Day: June 2, 2017

Satellite Images Used to Track Food Insecurity in South Sudan

The world is watching closely as food shortages grip parts of Africa and the Middle East. As humanitarian groups respond to the crisis, they have to solve a major problem: how to track food security in areas that are simply too remote or too dangerous to access.

The Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWSNET) has come up with an innovative answer. The U.S.-funded organization is working with DigitalGlobe, a Colorado satellite company, to crowdsource analysis of satellite imagery of South Sudan.

The effort will rely on thousands of volunteers — normal people with no subject matter expertise — to scour satellite images looking for things like livestock herds, temporary dwellings and permanent dwellings. The group has selected an area of 18,000 square kilometers across five counties in South Sudan to analyze.

“The crowd can identify settlement imagery, they can identify roads, hospitals, airplanes, you name it. It allows us to tap into this network of folks around the world, not necessarily in country, but they are folks who are interested and compelled by whatever the campaign is,” said Rhiannan Price, senior manager of the Seeing a Better World Program at DigitalGlobe.

“Rather than clicking through your phone and passively taking in information, our users are actively engaging and putting information back out there that is really helpful for our partners.”

DigitalGlobe’s platform, known as Tomnod, has more than 2 million unique users. Other crowdsourcing observation campaigns using satellite imagery include the effects of a wildfire in South Africa and counting seals in Antarctica.

But the work is particularly valuable in South Sudan, where an estimated 100,000 people have been forced to flee their homes in the five-county area because of violence. Conflict-ridden South Sudan is the only place in the world where famine has been declared in the past six years.

“For humanitarians to cover that kind of ground, especially when it’s insecure, is just not a safe approach,” said Price. “Satellite imagery offers a really helpful tool when it comes to assessing and evaluating what’s happening on the ground, trying to find those folks so we can get resources and actually quantify the situation there.”

DigitalGlobe owns and operates a constellation of high-resolution satellites and has collected thousands of recent images of the area in question. In order to best track damage and displacement, they are comparing the images with ones from 2015, when they did a similar project.

Chris Hillbruner, deputy chief of party at FEWSNET, said his organization is trying several innovative approaches in different parts of the world to collect data. In Yemen and northeast Nigeria, it has assembled a network of local data collectors that relays information. It has also launched a pilot project using cellphones to collect wage and market data in Madagascar to determine when laborers are in low demand, signaling a bad year for harvests.

“We’re piloting a variety of tools and I think technology can help us, but I would also say that there are limitations,” Hillbruner said. “At the end of the day, we still get the best information when people are able to go into these areas and get on the ground to collect information about what is happening.”

But high-resolution satellite imagery, where each pixel in the photograph represents 30 centimeters on the ground, may be the next best thing to having a person on the ground.

To date, Tomnod’s team of volunteers has identified more than 180,000 objects of interest, including traditional dwellings known as tukuls and herds of livestock. This is invaluable information that tells humanitarian organizations where they need to send help.

“When you think of some of the drivers behind food insecurity, things like conflict or drought or flood, things that affect food supplies, or affect population migration, those are areas where remote sensing, satellite imagery, really excel in a way that other analyses simply can’t compete with,” Price said.


Powdery White Slopes of Sand… Not Snow


Scientists Say Evidence Clearly Shows Climate is Changing

Reacting to President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw the United States from the landmark Paris climate agreement, leading scientific organizations say evidence clearly shows the world’s climate is changing and urgent measures must be taken to slow the warming of the planet.

The organizations say the scientific evidence is clear that human activity is behind the changing climate. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, an independent scientific assessment body, warned that without additional efforts beyond those already in place, warming by the end of the century will lead to very high risk of severe, widespread and irreversible impacts.

IPCC spokesman Jonathan Lynn said the scientific body finds that limiting climate change would require substantial and sustained reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, which together with adaptation can limit climate change risks.

“In its analysis of decision-making to limit climate change and its effects, the IPCC noted that climate change is a problem of the commons, requiring collective action at the global scale,” he said. “Effective mitigation will not be achieved if individual players advance their own interests independently. … It is not clear at this stage how the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Agreement will affect future emissions.”

Deon Terblanche, head of the Atmospheric Research and Environment department at the World Meteorological Organization, said global warming will continue for as long as the world emits greenhouse gases, especially carbon dioxide, into the atmosphere

“Even a reduction in the emissions will not lead to a reduction in the concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere because there is a cumulative effect and CO2 remains in the atmosphere for hundreds of years,” said Terblanche. “… The climate will continue to warm in any case.”

In a worst-case scenario, he warned the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Agreement could result in an additional warming of the atmosphere of 0.3 degrees Celsius above the pre-industrial level.


Kathy Griffin Responds in Trump Decapitation Photo Controversy

American Comedian Kathy Griffin responded to mounting criticism against her after she published a photo of herself holding what resembled the severed head of U.S. President Donald Trump, accusing “a bunch of old white guys” of trying to silence her.

During a news conference Friday, a teary-eyed Griffin accused the president and his allies, whom she referred to as “nut jobs,” of launching a campaign to get her fired from her jobs, simply because she is a woman.

“This wouldn’t be happening to a guy. This is a female thing,” Griffin said, when asked if she thought a male comic would be treated the same way.

The entertainer lost a television appearance on CNN and had five performance dates on her tour cancelled following the release of the photo showing her holding a reproduction of a bloody head that looked like Trump.

When asked about her loss of work Friday, Griffin called it “hurtful” that so many entities had chosen to distance themselves from her. Her attorney, Lisa Bloom, said Griffin had been a victim of “censorship.”

Trump, on Wednesday, reacted to Griffin’s photo on Twitter, calling it disturbing – particularly to his children.

First Lady Melania Trump, in a rare move, also issued a statement Wednesday, questioning “the mental health” of a person who would take such a photo.

“As a mother, a wife, and a human being, that photo is very disturbing,” she said.

Griffin initially apologized for the photo after it received widespread criticism across the political spectrum, saying she had “moved the line” and then “crossed it.”

She changed her tone Friday, though, calling Trump a “fool” and accusing him of attacking her in an effort to distract from other issues currently facing his administration.

“They have mobilized their armies or their bots, or whatever they do,” she said. “I don’t think I will have a career after this. I’m going to be honest, he broke me. He broke me.”

Griffin said she “put about five minutes of thought into this” before posing for the photo and her intention was to cause a controversy.

“I said: ‘let’s get in trouble. Let’s give them something to talk about,’” she said.

Further, she called releasing the photo: “The right thing to do.”

Dmitry Gorin, a criminal defense attorney hired by Griffin, confirmed Friday that Griffin is the subject of a U.S. Secret Service investigation for her role in the photo, but said “there really wasn’t a threat” and called the photo “a bad joke.”

“We’re going to fully cooperate with the Secret Service in their investigation,” he said.


Virgin Galactic Conducts 9th Unpowered Test Flight

Virgin Galactic has conducted another unpowered test flight of its space tourism spacecraft over the Southern California desert.

The company says Thursday’s glide flight incorporated a special ballast tank filled with water at the rear of the craft to check handling qualities with more weight on board and with the center of gravity shifted to the rear.

Water was then jettisoned to check handling as the center of gravity moved forward.

Virgin Galactic says the ship landed smoothly and safely at Mojave Air & Space Port.

It was the ninth test flight of the ship, named VSS Unity, which is carried aloft by a special carrier aircraft and released.

Data from glide tests is being used to prepare for flights powered by a rocket engine.


‘Opportunists or Touts’ Seek Free Tickets to Ariana Grande Benefit Concert: Ticketmaster

Thousands of people are falsely claiming to have attended last month’s Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, England when it was attacked in order to get in for free to a benefit concert being held this Sunday, according to ticket seller Ticketmaster.

People who attended the May 22 event have been offered free tickets to the Sunday show, which will feature Grande and a slew of other musicians, including Robbie Williams, Little Mix, Take That, Katy Perry, Miley Cyrus and Justin Bieber. Ticketmaster said nearly twice the number of people who attended the original show applied for the free tickets.

“We have set aside tickets for the 14,200 people who were at the Ariana Grande concert to attend One Love Manchester for free,” Ticketmaster said in a statement. “More than 25,000 people applied for them. Sadly, over 10,000 unscrupulous applications have been made.

“At Ticketmaster we are doing everything we can – including extending today’s deadline – to ensure that tickets go to the actual fans and not the opportunists or touts who have also been applying for free tickets.”

Twenty-two people were killed and 116 injured in a suicide bomb attack on concertgoers leaving the show. Islamic State claimed responsibility. Several children were among the dead.

The One Love Manchester show is expected to raise more than $2.5 million. Proceeds will go to a fund set up for victims’ families.

In addition to the free tickets, Ticketmaster put about 35,000 tickets up for sale Thursday at $51.50. They sold out in 20 minutes.

Other people are selling their tickets on eBay for a hefty profit, fetching up to $257.50.

The company said it was trying to remove the auctions.

“All tickets for this event will most certainly be removed by the team who are doing manual sweeps to pick up any that slip through,” the company said in a statement. “We also aren’t allowing the sale of any item which profits in any way from the tragedy in Manchester. All of these items are being removed if they appear, and the sellers’ accounts will be restricted.”


E. Ukraine Conflict Impacts War Against HIV

Like its neighbor Russia, Ukraine is currently struggling against epidemics of dangerous contagious diseases, such as HIV, Hepatitis C, and multi-drug resistant tuberculosis. While the country has made remarkable progress thanks to the partnership of the post-2014 government with civil society organizations, Ukraine also faces an added burden. It must care for those at-risk citizens who live under Russian occupation, both in the Crimean peninsula and in the Russian occupied territories of the warzone in the east.

On Wednesday and Thursday, United Nations Special Envoy for HIV and AIDS in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, professor Michel Kazatchkine, held a conference at Kyiv’s Alliance for Public Health and then visited some of the city’s harm-reduction organizations specializing in activities including needle exchanges, free medical testing, and condom distribution.

Speaking at the conference, Kazatchkine explained that the main vector for the spread of HIV in Ukraine and other Soviet countries was intravenous drug use, and that virus experienced rapid growth in the former Soviet Union area between 2005 and 2015.

Most prevalent

According to Kazatchkine, the phenomenon is a “concentrated epidemic,” meaning that the epidemic is prevalent among certain sub-groups of the population, but not the general population as a whole.

One of main reasons for the prevalence of the epidemic is the poor healthcare system inherited from the Soviet Union. Approximately 30 percent to 35 percent of HIV-positive people in Ukraine have access to treatment, though only 50 percent know about their HIV-positive status.

Despite the discouraging statistics, Kazatchkine said he sees progress in Ukraine thanks to the work of NGOs in partnership with the government. Unfortunately, a significant portion of Ukraine’s territory is under control of Russia and its proxies, and this has created serious obstacles for those trying to help fight the spread of HIV and AIDS.

The Crimean peninsula, for example, was formally annexed by the Russian Federation in 2014. As such, it has become fully subjected to Russian law. This has led to problems for patients in opioid-substitution therapy programs. While such programs operate successfully in Ukraine, Russian law does not permit opioid-substitution therapy. The program managed to continue in the occupied territories of the Donetsk and Luhansk, but eventually had to be terminated when supplies of the substitute drugs ran out.

Other harm-reduction programs in the eastern occupied territories have had more success, as Russia disavows any authority over the so-called “Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics” (DNR and LNR).


Natalia Hurova works in occupied Luhansk as a coordinator for harm-reduction programs with the All-Ukrainian Public Health Association. “We have been operating since 2014 in Luhansk and three small towns,” Hurova told VOA.

“We actually perform operations the same way we did before the conflict. We have contacts with the local authorities and they let us perform our activities,” she said.

Despite official permission, the situation remains complicated by the front line, along which fighting still occurs daily. In the case of Luhansk, there are no official crossings directly into the city. Instead, supplies must first come through Donetsk, and then cross a “state border” between the two self-proclaimed republics. Hurova said this actually requires filling out customs papers for shipments.

For Hurova, the biggest challenge is maintaining opioid-substitution therapy, as the local authorities do not support the program. Some addicts enrolled in the program managed to travel to government-controlled territory to continue their treatment, but this is not possible for everyone. Some of those who could not make the move went back to illegal drugs, many of which are homemade and extremely dangerous, such as “desomorphine,” commonly known as “krokodil.”

Despite the setbacks, programs like needle exchanges and condom distribution still manage to function in the occupied territories thanks to special arrangements.

“We have a corridor through which we receive supplies,” said Hurova.

Positive outlook

In spite of seemingly overwhelming challenges coming from a hopelessly outdated and corrupt medical system — along with foreign occupation, and war — workers in the fight against HIV and other epidemics remain positive about the future.

Andriy Klepikov, executive director of the Alliance for Public Health, told conference attendees that his country has seen “a number of positive signs and successful programs.”

The APH still works in Crimea and the occupied part of the Donbass region, and has set a goal of “90/90/90” for HIV and AIDS, meaning 90 percent of the population tested, 90 percent access to treatment, and 90 percent successful results of viral suppression among treatment recipients.



US Trade Deficit Rises to Highest Level Since January

The U.S. trade deficit rose in April to the highest level since January. The politically sensitive trade gap with China registered a sharp increase.


The Commerce Department said Friday that the U.S. trade gap in goods and services climbed 5.2 percent to $47.6 billion in April from March. Exports dropped 0.3 percent to $191 billion, pulled down by a drop in automotive exports. Imports rose 0.8 percent to $238.6 billion as Americans bought more foreign-made cellphones and other consumer goods.


So far this year, the trade deficit is up 13.4 percent from a year earlier to $186.6 billion. Exports are up 6.1 percent to $765.6 billion this year, but imports are up more _ 7.5 percent to $952.2 billion. So far in 2017, the United States is running a $268.7 billion deficit in goods and an $82.1 billion surplus in services such as banking and tourism.


The deficit in goods with China rose by 12.4 percent to $27.6 billion in April.


The Trump administration has vowed to reduce the trade deficit, blaming the gap between exports and imports on abusive practices by America’s trading partners.


President Donald Trump recently has singled out Germany for criticism, saying it is unfairly benefiting from a weak euro. When a country’s currency is weak, its products enjoy a price advantage in foreign markets. The trade deficit with Germany rose 4.3 percent in April to $5.5 billion.




More Griffin Shows Canceled as Backlash Over Trump Video Grows

Backlash against Kathy Griffin continues to grow with at least four theaters announcing Thursday that they had canceled her performances after the comedian posed with a likeness of President Donald Trump’s severed head.


Venues in New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania canceled November shows. The Community Arts Theater in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, posted on its website that the show had been dropped “due to the recent controversy surrounding Kathy Griffin and the concern for the safety and security of our patrons and staff.”


Earlier this week, CNN said Griffin would no longer co-host its live New Year’s Eve special from Times Square, a gig she’d had for more than a decade, and another show was canceled at a New Mexico casino. An endorsement deal with Squatty Potty also ended.


Though Griffin, 56, apologized within hours of the images appearing online Tuesday, they were met with swift and widespread condemnation.


Trump later tweeted that Griffin “should be ashamed of herself” for posting the images.


New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie on Thursday called Griffin “disgusting” and said the photo was “completely outrageous.”


Attorney Lisa Bloom says Griffin will discuss the photo and video during a press conference scheduled for Friday.


The comic has faced controversies before for her abrasive humor, but none as widespread as the one generated by Tuesday’s images.





Investors Bet Trump Climate Withdrawal to Boost US Drilling

The price of oil has fallen sharply as investors bet that President Donald Trump’s decision to pull the United States out of the Paris climate agreement will increase the country’s oil and gas production.

The cost of a barrel of crude slumped 2.4 percent, or $1.18, to $47.18 in electronic trading in New York on Friday, hours after Trump said the U.S. would immediately stop implementing the Paris deal. He said his administration could try to renegotiate the existing agreement or try to create a new one that is more favorable to the U.S.

The deal would have required the U.S. to reduce polluting emissions by more than a quarter below 2005 levels by 2025, potentially limiting the growth of high-emissions industries like oil and gas production. Economists, however, say that the climate deal would likely help create about as many jobs in renewable energy as it might cost in polluting industries.

U.S. oil production has already been increasing in recent months since the price of crude came off lows last year, making expensive shale oil extraction more economically viable.

“Now that U.S. President Trump has announced that the U.S. will be withdrawing from the Paris Climate Agreement, it is expected that the U.S. will expand its oil production even more sharply,” said analysts at German bank Commerzbank.

The increase in U.S. production is neutralizing the efforts of the OPEC cartel and other major oil-producing nations, like Russia, to support prices by limiting their output. OPEC and 10 other countries led by Russia agreed last week to extend for nine months, to March, a production cut of 1.8 million barrels a day initially agreed on in November.

On Friday, the head of Russia’s state-controlled Rosneft oil giant said that that a rise in shale oil output in the U.S. would likely offset the effect from the OPEC and Russian production cuts.

Speaking at an economic forum in St.Petersburg, Rosneft CEO Igor Sechin said that the OPEC and Russian cuts fall short of “systemic measures that would lead to long term stabilization.”

He said that thanks to increasing efficiency, U.S. shale oil producers would likely deliver an additional 1.5 million barrels of crude a day to the market in 2018.


Has India’s Currency Ban Stopped Its Economic Momentum?

The heated debate over India’s cash ban continues, with critics saying it slowed an economy that was growing, while the government says economic momentum was barely affected.

Critics say the scrapping of 86 percent of the country’s currency last November cost India its status as the world’s fastest growing economy.


According to data released this week, from January to March, growth plunged to 6.1 percent – lower than China’s 6.9 percent growth in the same period.

Overall growth for the last financial year, which began in April 2016 and ended in March 2017, however, stood at 7.1 percent.


Finance Minister Arun Jaitley has tried to distance the disappointing economic numbers from the currency ban, citing other factors.

“There was some slowdown visible, given the global and domestic situation, even prior to demonetization in the last year,” he told reporters.


The slowdown affected almost all sectors of the economy, with farming, manufacturing and services all taking a hit. With people scrambling to get access to new notes, consumption slowed sharply, impacting both small shopkeepers and large businesses.

The government, however, is encouraged by forecasts that the economy is expected to recover swiftly on the back of monsoon rains, which are expected to be plentiful, and a slew of major reform measures.


As economists estimated growth this year will rebound to 7.4 percent, the government pointed out that India’s economy is still among the world’s top performers. Jaitley said given the global scenario, “7 to 8 percent growth, which at the moment is the Indian normal, is fairly reasonable and by global standards very good.”

There are widespread expectations of a major economic boost from India’s most ambitious tax reform action since independence – the launch of a nationwide tax that will replace a plethora of levies starting July 1.


The World Bank said this week the reform would lower the cost of doing business for firms and reduce logistics costs.


In the coming year, “we actually have very strong fundamentals of the Indian economy, GDP growth being up, exports have revived and there has been continued reform momentum,” said Frederico Gil Sander, a senior economist at the World Bank in New Delhi.

And while demonetization undoubtedly left its imprint on India by slowing down the economy, the government is optimistic there will be long-term gains because the move would help clean up an economy where many businesses and professionals evade taxes, resulting in the generation of what is known as “black money.”


“The message has gone loud and clear and it continues to this day that it is no longer safe to deal in cash,” said Jaitley.


Skeptics say only improved tax collections in the coming years will demonstrate whether that is true, or whether tax evasion remains a challenge in a country where cash transactions are the norm in large sectors of the economy.


AP Fact Check: Holes in Trump’s Reasoning on Climate Pullout

Announcing that the U.S. will withdraw from the Paris climate accord, President Donald Trump misplaced the blame for what ails the coal industry and laid a shaky factual foundation for his decision. A look at some of the claims in a Rose Garden speech and an accompanying fact sheet about the deal to curtail emissions responsible for global warming:

WHITE HOUSE: The Paris climate accord “would effectively decapitate our coal industry, which now supplies about one-third of our electric power.”

THE FACTS: The U.S. coal industry was in decline long before the Paris accord was signed in 2015. The primary cause has been competition from cleaner-burning natural gas, which has been made cheaper and more abundant by hydraulic fracturing. Electric utilities have been replacing coal plants with gas-fired facilities because they are more efficient and less expensive to operate.

TRUMP: Claims “absolutely tremendous economic progress since Election Day,” adding “more than a million private-sector jobs.”

THE FACTS: That’s basically right, but he earns no credit for jobs created in the months before he became president. To rack up that number, the president had to reach back to October. Even then, private-sector job creation from October through April (171,000 private-sector jobs a month) lags just slightly behind the pace of job creation for the previous six months (172,000), entirely under President Barack Obama.

TRUMP: “I was elected to represent the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris.”

THE FACTS: That may be so, but Allegheny County, which includes Pittsburgh, is not Trump country. It voted overwhelmingly for Hillary Clinton in November, favoring her by a margin of 56 percent to Trump’s 40 percent. The city has a climate action plan committing to boost the use of renewable energy. Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto, a Democrat, has been an outspoken supporter of the Paris accord, and tweeted after Trump’s announcement that “as the Mayor of Pittsburgh, I can assure you that we will follow the guidelines of the Paris Agreement for our people, our economy & future.”

WHITE HOUSE: “According to a study by NERA Consulting, meeting the Obama administration’s requirements in the Paris Accord would cost the U.S. economy nearly $3 trillion over the next several decades. By 2040, our economy would lose 6.5 million industrial sector jobs _ including 3.1 million manufacturing sector jobs.”

THE FACTS: This study was paid for by two groups that have long opposed environmental regulation, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the American Council for Capital Formation. Both get financial backing from those who profit from the continued burning of fossil fuels. The latter group has received money from foundations controlled by the Koch brothers, whose company owns refineries and more than 4,000 miles of oil and gas pipelines.

The study makes worst-case assumptions that may inflate the cost of meeting U.S. targets under the Paris accord while largely ignoring the economic benefits to U.S. businesses from building and operating renewable energy projects.

Academic studies have found that increased environmental regulation doesn’t actually have much impact on employment. Jobs lost at polluting companies tend to be offset by new jobs in green technology.

WHITE HOUSE, citing a study from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology: “If all member nations met their obligations, the impact on the climate would be negligible,” curbing temperature rise by “less than .2 degrees Celsius in 2100.”

THE FACTS: The co-founder of the MIT program on climate change says the administration is citing an outdated report, taken out of context. Jake Jacoby said the actual global impact of meeting targets under the Paris accord would be to curb rising temperatures by 1 degree Celsius, or 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit.

“They found a number that made the point they want to make,” Jacoby said. “It’s kind of a debate trick.”

One degree may not sound like much, but Stefan Rahmstorf, a climate scientist at the Potsdam Institute in Germany, says, “Every tenth of a degree increases the number of unprecedented extreme weather events considerably.”


Asia’s Mom and Pop Investors Lured by Bitcoin’s Returns

Long the preserve of geeky enthusiasts, bitcoin is going mainstream in Asia, attracting Mrs Watanabe — the metaphorical Japanese housewife investor — South Korean retirees and thousands of others trying to escape rock-bottom savings rates by investing in the cryptocurrency.

Asia’s moms and pops, regular investors in stock and futures markets, have been dazzled by bitcoin’s 100 percent surge so far this year. In comparison, the broader Asian stocks benchmark has gained 17 percent over the same period.

Even after a tumble from last week’s record $2,779.08 high, bitcoin rose more than 60 percent in May alone, driven higher in part by investors in Japan and South Korea stepping in as China cooled after a central bank crackdown earlier this year.

Legal tender in Japan

Over the last two weeks, and encouraged by Japan’s recognition of bitcoin as legal tender in April, exchanges say interest has jumped from the two countries. Bitcoin trades at a premium in both, because of tough money-laundering rules that make it hard for people to move bitcoin in and out.

“After I first heard about the bitcoin scheme, I was so excited I couldn’t sleep. It’s like buying a dream,” said Mutsuko Higo, a 55-year-old Japanese social insurance and labor consultant who bought around 200,000 yen ($1,800) worth of bitcoin in March to supplement her retirement savings.

“Everyone says we can’t rely on Japanese pensions anymore,” she said. “This worries me, so I started bitcoins.”

Thriving investment culture

Asia has proved fertile ground for bitcoin because of the region’s thriving retail investment culture, where swapping investment tips is common. China, Japan and South Korea are home to several of the world’s busiest cryptocurrency exchanges, according to a ranking by CoinMarketCap.

“Right now, it’s a form of speculation, like stocks,” said Park Hyo-jin, a 27-year-old South Korean who owns around 3 million won ($2,700) of bitcoin. “I don’t think anybody in South Korea buys bitcoin to use it.”

The risks, though, are rising too.

Bitcoin is largely unregulated across Asia, while rules governing bitcoin exchanges can be patchy.

In Hong Kong, bitcoin exchanges operate under money service operator licenses, like money changers, while in South Korea they are regulated similar to online shopping malls, trading physical goods. Often there are no rules on investor protection.

Park and Higo were drawn into bitcoin by friends. Others are attracted through seminars, social media groups and blogs penned by amateur investors.

Noboru Hanaki, a 27-year-old Japanese web marketer and bitcoin investor, said his personal finance blog gets around 30,000 page views each month. The most popular post is an explanation of bitcoin, he said, noting that when the bitcoin price surged last month, readership of the article doubled.

Rachel Poole, a Hong Kong-based kindergarten teacher, said she read about bitcoin in the press, and bought five bitcoins in March for around HK$40,000 ($5,100) after studying blogs on the topic. She kept four as an investment and has made HK$12,000 tax-free trading the fifth after classes.

“I wish I’d done it earlier,” she said.

Not everyone’s making money.

Scams, pyramid schemes

The bitcoin frenzy has spawned scams, with police in South Korea last month uncovering a $55 million cryptocurrency pyramid scheme that sucked in thousands of homemakers, workers and self-employed businessmen seduced by slick marketing and promises of wealth.

Leonhard Weese, president of the Bitcoin Association of Hong Kong and a bitcoin investor, warned amateur investors against speculating in the digital currency.

Some larger exchanges have voluntarily adopted security measures and compensation guarantees, according to their websites, although there are dozens of smaller platforms operating more or less unchecked.

In South Korea, the Financial Services Commission (FSC) has set up a task force to explore regulating cryptocurrencies, but it has not set a timeline for publishing its conclusions, an official there said.

In Japan — where memories are still fresh of the spectacular 2014 collapse of Mt. Gox, the world’s biggest bitcoin exchange at the time — the Financial Services Agency (FSA) said it supervises bitcoin exchanges, but not traders or investors.

Some professional investors say bitcoin can be a useful hedge to help diversify a portfolio, but investors should be cautious.

“This is an extremely volatile and innovative asset class,” said Pietro Ventani, managing director of APP Advisers, an asset allocation strategy firm.


Steady, Solid Jobs Market Likely to Continue in May Numbers

Exactly eight years after the Great Recession ended, the U.S. job market has settled into a sweet spot of steadily solid growth.


The 4.4 percent unemployment rate matches a decade low. Many people who had stopped looking for jobs are coming off the sidelines to find them. More part-timers are finding full-time work. About all that’s still missing is a broad acceleration in pay. 


On Friday, when the government releases the jobs report for May, that pattern is likely to extend itself. The consensus expectation of economists is that the Labor Department will report that employers added 176,000 jobs, according to a survey by FactSet, a data provider. That’s right in line with the monthly average of 174,000 over the past three months.


All told, it’s evidence of an American economy that is running neither too hot nor too cold, with growth holding at a tepid but far from recessionary 2 percent annual rate. Few economists foresee another downturn looming, in part because the recovery from the recession has been steady but grinding, with little sign of the sort of overheated pressures that normally trigger a recession.


May jobs expectations high

Separate reports Thursday solidified expectations that job growth for May was healthy. Payroll processor ADP reported that in a private survey of companies, it found that a hefty 253,000 jobs were added in May, mostly among companies with fewer than 500 workers.


Nor are layoffs much of a concern. Weekly applications for unemployment benefits, which tend to reflect the pace of layoffs, averaged a low 238,000 over the past four weeks, according to the Labor Department.


The government’s monthly jobs report produces a net gain by estimating how many jobs were created and comparing that figure with how many it estimates were lost.


The unemployment rate is expected to have remained in May at 4.4 percent, a low figure that historically has reflected a healthy job market. If hiring maintains its current pace, it would exceed population growth, and the unemployment rate should eventually fall even further.


Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s Analytics, estimates that monthly job growth above 80,000 or so should cause the unemployment rate to fall.


“I think 4 percent unemployment is dead-ahead, and we’ll probably go past that,” he said. 


Other measures of unemployment

Still, the jobs report produces several different measures of unemployment, and the broadest gauge might be most critical to watch Friday. This particular measure includes not only the officially unemployed but also part-time workers who would prefer full-time jobs and people who want a job but aren’t actively looking for one and so aren’t counted as unemployed.


Known as the “U-6” rate, this measure is one of the favorite metrics for Trump administration officials. The U-6 has plunged since January to 8.6 percent in April, a 0.8 point decline.


The decline in that measure is an encouraging sign that jobless people who had given up hope of working are now being hired. If that trend continued in May, a falling U-6 would point to a strengthening economy despite weak growth during the first three months of the year.


But the influx of job seekers can also inflict a drag on pay growth. As more people start seeking jobs, employers begin to have less incentive to raise pay. It’s only when employers face a shallow pool of job applicants that they tend to feel compelled to raise pay in hopes of hiring people who fit their needs.


Annual growth in average hourly earnings was a so-so 2.6 percent in April. And whatever meaningful pay raises that exist are going disproportionately to managers and supervisors. For workers who aren’t supervisors, average hourly pay has risen just 2.3 percent. In a healthy economy, average pay gains would typically grow roughly 3.5 percent a year.


The Trump administration has designated the pace of hiring for good-paying skilled jobs in construction, manufacturing and mining as among the key categories it monitors for economic health. Those three sectors were relatively weak in April.


California 12-Year-Old Wins US Spelling Bee Crown

Ananya Vinay never looked all that impressed by any of the words she was given in the finals of the Scripps National Spelling Bee.


The 12-year-old from Fresno, California, showed little emotion and didn’t take much time as she plowed through word after word. Sometimes she would blurt out questions, with little intonation — “Part of speech?” “Language of origin?” — and sometimes she didn’t even bother.


Unflappable to the end, Ananya seized the opportunity when her steely opponent, Rohan Rajeev, flubbed a simple-looking but obscure Scandinavian-derived word, “marram,” which means a beach grass. She calmly nailed two words in a row, ending on “marocain,” which means a type of dress fabric of ribbed crepe, to win the 90th Scripps National Spelling Bee Thursday.

One champion

Ananya barely cracked a smile even when her parents and younger brother stormed onto the stage to embrace her as the confetti fell. And she took time to console Rohan, who remained in his seat, wiping tears from his eyes.


“It’s like a dream come true,” Ananya said as she held the trophy. “I’m so happy right now.”


She will take home more than $40,000 in cash and prizes. 


It was the first time since 2013 that the bee declared a sole champion. After three straight years of ties, the bee added a tiebreaker test this year, and it looked like it might come into play as Ananya and Rohan dueled for nearly 20 rounds.


Ananya was on the radar of some veteran bee watchers but didn’t come in with a high profile. She participated in last year’s bee but didn’t make the top 50. As a sixth-grader, she could have come back for two more years, had she fallen short. Now, she’ll return only in a ceremonial role to help present the trophy to next year’s winner.


For Rohan, a 14-year-old eighth-grader from Edmond, Oklahoma, it was his first and only time on the national stage, but he’s competed for years in other bees and he sought tutelage from another Oklahoman, Cole Shafer-Ray, who finished third two years ago. Rohan’s close call was even more heartbreaking.

13th consecutive Indian-American to win


Ananya is the 13th consecutive Indian-American to win the bee and the 18th of the past 22 winners with Indian heritage, a run that began in 1999 with Nupur Lala’s victory, which was featured in the documentary Spellbound. Like most of her predecessors, she honed her craft in highly competitive national bees that are limited to Indian-Americans, the North South Foundation and the South Asian Spelling Bee, although she did not win either.


Mira Dedhia, trying to become the first offspring of a past competitor to win, finished third. 

Best speller who didn’t win 

Before Ananya and Rohan began their lengthy duel, the primetime finals were marked by surprising eliminations of better-known spellers. Shourav Dasari, a past winner of both minor-league bees, was described as the consensus favorite as the ESPN broadcast began. He had the most swagger of the finalists, at one point spelling the word “Mogollon” as soon as he heard it and turning around to return to his seat.


He was felled in fourth place by a killer word, “Struldbrug,” that was coined by Jonathan Swift in his novel Gulliver’s Travels and had no recognizable roots or language patterns to fall back on.


“I was honestly, absolutely shocked. It was stunning,” former speller Jacob Williamson said. “Shourav is one of the greatest spellers of all time and he’s probably the best speller that never won.” 


India Faces Sharp Increase in Type 2 Diabetes

In the past seven years, the number of children in India classified as obese has risen to 30 percent of the population. That number is expected to double over the next eight years. All that extra weight has led to an increase in weight-related type 2 diabetes. Doctors are sounding the alarm about the health trend that in many cases can be treated with diet and exercise. VOA’s Kevin Enochs reports.


Home, Lifetime of Reynolds, Fisher Memorabilia up for Sale

The Beverly Hills home where Debbie Reynolds and her Star Wars actress daughter Carrie Fisher lived together is up for sale, along with hundreds of items of their personal property and Hollywood memorabilia, the auctioneers said Thursday.

The sale comes six months after Fisher, 60, died of a heart attack and Singin’ in the Rain star Reynolds, 84, passed away the next day.

Rambling estate

The 1928 house, complete with swimming pool, tennis court and a guesthouse where Fisher lived for many years, is listed at $18 million and will be sold separately.

The rambling estate was featured in the HBO documentary Bright Lights about their tempestuous relationship that was aired in January.

Their personal property, to be auctioned in Los Angeles over several days starting Sept. 23, includes Fisher’s 1978 Star Wars Princess Leia action figure in its original packaging, her on-set chair from the film of The Return of the Jedi, and Reynolds’ lavender silk chiffon dress worn in Singin’ in the Rain, auctioneers Profiles in History said in a statement.

‘Magnificent collectors’

“My mother and sister were magnificent collectors, they amassed an amazing and diverse collection in their lifetimes,” Reynolds’ son Todd Fisher said in the statement.

“So in keeping with my mother’s wishes we have decided to share part of their magnificent collection with all their friends and fans.”

More than 1500 lots will be auctioned in what is expected to be a sale lasting several days, Profiles in History, the auctioneer, said.


Scientists Spot Rare Gravity Waves for Third Time

Astronomers said Thursday that they had detected a third ripple in the fabric of space-time, a remnant of a cosmic crash of two black holes 3 billion years ago.

These invisible ripples, called gravitational waves and first theorized by Albert Einstein, first burst into science’s view to great fanfare in February 2016 after a new $1.1 billion international experiment went online.

Experiment spokesman David Shoemaker, a researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said the latest discovery shows these waves can be anywhere in the sky and may be commonplace in the universe.

Two black holes, which most likely were originally far apart, eventually merged into a giant one — 49 times the size of the sun — sending an invisible wave rippling out. It traveled 3 billion light-years until hitting twin detectors in Louisiana and Washington.