Month: January 2018

US Officials: No Specific Threats to Pyeongchang Winter Olympics

The United States says it is not aware of any specific threats to the Winter Olympics in South Korea next month, despite nuclear tensions with neighboring North Korea.  

Senior State Department officials in charge of security for the U.S. Olympic team told reporters Wednesday they have been working closely with South Korea for two years to prepare for the 2018 Winter Games that begin with an opening ceremony February 9 in the town of Pyeongchang. 

Assistant secretary for diplomatic security Michael Evanoff says his team is well aware of the nuclear tensions with North Korea and has prepared for all contingencies.

“I mean, we’re only less than a hundred miles (160 kilometers) from North Korea, so we’ve planned for all contingencies.”

Steve Goldstein, undersecretary of state for public diplomacy, had high praise for the South Korean government.

“Authorities of the Republic of Korea are responsible for the overall security of the games, and we’re confident in their ability to host a safe and successful event this year,” Goldstein said.

Diplomatic security chief Evanoff agreed, saying the U.S. working relationship with South Korea has been “exceptional.”

Senior State Department officials said about 100 diplomatic security agents will be deployed to Seoul and to Pyeongchang for the Winter Games and the Paralympics, roughly the same number that have been sent to previous Olympic games. 

The U.S. Olympic delegation will number about 275, and some 60,000 Americans are expected to attend the games, including Vice President Mike Pence and his wife, Karen Pence.  

North Korea is also sending athletes to the games. The North Korean government is planning a major parade or rally the day before the opening ceremony to mark the 70th anniversary of the founding of its military. Goldstein said he hopes North Korea will embrace the Olympic spirit.

“While we would prefer that this parade not occur on Feb. 8, it is our hope, and I know the hope of South Korea, that the North Koreans who agreed to send people to the games to participate will join with all the nations of the world in celebrating the athletes.  

Goldstein said fundamentally, the Olympic Games are about the athletes.  

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Dating App Tinder Cited for Discriminating Against Over-30s

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.

Go to our Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and LinkedIn to tell us what you think, thanks!

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USA Gymnastics: All Directors Have Resigned After Abuse Scandal

USA Gymnastics, the sport’s U.S. governing body, said Wednesday that all its remaining directors have resigned following revelations that the longtime team doctor had sexually abused numerous athletes under his care.

A USA Gymnastics spokeswoman on Friday had said that the full board intended to resign. The U.S. Olympic Committee threatened to revoke the organization’s governing authority if the full board had not stepped down by Wednesday, after former team doctor Larry Nassar was sentenced to up to 175 years in prison after pleading guilty to sexual assault charges.

“We are in the process of moving forward with forming an interim board of directors during the month of February, in accordance with the USOC’s requirements,” USA Gymnastics said in a statement. “USA Gymnastics will provide information about this process within the next few days.”

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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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University Researchers Get Help with Grant Writing

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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Rare Picasso Painting Starts Tour Before Next Month’s Auction

A rare Picasso painting will be auctioned off in London next month.  The 1937 work titled “Femme au beret et a la robe quadrillee” (Woman in beret and checked dress), inspired by the painter’s French lover Marie-Therese Walter is being shown in Hong Kong, Taipei, Los Angeles and New York before being sold. VOA’s Zlatica Hoke reports the painting’s Hong Kong debut is a clear indication of the growing importance of the Asian art market.

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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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Beirut Guide Gives Walking Tours of City’s History and His Own

Tour guide Ronnie Chatah, 36, is once again doing what he loves after a four-year hiatus – telling the stories that have shaped Beirut’s history from ancient to modern times.

Chatah put the walking tours on hold in late 2013 after the assassination of his father Mohamad Chatah, a former minister and diplomat. He was worried he would not be able to give an impartial view of the city, he said.

“My father is buried in what is probably the most climactic part of the tour,” he said, referring to Martyrs’ Square, a pockmarked statue in the epicenter, where many Lebanese have rallied in times of political crisis since World War I. “It is not easy to look at your father’s burial site and just ignore the emotions.”

But reviving the tour has had a surprising effect.

“I have not had a better therapy session,” said Chatah, who first launched the tours in 2009.

Now for four hours every other Sunday, people follow Chatah as he explains some of the most complicated aspects of Lebanon’s capital.

He explains that the local currency is pegged to the U.S. dollar and about how since the civil war political power is shared between Lebanon’s 18 different religious sects. He also explains why so many abandoned heritage buildings have been seemingly left to disintegrate.

Standing outside what was once the Holiday Inn hotel, Chatah recounts how the building that once exemplified Beirut’s Seventies glamour became an icon of the 1975-1990 civil war only a few weeks after it opened. It became the military headquarters of whichever militant faction was winning the war in Beirut over the next 15 years.

For him, the building – with its grey exterior, huge gaping holes and revolving balcony – is the best reflection of how the Lebanese have yet to make peace.

“We don’t reflect properly and I think that is our problem. Maybe that is part of our story too, that we are constantly avoiding the deeper issues, and hence a country that still cannot stand properly on its own two feet,” he said.

The tour allows visitors to discover parts of the city that have either ceased to exist or cordoned off by security because of close proximity to government buildings or politicians’ residences. This includes what used to be the old Jewish neighborhood, once home to a small community that is now all but gone save for a restored synagogue.

“I thought I knew the area but I was surprised to find out about … a neighborhood that I never knew existed,” Sarah Harakeh, 24, a teacher said.

Chatah said he had been planning to resume the walks for just a couple of months, but now there are tours scheduled for the rest of the year.

“That is the persuasion of this city, you keep coming back, and even when you know it is not good for you,” he said.

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