Arts & Entertainment

First Lady Reads to Children in New York Hospital

U.S. first lady Melania Trump read to a group of children at a New York hospital Thursday to celebrate National Read Across America Day.

In one of her first outings in a traditional first lady role, Trump read to children at the pediatrics ward from the Dr. Seuss favorite, Oh, the Places You’ll Go!

She told the children, “I came here to encourage everyone to read and to just think about the books and what you want to achieve in life.”

Trump also brought a box full of children’s books by American author Theodor Geisel, who is better known as Dr. Seuss, to leave for the children.

“Dr. Seuss has brought so much joy, laughter and enchantment into children’s lives all around the globe for generations,” she said. “Through his captivating rhymes, Dr. Seuss has delighted and inspired children while teaching them to read, to dream and to care.”

Melania Trump is living in New York while her son finishes school, rather than joining her husband at the White House in Washington, D.C.

Silicon Valley & Technology

Amazon Deepens University Links in Race to Monetize Artificial Intelligence has launched a new program to help students build capabilities into its voice-controlled assistant Alexa, the company told Reuters, the latest move by a technology firm to nurture ideas and talent in artificial intelligence research.

The e-commerce company said it was paying for a yearlong doctoral fellowship at four universities for an undisclosed sum.

Working with professors, the Alexa Fund Fellows will help students tackle complex technology problems in class on Alexa, like how to convert text to speech or process conversation.

Amazon, Alphabet’s Google and others are locked in a race to develop and monetize artificial intelligence. Unlike some rivals, Amazon has made it easy for third-party developers to create skills for Alexa so it can get better faster — a tactic it now is extending to the classroom.

The fellowship may also help Amazon recruit sought-after engineers whose studies will make them more familiar with Alexa than with other voice-controlled assistants. The schools in the program are Carnegie Mellon, Johns Hopkins, the University of Southern California and Canada’s University of Waterloo.

‘A great sandbox’

“We want Alexa to be a great sandbox” for students, Doug Booms, vice president of worldwide corporate development at Amazon, said Wednesday in an interview.

He added that the fellowship’s goal was to excite the next generation of scholars about natural language understanding and other voice technologies, not to produce research for Amazon.

Under the program, students’ projects remain their own intellectual property.

At the University of Waterloo, students are improving Alexa’s interaction with air conditioners so it understands requests to cool a room to its normal temperature, without requiring the user to specify a number in Celsius, said Fakhri Karray, a professor of electrical and computer engineering who is overseeing the work.

Securing close ties to university talent and research has become an urgent priority for many tech firms. Uber Technologies in 2015 took 40 people from Carnegie Mellon’s robotics center in-house to work on self-driving cars and other projects. Microsoft has awarded fellowships to doctoral researchers in different areas of computer science, like artificial intelligence, for years.

Amazon itself created the Alexa Prize competition among universities to push forward conversational artificial intelligence, with a $100,000 stipend for each sponsored team.

The money for the new fellowship comes from the Alexa Fund, an investment by Amazon of up to $100 million to advance voice technology.

Silicon Valley & Technology

Mobile Wallets Offer Consumers Safety, Other Benefits

Smartphones have replaced lots of other accessories — cameras, flashlights, calculators. But many people are still reluctant to swap the wallets in their pockets for their digital counterparts.

A key reason consumers are hesitant to adopt mobile payment systems like Apple Pay and Android Pay, surveys say, is fear about security: High-profile retailer data breaches have made buyers wary of sharing credit card information. But while there’s cause not to rely 100 percent on your mobile wallet just yet — lack of widespread acceptance by merchants, for one thing — security concerns shouldn’t be holding shoppers back, experts say.

“I think some people get nervous about this idea of, `This thing is sending telepathic waves to that machine to say that I’m paying,’ ” said Mark Ranta, head of digital banking solutions at ACI Worldwide, a payment systems company.

But your mobile wallet is arguably the safest way to pay, and it offers a few benefits to boot. Here’s why this payment method is worth considering.


Contactless payment services can offer more security than cash or traditional card usage.

“You never have to take out your credit card or debit card, so there’s a lot less chance of someone seeing it,” said Jason Chaikin, president of biometrics security company Vkansee. “For every transaction, [mobile wallets] create a random, one-time number — a transaction token — and even if someone was able to know that number, it’s not valid later.”

Samsung Pay, Android Pay and Apple Pay each use this process, called tokenization. Although you load your card into the payment app, the actual card number is not shared with the merchant when you pay. Rather, a temporary code is issued in its place, similar to the way EMV chip cards work. EMV credit and debit cards have chips that create a unique code, or cryptogram, when inserted into a merchant’s payment terminal. However, the card is in view while the terminal reads the chip.

Mobile payments provide security measures on top of existing bank protections that chip cards can’t match. Full card numbers are not displayed in mobile wallet apps, and users are able to authorize payments with their fingerprints, which can protect your card information in the event your phone is stolen.


Services like Apple Pay let users add multiple cards to their phones or smartwatches, theoretically giving them the option to leave overstuffed wallets and purses at home.

But consumers don’t entirely trust mobile wallets partly because availability is limited, Ranta said. Not all cards and loyalty programs are compatible with the payment services, and some stores are not equipped to take mobile payments. Establishments such as bars and restaurants may accept only cash or plastic. Apple Pay has the highest retailer acceptance rate among the mobile payment services, at 36 percent, according to survey data from the retail consulting firm Boston Retail Partners.

“We’re still very much in the early stages of this,” Ranta said, and for now, the merchant acceptance problem remains.

But when shoppers can use their mobile wallets, they can save time at the register. A common complaint among dissatisfied chip-card users is the slow transaction process, as shoppers wait for the EMV terminal to complete the transaction. Mobile payments can be quicker. A user opens a payment app and holds his device over a terminal; a fingerprint or PIN verifies the purchase.

Shopping online can be faster, too. For example, Apple Pay and Android Pay are accepted on certain websites and in apps like Airbnb, allowing shoppers to make purchases without entering card information — or keeping card numbers on file, which may assuage data-breach fears.

And like some bank apps, a mobile wallet saves your recent transaction history for reference, with the added benefit of allowing you to see all activity in one place, even if your cards are from various banks.


Mobile credit card payments function just like regular credit cards. As long as your card is compatible with the service, you’ll continue to earn your usual rewards, like travel points or cash back.

Mobile users can add certain retailer loyalty cards to Android Pay and Apple Pay wallets to seamlessly earn store-specific points. Samsung Pay accepts most membership cards.

Samsung also has its own loyalty program, Samsung Rewards. In addition to credit card rewards, members earn points for Samsung Pay purchases; the points are redeemable for rewards like gift cards and fitness trackers.

Mobile payment still has far to go before shoppers begin leaving their old wallets at home. As technology advances, Chaikin said, innovations and improvements in security will most likely make the process more comfortable and accessible for consumers and retailers alike. “Our mobile phone revolution is really just at the tipping point,” he said.

Arts & Entertainment

NY Public Library Acquires Complete Archives of Lou Reed

The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts has acquired the complete archives of Lou Reed .

The library and Reed’s wife, musician Laurie Anderson, made the announcement Thursday, on what would have been his 75th birthday.

The Lou Reed Archive features paper and electronic records, photos, and about 3,600 audio and 1,300 video recordings.


Anderson says the archive couldn’t be in a better place: “in the heart of the city he loved the best.”

Reed, an aspiring poet, rose to prominence after Andy Warhol encountered his experimental rock band, The Velvet Underground. Warhol produced the band’s first studio album.

The library will host free displays and public programs over the next two weeks to celebrate and showcase Reed’s life and work, and his collection’s new home.

Silicon Valley & Technology

Egyptian Researchers Turn Shrimp Shells into Biodegradable Plastic

Researchers at Egypt’s Nile University are developing a way to turn dried shrimp shells that would otherwise be thrown away into thin films of biodegradable plastic they hope will be used to make eco-friendly grocery bags and packaging.

Six months into their two-year project, the research team has managed to create a thin, clear prototype using chitosan, a material found in the shells of many crustaceans.

“If commercialized, this could really help us decrease our waste … and it could help us improve our food exports because the plastic has antimicrobial and antibacterial properties,” Irene Samy, a professor overseeing the project, told Reuters.

The researchers buy unwanted shrimp shells from restaurants, supermarkets and local fishermen at cheap prices.

Using shrimp shells is more sustainable because it could replace synthetic materials used in plastics and cut the amount of biowaste produced by the Egyptian food industry, Samy said.

The shells are cleaned, chemically treated, ground and dissolved into a solution that dries into thin films of plastic, a technique the team says has potential for large-scale industrial production.

“Egypt imports around 3,500 tonnes of shrimp, which produce 1,000 tonnes of shells as waste. … Instead of throwing the shells away, we can make biodegradable plastic bags,” Hani Chbib, a researcher on the project, told Reuters.

The project is a collaboration between the Nile University team of four and another research group at the University of Nottingham in Britain, where Samy conducted her post-doctoral research and first started experimenting with the idea.

The team has only produced small samples and the project is not yet ready to go into commercial production, but the team is working hard to develop properties that would allow the material to go into widespread use.

“We are continuing to work on enhancing its properties, like thermal stability and durability,” Samy said.

Economy & business

China Supports WTO After Washington Criticizes Trade Organization

China’s government says it will support the World Trade Organization, arguing that an “open and unbiased” trading system benefits global economic growth and is in everyone’s interest.

Beijing’s comments come just a day after the Trump administration said it might not comply with WTO rulings it judged to violate American national sovereignty.

Wednesday, the administration sent its formal trade agenda to Congress and the document’s authors pledged a “more aggressive” stance on trade issues. President Donald Trump has accused China of unfair trade practices, such as manipulating its currency and stealing U.S. trade secrets. He has also said he wants to renegotiate a free trade deal with Mexico and Canada.

Trump, a Republican, also took the United States out of the ratification process for the Trans Pacific Partnership, a major multilateral trade agreement, arguing the United States does better when it negotiates deals with individual nations rather than in a multinational framework.

Many congressional Democrats are critical of the WTO and U.S. trade deals, but a published report in POLITICO quotes some of them saying the Trump agenda gives too few specifics.

Science & Health

Donors Pledge Nearly $200 Million for Family Planning

Nations and philanthropists pledged close to $200 million Thursday for family planning at an international conference that aimed to make up for the gap left by President Donald Trump’s ban on U.S. funding to groups linked to abortion.

In all, 57 nations attended the hastily convened one-day conference in Brussels and the funding drive was boosted by Sweden, Canada and Finland each promising 20 million euros ($21 million). The private Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation also provided $20 million.


Conference host and Belgian Deputy Premier Alexander De Croo said one anonymous U.S. donor committed $50 million, pushing the total up to a provisional 181 million euros ($190 million).


One of Trump’s first acts as president was to withhold an estimated half billion dollars a year in funding from international groups that perform abortions or provide information about them. The Trump administration said the ban is necessary because it doesn’t want to provide funds for something it considers morally wrong.


Officials in many European nations and around the world say the move hurts women and girls who need family planning the most and will lead to more abortions, not fewer.


“I hope that he now sees that everybody is steadfast in its support for the rights of women and girls,” Dutch Development Minister Lilianne Ploumen, who came up with the idea for the She Decides conference, said.


De Croo said the alliance of nations wanted to make sure that “the purely ideological decision of one country” does not push women and girls back “into the Dark Ages.”


“We will start making something great again,” De Croo said of the drive to boost family planning policies in developing nations, riffing off Trump’s “Make America Great Again” campaign slogan.


Belgium, Denmark, Norway and the Netherlands contributed 10 million euros each, while other countries made smaller contributions. Because the conference was organized on short notice, many nations could not make official pledges yet for technical budgetary reasons, organizers said.


“Some need a little bit more time,” Ploumen said. Representatives from African and Asian countries were also the conference, as well as private donors and officials from the European Union and the United Nations and private donors.


De Croo said the funding drive would continue at an international meeting later this year.


At EU headquarters, half a dozen anti-abortion activists were protesting with a banner “Abortion: Not with my taxes.”


The conference stressed that abortion was only a small part of family planning in developing nations. It emphasized the need for more sex education and greater availability of contraceptives. Participants also warned about the dangers of sexually related diseases and of female genital mutilation.


The U.S funding ban “threaten to suspend a large number of projects helping to defend the health of millions of girls, even helping to save their lives,” Finnish Development Minister Kai Mykkanen said. “We respond to the situation fraught with distress by investing in the improvement of women’s and girls’ rights even more than before.”


U.S. bans on funding international groups that perform or even talk about abortions have been instituted by Republican administrations and rescinded by Democratic ones since 1984. Former President Barack Obama last lifted it in 2009. But under Trump, the ban has been massively expanded.


Participants said that instead of decreasing abortions, when bans were in place, the number of involuntarily pregnancies and abortions increased.


“The number of abortions will not fall, they will rise,” because of an increase in unwanted pregnancies, said Dutch Development Minister Lilianne Ploumen.


De Croo insisted that he was not defending abortion.


“To be clear, any abortion that takes place is one too many,” he said. “But if it has to take place, then I think it should be available and it should be available in a safe way.”


Silicon Valley & Technology

Snapchat Parent Rockets Higher in Wall Street Debut

The company behind Snapchat is trading sharply higher in its Wall Street debut.


Snap Inc. jumped $7, or 41 percent, to $24 a share.


It had priced its initial public offering of 200 million non-voting shares at $17 each on Wednesday. That’s above the expected range of $14 to $16.


Snap’s IPO is one of the most anticipated for a technology company since Twitter’s in 2013. That, in turn, had created the biggest stir since Facebook took its first bow on Wall Street in 2012. Twitter is now valued at $11 billion, while Facebook is $395 billion. Snap’s pricing valued the Los Angeles company at $24 billion.


Snapchat is best known for disappearing messages. It’s popular with young people, but growth has slowed down in recent months.