Silicon Valley & Technology

European Space Agency to Help NASA Take Humans Beyond Moon

The European Space Agency says it will contribute key components for a future NASA mission to take humans around the moon within the next few years.

Astronauts haven’t gone beyond a low orbit around Earth since 1972, when NASA ended its Apollo program.

The European Space Agency and aerospace company Airbus have already delivered a propulsion and supply module for an unmanned flight of NASA’s new Orion spacecraft next year.

The agency said Wednesday that it and Airbus have now agreed with NASA to build a module for a second, manned mission that will fly around the moon as early as 2021.

Orion is eventually intended to expand human exploration to deep-space destinations such as Mars or asteroids.

Science & Health

Atherosclerosis in Young Patients Increases Risk of Early Death

A new study suggests that even small calcium deposits in the arteries of young patients can predict an early heart attack or death within a dozen years.

The study also suggests that it’s easy to spot the trouble and can be a “call to action” for doctors and patients to begin taking preventive action.

The cardiac study conducted at four centers in the U.S. involved 5,000 young adults between the ages of 18 and 30.

Jeff Carr, a radiologist and cardiologist at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, was lead author of the study.

Carr said it appears that any amount of atherosclerosis, or calcium deposits, in the cardiac arteries of young people can dramatically shorten their lives, “even if it’s just one little dot or a very low what’s called a calcium score are at markedly elevated risk.  So if you have any amount of coronary calcium your risk increases over the next 10 to 15 years by about 10 percent.  If you have a lot, your risk increases significantly and your chance of dying over those next years is approximately 22 percent.”

In the study, which began in 1985, 3,300 African American and white young adults received a CT scan, looking for evidence of atherosclerosis.  

The remainder of the participants were followed based on known risk factors for heart attack.

Atherosclerosis was seen on CT in 30 percent of those who were scanned.  The study followed up after 12 years – when doctors noted the high early mortality rate in those with calcium deposits.

The study was published in the journal JAMA Cardiology.

Carr said it’s not necessary to do a heart scan on everyone to project their risk of death from heart attack. He said a clinician can assess a person’s risk of an attack by doing a health profile measuring and weighing a number of risk factors.

“Risk factors like blood pressure and cholesterol, even when modestly elevated in early adult life in these people at high risk, may provide opportunity to identify them and treat risk factors more aggressively, and just potentially be able to lower the risk of future heart attacks that we saw over the past 15 years in the cohort [study participants],” Carr said.

Carr said medications to lower high blood pressure and elevated cholesterol, weight loss and stopping smoking are proven to be effective in fighting heart disease.  And of course a healthier diet, with lots of fruits and vegetables and less red meat, doesn’t hurt.

Economy & business

US Conservatives Propose Carbon Tax to Fight Climate Change

A group of conservative thinkers led by leaders from the Reagan and Bush administrations have proposed what they are calling a “Conservative Answer to Climate Change.”

The group, including two former U.S. secretaries of state – James Baker and George Shultz – held a press conference Wednesday in Washington to unveil its plan.

Confronting the threat

The plan, available online, opens with a simple admission: “the risks associated with future warmings are so severe that they should be hedged.”

Team members were also willing to openly call out their Republican colleagues for refusing to confront the issue.

“For too long,” the group says, “many  Republicans have looked the other way, forfeiting the policy initiative to those who favor growth-inhibiting command-and-control regulations, and fostering a needless climate divide between the GOP and the scientific, business, military, religious, civic and international mainstream.”

Looking to regain that initiative, the team unveiled its plan which centers around four pillars. The first pillar is an old idea made new again: a carbon tax.

It’s just what it says it is – a tax on planet warming emissions from oil, coal and natural gas.

In this case, the team is suggesting a tax on carbon starting at $40 for roughly every metric ton of emissions.

The second pillar demands that any money made off of that tax be sent directly to U.S. consumers. And they do mean directly, by way of “dividend checks, direct deposits or contributions to their individual retirement accounts.”

The third pillar sets out the way we deal with the world. It looks to punish polluters by that same carbon tax on countries that are big polluters. Any money made from that tariff would go directly to American citizens.

And once the plan is in place, the fourth pillar kicks in: An end to “the Environmental Protection Agency’s regulatory authority over carbon dioxide emissions … including an outright repeal of the Clean Power Plan.”

Devil in the details

It sounds simple. But it is also a tax. The Trump administration and the Republican majorities in the House and the Senate are looking to cut taxes, not raise them. So far, there has been little reaction from Capitol Hill or the White House.

Press Secretary Sean Spicer was asked about the plan and would only say: “we have nothing to announce on that.”

And some environmental groups, while backing a carbon tax in general, are less excited about the prospect of abandoning the progress made during the last administration.

The Natural Resources Defense Council put out a statement that a carbon tax alone won’t solve the problem.

But whether it succeeds or not, one of the real goals is to give conservatives a chance to get beyond what many see as their history of climate change denial.  “…this is an opportunity to demonstrate the power of the conservative canon by offering a more effective, equitable and popular climate policy based on free markets, smaller government and dividends for all Americans.”

Science & Health

Study: More Screen Time Not So Bad for Children

Until last year, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended that to limit exposure to potentially harmful messages, children and teenagers should engage in no more than two hours of playing video games or watching television per day.  

Psychologist Christopher Ferguson of Stetson University in Florida points to a lack of data backing up the notion that too much screen time is truly harmful. Still, he said, it’s a common public perception.

“There’s always this kind of sense of there being a zero-sum game, that the more time our kids are spending with screens, the less time they’re spending with academics, the more they’re getting exposed to all kinds of antisocial messages or objectionable messages that … we would not like our kids to be exposed to,” he said.

A British study, according to Ferguson, found there was a very small negative effect — about a 1 percent increase — in aggression and depression among kids who engaged in six or more hours of screen time per day.

Ferguson wanted to see whether there was a similar effect among American adolescents. So he and a team of investigators analyzed responses from a survey on risky behaviors given to about 6,000 kids in Florida. Their average age was 16. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention developed the questionnaire.

Data from the 2013 survey found that American children were also fairly resistant to the negative effects of screen consumption.  

Small differences

Among those who played video games, watched TV or worked on a computer up to six hours per day, there was a small increase in delinquency of half of 1 percent, a 1.7 percent increase in depressive symptoms and a 1.2 percent negative impact on school grades.

The researchers saw no increase in risky sex or driving behaviors, the use of illegal substances or eating disorders.

“Kids actually can consume a larger amount of media than we kind of thought in the past, kind of up to six hours per day, without there being any noticeable correlation of problematic behaviors,” Ferguson said.

The findings were published in the journal Psychiatric Quarterly.

The pediatric association no longer recommends a limit on screen time, instead suggesting that parents try to strike a balance with beneficial activities such as getting enough sleep, exercising and doing homework.

Ferguson agrees that those things are important, but goes a step further, saying youngsters should become intimately familiar with screen technology, since it has become an essential part of our everyday lives, from academics to work.

Arts & Entertainment

Diversity to Rock Runway at NY Fashion Week

From faux furs and statement outerwear to floral prints and pants suits for warmer weather, a diversity of styles for all seasons will hit the runway at New York Fashion Week.

Many designers at the semi-annual event, which  begins on Thursday, will preview 2017 fall/winter apparel that will land in stores months from now. But others will follow a trend that started last year and show in-season designs for spring/summer that consumers can snap up immediately.

“We’re also seeing a lot of designers show spring as well with their ‘see now/buy now’ collection,” said Katrina Mitzeliotis, fashion director at celebrity and style website “There is more diversity than ever before in what’s coming down the runway.”

Designers Tommy Hilfiger, Tom Ford and a few others featured in-season looks at last September’s Fashion Week, months ahead of when the fashion world was accustomed to seeing them.

Look for plenty of mashups, or mixed fabrics that appear to be thrown together with studied casualness, to grace Fashion Week runways this season, said Roseanne Morrison, fashion director of The Doneger Group. She expects plenty of pant suits and outfits with a tailored look, too.

“I am sure a lot of the fabrics will be lighter in weight because most of the designers are addressing seasonless, or ‘see now/buy now’ concept, because nobody is really buying for three months ahead,” she said.

While the idea has picked up steam, Catherine Bennett, senior vice president, managing director of IMG fashion events, cautioned that it is not a business model for everyone.

“It’s really a personal decision for each designer,” she explained. “It’s a great solution for some brands but not for others.”

But diversity may extend beyond the fashions at Fashion Week, which organizers said attracts about 100,000 people and generates $880 million in revenue for New York City.

Last season more than 25 percent of the models in shows in New York, London, Paris and Milan were women of color, according to a study by website.

New York led the way, with 30.3 percent, and that could rise this year. The city’s Fashion Week also featured the most plus-size models in recent history, more women over 50 years old and a slight increase in transgender models, with 10


“We’re seeing diversity more and more in fashion, whether it is race or size,” said Mitzeliotis.

Fashion experts hope the trend will continue and make the shows more inclusive, broadening the appeal of the fashions.

This year IMG, the organizer of Fashion Week, has moved the shows from midtown venues to the SoHo neighborhood of lower Manhattan.

Although some designers will still present their collections at venues in other parts of Manhattan, the bulk of the shows are scheduled for three galleries at Skylight Clarkson Square and the presentation space Industria.



Economy & business

How ‘Madam Walker’ Became One of America’s First African-American Millionaires

Madam C.J. Walker embodies the quintessential American success story, as someone who fought seemingly insurmountable odds to become one of the 20th century’s most successful self-made woman entrepreneurs.

The daughter of former slaves, Walker built a cosmetics empire selling hair care and beauty products for African-American women. By the time she died at age 51, she was among the first African-American millionaires in the United States. It was just over 50 years after the end of slavery. 

“She was a woman who provided employment for thousands of women and she used her money and her influence as a philanthropist and a political activist,” said A’Lelia Bundles, who speaks glowingly of her famous great-great grandmother.

Bundles, a former television news executive and biographer, spent decades researching the life of her famous ancestor.

“She really embodies the dream, the American dream, with opportunity for everyone, with the ability to take your God-given talents and to educate yourself and then to do something for others,” said Bundles. 

Unfortunate upbringing

Madam C.J. Walker, born Sarah Breedlove in Delta, Louisiana, in 1867, was orphaned at age 7 and married at 14, but her husband died a few years later, according to Bundles.

“So, there were all of these blows, all of these things were stacked against her, but somehow she had such a survival instinct, soaking up everything she saw around her” she said. 

Self-made millionaire

Following her experience as a sales agent for Annie Malone’s black hair care business, Poro, Walker decided to create her own line of hair care products.

She saw the opportunity as a means of providing for her family, primarily her daughter A’Lelia.

“Madam Walker’s Wonderful Hair Grower,” sold in homes and churches, helped catapult her business. Bundles says Walker traveled across the country, knowing that a black woman somewhere would be in need of her hair care line.

“Walker’s experiences enabled the self-made businesswoman to develop key marketing skills that would drive her future success,” she said.

As part of her marketing strategy, Walker utilized her own image as the before and after for her advertisements, while also being on the seal of the products. One would also find her advertisements in black-owned newspapers.

Additionally, she printed business cards, fliers, and created various packaging to get her name out in black communities across America. Walker was known for giving her customers more than hair products, but offering them a lifestyle, according to Bundles. 

Her hard work paid off. In May 1918, Walker moved into her brand new estate outside New York City. This caused surprise and dismay among her white neighbors but did not deter Walker. 

Empowering African American women

Walker used her fortune to hire women at all levels of her company. Bundles says Walker wanted them to know that their roles would be as leaders in their community. 

She held the first national convention of her sales agents in 1917.

According to Bundles, in Walker’s keynote speech, the businesswoman said, “I want you as Walker Agents to show the world that you care not just about yourself but about others.”

At the end of the convention, the women sent a telegram to President Woodrow Wilson urging him to support legislation to make lynching a federal crime.

“She wanted them to speak up; she wanted them to use their power and their influence and their money to make a difference,” Bundles said. 

Working for Walker provided the women a means to provide for their family and to be economically independent.

Bundles notes a former worker once said, “‘C.J. Walker made it possible for a black woman to make more money in a day than she could in a month working in somebody’s kitchen.’ So, this was really showing women, who would have been sharecroppers and maids and laundresses, how they could support their families and be their own bosses.”

Maintaining Walker’s legacy

When Madam C.J. Walker died in 1919, she left tens of thousands of dollars to charitable organizations and schools, leaving behind a legacy of political activism while establishing a pattern of corporate giving.

Bundles is committed to maintaining Walker’s legacy.

“For all my life, I’ve been trying to tell Madam’s story and really it’s a labor of love just to make sure people know about her and the empowerment she gave to other women,” Bundles said. “Madam Walker’s legacy lives in her philanthropy as well as in an amazing line of hair care products.”

Economy & business

Colombia’s Santos May Have Received Odebrecht Contributions

Colombia’s chief prosecutor said Wednesday that suspicions of illegal campaign contributions to President Juan Manuel Santos are based on testimony of a rancher connected to the leader’s opponents.


The allegations have drawn the winner of last year’s Nobel Peace Prize into a widening corruption scandal rocking politicians across Latin America due to admissions of bribery by Brazilian construction giant Odebrecht.


Chief prosecutor Nestor Martinez said that the accusation, which Santos denies, has not been corroborated and is based solely on the testimony of Otto Bula, who has been jailed for allegedly channeling bribes on behalf of the Brazilian firm. Martinez, formerly a top aide to Santos, said that he alerted electoral authorities so they could investigate whether almost $1 million ended up in Santos’ 2014 re-election campaign.


“Right now, Bula’s sworn testimony is the only proof that $1 million entered Santos’ campaign,” Martinez said in a press conference in which he was hounded by journalists seeking more details about the accusation. “He’s given information the way, place and time the money was delivered.”


Just being associated with Odebrecht, which has admitted to paying $800 million in bribes across Latin America, is a major blow for Santos. His biggest political asset has been an internationally hailed reputation for rectitude that contrasts with the shady dealings of many of his rivals.


Santos had yet to comment, but his former campaign manager called any claim of a tie to Odebrecht unfounded and libelous.


When Odebrecht agreed in December to pay a $3.5 billion fine in the U.S. as part of a plea agreement, authorities in Colombia were the first outside Brazil to arrest former officials accused of taking bribes.


“So far no official from my government has been accused of taking bribes from Odebrecht, but if that should occur I want the entire weight of the law to fall on them,” Santos said last month.


Among those jailed was Bula, a little-known rancher who was a regional political ally of the senator cousin of former President Alvaro Uribe, Santos’ chief opponent. According to the plea agreement, officials in Uribe’s government received the bulk of $11 million that Odebrecht admitted to paying in bribes in Colombia between 2009 and 2014.


According to Martinez, Bula lobbied on behalf of Odebrecht and helped channel $4.6 million to still unknown recipients after the company was awarded a major highway contract. Most of the money went through companies in Panama and China, but two transfers to Colombia of almost $1 million total purportedly ended up in the management of Santos’ campaign, Martinez said.


Santos’ aides quickly repeat their assertion that Santos took no private contributions, from individuals or companies, during his 2014 campaign in which he narrowly defeated Uribe’s former finance minister.


Transparency Secretary Camilo Encisco said Santos welcomed an investigation to remove any doubt about his probity.


“It’s the word of a criminal, who is looking for legal benefits at any cost, against the word of a campaign manager,” Enciso said. “We’re certain that these investigations will reveal such affirmations to be false as has occurred on previous occasions.”

Science & Health

‘Unprecedented’ Jet Stream Pushing Warm Air Into Arctic

For the second consecutive year, the northern reaches of the planet are experiencing unprecedented waves of warm air.

And climate researchers say they’ve never seen anything like it.

Unprecedented warm weather

To try and understand what is going on, VOA spoke with Mark Serreze, the director of the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) based in Denver, Colorado.

The center does all kinds of things, from helping the Navy spot and avoid sea ice, to monitoring the temperatures, weather systems and extent of the sea ice covering the Arctic and Antarctic throughout the year.

The weather pattern of the past two years, according to Serreze, is “unprecedented in my memory.”

The unprecedented part is what Serreze calls “pulses of extremely warm air over the [Arctic] Ocean, extreme to the point where at the North Pole it’s getting near to the freezing point.”

The cause is “an unusual jet stream pattern that has helped to guide lots of very strong storms into the Arctic, coming in from the Atlantic” Ocean.

Jet streams are narrow bands of air that move extremely fast around the globe. The polar jets are the strongest, circling the globe between nine and 12 kilometers above sea level. They can move at more than 100 kilometers per hour.

This winter and last, those polar jets are doing what they always do, picking up a lot of hot moist air from the tropics and pushing it up into the arctic. That’s how weather works, Serreze says, moving warm, moist energetic air from the lower latitudes near the equator to higher latitudes at the poles to cool down and release all that energy.

The difference here, he says, is we’re experiencing an unusually strong jet stream, combined with unusually strong storms. That combination is creating these pulses of very warm weather.

New normal, or just weather?

Serreze says the research community is now is trying to decide what is going on, and theories generally are falling into two camps.

One camp argues “that this is just one expression of natural variability.” Serreze says this may be a weather pattern like El Nino “where weather patterns get stuck for a while.” If that’s the case, this unusual phenomenon may persist for a few years, and then fade away, to return from time to time.

The other camp is arguing that “the lack of sea ice in critical areas is what is driving this unusual jet stream pattern…”

If that scenario is correct, Serreze says it is worrisome. If a lack of sea ice is causing this jet stream, and the jet stream is raising temperatures, then it becomes a negative feedback loop.

Serreze is quick to point out that there’s no real consensus on the cause, because “the reality is that we are seeing these changes unfolding faster than we have the ability to understand them.”

He also points out that even with these pulses of warm air, it is still really cold up North, and plenty of ice is still forming, but it’s not as much and not as thick as usual. That means we “start next melt season with thinner ice,” that is easier to melt.

“We could be setting ourselves up for a very, very low ice flow… and it could hasten an ice-free Arctic Ocean,” Serreze said.

The timing on that is unclear, he says, though we could be looking at an ice-free Arctic in the summer months, well before 2100, and perhaps in the next 20 to 30 years.