Month: February 2019

YouTube to Block Comments on Most Videos Showing Minors

YouTube said Thursday it will disable user comments on a broad array of videos featuring children to thwart “predatory behavior” after revelations about a glitch exploited for sharing of child pornography.

The Google-owned video sharing service announced further steps to crack down on inappropriate comments a week after an investigation showing how comments and connections on child porn were being displayed alongside innocuous videos.

“We recognize that comments are a core part of the YouTube experience and how you connect with and grow your audience,” YouTube said in a posted message to creators.

“At the same time, the important steps we’re sharing today are critical for keeping young people safe.”

YouTube said that during the past week it has suspended comments on tens of millions of videos to prevent users from exploiting of the software glitch for nefarious purposes.

“These efforts are focused on videos featuring young minors and we will continue to identify videos at risk over the next few months,” YouTube said.

“Over the next few months, we will be broadening this action to suspend comments on videos featuring young minors and videos featuring older minors that could be at risk of attracting predatory behavior.”

A small number of video creators will be allowed to keep comments enabled, but will be required to carefully moderate commentary and to deploy software tools provided by YouTube, according to Google.

YouTube accelerated the release of an improved “classifier” that it said will detect and remove twice the number of policy-breaking comments by individuals.

‘Wormhole’

A YouTube creator last week revealed what he called a “wormhole” that allowed comments and connections on child porn alongside videos.

Shortly thereafter, YouTube deleted many comments and blocked some accounts and channels showing inappropriate comments.

Matt Watson, a YouTube creator with some 26,000 subscribers, revealed the workings of what he termed a “wormhole” into a pedophile ring that allowed users to trade social media contacts and links to child porn in YouTube comments.

The post by Watson sparked a series of news reports and boycotts of YouTube ads from major firms.

The incident raised fears of a fresh “brand safety” crisis for YouTube, which lost advertisers last year following revelations that messages appeared on channels promoting conspiracy theories, white nationalism and other objectionable content.

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Musical Virtuoso Previn Dies at 89 

Musical virtuoso Andre Previn, who mastered almost every type of genre, died Thursday at 89. 

 

His manager gave no cause of death in making her announcement. 

 

The Berlin-born Previn was a child prodigy, but his family fled Hitler’s Germany when he was 9 years old. 

 

They eventually settled in Hollywood, where Previn launched his career orchestrating scores for films. His work can be heard gracing the soundtracks of such musicals as My Fair Lady, Porgy and Bess, and Gigi. 

 

While working in Hollywood, Previn became enamored with jazz, but may be best remembered as a classical composer and conductor, serving as principal conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra. He also led the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Houston and Pittsburgh symphonies.  

 

Throughout his career, Previn won four Oscars and 10 Grammys. 

 

Previn was married five times, including to actress Mia Farrow, with whom he adopted three children.  

 

One of them, a Korean orphan named Soon-Yi, created a scandal when she married Farrow’s then-boyfriend, film director Woody Allen. 

 

Previn once said he would like to drive over Allen with a steamroller. 

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US Craft Marketplace Makes Plans to Go Green by Offsetting Emissions

Online crafts retailer Etsy Inc will go green by offsetting planet-warming carbon emissions from its shipping activities, the U.S. company said Wednesday, joining a host of companies making public moves to battle climate change.

Etsy will buy clean energy certificates supporting tree conservation in the United States, wind and solar power in India and clean automotive technology, it said.

The online marketplace for buying and selling handmade and vintage goods said its initiative is the first time a global e-commerce company has made such a move.

“Fast, free shipping ultimately comes at a cost to our planet,” wrote Josh Silverman, chief executive officer of the New York-based company in a blog on the company’s website.

The certificates are a way for companies to offset the amount of carbon dioxide they produce by paying for projects that support clean development.

The 13-year-old Etsy said its greenhouse gas emissions from shipping in 2018 totaled about 135,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent, similar to those of 29,000 cars in a year.

About 55,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent are released each day from the delivery of all packages ordered from online retailers in the United States alone, it said.

Budweiser, Amazon.com

Last month, at the U.S. Super Bowl championship game, giant beer maker Budweiser helped purchase clean energy certificates to offset greenhouse gas emissions linked to fans’ travel and the host city of Atlanta.

More than 100 U.S. companies have committed to setting emission-reduction targets that seek to limit rising temperature to 2 degrees Celsius as part of a United Nations-backed initiative, said Sabrina Helm, who heads the Consumers, Environment & Sustainability Initiative, a research group at the University of Arizona.

Online retailers have largely been absent from those efforts, and Etsy’s move sends a “very important signal,” she said.

“A lot of online retailers are not particularly transparent in what they do in terms of sustainability,” she told Reuters.

Last week, online retail giant Amazon.com Inc said it planned to make its carbon footprint public for the first time this year.

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Lady Gaga: Bradley Cooper Duet Was Acting, Not Love

It was acting, not love, when Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper sang a duet Sunday at the 91st Academy Awards.

 

Gaga discussed the emotional performance of “Shallow” from their film “A Star Is Born” during an appearance Wednesday on ABC’s “Jimmy Kimmel Live .” The duet led online posters to say the stars are in love.

 

The artist rolled her eyes and called social media “the toilet of the internet,” saying it has hurt pop culture.

 

Gaga said, “Yes, people saw love and guess what, that’s what we wanted you to see.”

 

Gaga says it was a love song in a love story and they had “worked all week on that performance.”

 

She said, “I guess we did a good job. Fooled ya!”

 

Gaga brought her Oscar for “Shallow” to the show.

 

 

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WTO Rules China Over-Subsidized Farmers

The United States won a World Trade Organization ruling Thursday that China subsidized its wheat and rice producers too much in recent years.

The WTO in Geneva agreed with the U.S. position that Beijing paid its farmers excessive amounts for growing wheat, Indica rice and Japonica rice from 2012 to 2015, but said the dispute over a corn subsidy had already expired.

The ruling came in a U.S. complaint filed in 2016 during the final months of the last U.S. administration of former president Barack Obama.

The decision can be appealed, but current U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer praised the ruling.

“China’s excessive support limits opportunities for U.S. farmers to export their world-class products to China,” Lighthizer said in a statement. “We expect China to quickly come into compliance with its WTO obligations.”

The U.S. claimed that China paid its farmers nearly $100 billion more than WTO rules allow, creating an incentive to grow more wheat and rice, thus undercutting global prices for the grains.

The ruling could have ramifications for India, which has calculated its price supports in a similar way as China.

The WTO decision comes amid intense trade talks between Washington and Beijing, with President Donald Trump expressing optimism a deal can be reached.

During a news conference in Hanoi after the abrupt end of his summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, Trump said, “I think we have a very good chance. Their (economic growth) numbers are down, but I don’t want that.  I want (China) to do great. But we’ve been losing anywhere from $300 to $500 billion dollars a year with China for many, many years. And again, like other things, many presidents should have done this before me. And nobody did. So, we’re doing it.”

The most recent U.S. statistics show China last year had a $382 billion trade surplus in deals with the United States through November. Trump is trying to alter trade terms between the two countries to end what the United States, Japan and European countries contend are China’s unfair trade practices, including state intervention in markets, subsidies of some industries and theft of foreign technology.

But Lighthizer on Wednesday told a congressional panel in Washington, a new deal is not close to being completed.

“Much still needs to be done before an agreement can be reached,” he said. “If we can complete this effort, and again I say if, and if we can reach a resolution on the issue of enforceability, we might have an agreement that enables us to turn the corner in our relationship with China.”

The United States and China, the world’s two biggest economies, have been negotiating for months on a new agreement, even as they have imposed hefty new tariffs on billions of dollars of each other’s exports.

Lighthizer said the countries’ negotiators, who have been meeting in Washington and Beijing, “are making real progress.”

Trump cited that progress on Sunday in postponing what would have been a sharp increase in U.S. duties on $200 billion in Chinese imports that would have taken effect Friday.

China has offered to increase its purchase of American farm products and energy as part of a new trade pact.

 

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Swiss Study Shows Language Learning During Sleep

A new study suggests you can learn language while you sleep.

Researchers from Switzerland’s University of Bern say they discovered people were able to learn new language words during deep levels of sleep. Results of the study that recently appeared in the publication Current Biology and other studies suggest the same findings.

The research group was led by Katharina Henke, a professor at the University of Bern and founder of the school’s Center for Cognition, Learning and Memory. The group carried out experiments on a group of young German-speaking men and women.

During normal sleep, human brain cells are alternately active and inactive. The Swiss experiments centered on periods of slow-wave peaks or deep sleep called “up-states,” which the researchers say are the best moments for sleep learning.  

Researchers observed individuals in a controlled environment and recorded brain activity as pairs of words were played for the study subjects. One word in the pair was a real German word. The other was a made-up foreign word.

Each word pair was played four times with the order changed each time. The goal was to create a lasting memory link between the false word and the German word that individuals could identify when awake.  

When the subject woke, they were presented with the false language words – both by sight and sound. They were tested on the false words played during sleep.             

During this part of the experiment, some subjects had their brain activity recorded by magnetic imaging technology to measure brain activity when subjects were answering questions.

Results of the study found that a majority of subjects gave more correct answers about the sleep-learned words than would be expected if they had only guessed. Researchers said memory was best for word pairs presented during slow-wave peaks during sleep.

The researchers say more study is needed to support their findings. However, the experiments provide new evidence that memories can be formed and vocabulary learning can take place in both conscious and unconscious states.

 

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Thai Lawmakers Approve Controversial Cybersecurity Act

Thailand’s legislature has passed a cybersecurity bill that would allow authorities access to people’s personal information without a court order.

The Cybersecurity Act addresses computer hacking crimes, but activists fear it will allow the government sweeping access to people’s personal information.

The National Legislative Assembly, which passed the bill in its final reading Thursday by a vote of 133-0, was appointed by the junta that came to power after a 2014 coup. It becomes law when published in the Royal Gazette.

The cybersecurity bill allows state officials to seize, search, infiltrate, and make copies of computers, computer systems and information in computers without a court warrant if an appointed committee sees it as a high-level security threat, and relevant courts can later be informed of such actions.

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US Economic Growth in 2018 Misses Trump’s 3 Percent Target

The U.S. economy fell short of the Trump administration’s 3 percent annual growth target in 2018 despite $1.5 trillion in tax cuts and a government spending blitz, and economists say growth will only slow from here.

A better-than-expected performance in the fourth quarter pushed gross domestic product up 2.9 percent for the year, just shy of the goal, Commerce Department data showed Thursday.

President Donald Trump has touted the economy as one of the biggest achievements of his term and declared last July that his administration had “accomplished an economic turnaround of historic proportions.” On the campaign trail, Trump boasted that he could boost annual economic growth to 4 percent, a goal that analysts always said was unachievable.

“We are moving back to a sustainable growth pace that we experienced during most of the Obama years,” said Joel Naroff, chief economist at Naroff Economic Advisors in Holland, Pennsylvania. “With the tax cut impacts largely done with, it is hard to see how growth can accelerate sharply.”

Gross domestic product increased at a 2.6 percent annualized rate in the fourth quarter after advancing at a 3.4 percent pace in the July-September period. Economists polled by Reuters had forecast GDP rising at a 2.3 percent rate in the fourth quarter.

Growth in 2018 was the strongest since 2015 and better than the 2.2 percent logged in 2017. The expansion will be the longest on record in July.

The stronger-than-expected fourth-quarter performance, which reflected solid consumer and business spending, was despite many headwinds, including financial market volatility and the United States’ trade war with China, raising optimism that an anticipated slowdown this year would not be abrupt.

The fiscal stimulus is believed to have peaked sometime in the fourth quarter. December economic data such as retail sales, exports, homebuilding and business spending on equipment weakened sharply.

In addition, most manufacturing measures softened in January and February, and motor vehicle demand has eased.

The labor market is also exhibiting signs of cooling, with a report from the Labor Department on Thursday showing the number of Americans receiving unemployment benefits rising to a 10-month high in the week ended Feb. 16.

“The first quarter won’t be this good,” said Paul Ashworth, chief economist at Capital Economics in Toronto. “As the stimulus fades and the lagged impact of past monetary tightening continues to feed through, we expect GDP growth to slow to 2.2 percent this year.”

Slowing growth together with weakening global demand and uncertainty over Britain’s departure from the European Union, support the Federal Reserve’s “patient” stance toward raising interest rates further this year. Fed Chairman Jerome Powell reaffirmed the U.S. central bank’s position in his testimonies before lawmakers Tuesday and Wednesday.

Inflation was largely muted in the fourth quarter.

The dollar trimmed losses against a basket of currencies on the GDP data and was last trading little changed. U.S. Treasury prices fell, while stocks on Wall Street were lower following weak earnings from a handful of companies.

Solid consumer spending

The fourth-quarter GDP report was delayed by a 35-day partial shutdown of the government that ended on Jan. 25, which affected the collection and processing of economic data. The Commerce Department said it could not quantify the full effects of the shutdown on fourth-quarter GDP growth.

Economists expect the longest shutdown in history will hurt growth in the first quarter. Growth in consumer spending, which accounts for more than two-thirds of U.S. economic activity, increased at a still strong 2.8 percent rate in the fourth quarter. Consumer spending grew at a robust 3.5 percent rate in the third quarter.

Consumption continues to be underpinned by a strong labor market, with inflation-adjusted income at the disposal of households jumping at a 4.2 percent rate in the fourth quarter compared to a 2.6 percent pace in the prior period.

A moderation in spending is, however, likely amid reports 2018 tax refunds have been smaller than in the previous years.

Business spending on equipment accelerated in the fourth quarter from the prior period, growing at a 6.7 percent rate, after losing speed since the first quarter of 2018.

Inventory accumulation

The trade deficit widened further as a combination of the U.S.-China trade dispute, strong dollar and weakening global demand restrained export growth. The trade tensions also led businesses to hoard imports.

The trade shortfall subtracted 0.22 percentage point from fourth-quarter GDP growth after slicing off 2 percentage points in the July-September period. With consumer spending slowing, some of the imports ended up in warehouses, accelerating the pace of inventory accumulation.

While that offset some of the drag on GDP growth from the trade deficit, the piling up of stock is bad news for first-quarter growth.

Inventories increased at a $97.1 billion rate in the fourth quarter after rising at an $89.8 billion pace in the July-September quarter. Inventory investment added 0.13 percentage point to GDP growth last quarter after contributing 2.33 percentage points in the prior period.

“There was a rapid buildup of inventories in the fourth quarter, so inventories likely will be a headwind for growth in the future,” said Daniel Silver, an economist at JPMorgan in New York.

Residential construction contracted at a 3.5 percent rate, marking the fourth straight quarterly decline. Homebuilding has been weighed down by higher mortgage rates, land and labor shortages as well as tariffs on imported lumber.

Government investment increased at a 0.4 percent rate, the slowest since the third quarter of 2017. Nondefense investment contracted at a 5.6 percent rate, the biggest decline in five years, likely reflecting the effects of the five-week government shutdown.

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Ice Castles Turn US Farmland Into Winter Wonderland

On a clear, frigid night in a courtyard made of walls of ice, Bruce McCafferty and his young son stand mesmerized, bathed in the pulsating rainbow light emanating from a series of stout ice formations.

McCafferty and his son Dougie have come out to Ice Castles in North Woodstock, New Hampshire, a collection of ice tunnels, caverns and a 97-foot (30-meter) ice slide that cover an acre (half a hectare) of farmland that some have said are like something out of the movie “Frozen.”

The winter wonderland, one of six in North America, is built from scratch when the cold conditions allow the ice to sprout from the barren ground.

Other parks are located in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin; Excelsior, Minnesota; Dillon, Colorado; Midway, Utah; and Edmonton, Alberta. This year, the attractions will stand until early March in most locations.

At the center of the New Hampshire attraction stand six ice structures that are nearly four feet tall (more than a meter tall) and are lit from within by colored lights.

“It’s quite magical isn’t it?” McCafferty said. “It’s an amazing creation. I’d really like to know how they actually built it.”

The attraction starts small in December, when the site’s lead builder Matt Pasciuto and his team set up icicle farms: metal racks that are sprayed with water to allow icicles to grow on them overnight. The icicles are then harvested by “ice artists,” who place them around more than 70 sprinklers.

“Once we turn the sprinklers on, the water starts freezing to those icicles, making them grow together, bigger and bigger and thicker and thicker,” Pasciuto said. “We grow the castle about two to three feet [a half-meter to one meter] at a time.”

Within a few weeks, the icicles have managed to cover the entire park, and some reach heights of 20 feet (six meters).

On a recent sunny day, the massive ice walls shined with a glacial blue hue. After the sun went down, the castles seemed to burst with colors thanks to LED lights embedded in the ice. The astonishing visuals are complemented by a synchronized fantasy soundtrack playing throughout the venue.

The attraction, which moved to this year from neighboring Lincoln, draws tens of thousands of visitors each season.

“When the movie `Frozen’ came out, that was a huge boost because now everyone says, ‘Oh, we get to see an actual ice castle,'” Pasciuto said.

Three years ago, Adam Schellinger started bringing his girlfriend on annual dates to the Ice Castles in New Hampshire, a three-hour drive from their hometown of Brooklyn, Connecticut. On last year’s visit, Schellinger got down on one knee and popped the question. The crowd immediately began cheering. The couple was married in September.

“When I proposed, it was blue, and then it went to purple,” recalled Schellinger, who returned for a visit with his wife Ashley a couple weeks ago. “It was just awesome — a great backdrop for sure.”

After a mild start to the winter, the weather in New Hampshire this year has mostly cooperated with only a few days with above-freezing temperatures. But that isn’t always the case, according to Melissa Smuzynski, public relations director for Ice Castles. She said some locations occasionally have had to cut their seasons short due to warmer winters but that “we haven’t noticed a long-term pattern over the years of our seasons becoming shorter.”

But Pascuito says he dreads the warmer days.

“The last couple of years we’ve had some really bad warm spells in February where it gets to 60 degrees [Fahrenheit, 15 degrees Celsius]. This is New Hampshire — that shouldn’t happen,” he said. “We love the cold. We want a nice long winter.”

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Popular Fur-Trimmed Parkas a Boon for Trappers, Not for Coyotes

Those fur-trimmed parkas so common on city sidewalks have become a boon to backwoods trappers.

Coyote fur pelts are in big demand to provide the lush, silvery or tawny-tinged arcs of fur on the hoods on Canada Goose coats and their many global imitators. A good western coyote, prized for its silky, light-colored fur, can fetch more than $100. The top price at a recent Colorado auction hit $170, a 40 percent increase from four years ago.

“Coyotes are hot,” said John Hughes, a longtime buyer at J and M Furs in Roundup, Montana, “and it’s all due to the trim trade.”

Fur market

Late fall and early winter are the prime trapping time, when coyote coats are at their fullest, but a lot of the selling happens in late winter. Fur is sold at big auction houses in Canada, by individual fur buyers across North America and at local auctions near where the animals roam. At one such auction in a VFW hall in the upstate New York town of Herkimer, tables were piled high with the furs of hundreds of muskrats, beavers, fishers, mink, red fox, gray fox, otters, bobcats and coyotes.

“They like the white-belly coyotes, something like this, the whiter belly,” said John Rutherford, a trapper and hunter, showing a lush, long-haired coyotes.

Fur experts say the uptick in coyote demand began with Canada Goose parkas, with their distinctive Arctic Circle patch, a brand that went big in 2013 when model Kate Upton famously wore one over her bikini on the cover of the Sports Illustrated swimsuit Issue. Over the years, more celebrities and their fashion-conscious followers began donning the parkas, which now can retail for more than $1,000 each.

“Canada Goose is always the name that people relate to, but there are so many other brands that make similar coats,” said Mark Downey, CEO of Fur Harvesters Auction Inc. of North Bay, Ontario. “Basically, it’s just a coyote trim ruff that goes around the hood of all those kinds of coats.”

Downey suspects the bull market for coyote will continue. North American Fur Auctions was similarly optimistic in a November web posting, saying the trim business continues to be in full fashion with Canada Goose being the major taker.

Toronto-based Canada Goose did not respond to requests for comment.

Trappers face competition

The hot market for coyotes comes as trappers deal with recent economic slumps in China and Russia, competition from ranched fur and the intense ire of animal welfare activists, who consider the popular steel leg-hold traps particularly cruel.

Coyote trappers see themselves as sportsmen helping control populations of a ubiquitous animal often considered a nuisance. Coyotes have been spotted from the streets of Los Angeles to Manhattan’s Central Park. Farmers view them as chicken poachers, and suburban residents see them as threats to their pets.

To trappers, coyotes are one of the few money-making animals, along with bobcats and a few others.

“It is the one bright spot in most of the country,” said Dave Linkhart, of the National Trappers Association.

Hughes will pay trappers an average of $75 to $105 and as much as $120 for a western coyote. He sells to operations that create trim strips, which sells to garment makers.

“The coyotes that we have here in Montana are probably the best coyotes in the world for trim,” Hughes said. “They’re heavy, so the hair stands up for the trim, and they’re pale.”

Western coyotes scarce

He handles an average of 10,000 coyotes annually, though the numbers are down for western coyotes this year. Some blame early-season snow in Canada and the western United States, which made it harder for trappers to get out. Others believe there are simply fewer western coyotes this winter.

Either way, Downey said, “there’s not enough western coyotes to go around,” increasing demand on eastern coyotes, which tend to have coarser fur.

At the Herkimer auction, eastern coyotes tended to sell for $19 to $46. Rutherford made more than $200 for seven coyote furs.

“Coyotes are going to move,” he said. “Good-quality coyotes are going to sell. “

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