California court has ruled that the popular dating app Tinder violated age discrimination laws by charging users 30 and older more than younger ones.

Allan Candelore of California sued the app company over the pricing of its Tinder Plus premium service. Tinder Plus costs $9.99 per month for users younger than 30, while those 30 and older are charged $19.99 per month. The features for Tinder Plus are identical for users regardless of age.

Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Brian Currey ruled in favor of Allan Candelore, 33, of San Diego, saying Tinder’s pricing violates California’s Unruh Civil Rights Act. That law “provides protection from discrimination by all business establishments in California.”

The company countered in court documents that it is “self-evident that people under 30 face financial challenges” and this “common knowledge provides a reasonable and non-arbitrary basis for Tinder to offer a discount to people under 30.”

“Why is Tinder allowed to get away with charging me more for the exact same product as any other 18-28 year old?” asked Reddit user jshrlzwrld02. “Nothing magically changes at age 29 on Tinder. I don’t get new features. I don’t get anything extra. So why is this not discrimination based on age/sex/religion/orientation?”

Tinder has faced similar accusations before. In 2015, Michael Manapol sued Tinder for age and gender discrimination, but a judge dismissed that claim, saying Manapol failed to show how he was harmed by the allegations. Also in 2015, Wired magazine took issue with Tinder’s pricing tiers, calling them “ageist.”

“The only time pricing should be staggered is if each step up in cost coincides with a step-up in service or concern,” said Robert Carbone, a digital marketer with the LinkedIn networking service.

“Tinder is a privately owned company and should be able to charge any amount they see fit to whoever wants to use their service. No one is forcing consumers to use Tinder. This ruling is an infringement of capitalistic practices,” said Katja Case, a math major at Iowa State University, on LinkedIn.

Tinder is popular among college-age people.

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University Researchers Face Increasing Obstacles in Applying for Grants

Vaccines. Popular sports drinks. Computers.

They share one quality: They were invented by researchers working at a college or university.

Victoria McGovern says research leads to greater discovery and better education.

McGovern is a senior program officer with the Burroughs Wellcome Fund, an organization that supports medical research in the United States and Canada.

“It’s a very good idea to connect the discovery of new things to the teaching of new students,” she told VOA, “because you don’t want people who come out of their education thinking that the world around them is full of solved problems. You want people to come out of an education excited about solving problems themselves.”

Research, however, costs money and most colleges have limited budgets, as well as competing goals and needs.

A large part of being a researcher at a college or university involves applying for grant money, McGovern says, such as to private companies and organizations like hers, or local and national governments.

The National Institutes of Health, or NIH, is an example. The NIH is the U.S. government agency that supports medical and public health research, distributing about $32 billion a year.

Increasingly complex process

The application process for grant money is highly competitive, McGovern says. It can be challenging for researchers who are less skilled at writing.

Kristine Kulage argues that it is more difficult than ever for university researchers to secure funding. Kulage is the director of research and scholarly development at Columbia University School of Nursing in New York City.

Kulage says that in the 20 years she has been working in university research, the grant application process has become longer and more complex.

“Researchers don’t have time to conduct their research, write their grants and learn how to use all of these new systems through which they have to submit their grants, and all of the ways in which they have to be compliant with regulations,” Kulage told VOA.

“There are so many rules now … it takes individuals who are now trained as research administrators to know what those rules are … and know whether or not the rules are being followed.”

Investing in help

Kulage says schools must do more to support their researchers in gaining grant money. Last November, she published a study that looked at how the nursing school invested $127,000 to create a support system between 2012 and 2016. This system employed administrators to complete grant applications, freeing researchers to spend more time on their work.

Administrators and other researchers met with the grant writers to review the applications. The team was expected to defend its proposal.

Kulage says that over those five years, proposals that went through review were almost twice as likely to be accepted. That $127,000 investment led to Columbia’s School of Nursing earning $3 million in outside funding.

McGovern and Kulage say applying for research funding is very difficult. Having one other person read a proposal and provide feedback is essential.

Large companies often conduct much research and development, but it is typically limited to their industries. University researchers have the freedom to take risks on less popular ideas.

And those risks can lead to important discoveries that colleges and universities have a responsibility to share with the world, she says.

Have you had to write a grant to support your research? Please visit us on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and LinkedIn.

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Connected Thermometer Tracks Spread, Intensity of Flu

This year’s flu season in the U.S. is the worst in 15 years and health officials predict there are weeks of sickness ahead. One company’s “smart thermometer” is tracking how the flu is spreading across the country in real time by gathering data every time someone takes a temperature. Michelle Quinn reports.

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Connected Thermometer Tracks the Spread and Intensity of the Flu

When a child feels sick, one of the first things a parent does is reach for a thermometer.

That common act intrigued Inder Singh, a long-time health policy expert.

What if the thermometer could be a communication device – connecting people with information about illnesses going around and gathering real time data on diseases as they spread? 

That’s the idea behind Singh’s firm Kinsa, a health data company based in San Francisco that sells “smart” thermometers.

Worst flu season in years

With the U.S. in the midst of its worst flu season in years, Kinsa has been on the forefront of tracking the spread and severity of flu-like symptoms by region.

The company says its data is a close match to flu data tracked by the U.S.Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Whereas the CDC collects from state and regional reports, Kinsa can spot fever spikes in regions or even by cities, said Singh.

Fast and accurate information about how disease is spreading can make a difference during a health crisis.

“If you knew when and where a disease was starting, you could target the people who needed the treatment and potentially prevent pandemics and epidemics from occurring,” said Singh, founder and chief executive of Kinsa.

How it works

Kinsa thermometers, which range in price from $14.99 to $49.99, connect via Bluetooth to a smartphone app, which pose questions about a person’s symptoms. The customer’s personal information is private, the firm said.

With its thermometers in 500,000 households, Kinsa receives 25,000 temperature readings per day.

The company can’t diagnose illnesses or distinguish between different kinds of sicknesses. But from gathering information about individuals’ fevers and other symptoms, it can report where flu-like symptoms are peaking. In recent weeks, Missouri and Kansas have been the hardest hit, Kinsa said. 

Selling aggregated data 

Beyond selling thermometers and advertising on its app, Kinsa makes money by selling data – stripped of any personally identifiable information – to companies that want to know where and how illness is spreading – cough and cold companies, disinfectant manufacturers, orange juice sellers. Sales of toothbrushes spike during flu season, Singh says.

Companies “want to know when and where illness is striking on a general geolocation basis,” he said. Firms stock shelves with products and change marketing plans if they know how an illness is progressing.

Kinsa has launched a program in schools, where it gives away thermometers, so parents can learn about illness trends locally. The company is also starting a new initiative with some U.S. firms, which buy Kinsa thermometers for their employees. When an employee shows a fever, Kinsa can inform the person about available company benefits.

At the moment, Kinsa thermometers are sold just in the U.S. But the company plans to go global.

“Imagine a living breathing map where you can see where and when disease is spreading,” Singh said. “That’s what we want.”

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Mugabe’s Political Demise Brings Hope to Zimbabwe’s Ousted White Farmers

A new political dawn in Zimbabwe has sparked talk among farmers of land reform and the return of some whites who lost their land and livelihoods to President Robert Mugabe during a 37-year rule that drove the economy to collapse.

Mugabe, 93, resigned in November after the army and his ZANU-PF party turned against him, prompting optimism among some of the thousands of white farmers ousted in the early 2000s on the grounds of redressing imbalances from the colonial era.

For colonialists seized some of the best agricultural land that remained in the hands of white farmers after independence in 1980 leaving many blacks effectively landless and making land ownership one of Zimbabwe’s most sensitive political topics.

Now some white landowners hope the post-Mugabe regime may address the land issue, either through compensation or returning land, and try to resuscitate a once vibrant agricultural sector boosting an economy once seen as one of Africa’s great hopes.

“We are convinced positive signals will come quickly in terms of property rights,” Ben Purcel Gilpin, director of the Commercial Farmers Union (CFU), which represents white and black farmers, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. “It would send a good signal to people outside Zimbabwe.” 

New president and long-time Mugabe ally, Emmerson Mnangagwa, has promised a raft of changes since he took office, including a return to the rule of law and respect for property rights.

Land ownership has been a key issue for decades in Zimbabwe dating back to British colonial rule in what was then Rhodesia.

At independence, white farmers owned more than 70 percent of the most fertile land and generated 80 percent of the country’s agricultural output, according to academics.

Reforms began after independence with a “willing buyer, willing seller” system aimed at redistributing land to poor black subsistence farmers. In the 1990s, compulsory acquisition of land began with some funding provided by Britain.

But for many Zimbabweans change was too slow and Mugabe approved radical land reforms that encouraged occupation of some 4,000 white-owned farms. Land went to his supporters with no knowledge of farming and thousands of white farmers fled.

The violent farm seizures saw Zimbabwe forfeit its status as the bread basket of Africa and led to a collapse of many industries that depended on agriculture. Among those were paper mills, textile firms, leather tanners and clothing companies.

As a result the country failed to generate foreign currency, resulting in the central bank printing money which led to unprecedented levels of hyper-inflation and high unemployment.

New start

Now some white farmers are starting to reclaim their land.

“White commercial farmers, like all other Zimbabweans, could apply for land from the Government and join the queue or go into joint ventures,” Mnangagwa told a former white commercial farmer during a recent visit to Namibia.

The CFU’s Gilpin – who quit farming and moved to Harare after his farm was compulsorily acquired by the government in 2005 – said sound policies from the new team could win support and help the economy.

He said compensation rather than putting people back into their properties might be the best route as many farmers are now too old to farm, some had died and others migrated.

The current situation – where resettled farmers had 99-year leases – was also untenable as the leases were not accepted by banks as collateral against borrowing.

Gilpin said this effectively made the land dead capital, as banks could not sell if farmers failed to pay back loans, so the government should instead offer farmers freehold titles.

Property rights expert Lloyd Mhishi, a senior partner in the law firm Mhishi Nkomo Legal Practice, said although Mnangagwa spoke about compensating farmers whose land was expropriated, he did not give specifics and title deeds of the former white farmers had no legal force after repossession.

Political way out

“As far as the law of the country is concerned, the title deeds that the former white commercial farmers hold do not guarantee them title,” Mhishi said in an interview.

But the lawyer said there were positive signs that the new administration realised land was a vital cog in the economy.

“I see there will be an attempt to make land useful, productive,” he said. “The land tenure side needs to be addressed to make land useful.”

Independent economist John Robertson, a former Advisor to the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe, said, however, that any idea of compensation should be dropped and former white commercial farmers should get back to their land and resume work.

“I’d rather see them get back their land and start farming again than paid out and emigrating. We need their skills. If people who oppose that idea could be just successful, where have they been for the past 20 years?” he said.

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Refugees Ready to Go Green, Become ‘Innovation Hubs’

Many refugees would like to buy low-carbon stoves and lights but poor access in camps and a lack of funding is forcing them to rely on “dirty and expensive” fuels, a report said Tuesday.

Millions of refugees worldwide struggle to access energy for cooking, lighting and communication and often pay high costs for fuels like firewood, which are bad for their health.

Yet two-thirds would consider paying for clean cookstoves and more than one-third for solar household products, according to a survey by the Moving Energy Initiative (MEI), a partnership among Britain, the United Nations and charities.

“Energy providers don’t tend to think of refugees as potential energy consumers, but the opportunities to build a relationship with them are huge,” Mattia Vianello, one of the report’s authors, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone.

Clean energy for refugees is a global priority for the U.N. refugee agency, which provides free solar power to thousands of displaced people in camps in Jordan and Kenya.

Campaigners are seeking to create a market for cleaner-burning stoves and fuels to supply millions of households worldwide that are using inefficient, dangerous methods.

Perilous smoke

When burned in open fires and traditional stoves, wood, charcoal and other solid fuels emit harmful smoke that claims millions of lives each year, according to the Clean Cooking Working Capital Fund, which promotes stoves that produce less pollution.

In Uganda, refugees collect wood from surrounding areas, “devastating” the local environment and creating tensions with locals, Raffaela Bellanca, an energy adviser with the charity Mercy Corps, said in emailed comments.

Humanitarians should work with the private sector to provide more sustainable energy to displaced people, said the report, which surveyed about 500 refugees, business owners and aid workers in Burkina Faso and Kenya.

“Refugee camps have the potential to become energy innovation hubs with a spillover effect on surrounding host communities,” Bellanca said.

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Colorful Makeover Puts Mumbai Slum on Tourist Map

A colorful paint job has transformed one of Mumbai’s drab hilltop slums into a tourist destination, even prompting comparisons with Italy’s picturesque Amalfi Coast.

During a recent journey on a Mumbai metro train, Dedeepya Reddy was struck by the grim appearance of a slum in Asalpha in the city’s eastern suburbs as she stared out from her air-conditioned carriage.

Reddy, a Harvard University-educated co-founder of a creative agency, was keen to brighten the lives of slum residents, while also changing the perception of slums being dirty and dangerous, and decided on a simple makeover.

Armed with dozens of cans of colorful paint, Reddy and a team of about 700 volunteers painted the walls and alleyways of the hilltop slum over two weekends last month.

Residents, at first skeptical, also got involved and helped paint quirky murals, the 31-year-old said.

“When you look at slums, you think they are shabby and dirty, and that also becomes a reflection of the people who live there,” Reddy told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“We used bright colors to change how slums and their residents are viewed. It also gives residents a sense of pride and dignity about their homes.”

Up to 37 million households, or about a quarter of India’s urban population, live in informal housing including slums because of an acute shortage of affordable housing, according to social consultancy FSG.

In space-starved Mumbai, which has some of the priciest real estate in the world, the shortage is even more critical, with hundreds of migrants from rural areas cramming into the city every day to seek better prospects.

Reddy’s Chal Rang De (Let’s Color It) charity has seven other slums, similarly situated on hillocks, on its wishlist, she said.

Locals and tourists have thronged Asalpha in recent weeks, posting pictures on Instagram which have drawn comparisons to Italy’s Amalfi Coast.

Their interactions with residents are a welcome change, Reddy said.

For resident Aparna Chaudhuri, who has lived in Asalpha for about a dozen years, the paint job was welcome.

“Earlier, our house looked dull. Now it looks good,” said Chaudhuri, who picked pink for her home. “Everyone is also keeping the neighborhood clean now.”

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NEM Foundation: Coincheck Hackers Trying to Move Stolen Cryptocurrency

Hackers who stole around $530 million worth of cryptocurrency from the Coincheck exchange last week — one of the biggest such heists ever — are trying to move the stolen “XEM” coins, the foundation behind the digital currency said on Tuesday.

NEM Foundation, creators of the XEM cryptocurrency, have traced the stolen coins to an unidentified account, and the account owner had begun trying to move the coins onto six exchanges where they could then be sold, Jeff McDonald said.

Hackers made off with roughly $533 million worth of the cryptocurrency from Tokyo-based exchange Coincheck Inc late last week, raising fresh questions about security and regulatory protection in the booming market. The location of the hackers’ account was not known.

“(The hackers are) trying to spend them on multiple exchanges. We are contacting those exchanges,” Singapore-based McDonald told Reuters.

NEM Foundation spokeswoman Alexandra Tinsman said the hacker had started sending out “XEM” coins to random accounts in 100 XEM batches, worth about $83 each.

“When people look to launder these types of funds, they sometimes spread it into smaller transactions because it’s less likely to trigger (exchanges’) anti-money laundering (mechanisms),” said Tom Robinson, co-founder of Elliptic, a cryptocurrency security firm in London.

Robinson said such hopping among different cryptocurrencies was becoming more prevalent among cybercriminals trying to cover their tracks.

The coins that the hackers had taken made up around 5 percent of the total supply of XEM, the world’s 10th biggest cryptocurrency, according to trade website Coinmarketcap.

McDonald said the hackers were unlikely to try to spend anything close to all of the stolen cryptocurrency at once, because the “market simply couldn’t absorb that much.”

If the hackers successfully moved the coins to an exchange, they were likely to try to swap them into another cryptocurrency before transferring the coins back into a conventional currency, he said. That would make the funds difficult or near impossible to trace.

“I would assume that they are going to get away with some of the money,” McDonald said.

At least three dozen heists on cryptocurrency exchanges since 2011 are known; many of the hacked exchanges later shut down. More than 980,000 bitcoins have been stolen, and few have ever been recovered.

In 2014, Tokyo-based Mt. Gox, which once handled 80 percent of the world’s bitcoin trades, filed for bankruptcy after losing bitcoins worth around half a billion dollars — then the biggest ever such heist, which triggered a huge sell-off in bitcoin.

“It shows how far the industry has come that a hack of this scale isn’t really an issue,” said Robinson at Elliptic. “This is just kind of a blip.”

As of 17:44 GMT, XEM was trading at around $0.83 per coin, with a total market value of around $7.5 billion. That was around 20 percent lower than trading levels on Friday, when the hack was announced, but XEM is still up almost 300 percent over the past two months.

Japan’s Financial Services Agency (FSA) on Monday ordered improvements to operations at Coincheck, which on Friday suspended trading in all cryptocurrencies except bitcoin.

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5 Ideas Win $10,000 Each in Ohio Opioid Science Challenge

Virtual reality, neural feedback and digital therapy were among five ideas to help solve the U.S. opioid crisis that won a global technology challenge on Tuesday.

Winners were selected from hundreds of ideas submitted by researchers, caregivers, service providers and individuals from Ohio, other states and nine countries. The winning entrants will receive $10,000 each to take their ideas to the next phase.

The $8 million Ohio Opioid Technology Challenge was modeled after the Head Health competition launched by the National Football League, Under Armour and General Electric to address traumatic brain injuries suffered playing football. It’s part of a two-pronged strategy Ohio is pursuing to fight the deadly epidemic tied to prescription painkillers; the state has also awarded $10 million in research-and-development grants.

Besides the top prizes awarded to ideas with the highest likelihood of success, 40 runners-up — 20 laypeople and 20 technical professionals or experts — will be entered into a drawing to win $500 cash prizes.

The efforts, spearheaded by Republican Governor John Kasich, came in a state among the hardest hit by the deadly opioid epidemic. There were 4,050 overdose deaths in Ohio in 2016, many linked to heroin and synthetic opioids like fentanyl.

The winners were:

— Judson Brewer (Worcester, Massachusetts): For a digital therapy centered on the psychological theory of mindfulness, which will extend ideas contained in his nationally known Craving to Quit program to opioid addiction.

— Kinametechs LLC (Cincinnati, Ohio): For an augmented reality-based interactive coaching system resembling glasses proposed by Yong Pei and the Kinametechs team that would use motion tracking to customize a surgical patient’s physical rehabilitation routine once he arrives home from the hospital, reducing demand for opioid painkillers. “It’s like an expert sitting right in the glasses,” Pei said in an interview.

— Lee Barrus (Oren, Utah): For an opioid risk assessment screening app suggested by Barrus and the team at InteraSolutions to identify patients with risk factors for opioid abuse. The idea is to enable medical professionals to flag at-risk patients earlier and direct them to alternatives to opioids for fighting pain.

— The Edification Project (Boston, Massachusetts): For a use of virtual reality technology focused on preventing addiction in teens and young adults, framing attitudes early to prevent opioid abuse.

— The University of Dayton Research Institute (Dayton, Ohio): For a neurofeedback application developed by software engineer Kelly Cashion that uses sensors to provide real-time information to patients about their brain activity, allowing them to take back control by better understanding the effects of addiction on their brains. “Some people like to play video games, or look at the sunrise. By making them do these other tasks, anything to help them distract, and by constantly measuring it, you can see what works, reinforcing it and taking back control,” said Nilesh Powar, a senior research engineer who worked with Cashion on the project.

The second stage of the challenge begins in late February and runs through July. It will seek expertise from within the business and innovation community to help advance winning ideas into solutions. The third phase will fund the most promising ideas into products for use in the marketplace.

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Report: Hanoi Had 38 Days of Clean Air in 2017

Vietnam’s capital, Hanoi, enjoyed little more than one month of clean air last year as pollution levels rose to match those of China’s smog-prone capital, Beijing, preliminary findings of a new report showed.

Annual average air pollution in Hanoi in 2017 was also four times higher than the level deemed acceptable by the World Health Organization’s air quality guidelines, according to a report by the Green Innovation and Development Center (GreenID).

And the situation is likely to get worse, according to the Hanoi-based nonprofit organization.

“A bit more than one month were days with good air quality,” said Lars Blume, technical adviser at GreenID, which analyzed air monitoring data compiled at the U.S. Embassy in Hanoi.

“It is out of people’s control — they have to go out and work — and in many cases it is hard to really feel whether air is good or bad,” Blume told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Air pollution in Hanoi is caused by a number of factors, including a rise in construction work, an increase in car and motorcycle use, and agricultural burning by farmers, Blume said.

But research in the report suggests that heavy industries, like steel works, cement factories and coal power plants in areas near the capital, are also significant contributors.

Hanoi’s air pollution is now worse than that of the Indonesian capital, Jakarta, the report showed, and things are unlikely to improve as Vietnam pushes ahead with plans to build more coal-fired power plants.

Exposure to high levels of air pollution, especially over the long term, can affect human respiratory and inflammatory systems, and can also lead to heart disease and cancer.

Acknowledging the problem, in mid-2016 the Vietnamese government launched a national action plan that sought to control and monitor emissions and improve air quality. Hanoi is planning to install 70 air monitoring stations.

The GreenID report criticized the lack of regulations on air quality, a lack of public awareness of the problem and a lack of effective measures to minimize the effects, such as home purifiers.

The Vietnamese government must install more air pollution monitoring stations across the country and make the data available to the public, Blume said.

Improved urban planning and investments in renewable energy and public transport systems are also needed, said the report, which is due to be published at the end of February.

Previous GreenID surveys showed a growing concern among the Vietnamese over the issue of air quality and a rise in respiratory problems among children, said Nguyen Thi Anh Thu, a researcher at the organization.

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IMF Chief Says Middle Eastern Nations Must Broaden Tax Bases

Middle Eastern countries should pursue fiscal policies to support growth and build broader tax bases to fund infrastructure projects and social spending, the head of the International Monetary Fund said Tuesday.

“A key priority is building broader and more equitable tax bases. All must pay their fair share, while the poor must be protected,” IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde told an economic conference in Marrakech, organized by the Washington-based fund and the kingdom.

That would allow them to spend more on social safety nets, health and education services than the current 11 percent of gross domestic product in the region. “Fiscal policy can and must be redesigned to support inclusive growth in the region,” Lagarde said.

More efforts are also needed to support the private sector, she said. The state, the dominant employer in many Arab countries with their young populations, can no longer hire newcomers to the labor market.

“This, too, can help make room for high-return social and infrastructure outlays,” Largarde said, adding that better access to finance, a more favorable business environment and fewer barriers such as red tape were necessary.

“Protracted regional conflicts, low commodity prices, weak productivity and poor governance have held back the considerable potential of the region,” the final statement issued by the IMF and two other international bodies said.

“Growth has not been strong enough to reduce unemployment significantly, and a staggering 25 percent of young people are jobless,” it added.

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Venezuela Drops Overvalued Exchange Rate for State Imports

Venezuela is abandoning the most-overvalued of its two official foreign exchange rates, which had been used for state imports of food and medicine amid a worsening economic crisis.

 

The move could potentially encourage businesses to import more and put more goods on store shelves and in pharmacies, but only if the government carries it out as written, said Francisco Rodriguez, a former Venezuelan official who is now chief economist at the New York-based Torino Capital.

 

“This is not a place where there’s a good tradition of following the letter of the law,” Rodriguez said Tuesday. “I don’t think that one should get too optimistic.”

 

Oil-rich Venezuela is in the fifth year of a deepening economic crisis that has brought scarcities of basic foods and medicine after nearly two decades of socialist rule and mismanagement of the world’s largest crude oil reserves.

 

The exchange rate reforms became public Monday when published in the nation’s official gazette, signaling that all transactions will now use a second official exchange rate known as Dicom. That rate still contrasts sharply with the black market exchange rate.

 

One U.S. dollar buys 3,345 bolivars at the Dicom rate, while Venezuelans are paying an average of nearly 250,000 bolivars per U.S. dollar on the black market.

 

The rate being abandoned, known as the Dipro, was set at 10 bolivars per dollar.

 

Venezuela has been operating with two official exchange rates, though most Venezuelans can buy dollars only on the illegal black market.

 

Rodriguez cautioned that the shift in exchange rates may only allow for the import of high-value goods, which are out of reach from most Venezuelans.

 

The government decree goes beyond eliminating the official protected rate Dipro rate, opening up access to the exchange system by relaxing government controls, so more imports could begin to flow, he said.

 

On Tuesday, Maduro announced new government subsidies for millions of Venezuelans. But with the slipping value of the bolivar, their value adds up to tiny sums.

 

The monthly minimum wage many working Venezuelans earn is now worth the equivalent of just $3. A program for 315,000 pregnant Venezuelan women would provide each about $21 at the black market exchange rate. Eight million Venezuelans who will be eligible to receive state money for the upcoming Carnival season will receive the equivalent of about $2.81.

 

Venezuela’s inflation hit 2,616 percent last year, according to estimates by the opposition-controlled National Assembly. The International Monetary Fund estimates inflation could soar to 13,000 percent this year.

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US Cities Most at Risk Because of Climate Change Are Least Energy-efficient, Data Indicate

Miami and other U.S. cities most at risk from disasters exacerbated by global warming are also among those whose high energy consumption is fueling temperature rise, data from clean-energy company Arcadia Power showed Tuesday.

Miami, battered last year by Hurricane Irma, was the least energy-efficient in a sample of 15 cities, with its monthly energy consumption 25 percent above the national average, the data showed.

Such cities are “shooting themselves in the foot” because their immoderate energy consumption emits avoidable greenhouse gases that are heating up the planet and causing climate change, said a statement from Arcadia.

The Florida city averaged energy consumption per household of 1,125 kilowatt hours (kWh) per month, far exceeding the 2016 national average of 897 kWh.

Miami’s above-normal usage could be due to the heavy reliance on energy-intensive air conditioning in the hot and human region, said Arcadia spokeswoman Natalie Rizk.

Burning fossil fuels, including to generate electricity, is one of the lead causes of climate change, which many scientists say will make freak weather such as Irma more powerful.

Miami’s vulnerability to the destructive force of wild weather was shown last September when large swaths of the city were flooded as Irma barreled into South Florida.

Others at risk

Atlanta and Phoenix are other cities experts often describe as the country’s most vulnerable to extreme weather made worse by climate change, and whose energy consumption far surpassed the national average, according to Arcadia’s data.

Arcadia’s ranking was based on the electricity consumption of its customers, who number 70,000 nationwide.

Though the company’s customers are renewable-energy users, its data most likely approximated behavior by households dependent on fossil fuel-generated energy, Arcadia said.

Johanna Partin, director of the Carbon Neutral Cities Alliance, said the findings should serve as a “wake-up call,” pushing city officials to adopt more stringent energy-saving measures.

“Even if they’re doing a great job … on installing energy efficiency, they’re going to have to do a lot more of that,” she said by phone from San Francisco.

Improving energy efficiency is touted by supporters of the 2015 Paris Agreement to tackle climate change as a key way to meet the pact’s tough goals to limit global temperature rise.

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Car Manufacturers Boast of Fuel Efficiency

The annual Washington Auto Show is not the biggest or the most important convention of the year, but it still attracts a lot of attention, from enthusiasts and potential customers to automotive industry professionals.  Self-driving cars are still some time off, so the focus this year continues to be on fuel efficiency. VOA’s George Putic has more.

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Concern Fitness Tracking App Exposed US Military Bases Just the Start

The controversy over information gathered from GPS-enabled fitness devices and published online – in some cases highlighting possible activity at U.S. military bases in places like Syria and Afghanistan – could be just the start of an ever-growing problem in a world where more people and devices are connected to the internet.

Already, U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has ordered a review of security protocols following concerns that a so-called Heatmap published by the fitness app company Strava showed locations and movement patterns of troops serving overseas.

“We take matters like these very seriously and are reviewing the situation to determine if any additional training or guidance is required,” the Pentagon said in a statement Monday.

“Recent data releases emphasize the need for situational awareness when members of the military share personal information,” the statement continued, further noting that annual training for all military personnel, “recommends limiting public profiles on the internet, including personal social media accounts.”

Yet the concern about the impact is not new. 

“Digital dust”

Numerous sensitive U.S. military and intelligence offices and installations ban the use of so-called smart devices on their premises, including smart phones and the GPS-enabled fitness trackers from companies like Fitbit, Garmin and Polar, which helped Strava create its global Heatmap, highlighting the most popular routes for walking, running and biking this past February.

And U.S. intelligence officials have been warning for years about the impact of what they call “digital dust,” information that by itself seems to have little relevance and that users have posted to social media.

The U.S. National Counterintelligence and Security Center cautions member of the U.S. intelligence community they could be targeted by adversaries who have, “Collected information on you from social media postings.” 

And a pamphlet from the U.S. Office of the Director of National Intelligence warns employees to, “Maintain direct positive control of, or leave at home, electronic devices during travel, especially when traveling out of the U.S.”

Still, the potential consequences of sharing information with a fitness tracking app seemed to have escaped notice until Nathan Russer, a student at the Australian National University in Canberra, tweeted about the Strava Heatmap this past Saturday.

It was not just the United States, though. Russer also identified the routes of Turkish forces and Russian activity in Syria, as well.

Strava says it excluded activities that users marked as private or ones that took place in areas people did not want to make public. Even so, the map included 1 billion activities between 2015 and September 2017.

And in places like Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan, where activities show up bright against otherwise dark terrain, combining the Strava data with information from other maps available online could have far reaching consequences.

“This is pattern analysis,” according to Michael Pregent, a former U.S. intelligence officer now with the Hudson Institute. “This [Strava] map is a tool that most intelligence analysts seek out.”

And, it is a tool that can be exploited by a wide range of actors.

“This allows an enemy to pinpoint their fire,” Pregent said, noting this type of information could have been used to great effect by Shia militias who had been targeting U.S. bases during the Iraq War.

Now, he said, it could guide new attacks by the Taliban or even the Islamic State (IS) in Afghanistan.

“Several of the [Strava] graphics are our bases in Afghanistan and you can see the most trafficked areas,” he said.

So far, there is no evidence that groups like the Taliban, IS or al-Qaida have managed to make use of the type of information provided in the Strava Heatmap. Still, the possibility has gotten their attention.

“All I’ve seen is Jihadi groups sharing the Strava news, consuming it just like us,” Raphael Gluck, an independent researcher, told VOA. “Maybe there’s some wishful thinking on their part, but so far [I’ve] not seen anyone talking further than that.” 

And the information may only be so useful to an untrained eye.

Interpreting the data

“The map alone is sometimes inadequate to provide useful analysis,” Aric Toler, a lead researcher for the investigative journalism website Bellingcat wrote on his blog. 

Toler told VOA activity in Strava can be falsified. For example, he found Strava activity in the Atlantic Ocean, south of Ghana – likely a spoof or an error. But he said in less obvious cases, without understanding the context, it can be difficult to know what the data means.

Still, he warned,”obvious that there can be danger in this.”

As for why it appears so many U.S. military personnel in war zones like Afghanistan and Syria allowed their devices to keep sending data to Strava, some experts say it’s just human nature.

“These aren’t necessarily the special operators out there killing ISIS or helping our partners on the ground,” said Hudson Pregent. “The majority of these forces are back at bases where they try to normalize life.” 

“We’ve seen everyone from police officers to members of the military, members of the foreign service — people in sensitive positions — oversharing online, whether it be Facebook or Twitter,” said Stratfor Threat Lens Senior Analyst Ben West. “I see this, the Strava map, as an extension of this.”

And Strava is just one of hundreds of apps and devices that make it easy to expose this vulnerability.

“Wherever these things are located and are operating, they are collecting information on our daily routines which can be used to anticipate our behavior and bad guys can exploit that,” West said. 

 

 

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Cuba Tourism Slides in Wake of Hurricane Irma, Trump

Tourism to Cuba, one of the few bright spots in its ailing economy, has slid in the wake of Hurricane Irma and the Trump administration’s tighter restrictions on travel to the Caribbean island, a Cuban tourism official said on Monday.

Although the number of visitors rose nearly 20 percent in 2017, it fell 10 percent on the year in December, and is down 7-8 percent this month, Jose Manuel Bisbe York, the president of Cuban state travel agency conglomerate Viajes Cuba, said.

Arrivals from the United States, which had surged in the wake of the U.S.-Cuban detente in 2014, took the worst hit, dropping 30 percent last December, he told Reuters.

“Since Hurricane Irma, we’ve seen arrivals shrink,” Bisbe York said on the sidelines of the event organized by U.S. travel agency insightCuba to dispel tourist misperceptions about Cuba.

Irma hit in September, just as the tourism sector was taking reservations for its high season from November to March.

Images of destruction put many would-be visitors off although Cuba had fixed its tourism installations within two months, said Bisbe York. Arrivals of Canadians, the largest group of tourists to Cuba, were down 4-5 percent.

“But we see this as a temporary thing and what we are seeing is that arrivals are recovering from month to month,” said Bisbe York, adding that Cuba would go ahead with its plans to launch more than 15 hotels island-wide this year.

“The first trimester will be the most difficult, because logically the change in the public perception takes time.”

Occupancy rates at the hotels in Cuba managed by Spain’s Meliá Hotels International S.A. were down around 20 percent on the year in December and January, said Francisco Camps, Meliá’s Cuba deputy general manager.

“From February though, we are already reaching figures similar to those we had in previous years,” he said.

Republican President Donald Trump’s more hostile stance towards Cuba than his Democratic predecessor Barack Obama looks set to have a more lasting impact than Irma.

The number of U.S. visitors had surged since the Obama administration created greater exemptions to a ban on tourism to the Caribbean’s largest island and restored regular commercial flights and cruises.

Arrivals reached a record 619,523 last year, up from 91,254 in 2014.

But the Trump administration in September issued a warning on travel there due to a spate of alleged health attacks on U.S. diplomats in Havana. In November, tighter travel regulations also went into effect.

The double whammy seriously depressed U.S. visits, American tour operators and a cruise line said at Monday’s event, although in reality the restrictions remain looser than before the detente and travel easier.

Cuba is also still one of the safest destinations worldwide, they said.

“While the regulations he changed very little the perception in the U.S. was that you no longer could travel to Cuba legally,” said insightCuba’s Tom Popper, noting his agency’s reservations were down 50 percent this year. “Part of hosting this event was to communicate that it is 100 percent legal to travel to Cuba.”

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