Month: April 2019

IPBES Report Will Call for Sustainable Growth

A draft report from the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services is under final review in Paris this week. The report was three years in the making and is expected to lay out a rescue plan for the world’s vanishing biodiversity. VOA’s Kevin Enochs reports.

more

Space Station Power Shortage Delays SpaceX Supply Run

A major power shortage at the International Space Station has delayed this week’s SpaceX supply run. 

SpaceX was supposed to launch a shipment Wednesday. But an old power-switching unit malfunctioned at the space station Monday and knocked two power channels offline. The six remaining power channels are working normally, according to NASA.

NASA stressed Tuesday that the station and its six astronauts are safe. But because of the hobbled solar-power grid, the SpaceX launch is off until at least Friday. NASA wants to replace the failed unit to restore full power, before sending up the SpaceX Dragon cargo capsule.

The breakdown has left the station’s big robot arm outside with one functioning power channel instead of two. Two power sources are required — one as a backup — when the robot arm is used to capture visiting spacecraft like the Dragon.

Flight controllers will use the robot arm to replace the bad unit with a spare later this week, saving the astronauts from going out on a spacewalk.

There’s no rush for this delivery. Northrop Grumman launched supplies two weeks ago.

Solar wings collect and generate electricity for the entire space station. Any breakdown in this critical system can cut into power and affect operations.

SpaceX, meanwhile, is still investigating this month’s fiery loss of its new Dragon capsule designed for astronauts.

Six weeks after a successful test flight without a crew to the space station, the crew Dragon was engulfed in flames during a ground test. SpaceX was in the process of firing the capsule’s thrusters on a test stand. The April 20 accident — which occurred right before or during the firing of the launch-abort thrusters — sent thick smoke billowing into the sky.

SpaceX and NASA have offered few details. But the accident is sure to delay launching a crew Dragon with two NASA astronauts on board. SpaceX had been aiming for a summertime flight.

The company still needs to conduct a launch-abort test, before astronauts strap in. The Dragon that flew last month was supposed to be used for this test in June.

more

Space Rock Left Big Crater on Moon During Full Lunar Eclipse

A space rock left a massive crater on the moon during January’s total lunar eclipse.

Spanish scientists reported Tuesday the meteoroid hit the moon at 38,000 mph (61,000 kph), carving out a crater nearly 50 feet (15 meters) across. It was the first impact flash ever observed during a lunar eclipse.

The scientists — who operate a lunar impact detection system using eight telescopes in Spain — believe the incoming object was a comet fragment up to 2 feet (60 centimeters) across and 100 pounds (45 kilograms). The impact energy was equivalent to 1 { tons of TNT.

Astrophysicist Jose Maria Madiedo of the University of Huelva says it was “really exciting” to observe the event, after many unsuccessful tries.

The findings appear in the Royal Astronomical Society’s Monthly Notices.

more

It Seems Like Alzheimer’s But Peek Into Brain Reveals a Mimic

Some people told they have Alzheimer’s may instead have a newly identified mimic of the disease — and scientists say even though neither is yet curable, it’s critical to get better at telling different kinds of dementia apart.

Too often, the word dementia is used interchangeably with Alzheimer’s when there are multiple types of brain degeneration that can harm people’s memory and thinking skills.

“Not everything that looks like Alzheimer’s disease is Alzheimer’s disease,” said Dr. Julie Schneider, a neuropathologist at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago. And among all the known dementias, this newly identified kind “is the most striking mimic of Alzheimer’s,” she added.

It’s not clear how many people have this particular type, which an international team of scientists defined Tuesday in the journal Brain. But there could be a sizeable number, said Dr. Peter Nelson of the University of Kentucky, the paper’s lead author.

The dementia was dubbed “LATE,” an acronym chosen in part because the oldest seniors seem at greatest risk.

Here’s a look at various dementias in the confusing Alzheimer’s-or-not mix:

Scientists stumbled onto newest disorder

Alzheimer’s is the most common form of dementia, and autopsies have long found its telltale signs in the brain: sticky plaque from an abnormal buildup of amyloid protein, and tangles of another protein named tau. Only recently have scientists developed special, pricey scans that can measure that buildup in living brains.

Then studies with those scans found about a third of people with Alzheimer’s symptoms lack amyloid buildup — ruling out Alzheimer’s, said Schneider, senior author of Tuesday’s paper. What else could cause their dementia?

Another toxic protein found

It turns out another protein, named TDP-43, also can run amok in the brain. Scientists knew it plays a role in a completely different disorder, Lou Gehrig’s disease. Then, they linked TDP-43 buildup to severe shrinking of the hippocampus, a brain region key for learning and memory.

Nelson said about a quarter of people over age 85 have enough abnormal TDP-43 to affect their memory or thinking abilities. For now, it takes an autopsy to spot — the symptoms seem like Alzheimer’s until a specialist can peer inside the brain.

“What is now clear is that a lot of dementia is caused by gloppy proteins. We used to think it was just two gloppy proteins, amyloid and tau,” Nelson said.

The next step: Finding better ways to measure abnormal TDP-43 and diagnose LATE. (It stands for an unwieldy scientific name — Limbic-predominant Age-related TDP-43 Encephalopathy.)

“Our ultimate goal is to test people hopefully in a very noninvasive way,” said National Institute on Aging dementia specialist Nina Silverberg. That’s key to eventually developing treatments.

Other culprits also are overlooked

— Strokes, sometimes small “silent” ones, can trigger what’s called vascular dementia, something scientists at the National Institutes of Health think might be prevented with better blood pressure control.

— Lewy body dementia, named for clumps of still another abnormal protein, can cause Alzheimer’s-like symptoms along with movement and other problems.

— Frontotemporal dementia often triggers changes in personality and tends to strike at a younger age than Alzheimer’s, yet can still be misdiagnosed.

Many older patients probably have “mixed dementia,” several brain changes that combine to cause trouble, Dr. Walter Koroshetz, head of NIH’s National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, told a recent meeting about non-Alzheimer’s dementias.

Tuesday’s paper about TDP-43-caused disease adds to the complexity, said Alzheimer’s Association chief science officer Maria Carrillo, who wasn’t involved with the new research.

“We must learn more about each contributing cause of dementia so we can understand how these changes begin and interact and co-occur, and how to best diagnose, treat and prevent them,” she said.

Why is it important to tell one dementia from another?

Current treatments for Alzheimer’s and other dementias temporarily ease symptoms. But there are other reasons for a precise diagnosis. A list of medications common for seniors can harm people with Lewy body dementia, for example. Knowing the specifics also can help people plan care, as some types of dementia worsen faster than others.

And it’s critical for developing better dementia treatments. Testing a treatment that targets, say, the tau tangles or amyloid plaques of Alzheimer’s won’t stand a chance if patients who only have TDP-43 are allowed into the study.

“If you have a dementia percolating in your brain, the only hope we have right now is to participate in a clinical trial to try to stop it,” Nelson said.

more

Facebook Overhauls Messaging as It Pivots to Privacy

Facebook Inc on Tuesday debuted an overhaul of its core social network and new business-focused tools, the first concrete steps in its plan to refashion itself into a private messaging and e-commerce company.

Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg unveiled a fresh design for the world’s biggest social network that de-emphasized its News Feed and showcased services like its messaging app, online marketplace and video-on-demand site.

The company also rolled out features aimed both at encouraging users to interact with their close social circle as well as with businesses, including appointment booking and a “Secret Crush” option for Facebook Dating.

Zuckerberg in March promised changes to the advertising-driven social media company as it was under regulatory scrutiny over propaganda on its platform and users’ data privacy. Facebook’s News Feed continues to draw ad dollars but user growth in its most lucrative markets has slowed.

“We believe that there is a community for everyone. So we’ve been working on a major evolution to make communities as central as friends,” said Zuckerberg on Tuesday, speaking at Facebook’s annual F8 conference, where the company gives developers a peek at new product releases.

Other Facebook executives introduced changes within the Messenger and Instagram apps aimed at helping businesses connect with customers, including appointment booking and enhanced shopping features as well as a tool to lure customers into direct conversations with companies via ads.

Zuckerberg identified private messaging, ephemeral stories and small groups as the fastest-growing areas of online communication. In last three years, the number of people using WhatsApp has almost doubled.

The social media company is now working on “LightSpeed” in order to make its Messenger app smaller in size and faster.

Facebook will also introduce Messenger for Mac and Windows and launch a new feature called “Product Catalog” for WhatsApp Business. The desktop version of Messenger will be available this fall.

“I know that we don’t exactly have the strongest reputation on privacy right now, to put it lightly,” Zuckerberg said.

The online ad market is largely dominated by Facebook and Alphabet Inc’s Google. But by focusing more on messaging, e-commerce, payment and enterprise-focused tools,

Facebook will also need to battle the likes of Amazon.com Inc and Microsoft Corp as well as fast-growing Silicon Valley unicorns like workplace messaging app Slack.

“We’ve shown time and again as a company that we have what it takes to evolve,” Zuckerberg said.

Making money

Facebook pulled in nearly $56 billion in revenue last year, almost of all which came from showing ads to the 2.7 billion people who access its family of apps each month.

But Facebook is no longer adding many new users in the United States and Europe, its most lucrative markets, and it must find additional sources of revenue if it is to sustain growth.

The product releases at F8 indicate its answer involves efforts to keep users on its apps for longer, coupled with e-commerce tools Facebook is hoping businesses will pay to use.

Features that drive the most user engagement, like Stories and videos, are being decked out with new tools and given increased prominence across the platforms.

One new feature will allow users to watch videos together in Messenger, while also viewing each other’s reactions in simultaneous texts and video chats.

Facebook Dating will be expanded into 14 new markets, including places in Asia like the Philippines where Facebook has high user growth. A “Secret Crush” feature will allows users to explore potential romantic relationships within their friend circle.

The company is also courting businesses, giving them ways to chat with customers and conduct transactions, similar to how consumers in China are already shopping on services like WeChat. Instagram is expanding a sales system introduced last month, allowing public figures, known as influencers, to tag products in their posts so fans can buy them right away.

Sellers on Marketplace will likewise receive payments and arrange shipping directly within Facebook.

more

Ghana Launches Malaria Vaccine for Children

Children in Ghana are starting to get a new vaccine designed to stop malaria. Ghana is the second African country to get the vaccine, which is expected to reduce cases of the mosquito-borne and sometimes fatal disease. But experts caution that other malaria-prevention measures are still necessary.

It took more than thirty years and almost one billion dollars to develop the malaria vaccine launched in Ghana today.  

The vaccine, known as RTS-S, reduces cases of the mosquito-spread disease in children by up to 40 percent.

Ghana, Kenya, and Malawi are participating in a pilot vaccination program, which began last week in Malawi. Over the next four years about one million babies are expected to be vaccinated with four doses of RTS-S.  

Cape Coast is a city in one of three regions Ghana is targeting due to high levels of malaria.

The vaccine is considered an additional tool in the fight against the disease, alongside bed nets and indoor insecticide spraying. The World Health Organization’s Richard Mihigo said the vaccine is needed because progress has stalled in recent years.

“This is really something we are considering in public health as a dream coming true, because so far when you look at the intervention that has been used to fight the disease, we believe that this new vaccine is going to add a significant boost to the fight against malaria,” he said.

The WHO says malaria infected 219 million people in 2017 and killed 435,000.

The disease remains one of the world’s leading killers, claiming the life of one child every two minutes. Most of these deaths are in Africa and more than a quarter million of them are children.

Ghanaian officials launched the vaccination program Tuesday with patients from the Ewim Polyclinic in Cape Coast. The clinic serves low-income Ghanaians, many of whom live in cramped conditions and prefer to sleep outside, where they are vulnerable to mosquito bites.

Since 2016 the clinic has seen over a thousand cases of malaria each year in children under five.

Nurse Agnes Morgue-Duncan is hopeful the vaccine will protect children and help eradicate malaria.

“Our communities are the main fisherfolks and there are a lot of people.  We have a densely populated area. So sometimes you will see one room and so many people in one room and sometimes they mostly sleep outside before getting inside, so automatically or definitely they will be bitten by the mosquito and infected,” said Morgue-Duncan.

The vaccine will be rolled out in Kenya in the coming weeks, and doctors will watch closely to see if malaria rates decline.

more

Report: Climate Change Threatens Half of World Heritage Sites’ Glaciers

Nearly half of the glaciers in World Heritage sites will disappear by the end of this century if greenhouse gas emissions continue unchecked, a report said Tuesday.

The new study from the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) focused on the 46 World Heritage sites where glaciers are found, including Grosser Aletschgletscher in the Swiss Alps, Greenland’s Jakobshavn Glacier and Khumbu Glacier in the Himalayas.

Using a variety of data and advanced modelling, the authors “predict glacier extinction by 2100 under a high emission scenario in 21 of the 46 natural World Heritage sites where glaciers are currently found,” IUCN said in a statement.

That “high emission scenario” refers to the status quo, where the commitments made under the 2015 Paris climate pact are not met.

Sites likely to see the most severe ice-loss are Los Glaciares National Park in Argentina and Waterton Glacier International Peace Park, which straddles the Canada-US border.

The disappearance of small glaciers in the Pyrenees – Mont Perdu World Heritage site could happen before 2040, according to IUCN projections.

Even if nations deliver on the terms of the Paris agreement, eight of the 46 World Heritage sites analysed in the report will still be ice-free by the year 2100, IUCN added.

“Losing these iconic glaciers would be a tragedy and have major consequences for the availability of water resources, sea level rise and weather patterns,” Peter Shadie, director of IUCN’s World Heritage Programme, said in the statement.

IUCN, widely-known for its “red list” of endangered species, has developed the first ever inventory of the 19,000 glaciers spread across 46 World Heritage sites.

more

US Treasury Secretary Hopes for ‘Substantial Progress’ in China Talks

U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin says he hopes to makes “substantial progress” in trade talks with China, as the world’s two largest economies try to reach a resolution to their trade war.

Mnuchin and Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer are leading a U.S. delegation meeting with Chinese officials this week in Beijing.

Next week, Chinese officials will travel to Washington for another round of talks.

Washington and Beijing have held several rounds of talks this year to resolve a trade war that began in 2018 when President Donald Trump imposed punitive tariffs on $250 billion worth of Chinese imports. He has been trying to compel Beijing to change its trade practices. China retaliated with tariff increases on $110 billion of U.S. exports.

 

more

Tariffs Take Toll on Farm Equipment Manufacturers

Their iconic blue-colored planters and grain cars are recognizable on many farms across the United States. They are also easily spotted in large displays, some stacked one on top of the other, in front of Kinze’s manufacturing hub along Interstate 80, where, inside buildings sprawling across a campus situated among Iowa’s corn and soybeans fields, the company’s employees work with one key component. 

“Steel is the lifeblood of Kinze,” says Richard Dix, a company senior director. “We’re a factory that’s essentially a weld house. We cut, burn, form, shape, cut, paint steel.”

WATCH: Kane Farabaugh’s video report

Steel now costs more, the result of a 25 percent tariff on the material imported from most countries, including China.

“When there is a tariff on steel it cuts rights to the core of our fundamental product construction,” says Dix.

In March of 2018, President Donald Trump imposed tariffs on aluminum and steel, with the goal of boosting U.S. production and related employment. 

While there has been a modest benefit to the domestic steel industry, Dix says increased costs are negatively impacting smaller manufacturing companies like Kinze.

“We see the bills that come in from our suppliers are higher based on those tariffs,” Dix explains. “Not just in steel but also in a lot of the electronics, rubber commodities and other agricultural parts we buy from China as well. Those tariffs take their effect on our cost structure, on the profitability for the family, through our employees, and now to our dealers and on to our customers.”

Those customers are mostly U.S. farmers who use some of Kinze’s products to put soybean and corn seeds into the ground. Soybean exports in particular are now subject to retaliatory tariffs imposed by the Chinese, one of the biggest export markets for U.S. farmers, which has sunk commodity prices and contributed to another year of overall declining income for U.S. farmers. 

​That means many are less likely to purchase the products Kinze makes.

“The market is substantially down,” says Dix. “The farmers don’t have that level of security they need to go out into the dealerships and buy that equipment. We get a one-two punch. We pay more for the product that comes into us and therefore on to the customer, and then we have a reciprocal situation where we can’t export what was advantageous to us.”

These are some of the concerns Dix explained to Iowa Republican Senator Joni Ernst, who participated in a roundtable discussion at Kinze along with farmers and others in Iowa impacted by tariffs. It was part of a “Tariffs Hurt the Heartland” event hosted by Kinze, and organized by the group Americans for Free Trade along with the Association of Equipment Manufacturers. 

Ernst says the personal stories she gathers from these meetings go a long way in helping President Donald Trump understand the impact on her constituents.

“He has a very different negotiating style,” she told VOA. “He wants to start with the worst possible scenario, and negotiate his way to a good and fair trade deal, but again sharing those stories is very important and yes it does have an impact. I think the president does listen.”

Ernst says she is encouraged by news from the Trump administration on developments in negotiations that lead her to believe the trade dispute with China, and the related tariffs, could end soon.

“When I last spoke to [U.S. Trade Representative] Robert Lighthizer, he had indicated that the deal with China is largely done, it’s just figuring out the enforcement mechanism, and that is what the United States and China are really bartering over right now.”

But Kinze’s Richard Dix says one year under tariffs has already taken a toll on the company’s operations.

“We’re not really that big, so we can say that this impact has been a seven-figure impact for us in the last year, and that’s a substantial amount of money.”

It’s an amount that Dix says, so far, hasn’t been passed on to Kinze’s customers, or the employees.

“We have not actually had any direct layoffs that are attributable to this tariff situation, but we’re all tightening our belts.”

more

Mother of Four Starts Career as Biking Instructor

On a sunny, breezy spring day, a group of children, four to seven-years-old, sit on their bikes, helmets and gloves on, ready to start their biking lesson. Their moms, standing nearby, watch them closely, feeling proud that their little ones are learning how to ride.

Instructor Rachel Van is also excited about making biking a part of their lives. She still remembers how she felt, riding a bike for the first time. It was an amazing “I can” moment. Now, her job is helping other kids to experience that moment. 

“It’s probably the biggest confidence booster. It gives kids such a sense of independence and agency,” she says.

Basics of biking

Rachel Van quit her job as a salesperson in the bicycle industry last year, to become a certified cycling instructor. She founded Pedal Power Kids to teach bicycle education.

Before hitting the road, she has the group review the basics of the bike maintenance, what she calls “the ABC quick check.” 

“A” is for air, she explains. “We have to check our tires before we ride. B is for brakes. We want to make sure our brakes work before we find ourselves on the top of the hill about to go down. And C is for chain. We want to make sure that our chain doesn’t have any junk in it.” 

They also work on biking skills, from balance and pedaling to turning, starting and stopping. 

And they need to learn and remember some basic rules. The first one is eyes up and forward. 

“A lot of kids struggle with their eyes on the ground, looking for their pedals, but obviously that doesn’t allow them to see what’s going on around them, and it also doesn’t allow them to turn properly,” Van says.

That’s because watching where you’re going helps you steer.

“Sometimes people think that you turn your bike using the handle bar. You see little kids going like this, steering,” she says as she demonstrates, turning the handle bar back and forth, “and they fall over. But we really turn by leaning. So, when we look, then our body leans and then our bike leans.” 

Biking changes lives

Being able to ride a bike opens a whole new world to children. It gives them a sense of accomplishment and freedom. They become more aware of their surroundings, learning to make safe, smart decisions going from one place to another.

Van’s goal is to get more kids on two wheels. That, she says, will help make the world a better place. “That’s really a great way for kids to be active and develop healthy habits,” Van says. “It helps reduce pollution and just keep families and communities connected.”

Since starting Pedal Power Kids last year, Van has helped around 250 new riders. An active community network of satisfied mothers is her best advertiser.

“Moms are pretty magic,” Van says. “If the mom is happy with something, if [having their child learn to ride] made their lives a bit easier, then they tell their friends. So my business has grown almost entirely through word of mouth.” 

Julia Roeling is part of the moms’ network. She says biking is a great activity for their kids to be outside and not to stay home playing video games all the day. But since she had neither the time nor comfort level to teach her kids how to ride, she enrolled two of her three kids in Van’s bicycling class.

“They love working with Rachel,” she says. “She knows what to say to motivate them. Now, they can do it safely. And they know how to get around the community and stop at the stop signs and be together on their bikes.”

The kids in the classes are happy and excited about their biking experiences. They name their bikes and take pride in being able to do the bike maintenance themselves. They have fun biking with their friends.

Having fun is important to teach these kids a sport that will keep them active for life. As Van observes, “We probably wouldn’t be playing lacrosse when we are 75 or 89, but we certainly can be riding a bike!” 

more