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Iditarod Mushers Begin Nearly 1,000-mile Race Across Alaska

The world’s most famous sled dog race started Monday with 71 mushers setting off from the heart of Alaska and embarking on a nearly 1,000-mile trek across the wilderness.

 

The grandson of a co-founder of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race was the first competitor on the trail.

 

Ryan Redington, 33, of Wasilla led the other mushers out of the chute in Fairbanks nearly a half-century after his grandfather, Joe Redington Sr., helped stage the first race in 1973.

 

The contest has a staggered start so fans, including 2,600 schoolchildren, can cheer on the mushers, who leave every two minutes.

 

One race rookie, 53-year-old Roger Lee, threw his fist in the air as he took off from the chute.

 

Lee was born in California to British parents and grew up near Liverpool, England, listening to the Beatles and harder rock groups. He has seen AC/DC in concert 157 times in 16 countries, according to his race biography.

 

Lee spent 10 years with the British Army Air Corps before moving to America, where he serves with the Air Force. He took a one-year sabbatical to train for the Iditarod.

 

The fan-friendly ceremonial start of the race was held Saturday in Anchorage.

 

The competitive start is normally held a day later in Willow, about 50 miles north of Anchorage. But that start would have taken mushers over the Dalzell Gorge, where a lack of snow has left alders exposed on the trail and open water in places that normally would be frozen this time of year.

 

Winter conditions were not a concern in Fairbanks, where the temperature was minus 35 degrees Monday morning. The start was delayed a day to give mushers times to drive their dogs 360 miles north to the city of about 100,000 in interior Alaska.

Eighty-four mushers signed up for the race, and 13 scratched. The latest was Otto Balogh, a 40-year-old rookie from Budapest, Hungary, who cited health concerns when dropping out of the race two hours before it began.

Dallas Seavey, 30, has won four out of the last five races. He feels no pressure to get a record-tying fifth win, and is fully cognizant that winning streaks can only go for so long.

 

“And I’m truly OK with that, as long as I can look back on the race and know I ran my team to the best of their ability, and we all had a good run,” Seavey said.

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Economy & business
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Corruption, Lack of Opportunities Challenge Job Growth in China’s Rust Belt

As China’s economy slows to growth rates not seen in more than a quarter of century, the country’s Communist Party rulers are under increasing pressure to create jobs.

 

Millions enter the workforce each year, and as China tries to reduce overcapacity in steel and coal industries a growing number are looking for work after being laid off.

 

China’s northeast is reeling from the impact of zombie enterprises, debt-laden companies who have let overcapacity run amok and are now facing massive layoffs, and it is struggling to keep young workers and talent at home.

 

Stay or go?

 

At a recent job fair in China’s northeastern city of Shenyang, the capital of Liaoning province, many say they are concerned about the slowing economy and its dampening impact on jobs.

 

“The outlook now for jobs is not as good as a few years ago and I think that’s because the economy is not that great,” said Shenyang resident Wang.

 

The job fair was one of several that Saturday and it was packed with hundreds, if not several thousand job seekers. Some were struggling to find work and unqualified for the opportunities they sought.

 

Another resident named Wu said he was not finding the kind of work he was looking for at the fair because many opportunities were in the services sector.

 

“I am worried about finding work. If I can’t find a job here, I’ll most likely go somewhere else to work,” he said.

 

Wang from nearby Jilin province said he was looking for steady work, something stable and closer to home.

 

“The jobs I worked in the past would change every three of four months, from one location to the next, from Shenyang to Changchun and other places,” Wang said. “Pay was better by comparison about $870 to $1,450 a month, but there were no benefits.”

 

Favors, money

 

During his annual work report to China’s legislature on Sunday, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang said the world’s second largest economy aims to create more than 11 million new jobs this year. He also talked about the importance of the northeast to the Chinese economy. Li was party secretary of Liaoning from 2004-2007.

 

But while the northeast has long been on the government’s priority list, policy measures appear to have done little to change the overall environment. Heavy industry and state owned enterprises have long dominated the region’s economy, contributing to an ongoing exodus of talent to other parts of the country, analysts said.

 

For many university students, going somewhere else is the only option, even for those who eventually want to come back and make Shenyang their permanent base.

 

“I hope to go somewhere better and then bring some of those good practices and experiences back to Shenyang,” said a music student named Han.

 

But medical student Ni said he plans to head back home to the south after he graduates, because, as he put it, the mindset and environment there is more open.

 

He said in the northeast, “Whether it is the government, schools or hospitals there is too much focus on connections and favors. What you can do is not important and there is no room to put your talents to good use.”

 

Bad reputation

 

Liaoning has also been forced to confront corruption in a very open way.

 

In 2016 it was the slowest growing province in the country, the only one to see negative growth. Last year, it’s leaders made a rare admission, revealing that between 2011 – 2014 the province’s figures for economic growth were faked, in some cases by more than 20 percent.

 

And a vote-buying scandal was disclosed as well, the worst since the Communist Party came to power.

 

Liaoning officials have pledged to put an end to the practices and spoke openly about the scandals at a meeting Sunday in Beijing.

“We’re overly reliant on heavy industries. Innovation and creativity is lacking. The impact on the [economic] environment is not good and talent is not being put to its best use,” said Li Xi, Communist Party boss in Liaoning and spokesman for a delegation to this year’s annual Twin Sessions meetings of the National People’s Congress.

 

Last year, almost half of the Rust Belt province’s representatives to the NPC were caught up in the scandals. Li Xi said the election of officials who bought their way into office, many of them prominent businessmen, had an impact on “personnel arrangements by central authorities.”

 

While some are hopeful the government’s pledge to clean up the environment will bring about change, the region’s heavy emphasis on infrastructure as a model for jobs and growth has most waiting for clearer signals.

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Science & Health
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Work on Brain’s Reward System Wins Scientists One-million-euro Prize

Three neuroscientists won the world’s most valuable prize for brain research Monday for pioneering work on the brain’s reward pathways — a system that is central to human and animal survival, as well as disorders such as addiction and obesity.

Peter Dayan, Ray Dolan and Wolfram Schultz, who all work in Britain, said they were surprised and delighted to receive the Brain Prize, which they said was a recognition of their persistent curiosity about how the human brain works.

The scientists’ research, spanning almost 30 years, found that dopamine neurons are at the heart of the brain’s reward system, affecting behavior in everything from decision-making, risk-taking and gambling, to drug addiction and schizophrenia.

“This is the biological process that makes us want to buy a bigger car or house, or be promoted at work,” said Schultz, a German-born professor of neuroscience who now works at the University of Cambridge.

He said dopamine neurons are like “like little devils in our brain that drive us toward more rewards.”

Dayan, director of the Gatsby Computational Neuroscience Unit at University College London, added to Schultz’s findings with research showing how humans update and change their goals through a dopamine-driven system “reward prediction error.”

He showed that our future behavior is dictated by constant brain feedback on whether anticipated rewards are as expected, or better or worse than expected.

The one-million-euro Brain Prize, given by the Lundbeck Foundation in Denmark, is awarded annually and recognizes scientists for outstanding contribution to neuroscience.

Colin Blakemore, chairman of the selection committee, said the three scientists’ work had helped decipher the way people use and respond to rewards across many aspects of life.

“The implications of these discoveries are extremely wide-ranging, in fields as diverse as economics, social science, drug addiction and psychiatry,” he said in a statement.

Dolan, director of the new Max Planck Center for Computational Psychiatry and Ageing, and Dayan, cracked open a bottle of champagne in London after being told of the prize.

Schultz described the news as a fantastic reward.

“I can hear our dopamine neurons jumping up and down,” he said.

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A Bacterium Found in Soil Could Fight Tuberculosis

Scientists are developing an antibiotic from a microorganism found in soil to fight the tuberculosis bacterium. As TB becomes increasingly resistant to existing antibiotics, soil could hold the key to new drugs against this global killer.

Tuberculosis is treatable with antibiotics, but in thousands of cases, antibiotic misuse has caused the disease to become non-responsive to the drugs.

According to the World Health Organization, there are 10.4 million new cases of tuberculosis every year, killing 1.8 million people.

In 2015, it was estimated that 480,000 infections were not responsive to two major drugs commonly used to treat TB. A quarter-million patients died reportedly of drug-resistant infections.

An international team of researchers has been hunting for new sources of antibiotics in nature to treat deadly illnesses like TB.

 

Investigators have hit upon a species of bacteria in a large family called Streptomyces found in soil.  

Making synthetic compounds

In the laboratory, they’ve extracted compounds from Streptomyces that target a specific enzyme called MraY in mycobacterium, the pathogen that causes TB. The compounds effectively kill mycobacterium.

Using synthetic chemistry, the researchers were able to recreate these compounds, turning them into more potent versions of the originals.

Structural biology professor David Roper of England’s University of Warwick is part of the team that includes scientists in the United States and Australia sleuthing for novel agents to treat disease.

In the case of the Streptomyces microorganism, Roper said researchers have extracted compounds that target how mycobacterium makes its cell walls. He likens them to bones in the human body.

“If you knock out our skeletons, you’re not going to be a very competent human being, are you? And the same is true for the biosynthesis of the bacterial cell wall. It’s exactly the same principle that penicillin inhibits, although that’s a different enzyme and other antibiotics like vancomycin for example. So, the biosynthesis of the bacterial cell wall is a good target for antibiotics,” said Roper.

Finding the right tools

The work was published in the journal Nature Communications.

In the soil, Roper said the bacteria use the compounds to kill other microorganisms near them, giving them a survival advantage.

“One of the reasons for looking at natural product compounds in general is that these things have been derived from nature, therefore they’ve gone through many millennia years of evolution in the first place, and they’ve been retained by nature so they must have, as it were, long-standing efficacy.”

The challenge has been growing soil bacteria like Streptomyces in the lab with available tools so they can be made into drugs. The team is looking for ways to do that and they are beginning to find the right tools.  

There is no timetable for turning soil bacteria into drugs against diseases like TB, just that it will take time.

As new drugs from soil bacteria become available, Roper doesn’t rule out the possibility that TB eventually may become resistant to them too.  

Researchers, however, have learned from experience with tuberculosis that antibiotics must be used with great care to preserve their effectiveness. 

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‘La La Land,’ in Live Concert Form, Coming to Hollywood Bowl

Live from Los Angeles, it’s La La Land live!

Lionsgate announced Monday that “La La Land In Concert: A Live-to-Film Celebration” will come to the Hollywood Bowl on May 26-27. The live shows will be conducted by composer Justin Hurwitz, who won two Academy Awards last month for his work on the movie’s music.

The show will include a 100-piece symphony orchestra, choir and jazz ensemble, along with the film’s original vocal recordings from Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone and John Legend. The movie will play along while the musicians perform.

Hurwitz said in an interview with The Associated Press that before working on La La Land with director and writer Damien Chazelle, he told his longtime friend that the film would be perfect for the live stage.

“The process is just beginning,” Hurwitz said of prepping for the live dates. “We’re figuring out how to handle visually and musically the various music elements in the movie, and it’s a lot of fun brainstorming ideas and solutions. What is exciting is … to be able to really feature the musicians and show exactly what they’re doing.”

Tickets go on sale Friday. For the live shows, Hurwitz said they are using the same orchestra contractor from the movie.

Following the Memorial Day dates in Los Angeles, the live production will visit Atlanta; San Diego; San Antonio; Nashville, Tennessee; Washington, D.C.; and other U.S. cities. It will also travel internationally to the United Kingdom, Mexico, Italy, Turkey, Switzerland and Canada. Those dates, along with more cities, will be announced later.

La La Land won six Academy Awards, including best director for Chazelle and best actress for Stone. Hurwitz won best original score as well as best original song for “City of Stars,” shared with songwriters Benj Pasek and Justin Paul.

“There have been a couple times where I was in my apartment and I saw two Oscars sitting there [and] it almost took me a second to register what they were. The thought of those gorgeous, iconic statuettes sitting right there in my apartment is a bit surreal,” he said.

He also said it has been dreamlike to hear “people singing my songs back at me” because of the film’s success.

When asked if he could see La La Land on the Broadway stage, Hurwitz said: “Those conversations haven’t even started to be honest. … I think those conversations will happen inevitably, but I don’t know if an actual adaptation will happen. It’ll just be something we talk about and try to figure out, ‘should it be done, can it be done?”‘

Of the best picture flub during the Academy Awards — where La La Land was announced the winner before the Oscar was handed to the Moonlight creators, Hurwitz said: “I don’t know, I haven’t really thought about it much. But ‘Moonlight’ is an extraordinary movie and I am very happy for them.”

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Economy & business
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Former Malawi Home Affairs Minister Arrested for Alleged Fraud

In Malawi, the head of the former ruling party is expected in court Tuesday on allegations he fraudulently granted citizenship documents to more than 50 foreigners in 2013 when he was minister of home affairs. 

Uladi Mussa surrendered himself Monday at the office of the Anti-Corruption Bureau, or ACB, in the capital Lilongwe.

“So since he came in today, this morning, to hand himself, our investigators have just sent him to the police station for safe custody,” said Egrita Ndala, an ACB spokesperson 

Mussa is accused of taking bribes in exchange for issuing Malawian passports to foreigners during his time as home affairs minister under the previous administration.

He told a local radio in Lilongwe that he feels his arrest is politically motivated.  He denies any wrong doing.

“I do not know anything, why they have been hunting for me,” said Mussa. “The issue is very strange to me because that is one of major functions and responsibilities of a minister of home affairs.”

Mussa said, as the minister, he was signing the citizenship applications following the approval from police and immigration officials that an applicant had met all the necessary requirements.

This is the second arrest in this case.  Last Wednesday, the ACB arrested former chief immigration officer Hudson Mankhwala, who is now out on bail, on charges of neglect of official duty and abuse of office.  He has also denied the charges.

The ACB’s Ndala defends the bureau’s investigations.

“We do not just arrest.  An arrest will come after we have done a background work in investigation.  And we have been working in prevention,” said Ndala. “We have been working with public education, about their role in the fight against corruption, but otherwise that is our mandate according to Corrupt Practices Act.” 

The Anti-Corruption Bureau has made the local news quite a bit lately.

Two weeks ago, the president fired his agriculture minister after ACB investigators found cash worth nearly $200,000 in the minister’s home as part of a probe into a recent maize procurement from Zambia. 

Investigations into that matter continue. 

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Hoard of Coins Extracted From Sea Turtle

Thai veterinarians on Monday removed 915 coins from a 25-year-old sea turtle which had been swallowing items thrown into her pool for good luck, eventually limiting her ability to swim.

The coins and other objects removed from the turtle named Omsin — piggy bank in Thai — weighed 5 kg (11 lb). The turtle itself weighed 59 kg (130 lb).

The green sea turtle, living at a conservation center in Sriracha, Chonburi, east of the Thai capital of Bangkok, had been finding it hard to swim normally because of the weight.

The vets said they believed the seven-hour-long operation was the world’s first such surgery.

“We think it will take about a month to ensure she will fully recover,” said Nantarika Chansue, of Chulalongkorn University’s veterinary science faculty, adding that the turtle would need six more months of physical therapy.

There was no immediate estimate of the value of the coins, some of them foreign and many corroded.

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Silicon Valley & Technology
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Heavy Social Media Use Could Lead to Isolation in Young Adults

Young adults who spend a lot of time looking for social connections on social media could instead find themselves feeling socially isolated, a new study suggests.

Researchers looked at the social media habits of 1,787 American adults aged 19 to 32, asking them how much they used 11 popular social media sites, including Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter and LinkedIn, among others.

After controlling for various demographic factors, they found that people who used social media more than two hours per day “had twice the odds for perceived social isolation than their peers who spent less than half an hour on social media each day.”

Those who visited social media sites 58 times a week or more “had about triple the odds of perceived social isolation than those who visited fewer than nine times per week.”

Writing in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine, researchers from the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine add that increased social isolation has been associated with “an increased risk for mortality.”

“This is an important issue to study because mental health problems and social isolation are at epidemic levels among young adults,” said lead author Dr. Brian A. Primack, director of Pitt’s Center for Research on Media, Technology and Health. “We are inherently social creatures, but modern life tends to compartmentalize us instead of bringing us together. While it may seem that social media presents opportunities to fill that social void, I think this study suggests that it may not be the solution people were hoping for.”

“We do not yet know which came first, the social media use or the perceived social isolation,” said senior author Dr. Elizabeth Miller, professor of pediatrics at Pitt and chief of the Division of Adolescent and Young Adult Medicine at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC.

“It’s possible that young adults who initially felt socially isolated turned to social media. Or it could be that their increased use of social media somehow led to feeling isolated from the real world. It also could be a combination of both. But even if the social isolation came first, it did not seem to be alleviated by spending time online, even in purportedly social situations.”

Researchers social media may cause feelings of social isolation by replacing “authentic social experiences;” causing feelings of exclusion stemming from seeing photos of friends having fun at events to which they were not invited; or may lead people to think others have happier or more successful lives due to often idealized presentation of one’s life online.

Researchers say more study needs to be done, but they say doctors should ask patients about social media use if they show symptoms of social isolation.

“People interact with each other over social media in many different ways,” said Primack, “In a large population-based study such as this, we report overall tendencies that may or may not apply to each individual. I don’t doubt that some people using certain platforms in specific ways may find comfort and social connectedness via social media relationships. However, the results of this study simply remind us that, on the whole, use of social media tends to be associated with increased social isolation and not decreased social isolation.”

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Economy & business
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Withdraw From Paris Agreement, Lose Economic Opportunities, Europe Tells US

European leaders are pursuing a new tack in their bid to dissuade the Trump administration from pulling out of the landmark Paris Agreement on climate change. Withdraw and miss out on economic and commercial opportunities in clean growth, the Europeans are warning Washington policy makers.

In back channel discussions, the Europeans are emphasizing a lower carbon future is now inevitable and a United States that’s not fully on board will lose out in terms of energy innovation and clean energy job creation.

Others are dangling the prospects to American energy innovators and climate researchers of tax advantages and government subsidies, if they leave the United States and relocate to Europe.

Last week, the European Union’s environment commissioner held meetings in Canada to discuss ways to ensure the agreement is implemented, even in the face of a U.S. withdrawal from the 2015 climate change accord that binds nearly every country to curb global warming.

“Canada and the European Union are committed to implement Paris, defend Paris,” EU Climate Action and Energy Commissioner Miguel Arias Canete said in the Canadian capital, Ottawa.

In January, a former top aide to President Donald Trump, Myron Ebell, who led transition efforts on the Environmental Protection Agency, told reporters in London Trump will keep his campaign promises and will “definitely” pull America out of the 194-nation Paris climate agreement.

Diverging views

According to The New York Times, however, the White House remains fiercely divided over Trump’s campaign promise to “cancel” the Paris Agreement.

In an article last week, the newspaper said senior adviser Stephen Bannon and new EPA administrator Scott Pruitt are urging Trump to fulfill his campaign pledge to withdraw the U.S. from the agreement, but Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and the president’s daughter Ivanka are arguing withdrawal would have damaging diplomatic ramifications.

Pruitt is a former Oklahoma state attorney general who is skeptical of arguments that human activity is contributing to global warming.

European and Canadian officials say they are still hopeful of persuading the Trump administration not to withdraw from the agreement. Playing on President Trump’s determination to boost the U.S. economy and add more high-paying jobs to the American workforce, they are using transactional arguments in their bid, arguing the United States will lose the opportunity to become the world’s clean energy superpower.

Economic opportunities

In a phone call last week, Canadian Environment Minister Catherine McKenna told Pruitt serious action against climate change opens up major economic opportunities. “I emphasized that our government is committed to the Paris Agreement. We’re committed to taking serious climate action, and that we see that as a real economic opportunity,” McKenna said at a joint press conference with the visiting European energy commissioner in Ottawa.

“The opportunity is in the trillions of dollars when it comes to clean technology. So we think this is a clear economic opportunity, but we need to work at it and we need to bring everyone along,” McKenna added.

Some European leaders hope to attract American energy innovators to Europe as the Trump administration cuts federal budgets and subsidies for clean energy.

Macron’s invitation

Emmanuel Macron, one of the front-runners to succeed Francois Hollande as French president, says innovators impacted by Trump administration cuts in U.S. federal government budgets should relocate to France.

In a recent tweet, he said, “Please come to France, you are welcome, it’s your nation, we like innovation.” He added, “We want innovative people, we want people working on climate change, energy, renewables and new technologies. France is your nation.”

Macron isn’t alone among European leaders eager to attract American energy innovators and climate-science researchers. German officials told VOA they are eager to do the same and will offer preferential tax rates for innovators and start-ups, and funds for researchers.

 

European research initiatives are advertising themselves with any eye to attracting Americans. According to the Daily Planet, a news portal of a European clean-energy initiative, Climate-KIC, a partnership of universities, businesses and public bodies, “talented American students” are welcome to apply for the initiative’s summer school that takes students on a tour of some of the continent’s most renowned research institutions, startup incubators and businesses.

Under the Paris Agreement, every nation that has signed on to the accord provides details on how it will contribute to reducing planet-warming pollution. The Obama administration pledged to implement by 2025 a 26 percent cut in U.S. carbon pollution from 2005 levels.

The United States would likely be unable to reach that target under regulatory rollback plans by the Trump administration, including on coal-fired energy plants.

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Nature Plays Starring Role in Florida’s Everglades

Everglades National Park, in southern Florida, includes more than half a million hectares of wetlands. National parks traveler Mikah Meyer immersed himself in the River of Grass with treks through mud-filled swamps and close encounters with some of the park’s avian and reptilian residents, and talked with VOA’s Julie Taboh about his adventure.

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