Day: June 8, 2017

Automakers Move Toward Automatic Braking at Different Speeds

Big automakers are rushing to launch self-driving cars as early as 2021, but the industry’s major players are moving slowly when it comes to widespread deployment of a less expensive crash prevention technology that regulators say could prevent thousands of deaths and injuries every year.

Nissan said on Thursday it would make automatic braking systems standard on an estimated 1 million 2018 model cars and light trucks sold in the United States,  compact sport utility vehicles, the Altima sedan, Murano and Pathfinder SUVs, Leaf electric car, Maxima sedan and Sentra small car.

Nissan sold about 1.6 million vehicles in the United States last year.

Rival Toyota has said it will make automatic emergency braking standard on nearly all its U.S. models by the end of this year.

No rush

Overall, however, most automakers are not rushing to make automatic brake systems part of the base cost of mainstream vehicles sold in the competitive U.S. market. The industry has come under pressure from regulators, lawmakers and safety advocates to adopt the technology, which can slow or stop a vehicle even if the driver fails to act.

So far, only about 17 percent of models tested by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety offered standard collision-avoiding braking. Many of the models with standard collision-avoiding brake systems are luxury vehicles made by European or Japanese manufacturers.

The systems require more sensors and software than conventional brakes, and automakers said they need time to engineer the systems into vehicles as part of more comprehensive makeovers.

Last year, 20 automakers reached a voluntary agreement with U.S. auto safety regulators to make collision-avoiding braking systems standard equipment by 2022.

Safety advocates have petitioned the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to begin a regulatory process to require the technologies, but the agency has said the voluntary agreement will result in faster deployment than a formal rule-making process. NHTSA says the technology could eliminate one-fifth of crashes.

Mark Rosekind, who then was NHTSA’s administrator, told Reuters last year that with 5 million crashes occurring per year, a “20 percent reduction means 1 million less. Those are big numbers.”

Investment possibilities

But customers would most likely experience the benefits of the technology infrequently. The technology to enable a car to drive itself is far more costly, but industry executives foresee autonomous vehicles driving revenue-generating transportation services that could be attractive to investors.

General Motors offers automatic braking as optional equipment on about two-thirds of its models. The company did not say Thursday how many vehicles have the technology as standard equipment. GM has not made public its plans to make the technology standard across its lineup.

“Any time you have a voluntary agreement you have a spectrum of implementation,” Jeff Boyer, GM’s vice president for safety, told Reuters this week. Asked when GM would roll out standard automatic braking, Boyer said, “Let’s just say we honor the voluntary commitment.”

Ford “has a plan to standardize over time,” the company said in a statement Thursday. Currently, automatic braking systems are optional on several 2017 Ford and Lincoln models, and will be offered on certain 2018 models, including the best-selling F-150 pickup truck.

Fiat Chrysler offers automatic braking as optional equipment in seven model lines, using cameras and radar to detect hazards ahead. The company has said it will meet the 2022 target for making the systems standard.

More expected

As 2018 models roll out during the second half of this year, more vehicles will offer automatic braking, said Dean McConnell, an executive with Continental AG’s North American business.

Continental’s automatic braking technology systems will be on certain Nissan models.

“We see it accelerating,” he said. “It varies. There are some [automakers] that are being aggressive” and others that are waiting.

Nissan did not disclose how much prices for vehicles would rise to offset the cost of standard automatic emergency braking.

Currently, Nissan, like most carmakers, offers automatic braking as part of a bundle of optional safety and technology features.

A 2017 Nissan Sentra compact sedan has a starting price of $17,875. To buy the car equipped with automatic braking requires spending another $6,820 for a Sentra SR with a premium technology package.

German auto technology suppliers Continental and Robert Bosch GmbH will supply the systems, Nissan said.


India’s First Solar Satellite Television Service Brings ‘Magic’ to Villages

An Indian business has launched the country’s first solar satellite television service, bringing clean-energy-powered entertainment to households and businesses through a pay-as-you-go payment scheme.

Simpa Networks, which began operations in 2011, is one of thousands of enterprises in India tapping into the renewable-energy market in a country where one-fifth of the 1.3 billion population has no access to electricity.

With the majority of those without power from poor communities in the countryside, the company focuses on selling solar-powered products such as LED lights, phone-charging points and fans on financing to rural homes and shops in northern India.

“We see a tremendous opportunity in rural areas where demand for energy is growing even faster than supply,” Simpa Networks CEO Piyush Mathur said in a statement.

“Rooftop solar has a role to play in both off-grid and on-grid areas,” Mathur said. “In many cases it’s the fastest and least expensive way to get power into the homes and businesses in rural areas.”

“Simpa Magic TV” provides over 100 satellite channels with content that includes comedy, news, movies and music, and it costs 25,000 rupees ($390) — the same as a nonsolar equivalent.

Solar panel, TV, battery, controller

The system, which includes an 80-watt solar panel, 20-inch energy-efficient LED television, battery and solar charge controller, is available on a repayment plan of up to 36 months. Interest applies, but the company declined to provide approximate rates.

Customers make an initial payment to have the system installed then use a pay-as-you-go model for the electricity. The payments contribute to total cost and, once fully paid, the customer owns the system and the electricity is free.

The service, which was launched Wednesday, has about 350 customers so far in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh.

Simpa uses its “SmartPanel” technology, which enables remote monitoring and control of the rooftop solar panel. Customers prepay for the energy; the SmartPanel delivers power until the prepaid credits expire, and the customer must then recharge.

The company said the payment plan is effective because such technology would be unaffordable for most rural families. With no credit history, most are considered “unbankable” and would not be able to access loans easily, it said.

Given solar television service is new and few know how to use and maintain it, the company said, Simpa has trained rural solar technicians who are responsible for installation, service and monthly collection of payments.


Malawi Reintroduces Cheetahs After 20-Year Absence

Poaching and wildlife trafficking have left some of Africa’s most iconic species endangered. The loss of the animals has cost African countries critical tourism revenue. But what if those national parks could get a second chance? The nonprofit African Parks has been trying to give just that. Lameck Masina reports for VOA from Liwonde National Park in southern Malawi which just welcomed some new inhabitants – four cheetahs relocated there by African Parks from South Africa.


Indonesia Urges UN to Criminalize Unregulated Fishing

Indonesia, the world’s biggest archipelago has called for the United Nations to establish illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing, known under its acronym of IUUF, as a transnational crime. The proposal has the support of the president of the U.N. General Assembly but there’s still a long way to go before member countries adopt it. Patsy Widakuswara reports from the U.N. headquarters in New York.


Cheetahs Back from the Brink in Malawi

Poaching and wildlife trafficking have endangered some of Africa’s most iconic species and the loss of the animals has cost African countries critical tourism revenue.

But at least one national park is getting a second chance. Liwonde National Park in southern Malawi has just welcomed some new inhabitants – four cheetahs relocated there from South Africa courtesy of the nonprofit African Parks group.

Park rangers lured the first cheetah out into its new home with a fresh carcass. It’s the first cheetah Malawi has had in the wild in two decades. 

The cheetah is the fastest land animal in the world, but even that couldn’t protect the species in Malawi. Poachers killed off the cheetahs’ prey and ultimately the cheetahs themselves. 

“They were last seen in Malawi about 20 years ago,” said Craig Reid of the Liwonde National Park. “Specifically in Liwonde area, they have been absent for over a 100 years. So, as part of the rehabilitation of the park, we feel it is very important to bring back the cheetah to Malawi and Liwonde specifically.”

A total of four cheetahs – two males and two females – were airlifted to Liwonde from South Africa in May.

Before being released into the park, the cheetahs spent their first three weeks in an enclosure to allow them to become acclimated to their new surroundings. 

Liwonde National Park has a population of 12,000 large mammals. These include bush buck, water buffalo and antelope.

The cheetah is the first large predator to be reintroduced to the park. 

“We have a very healthy animal base and now that the protection measures are in place as we have got a very good law enforcement in the park,” Reid said. “The numbers of animals are increasing very rapidly and, as a result to that, there are more than enough animals to provide for some carnivorous animals such as the cheetah”. 

Officials are holding meetings with communities surrounding the park. 

“Those people are likely to face danger,” said David Nongoma of African Parks. “And our message to the community is to say that…they refrain from entering the park and stop doing what they used to be doing because these animals are definitely very dangerous. They can kill a human being.”

Park officials say they also plan to reintroduce leopards and lions to restore the park’s lost glory.


US Job Market Gets Stronger as Layoffs Decline

The U.S. job market is getting stronger, according to Labor Department data published Thursday.

The number of Americans signing up for unemployment assistance fell by 10,000, to a nationwide total of 245,000. Experts say readings below 300,000 indicate a healthy job market, where layoffs are scarce and employers are trying to hang on to workers.

Layoffs have been below this key level now for 118 weeks, the longest such stretch since the early 1970s.

The U.S. unemployment rate is reported separately and stands at a low 4.3 percent. The economy had a net gain of 138,000 jobs in one month. The rate of hiring has slowed recently, as employers say they are having trouble finding people with the right skills.

Next week, leaders of the U.S. central bank will consider the job market and other aspects of the world’s largest economy as they debate how soon and by how much to raise interest rates. The Federal Reserve is widely expected to boost the benchmark interest rate by one-quarter of one percent.


Scientists Stimulate Immune System to Fight Heart Disease

Someday, your immune system may be pressed into service to fight heart disease.  Researchers have discovered that a simple sugar can stimulate immune system “clean up” cells to reduce disease-causing plaque in arteries.  

Marcophages are the garbage men of the body.  These immune system cells mop up cellular toxins and debris that are produced through cells’ normal functioning.

But scientists at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis wondered, what if macrophages could be pressed into service to eliminate or degrade the accumulation of plaque as well? The fatty substance collects inside blood vessels and is a leading cause of heart disease and stroke.

Cardiology researcher Babak Razani has pondered that possibility. “If you, you could imagine this, that you could somehow manipulate it to rev it up, to stimulate its function, then you could make a macrophage into a super-macrophage, one that’s really stimulated to degrade.”

In a two-part study published in the journal Nature Communications, Razani and colleagues described how they manipulated and activated a genetic molecule called TFEB that goes into the nucleus of macrophages, supercharging their housekeeping skills inside cells.

Researchers then showed that a simple sugar, called trehalose, stimulated macrophages in the same way.  In experiments with mice prone to atherosclerotic plaques, injection of the sugar molecule decreased plaque size by 30 percent.  

“So that’s what we found here,” Razani reports, “that this simple, natural compound, that is very safe, could be very atherogenic as therapy for cardiovascular disease.”

In their unaltered state, macrophages try to fix damaged arteries by cleaning up cellular waste, including misshapen proteins, excess fat and dysfunction cellular structures called organelles.

But Razani says they eventually become overwhelmed by the task in people with atherosclerotic plaques, contributing to the debris problem that leads to inflammation and more disease.

Razani said supercharging macrophages with trehalose, so they resist damage and are able to continue their housekeeping function, offers a potential treatment for plaques, in addition to cholesterol-lowering drugs.

Because it’s a natural substance found in yeast, mushrooms and crustaceans, Razani said trehalose is completely safe.

Investigations found the sugar is broken down and doesn’t work when swallowed. Trehalose reduced the size of arterial plaques only when injected into mice. Other sugars did not have any effect.

So the challenge for researchers now is to find a way to turn trehalose into a form that is effective in humans to fight heart disease and possibly other health conditions like fatty liver disease and diabetes.


NASA Unveils Mars Rover Concept

NASA has unveiled a concept of a Mars rover vehicle that is set to be launched to the Red Planet in 2020.

The flashy Mars 2020 rover, which some say resembles a vehicle from the Batman movie series, was unveiled at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida as part of its “Summer of Mars” event.

The rover runs on an electric motor that gets its power from solar panels feeding a 700-volt battery.

The rover can separate in the middle with the front focused on scouting and navigation. The rear section is a laboratory that can conduct a wide variety of research, including drilling to try to find evidence of past life on Mars as well as to ascertain whether Mars has water and oxygen that could one day be exploited by human astronauts. It could return core samples to Earth.

While this rover will not actually go to Mars, NASA says some of the components may make it onto the rover that is actually sent to the Martian surface.

Parker Brothers Concepts of Port Canaveral, Florida, built the 8.5 meter long rover incorporating input from NASA subject matter experts. It was commissioned without using taxpayer money, according to NASA.

After being exhibited in Florida, the concept rover will be displayed “at several locations” from July to August.

The “Summer of Mars” aims to provide an overview of NASA’s studies of the planet.

“It’s an all-encompassing effort to review the history of our efforts to explore Mars and look ahead to what is being planned,” said Rebecca Shireman, assistant manager of public relations for the Kennedy visitor complex. “We hope this will encourage young people to want to learn more about being a part of the effort to go to Mars.”


Companion Robots Featured at Shanghai Electronics Show

More than 50 companies are showcasing a new generation of robots at this week’s Shanghai CES electronics show, built to serve as companions at home, attendants at shopping malls or just provide entertainment. 

Chinese companies including Shenzhen-based startup Aelos Robotic Inc. are displaying robots with heightened dexterity and skills.

Beijing’s Canny Unisrobo Technology Co. Ltd. is a pioneer in the field, with its Canbot, produced in cooperation with Microsoft, having entered mass production almost a decade ago.

Costs of $130 to $483

Sales manager Zhang Jianting said Thursday that annual sales are about 150,000 units, with the home companion robots selling for $130 to $483 depending on size.

However, Zhang said the robot market is growing ever more crowded, with many more players entering this year alone.

“The robot market in China is increasingly diverse,” Zhang said. “However, there are still some rough edges in R&D and comprehensive abilities. Every company is at initial stage. We are still learning and making progress in terms of technology, R&D, and market.”

Artificial intelligence and virtual reality are also major features of the show, which features 400 exhibitors from 23 regions showing their innovations from June 7 to 9.


For John T. Kelly, the senior director of CES Asia, the participation of more Chinese companies at global electronics shows illustrates how China is shifting from a manufacturing economy to one based on innovation.

“Chinese companies continue to grow more and more in importance. They are creating partnerships with Western partners to really further their technology. So we are seeing development of technology advancing rapidly,” Kelly said.

Among those leading the charge for artificial Intelligence, or AI, is Rokid Corp., maker of the Pebble home companion device that can help seniors perform household chores, provide entertainment and help children learn new skills. 

“AI makes our life simpler. AI is replacing human beings in more fields. It saves humans’ labor, so we can do more creative work,” said Li Yuanpeng, the company’s product manager.


Jury May Soon Hear From Cosby, Possibly From Deposition Videos

A jury that heard seven hours of testimony from a woman who says Bill Cosby drugged and assaulted her may soon hear from Cosby himself — even if he doesn’t take the stand.

Prosecutors are expected to show jurors an earlier deposition in which Cosby said that he routinely gave women pills and alcohol before sexual encounters and gave at least one of them quaaludes, a now-banned sedative. 

The suburban Philadelphia jury on Wednesday heard trial accuser Andrea Constand offer her most direct denial yet that any of their earlier meetings were romantic.

Wasn’t ‘romantic’

“It wasn’t a romantic time, no,” Constand, 44, of Toronto, said of an earlier fireside dinner with Cosby, a trustee at Temple University, where she directed the women’s basketball team.

The jury also heard Cosby’s voice on a 2006 telephone call, offering Constand money for graduate school after her mother called to confront him about the encounter at his home a year earlier.

“She could go to school,” he said. “If she wanted to do that, then I would be willing to … pay for the schooling.”

Cosby, now 79, acknowledges in the deposition from Constand’s related lawsuit that he gave her three blue pills before fondling her breast and penetrating her with his fingers. The only question for the jury is how to interpret the encounter. Prosecutors say she was too impaired to give consent.

The defense lawyer sought to show that Constand changed her mind about the date of the alleged assault. But Constand perhaps blunted the attack by saying she got confused and initially thought the episode happened in March 2004.

“I was mistaken,” she said, unflustered.

Gianna Constand, who followed her daughter to the stand, sounded alarmed at the thought Andrea had been drugged, and angry that they still don’t know what type of pills Cosby gave her. Andrea Constand said the pills left her paralyzed and unable to stop Cosby from penetrating her with his finger and putting her hand on his genitals. She said she was still woozy when she woke up six hours later.


The defense spent hours on cross-examination trying to suggest the sexual encounter with Cosby was consensual, based on Constand’s previous visits to his home and continued contact afterward.

Cosby arrived at a courthouse Thursday accompanied by fellow actors and comedians Joe Torry and Lewis Dix. On Wednesday, actress Sheila Frazier and her hairstylist husband, John Atchison, arrived with Cosby. Earlier in the week, Cosby was supported by Keshia Knight-Pulliam, who played the youngest daughter, Rudy, on The Cosby Show.

Constand’s case is expected to get to the jury sometime next week. Prosecutors, before then, plan to call an expert in the behavior of sexual assault victims to explain why some remain in contact with their abusers and wait before lodging a complaint.

The defense may call a memory expert to cast doubt on the accuracy of testimony about long-ago events. Cosby was arrested in 2015 after his deposition became public and prosecutors reopened an earlier 2005 investigation that ended with Cosby not being charged.

“She has said the same thing from Day One. She’s always said he drugged her. She’s always said she didn’t consent. She’s always said it was digital penetration,” Constand lawyer Dolores Troiani told The Associated Press when Constand finished her testimony Wednesday afternoon.

Some 60 women have come forward to say Cosby sexually violated them, but the statute of limitations for prosecution had run out in nearly every case. Constand’s case is the only one in which Cosby has been charged. The Associated Press does not typically identify people who say they are victims of sexual assault unless they grant permission, which Constand has done.


Lab Fire-tests New Building Materials

New, lighter, cheaper, sustainable and recyclable building materials are entering the market every day as developers try to lower costs and shrink their carbon footprint. But how safe are those materials? Are they resistant to fire? VOA’s George Putic visited a new U.S. government facility that can provide scientific answers to such questions.


Kenya Launches HIV Self-testing Kit

Kenya has become the latest African country to introduce HIV self-testing kits in a bid to get more people to know their status and seek treatment. The government estimates that there are as many as half a million people in Kenya who are HIV-positive but don’t know it. Lenny Ruvaga reports for VOA from Nairobi.


‘Foundation 500’ List of Women CEOs Challenges Stereotypes

From a Peruvian trout farm manager to the head of an Indonesian meatball company, a list of 500 women entrepreneurs in emerging markets was launched Thursday to challenge the stereotype of a typical company boss and inspire women globally.

The “Foundation 500” list features the portraits and careers of 500 female entrepreneurs in 11 emerging markets where women are often refused the same access to education, financial services and bank loans as men.

The list, an initiative of humanitarian agency CARE and the nonprofit H&M Foundation, mirrors the Fortune 500 list of U.S. companies but highlights unusual chief executives, ranging from a Zambian woman who set up a mobile drug store to a woman in Jordan who set up a temporary tattoo studio.

Create role models

Karl-Johan Persson, CEO of Swedish retailer H&M, said the project was designed to create role models for women in emerging markets and challenging perceptions in developed countries of business leaders.

“The entrepreneur is our time’s hero and a role model for many young but the picture given of who is an entrepreneur is still very homogenous and many probably associate it to men from the startup world,” Persson said in an email.

He said all the women in the list had made an incredible effort.

“But one that stands out to me is Philomene Tia, a multi-entrepreneur from the Ivory Coast who has overcome setbacks such as war and being a refugee, and who has, in spite of it, always returned to the entrepreneurship to create a better future and a strong voice in society.”

Buses, fish and tattoos

Tia is the owner of a bus company in the Ivory Coast, a chain of beverage stores, a hotel complex, and a cattle breeding operation.

“I often tell other women that it is the force inside you and your brains that will bring you wherever you want to go. I mean, I started with nothing and I don’t even speak proper French, but look at me now,” she was quoted on the project’s website

The women featured are from Indonesia, the Philippines, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Peru, Guatemala, Jordan, Zambia, Burundi, the Ivory Coast and Yemen.

One of the women portrayed is Andrea Gala, 20, a trout farm manager in Peru and president of the women-only Trout Producers Association.

“This business has worked out so well for us now we don’t depend on our fields anymore, which is hard work and often badly paid,” Gala said in a report on the project.

“With the association we want to open a restaurant one day, next to the trout farm, so we can attract more visitors. We want to turn the area into a tourist zone, where people can come and relax and enjoy our restaurant with trout-based dishes.”

The H&M Foundation, privately funded by the Persson family that founded retailer H&M, said this was part of a women’s empowerment program started with CARE in 2014 in Latin America, Asia and Africa.

As part of this project H&M Foundation Manager Diana Amini said about 100,000 women in 20 countries had received between 2,000-15,000 euros in seed capital and skills training to start and expand businesses.

In Burundi, the average rate of increase in income among women in the program was 203 percent in the three years to the end of 2016, she said.


Israel’s in Love With Its Homegrown Wonder Woman Gal Gadot

For a country that takes pride in even the smallest successes of its international celebrities, the debut of Wonder Woman has sparked an Israeli lovefest for homegrown hero Gal Gadot.


A huge billboard overlooking Tel Aviv’s main highway is tagged with a provincial “we love you” greeting, her Hebrew-accented appearances in the international media are reported upon daily and throngs of fans cheer wildly upon seeing her on the big screen. Even Lebanon’s ban of the film hasn’t dampened the mood in Israel, where Gadot’s superhero status has been embraced as a national treasure.


“It’s so cool that someone from here is succeeding and is famous overseas. Everyone in the theater was so excited,” said 20-year-old Ela Hofshi of Jerusalem, who watched the movie on opening night. “I think all the enthusiasm here is very supportive and encourages her to keep growing in the world and representing us.”


Eager for diversions from politics and conflict with the Palestinians, Israelis often rejoice when one of their own breaks through on the international stage, whether it’s Omri Casspi in the NBA, medal-winning Olympic athletes or big-name model Bar Refaeli. But Gadot’s ascendance to stardom has entered a whole new stratosphere as she has assumed the identity of Wonder Woman in a box-office smash that raked in more than $100 million in its first weekend in theaters.

The role has instantly transformed Gadot into arguably the world’s most famous Israeli and the country’s most high-profile ambassador. In contrast to Refaeli, whose aloof demeanor, refusal to perform her compulsory military service and a tax-dodging scandal have alienated many Israelis, Gadot has been widely embraced. In interviews, she often speaks in accented English of her military service, a rite of passage for most Israeli Jews, which has made her even more beloved at home.


“She bears the burden of being Israeli with grace and you can see that fame hasn’t changed her,” said Ariel Oseran, 27. “She represents the `good Israeli’ and does us a great service. When she talks about the army, it shows that serving in the military is not a bad thing. It’s something inspiring. It makes every one of our female soldiers seem like Wonder Woman.”

Gadot grew up in the Tel Aviv suburb of Rosh Haayin and somehow stumbled into stardom. She was chosen Miss Israel in 2004 at the age of 18 and represented the country in the Miss Universe pageant that year. She then put off her modeling career to enlist in the military, where she served two years as a combat fitness instructor. In 2007, she took a part in the Maxim photo shoot “Women of the Israeli Army.”


After a year of law school, a casting director invited her to audition for a James Bond movie. She didn’t get the part, but it led to her big Hollywood break in 2008 when she was cast in the “Fast & Furious” movie franchise as Gisele Yashar, an ex-Mossad agent.

She first portrayed Wonder Woman in last year’s “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice,” before headlining this weekend’s release of “Wonder Woman,” the first Hollywood film exclusively devoted to the DC Comics heroine.


In promoting the film, Gadot made the rounds of American talk and late night shows, charming the hosts with her down-to-earth personality. In an interview with ABC’s morning show, Gadot, who recently gave birth to her second child, joked that being pregnant as Wonder Woman was harder than being a soldier in the Israeli army.


Gadot, who performs her own stunts, has attracted fans with a public image that empowers women. For the film’s Los Angeles premiere, she showed up in $50 flats from Aldo rather than pricey heels. When asked, she responded “it’s more comfortable.”

Her mother, Irit Gadot, a former gym teacher, said that’s just who her daughter is.


“She has a certain personal charm, a certain simplicity,” she told Israel’s Channel 10 TV. “What she is is what you see.”

In Israel, she has avoided the types of scandals that often plague celebrities and has been showered with love. Theaters have erupted into cheers when she appears on screen, and some fans even broke into tears of joy on opening weekend.


Locals excitedly noted how Gadot’s Israeli accent was mimicked by her co-stars as the supposed dialect of Wonder Woman’s idyllic Amazonian island of Themyscira.


Haaretz film critic Uri Klein praised her performance, which he said was “likely to contribute to the pleasure for those who want to envelop the viewing experience in national Israeli pride.”


Her identity has also made her a target of anti-Israel boycott activists who attacked her on Twitter as a “Zionist” and pushed to have the film banned in Lebanon. Opponents noted Gadot had praised Israel’s military on Facebook during the 2014 Israel-Gaza war, sending prayers to soldiers “who are risking their lives protecting my country against the horrific acts conducted by Hamas.” The military, while defending its actions as a response to Hamas rocket fire, nonetheless draw heavy international criticism for the heavy Palestinian civilian death toll.


Michal Kleinberg argued in a column on the Nana10 website that Gadot represented far more than mere national pride.


“This is not one of ours who managed to squeeze into a fashion show or an important competition, it’s one of ours in the most leading role a woman can get in a Hollywood film,” she wrote. “Gadot is objectively [really!] perfectly cast for the role. It’s not that Hollywood has a shortage of beautiful, fit, athletic brunettes, but an Israeli actress has something a Hollywood one doesn’t. As much as it sounds cliche, she offers a sort of chutzpah, spice and relatability.”


Cruise Dances With Undead in ‘The Mummy’

Of all the supernatural forces slung in Alex Kurtzman’s The Mummy (and, believe me, there are a lot), none can compete with the spectacle of Tom Cruise, at 54.


He and his abs are almost creepily ageless. So it’s almost fitting that in one of the typically bonkers scenes in The Mummy, Cruise awakes naked and unscathed alongside cadavers in a morgue, where he bewilderedly removes the tag attached to his toe. Indefatigable and un-killable, Cruise really is the undead. He’s like the anti-Steve Buscemi.

Yet Cruise and The Mummy — the opening salvo in Universal’s bid to birth its Dark Universe monster movie franchise — are a poor fit, and not the good kind, like Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein.

There’s plenty of standard, cocky Tom Cruise leading-man stuff here: running, swimming, daredevil airplane acrobatics, more running. But his relentless forward momentum is sapped by the convoluted monster mishmash that engulfs The Mummy, a movie conceived and plotted like the monster version of Marvel. Increasingly, Cruise — like big-budget movies, themselves — is running in circles.

Tomb unearthed


He plays Nick Morton, a roguish Army sergeant who plunders antiquities from Iraq with his partner Chris Vail (Jake Johnson). In a remote village they, along with archaeologist Jenny Halsey (Annabelle Wallis), unearth a giant Egyptian tomb bathed in mercury.

In it lies the Egyptian princess Ahmanet (Sofia Boutella), who was mummified alive (imagine that wrapping job) after trying to unleash the evil Egyptian god of Set while killing her Pharaoh father, his second wife and the newborn baby that would deny her the throne. Naturally, she’s going to get loose.

Hers and other backstories are shown as The Mummy stumbles out of its grave, vainly trying to organize the story around two burial sites (the other is in London), the strange visions that begin plaguing Morton, and a quixotic (or merely capitalistic) gambit to stitch together a unifying principle for the Dark Universe. Mysterious apocalyptic happenings (a swarm of crows, a horde of rats, occasional ghouls) prompt a series of helter-skelter chase scenes that eventually lead Morton and Halsey to Prodigium, a stealth organization led by the dapper Dr. Henry Jekyll (Russell Crowe) that controls monstrous outbreaks, including those of its schizophrenic leader.

Prodigium would seem to be the connecting tissue for Universal’s shared universe, with plans for Frankenstein, The Invisible Man, The Creature From the Black Lagoon and more in the works. Much of The Mummy hinges on Boutella’s vengeful and vaguely misogynistic monster (she for some reason needs a man — Morton, it turns out — to really do damage). But much of the film endeavors to set up the characters — maybe even famous phantoms — to come.

Why the universe?


Where these films could be fun is in seeing a talented star play a big, theatrical character that would honor the ghosts of Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi. Javier Bardem and Johnny Depp are already lined up, so who knows? But the desperate need to graft them into a larger comic-book-like “world” — and a thinly conceived one, at that — suggests there won’t be much room for any actor to breathe.


For now we’re cursed with The Mummy, a messy and muddled product lacking even the carefree spirit of the Brendan Fraser Mummy trilogy. There are moments of humor in the script by David Koepp, Christopher McQuarrie, and Dylan Kussman, but Cruise isn’t the one (maybe Chris Pratt?) to pull off aloofly referring to the mummy as “the chick in the box.”


Almost to the degree that he was in The Edge of Tomorrow, Cruise is put through the ringer. A spiraling cargo plane spins him like laundry. He careens through a double-decker bus. His rib cage is yanked. Cruise remains, as ever, eminently game. But he, like us moviegoers, might have to start wondering: What god have we angered?

The Mummy, a Universal Pictures release, is rated PG-13.


Archaeologists Discover Aztec Ball Court in Heart of Mexico City

The remains of a major Aztec temple and a ceremonial ball court have been discovered in downtown Mexico City, shedding new light on the sacred spaces of the metropolis that Spanish conquerors overran five centuries ago, archaeologists said on Wednesday.

The discoveries were made on a nondescript side street just behind the city’s colonial-era Roman Catholic cathedral off the main Zocalo plaza on the grounds of a 1950s-era hotel.

The underground excavations reveal a section of what was the foundation of a massive, circular-shaped temple dedicated to the Aztec wind god Ehecatl and a smaller part of a ritual ball court, confirming accounts of the first Spanish chroniclers to visit the Aztec imperial capital, Tenochtitlan.

“Due to finds like these, we can show actual locations, the positioning and dimensions of each one of the structures first described in the chronicles,” said Diego Prieto, head of Mexico’s main anthropology and history institute.

Archaeologists also detailed a grisly offering of 32 severed male neck vertebrae discovered in a pile just off the court.

“It was an offering associated with the ball game, just off the stairway,” said archaeologist Raul Barrera. “The vertebrae, or necks, surely came from victims who were sacrificed or decapitated.”

Some of the original white stucco remains visible on parts of the temple, built during the 1486-1502 reign of Aztec Emperor Ahuizotl, predecessor of Moctezuma, who conquistador Hernan Cortes toppled during the Spanish conquest of Mexico.

Early Spanish accounts relate how a young Moctezuma played against an elderly allied king on the court and lost, which was taken as sign that the Aztec Empire’s days were numbered.

The building would have stood out because of its round shape among the several dozen other square temples that dominated the Aztecs’ most sacred ceremonial space before the 1521 conquest.

Aztec archaeologist Eduardo Matos said the top of the temple was likely built to resemble a coiled snake, with priests entering though a doorway made to look like a serpent’s nose.

Once excavations finish, a museum will be built on the site, rubbing shoulders with modern buildings in the capital.

Mexico City, including its many colonial-era structures with their own protections, was built above the razed ruins of the Aztec capital, and more discoveries are likely, Matos said.

“We’ve been working this area for nearly 40 years, and there’s always construction of some kind … and so we take advantage of that and get involved,” he said.


Moroccan Fossils Shake Up Understanding of Human Origins

The understanding of human origins was turned on its head on Wednesday with the announcement of the discovery of fossils unearthed on a Moroccan hillside that are about 100,000 years older than any other known remains of our species, Homo sapiens.

Scientists determined that skulls, limb bones and teeth representing at least five individuals were about 300,000 years old, a blockbuster discovery in the field of anthropology.

The antiquity of the fossils was startling – a “big wow,” as one of the researchers called it. But their discovery in North Africa, not East or even sub-Saharan Africa, also defied expectations. And the skulls, with faces and teeth matching people today but with archaic and elongated braincases, showed our brain needed more time to evolve its current form.

“This material represents the very root of our species,” said paleoanthropologist Jean-Jacques Hublin of Germany’s Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, who helped lead the research published in the journal Nature.

Before the discovery at the site called Jebel Irhoud, located between Marrakech and Morocco’s Atlantic coast, the oldest Homo sapiens fossils were known from an Ethiopian site called Omo Kibish, dated to 195,000 years ago.

“The message we would like to convey is that our species is much older than we thought and that it did not emerge in an Adamic way in a small ‘Garden of Eden’ somewhere in East Africa. It is a pan-African process and more complex scenario than what has been envisioned so far,” Hublin said.

The Moroccan fossils, found in what was a cave setting, represented three adults, one adolescent and one child roughly age 8, thought to have lived a hunter-gatherer lifestyle.

These were found alongside bones of animals including gazelles and zebras that they hunted, stone tools perhaps used as spearheads and knives, and evidence of extensive fire use.

An analysis of stone flints heated up in the ancient fires let the scientists calculate the age of the adjacent human fossils, Max Planck Institute archaeologist Shannon McPherron said.

There is broad agreement among scientists that Homo sapiens originated in Africa. These findings suggest a complex evolutionary history probably involving the entire continent, with Homo sapiens by 300,000 years ago dispersed all over Africa.

Morocco was an unexpected place for such old fossils considering the location of other early human remains. Based on the shape and age of the Moroccan fossils, the researchers concluded that a mysterious, previously discovered 260,000-year-old partial cranium from Florisbad, South Africa also represented Homo sapiens.

The Jebel Irhoud people had large braincases that lacked the globular shape of those today. Max Planck Institute paleoanthropologist Philipp Gunz said the findings indicate the shape of the face was established early in the history of Homo sapiens, but brain shape, and perhaps brain function, evolved later.

But given their modern-looking face and teeth, Hublin said, these people may have blended in today if they simply wore a hat.

Homo sapiens is now the only human species, but 300,000 years ago it would have shared the planet with several now-extinct cousins in Eurasia – Neanderthals in the west and Denisovans in the east – and others in Africa.

Hublin did not hazard a guess as to how long ago the very first members of our species appeared, but said it could not have been more than 650,000 years ago, when the evolutionary lineage that led to Homo sapiens split from the one that led to the Neanderthals.


Mexican Sugar Producers Want Probe of US Corn Syrup Imports

Mexican sugar producers want an investigation into suspected dumping in Mexico by U.S. fructose producers even after a U.S.-Mexico deal on access to the U.S. sugar market, the head of the Mexican sugar industry group said Wednesday.

The sugar lobby last month said it had asked the Mexican economy ministry to investigate U.S. high-fructose corn syrup imports, saying there was evidence of dumping.

Mexico Tuesday conceded to U.S. demands for changes in the terms of Mexican access to the lucrative U.S. sugar market, but U.S. sugar producers refused to endorse the deal.

The agreement would avert possible steep U.S. import duties on Mexican sugar and had been seen as lowering the risk of Mexico slapping its own import duties on U.S. high-fructose corn syrup as a retaliatory measure.

“This issue with the U.S. sugar industry is not over,” Juan Cortina, the head of Mexican sugar industry group (CNIAA), told reporters at an event in Mexico City where he said the group would keep pressing for a fructose probe in Mexico.

​The sweetener trade has been a longstanding source of disputes between the two countries that are preparing to start talks with Canada to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Mexican Economy Minister Ildefonso Guajardo on June 1 said he was reviewing the request by the Mexican sugar lobby to initiate the investigation.