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Extra Portion of SpaceX Rocket Recovered from Launch, Musk Says

Elon Musk’s SpaceX on Thursday salvaged half of the $6 million nosecone of its rocket, in what the space entrepreneur deemed an important feat in the drive to recover more of its launch hardware and cut the cost of space flights.

Shortly after the main section of SpaceX’s first recycled Falcon 9 booster landed itself on a platform in the ocean, half of the rocket’s nosecone, which protected a communications satellite during launch, splashed down via parachute nearby.

“That was the cherry on the cake,” Musk, who serves as chief executive and lead designer of Space Exploration Technologies, told reporters after launch from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Measuring 43 feet (13 meters) long and 17 feet (5 meters) in diameter, the nosecone is big enough to hold a school bus. It separates into two pieces, exposing the satellite, about 4 minutes after liftoff.

 

As a test, SpaceX outfitted the fairing with thrusters and a steerable parachute.

“It’s its own little spacecraft,” Musk said. “The thrusters maintain its orientation as it re-enters and then … the parachute steers it to a particular location.”

SpaceX has focused most of its efforts and more than $1 billion into developing technologies to recover the Falcon 9’s main section, which accounts for about 75 percent of the $62 million rocket. Musk’s goal is to cut the cost of spaceflight so that humanity can migrate beyond Earth.

“I hope people will start to think about it as a real goal to establish a civilization on Mars,” he said.

Landing on ‘bouncy castle’

After some debate about whether the nosecone could be recovered, Musk said he told his engineering team, “Imagine you had $6 million in cash on a pallet flying through the air that’s just going to smash into the ocean. Would you try to recover that? Yes, you would.”

Musk envisions deploying a kind of “bouncy castle” for the fairing to land on so it can be recovered intact and reused.

The company plans up to six more flights of recycled boosters this year, including two that will strapped alongside a third, new first stage for the debut test flight of a heavy-lift rocket.

Originally slated to fly in 2013, Falcon Heavy is now expected to fly late this summer.

“At first it sounded easy: We’ll just take two first stages and use them as strap-on boosters,” Musk said. “It was actually shockingly difficult to go from single core to a triple-core vehicle.”

SpaceX also may try to land the rocket’s upper-stage section, a feat the company has never attempted. “Odds of success low, but maybe worth a shot,” Musk wrote Friday on Twitter.

Privately owned SpaceX also is developing a commercial space taxi to fly astronauts to the International Space Station, a venture to send two space tourists on a trip around the moon and a Mars lander that is slated to launch in 2020.

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Zika Vaccine Trials Enter Next Phase

U.S. researchers have begun enrolling people in the next phase of testing for a vaccine to protect against Zika, the mosquito-borne virus that can cause birth defects in pregnant women.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institutes of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), told reporters Friday that the Zika vaccine had cleared preliminary safety hurdles and would now be tested on human volunteers to see whether it is effective.

In the study, funded by the U.S. government, researchers aim to enroll more than 2,400 healthy volunteers from areas where mosquitoes carry the Zika virus — parts of the southern United States, Puerto Rico, Brazil, Peru, Costa Rica, Panama and Mexico.

Researchers at the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) said the trial would begin with a small number of people testing different doses or strengths of vaccine. Once the dosage is decided, the larger part of the study could begin by June, when the volunteers will receive either the vaccine or a placebo.

Participants will be monitored for two years to see whether the vaccine protects against Zika infection.

The vaccine being tested is a new type, called a DNA vaccine. Traditionally, vaccines are made using killed or weakened viruses, which increase the recipients’ ability to fight off an active infection.

The DNA vaccine contains no actual virus, but has genes extracted from Zika viruses. Once inside the body, the genes form particles resembling Zika that cannot cause infection. If all goes well, the gene particles should induce volunteers’ immune systems to produce antibodies capable of repelling the full virus.

NIH researchers also are studying more traditional Zika vaccines, but those are not yet ready for human trials.       

The DNA vaccine trial is expected to cost $100 million, but Fauci said the government was in talks with pharmaceutical companies to share the costs of the final stage of testing, in return for rights to manufacture the vaccine in the future.

Zika typically causes no symptoms or only mild ones, such as fever and body aches. If the virus infects a pregnant woman, however, it can result in birth defects in newborns, including microcephaly, which is characterized by an abnormally small head and brain, accompanied by marked developmental disorders.

Zika is primarily transmitted by mosquitoes, but it can also be transmitted via sexual contact.

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Silicon Valley & Technology
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Snapchat Adds More Accessible Search Feature

Snap Inc. said Friday that its Snapchat messaging app would add an option for users to search through photos and videos that users have posted to the public.

The move came days after larger rival Facebook Inc. stepped up efforts to encourage users to take more photos and edit them with digital stickers that show the influence of Snapchat.

Snapchat will enable users to search for photos and videos known as “Snaps” posted to the “Our Story” option on the app, by creating new “Stories” using machine learning technology, the company said in a blog post.

The “Our Story” option is derived from Snap’s widely copied “Stories” feature that is a slideshow of user content that disappears after 24 hours.

“Our Story” allows users to post their Snaps as part of a larger public collection, which users will be able to search through with the latest update.

For instance, users can use the search feature to find “Snaps” related to events such as local basketball games and topics such as puppies.

The search feature, which was rolled out in some cities Friday, is an addition to curated “Stories,” where public “Snaps” about major events like Wimbledon or the Coachella music festival already appear.

Snapchat popularized the sharing of digitally decorated photographs on social media, especially among teenagers, but faces intense competition from larger Facebook and Facebook-owned Instagram.

Users will now be able to search for over 1 million “Stories” on Snapchat, Snap said, making the app more accessible.

Snap’s shares were up 1.5 percent in afternoon trading, while Facebook’s stock was down marginally.

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Economy & business
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White House Financial Disclosures: Kushner Retains Scores of Real Estate Holdings

President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and daughter are holding onto scores of real estate investments — part of a portfolio of at least $240 million in assets — while they serve in White House jobs, according to financial disclosures released publicly late Friday.

Jared Kushner, Trump’s senior adviser, resigned from more than 260 entities and sold off 58 businesses or investments that lawyers identified as posing potential conflicts of interest, the documents show.

But his lawyers, in consultation with the Office of Government Ethics, determined that his real estate assets, many of them in New York City, are unlikely to pose the kinds of conflicts that would trigger a need to divest.

“The remaining conflicts, from a practical perspective, are pretty narrow and very manageable,” said Jamie Gorelick, an attorney who has been working on the ethics agreements for Kushner and Ivanka Trump.

Kushner began selling off the most problematic pieces of his portfolio shortly after Trump won the election, and some of those business deals predate what is required to be captured in the financial disclosure forms.

For example, Kushner sold his stake in a Manhattan skyscraper to a trust his mother oversees. Jared Kushner, Ivanka Trump and their three minor children have no financial interest in that trust, his lawyer said.

The Kushner Companies, now run by Jared Kushner’s relatives, are seeking investment partners for a massive redevelopment.

The White House on Friday began released financial disclosure forms for more than 100 or its top administration officials — a mix of people far wealthier, and therefore more entangled in businesses that could conflict with their government duties, than people in previous administrations.

White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer described the business people who have joined the administration as “very blessed and very successful,” and said the disclosure forms will show that they have set aside “a lot” to go into public service.

The financial disclosures — required by law to be made public — give a snapshot of the employees’ finances as they entered the White House. What’s not being provided: the Office of Government Ethics agreements with those employees on what they must do to avoid potential conflicts of interest.

Those documents will never be made public, White House lawyers said, although the public will eventually have access to “certificates of divestiture” issued to employees who are seeking capital gains tax deferrals for selling off certain assets.

Kushner, for example, received certificates of divestitures for his financial interests in several assets, including several funds tied to Thrive Capital, his brother Joshua Kushner’s investment firm.

He and Ivanka Trump built up companies the documents show are worth at least $50 million each and have stepped away from their businesses while in government service. Like the president himself, however, they retain a financial interest in many of them. Ivanka Trump agreed this week to become a federal employee and will file her own financial disclosure at a later date.

Jared Kushner’s disclosure shows he took on tens of millions of dollars of bank debt in 2015 and 2016, including liabilities with several international banks whose interests could come before the Trump administration.

Financial information for members of Trump’s Cabinet who needed Senate confirmation has, in most cases, been available for weeks through the Office of Government Ethics.

The president must also file periodic financial disclosures, but he is not required to make another disclosure until next year.

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Silicon Valley & Technology
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Georgian Entrepreneurs Look to Silicon Valley for Funding

Boris Kiknadze, chief executive of Pawwwn, took a deep breath as he looked out to the crowd of Silicon Valley venture capitalists and began his pitch.

With just 10 minutes to speak, Kiknadze rapidly described his business idea — Pawwwn, an online payment and management system to make transactions easier for pawnshop owners and their customers. The pain point for pawn shops is payment. Pawwwn takes away that pain, he said.

For months, Kiknadze and his co-founder had developed Pawwwn in his home country of Georgia before getting on a plane for San Francisco. Since the firm launched in March, Kiknadze has had 20 customers trying out the service.

But with 1,400 pawnshops in Georgia and 12,000 more in the U.S., Kiknadze saw a big opportunity. And to achieve that, he needs cash — $1 million, which he said he would use to launch Pawwwn in the U.S.

Competing for investors

Kiknadze is part of Startup Georgia, a project administered by Georgia’s Innovation and Technology Agency, that connects U.S. experts and investors with startups in Georgia.

More than 250 entrepreneurs tried out in Georgia to qualify for a week of training in Tbilisi, the nation’s capital. Among those 50 who participated in the training, 20 were selected for seed funding and three months of additional training with a Silicon Valley expert with weekly videoconferencing meetings.

Of those, eight were chosen to travel to the U.S. for a boot camp and to pitch to investors directly.

Georgia, a country of fewer than 4 million people, is looking to the success of small countries, such as Estonia and Israel, to pitch itself as a burgeoning tech hub, said Mark Iwanowski, founder and president of Global Visions-Silicon Valley, which provided the U.S. support for the program.

For U.S. investors, typically reluctant to invest beyond U.S. tech hubs, there is an opportunity to get more value in overseas companies, where labor costs are lower, he said. To attract these investors, foreign companies need to incorporate in the U.S. and set up a team here.

Over the past week in Silicon Valley, the Georgian entrepreneurs received one-on-one mentorship training as they refined their pitches. They heard from lawyers on protecting intellectual property and listened to venture capitalists talk about how to approach investors.

“If a venture capitalist says they love it, it kind of doesn’t mean anything,” said Steve Goldberg, operating partner at Venrock, a venture firm. “My advice is to have people on the team who understand venture-speak.”

“Understand what the investor is looking for,” said Ron Weissman of Band of Angels, Silicon Valley’s oldest seed fund. He suggested approaching investors seeking a conversation — “I’m not here to raise money. I’m here to get a sense of what it would take to interest you.”

Tech’s next ‘unicorn’?

That is the kind of approach honed by Vamekh Kherkheulidze, founder and medical adviser to ORsim, a Georgian operating room virtual reality simulator.

By slipping on a virtual reality headset and a special glove that gives all the sensations of holding instruments and operating on a person, medical students can better learn how to become surgeons, Kherkheulidze said. And that’s important, because there’s a shortage of surgeons both in the U.S. and worldwide.

From potential investors, ORsim is looking “for supporters,” he said. “We promote new ways of education and we want investors who understand that.”

Still, his ambition is big. “We want to expand and expand fast,” Kherkheulidze said. Already, ORsim, with $35,000 in pre-seed funding from Startup Georgia, has an appendectomy simulator.

“Our hope is to be a unicorn,” Kherkheulidze said, referring to the term used to describe startups worth more than $1 billion in valuation. But in addition to greatly improving surgical training worldwide, he sees his company as a way to help his home country.

“If we are worth $1 billion, you can increase the economy. What was Skype’s influence in Estonia?” he said, referring to the Estonian internet communication service bought by Microsoft for more than $8 billion.

After the pitches, the entrepreneurs mingled with investors. No one got investment on the spot, but most are hopeful and are following up with meetings next week.

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British Robot Helps Autistic Children With Social Skills

“This is nice, it tickles me,” Kaspar the social robot tells four-year-old Finn as they play together at an autism school north of London.

Kaspar, developed by the University of Hertfordshire, also sings songs, imitates eating, plays the tambourine and combs his hair during their sessions, aimed at helping Finn with his social interaction and communication.

If Finn gets too rough, the similarly sized Kaspar cries: “Ouch, that hurt me.” A therapist is on hand to encourage the child to rectify his behavior by tickling the robot’s feet.

Finn is one of around 170 autistic children that Kaspar has helped in a handful of schools and hospitals over the last 10 years.

But with approximately 700,000 people in Britain on the autism spectrum, according to the National Autistic Society who will mark World Autism Day on Sunday, the university want Kaspar to help more people.

“Our vision is that every child in a school or a home or in a hospital could get a Kaspar if they wanted to,” Kerstin Dautenhahn, professor of artificial intelligence at the University of Hertfordshire, told Reuters.

Achieving that goal will largely depend on the results of a two-year clinical trial with the Hertfordshire Community NHS Trust, which, if successful, could see Kaspar working in hospitals nationwide.

TRACKS, an independent charity and specialist early-years center for children with autism in Stevenage, have seen positive results from working with Kaspar, who sports a blue cap and plaid shirt for play sessions.

“We were trying to teach a little boy how to eat with his peers. He usually struggled with it because of his anxiety issues,” said deputy principal Alice Lynch. “We started doing it with Kaspar and he really, really enjoyed feeding Kaspar, making him eat when he was hungry, things like that. Now he’s started to integrate into the classroom and eat alongside his peers. So, things like that are just a massive progression.”

Many children with autism find it hard to decipher basic human communication and emotion so Kaspar’s designers avoided making him too lifelike and instead opted for simplified, easy-to-process features.

Autism support groups have been impressed.

“Many autistic people are drawn to technology, particularly the predictability it provides, which means it can be a very useful means of engaging children, and adults too,” Carol Povey, director of the National Autistic Society’s Centre for Autism, told Reuters.

“This robot is one of a number of emerging technologies which have the potential to make a huge difference to people on the autism spectrum.”

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Cholera Spreads in Famine-threatened Somalia

Deadly cholera is spreading through drought-ravaged Somalia as clean water sources dry up, a top aid official said, deepening a humanitarian crisis in a country that is on the verge of famine.

The Horn of Africa nation has recorded more than 18,000 cases of cholera so far this year, up from around 15,000 in all of 2016 and 5,000 in a normal year, Johan Heffinck, the Somalia head of EU Humanitarian Aid, said in an email on Thursday.

The current strain of the disease is unusually deadly, killing around 1 in 45 patients.

Somalia is suffering from a severe drought that means more than half of its 12 million citizens are expected to need aid by July. Families have been forced to drink slimy, infected water after the rains failed and wells and rivers dried up.

“We are very close to famine,” Heffinck said.

The Security Information Network (FSIN), which is co-sponsored by the United Nations food agency, said in a report on Friday Somalia was one of four African countries at high risk of famine.

Somalia’s rainy season normally runs from March to May, but there has been no rain this month.

The drought has hit particularly hard in the breakaway northern region of Somaliland, where the rains began to fail in 2015, killing off animals that nomadic families rely on to survive.

‘This is the last bottle’

Listless, skinny children last week lay in crowded wards in the main hospital in the regional capital Hargeisa.

Three-year-old Nimaan Hassid had diarrhea for 20 days before his mother brought him to hospital. He weighs only 6.5 kilograms, less than half the normal weight for his age.

Doctors say he is suffering from severe malnutrition but his grandmother, 60-year-old Fadumo Hussein, told Reuters the family has no money for food or clean water.

“We don’t have mineral water to give to the sick child. This is the last bottle,” she said, carefully pouring it into a feeding tube inserted through his nose.

In the malnutrition ward in the general hospital of Somaliland’s second city Burao, Doctor Hamud Ahmed said children were also being hit hard by diseases like tuberculosis, meningitis and measles.

Children’s admissions reached almost 60 in March, up fourfold from October.

“This is due to the drought,” Ahmed said. “When families lose all their livestock and children do not get milk, this is the famine that causes the children to suffer.”

If the rains fail, the country could tip into famine.

Somalia’s last famine, in 2011, killed more than 260,000 people. Heffinck said aid agencies were working overtime to try to prevent a similar disaster, trucking in clean water and stepping up the distribution of food and cash.

“The big difference this time is that we have started the preparation and scaling up of the relief operations earlier,” he said.

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Silicon Valley & Technology
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Trump Set to Overturn Online Privacy Protections, Stirring Debate

U.S. President Donald Trump is poised to sign legislation overturning privacy protections for Internet users, a move supporters say will level the playing field for providers but critics argue will hurt consumers.

The bill eliminates Obama-era regulations that required Internet service providers, or ISPs, to get permission before collecting or selling sensitive user data, such as Internet browsing history.

Supporters say the bill will create a more even field for ISPs, which are regulated by the Federal Communications Commission. Other Internet companies, such as Facebook and Google, are managed by the Federal Trade Commission, which places fewer restrictions on how they can collect and sell user data.

“Having two privacy cops on the beat will create confusion within the Internet ecosystem and will end up harming consumers,” said Rep. Marsha Blackburn, a Republican from Tennessee, on Tuesday.

Democrats, groups object 

Supporters also argue that the reaction has been overblown, noting that the Obama-era FCC rules, which had been approved in December, hadn’t even been put in place yet.

The bill passed Congress this week with the overwhelming support of Republicans. White House officials have previously said Trump will sign the legislation, despite objections from Democrats and privacy advocate groups.

“This legislation will seriously undermine the privacy protections of the overwhelming majority of Americans who believe that their private information should be just that — private — and not for sale without their knowledge,” a group of 46 Democratic lawmakers said this week in a letter urging Trump to veto the bill.

Tom Wheeler, the former head of the FCC, wrote an opinion piece for The New York Times calling the repeal a “dream for cable and telephone companies, which want to capitalize on the value of such personal information.”

U.S. Internet companies have long profited from U.S. privacy regulations, which are generally considered weaker than those in parts of the developed world, such as the European Union.

Big companies make big money from data

Companies such as Apple, Microsoft, Facebook and Amazon “profit heavily from the mining of consumer data,” says Evan Swarztrauber with the Internet privacy advocacy group TechFreedom.

“It’s at least arguable that the U.S. has more successful tech firms than the EU because the U.S. has a more relaxed privacy framework, which allows for more innovation and experimentation,” he says.

But profit should not be the only consideration, according to critics, such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital rights group.

“Should President Donald Trump sign S.J. Res. 34 into law, big Internet providers will be given new powers to harvest your personal information in extraordinarily creepy ways,” Ernesto Falcon, a legislative counsel at EFF, said in an online post.

Bill has limited international impact

Falcon slammed lawmakers who “have decided to give our personal information to an already highly profitable cable and telephone industry so that they can increase their profits with our data.”

The bill itself has limited international impact. Falcon says the bigger concern for global web users is state-sponsored surveillance, such as that conducted by the NSA.

“No real amount of commercial deregulation or regulation would offset the loss of privacy rights that state-sponsored surveillance violates in terms of international issues,” he told VOA.

 

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