Economy & business

US Homeland Security Announces Steps Against H1B Visa Fraud

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security announced steps on Monday to prevent the fraudulent use of H1B visas, used by employers to bring in specialized foreign workers temporarily, which appeared to fall short of President Donald Trump’s campaign promises to overhaul the program.

Trump had promised to end the lottery system for H1B visas, which gives each applicant an equal chance at 65,000 positions each year.

Lobbyists for businesses who rely on H1B visas, commonly used by the tech sector, had expected Trump to upend the lottery in favor of a system that prioritized workers who are highly skilled and would be highly paid in the United States.

The lottery for fiscal year 2018 opened on Monday without changes.

The start of the lottery was seen by those watching the issue as the unofficial deadline for the Trump administration to enact H1B visa reform, and the failure to meet that deadline signals that Trump’s promised overhaul of the system may be off the table or long delayed.

“More oversight is a good start, but employers can still use the program legally to depress wages and replace American workers. That falls short of the promises President Trump made to protect American workers,” said Peter Robbio, a spokesman for Numbers USA, a Washington-based group that advocates for limiting immigration into the United States.

The White House could not immediately be reached for comment.

In keeping with the practice of former President Barack Obama’s administration, employers and foreign workers will enter a lottery system where 65,000 workers are permitted to enter the United States to work. An extra 20,000 H1B visas are reserved for workers with advanced degrees.

Last year, the lottery remained open less than a week before the program reached its cap.

Tech companies rely on the program to bring in workers with special skills and have lobbied for an expansion of the number of H1B visas awarded.

Proponents of limiting legal immigration, including Trump’s senior adviser Stephen Miller, have argued the program gives jobs that Americans could fill to foreign workers at a less expensive cost.

The measures announced by DHS on Monday focus on site visits by U.S. authorities to employers who use H1B visas.

In future site visits, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services agents will investigate incidents where an employer’s basic business information cannot be validated; businesses that have a high ratio of H1B employees compared with U.S. workers; and employers petitioning for H1B workers who work off-site.

Silicon Valley & Technology

Graphene-oxide Membranes Could Make Seawater Into Freshwater

A new method could turn seawater into drinking water for millions around the world without access to clean water.

Researchers at the University of Manchester in England say they’ve successfully used graphene-oxide membranes to filter common salts from seawater, turning it into drinking water more affordably than current desalination techniques.

Graphene-oxide membranes have already been shown to be effective at filtering small nanoparticles, organic molecules and large salts, but they had not yet been effective in filtering out common salts.

“This is the first clear-cut experiment in this regime,” said professor Rahul Nair, at the University of Manchester. “We also demonstrate that there are realistic possibilities to scale up the described approach and mass produce graphene-based membranes with required sieve sizes.

“Realization of scalable membranes with uniform pore size down to atomic scale is a significant step forward and will open new possibilities for improving the efficiency of desalination technology,” he said.

The United Nations says that by 2025, 14 percent of the world’s population will suffer water scarcity.

Previous attempts to use the membranes saw smaller salts passing through, researchers said, but the Manchester group discovered that the size of the pores on the membrane could be “precisely controlled” allowing it to block smaller salts.

Specifically, the researchers said the graphene-oxide membranes have tiny capillaries that stop the flow of salts, while allowing fresh water to pass through.

“The developed membranes are not only useful for desalination, but the atomic scale tunability of the pore size also opens new opportunity to fabricate membranes with on-demand filtration capable of filtering out ions according to their sizes,” said co-lead author Jijo Abraham.

The study was published Monday in the journal Nature Nanotechnology.

Arts & Entertainment

Native American Hand Talkers Fight to Keep Sign Language Alive

In early September 1930, the Blackfeet Nation of Montana hosted a historic Indian Sign Language Grand Council, gathering leaders of a dozen North American Nations and language groups.

The three-day council held was organized by Hugh L. Scott, a 77-year-old U.S. Army General who had spent a good portion of his career in the American West, where he observed and learned what users called Hand Talk, and what is today more broadly known as Plains Indian Sign Language (PISL). With $5,000 in federal funding, Scott filmed the proceedings and hoped to produce a film dictionary of more than 1,300 signs. He died before he could finish the project. 

Scott’s films disappeared into the National Archives. Recently rediscovered, they are an important resource for those looking to revitalize PISL.

Among them is Ron Garritson, who identifies himself as being of Choctaw and European heritage. He was raised in Billings, Montana, near the Crow Nation.

“I learned how to speak Crow to a degree, and I was really interested in the sign language,” he said. “I saw it being used by the Elders, and I thought it was a beautiful form of communication.  And so I started asking questions.”

Garritson studied Scott’s films, along with works by other ethnographers and now has a vocabulary of about 1,700 signs. He conducts workshops and classes across Montana, in an effort to preserve and spread sign language and native history.

Lingua franca

Prior to contact with Europeans, North American Native peoples were not a unified culture, but hundreds of different cultures and tribes, each with its own political organization, belief system and language. When speakers of one language met those of another, whether in trade, councils or conflict, they communicated in the lingua franca of Hand Talk.  

Scholars dispute exactly when, in their 30,000-year history in North America, tribes developed sign language. It was observed among Florida tribes by 16th Century Spanish colonizers.

“Coronado, as he documented in his journals in 1540, was in Texas and met the Comanche,” said Garritson. “He documented that the Comanches made themselves so well-understood with the use of sign talk that there was almost no need for an interpreter. It was that easy to use and easy to understand.”

While each tribe had its own dialect, tribes were able to communicate easily.  Though universal in North America, Hand Talk was more prominent among the nomadic Plains Nations.

“There were fewer linguistic groups east of the Mississippi River,” said Garritson. “They were mostly woodland tribes, living in permanent villages and were familiar with each other’s languages.  They still used sign language to an extent, but not like it was used out here.”

Hand Talk was also the first language of deaf Natives.

Erasing a culture

By the late 1800s, tens of thousands of Native Americans still used Hand Talk.  That changed when the federal government instituted a policy designed to “civilize” tribal people.


Children were removed from their families and sent to government-run boarding schools, where they were forbidden to speak their own languages or practice their own spiritual beliefs. Native Deaf children were sent to deaf residential schools, where they were taught to use American Sign Language (ASL).  

Research has shown that Hand Talk is still being used by a small number of deaf and hearing descendants of the Plains Indian cultures.

“Hand Talk is endangered and dying quickly,” said Melanie McKay-Cody, who identifies herself as Cherokee Deaf and is an expert in anthropological linguistics. 

McKay-Cody is the first deaf researcher to specialize in North American Hand Talk and today works with tribes to help them preserve their signed languages. She is pushing for PISL to be incorporated into mainstream education of the deaf.

“Easier than hollering”

Lanny Real Bird, who is Crow, Arikara and Hidatsa, grew up in a household where PISL was used.

“My grandmother had hearing loss,” he said. “I’d see my father signing with her in the Plains Indian Sign Language.  I picked up basic sign language, enough to say, ‘Yes’ or ‘No,’ ‘I’m hungry.”  

As a boy, he played with a young relative who was deaf, who helped expand his signing vocabulary.

Real Bird, a former instructor at Montana’s Little Big Horn College, has worked for 20 years helping tribes preserve their languages, both spoken and signed, and has developed a 400 to 600-sign PISL course, which he teaches at community schools and workshops across the Plains states.

“Right now we’re probably at the basic communications phase,” he said. “So in order to expand, we have to go to another level, from listening to understanding to rudimentary communicating to fluency and literacy.”

Real Bird said it took nearly a decade to convince school systems to incorporate PISL into general language instruction.  

“Later this month, students of the of the Crow Reservation’s Wyola Elementary School will be showcased at the annual Montana Indian Education Conference,” he said.

There, they will demonstrate their Crow language skills, both spoken and signed. 

Economy & business

IMF Chief: Government Policies Needed to Reverse Productivity Slowdown

The effects of the 2008 financial crisis are still being felt, says the International Monetary Fund’s Managing Director Christine Lagarde. 

She cites a new IMF study showing global productivity has slowed to 0.3 percent over the last decade, lower than the pre-crisis average of about 1 percent growth per year. Had productivity growth followed pre-crisis trends, Lagarde says the overall GDP in advanced economies would be about 5 percent higher.

Lagarde attributes the slowdown in labor productivity — the amount of goods and services produced by an average worker per hour — to three major headwinds: an aging global population, the slowdown in international trade, and the lasting impact of the 2008 financial meltdown.

The slowdown has been particularly abrupt in continental Europe, where five Eurozone member countries — Greece, Portugal, Ireland, Spain and Cyprus — required various emergency bailouts after being unable to refinance their sovereign debt. 

Lagarde says strong policy actions, such as government-backed innovation, may be required to reverse the slowdown. For example, she says ramping up research and development by 40 percent could increase the gross domestic output (GDP) in advanced economies by as much as 5 percent, significantly improving demand at the same time in developing economies. 

But to be effective, Lagarde says governments must provide clear signals about future economic policy and boost investment in education, worker training and infrastructure.

Lagarde made her comments Monday at the conservative-leaning American Enterprise Institute in Washington, just two weeks before the World Bank and IMF annual spring meeting, at which member countries discuss challenges facing the global economy and ways to ensure financial stability around the world.

Silicon Valley & Technology

Some Android Apps Work Together to Mine Personal Information

Those handy Android apps on your smartphone are apparently mining your personal information, according to a new study.

The study, done by researchers at Virginia Tech, is the first to study how apps “talk to one another and trade information,” according to a news release.

Researchers say there are two kinds of threats: malware and “apps that simply allow for collusion and privilege escalation.” They add that in the latter group, they can not measure whether the developer intentionally created security breaches.

They describe a leaking scenario, saying, for example, that a flashlight app could work with a receiver app to reveal information like contacts or location.

The team of researchers looked at more than 100,000 apps from Google Play as well as about 10,000 malware apps over three years.

“Researchers were aware that apps may talk to one another in some way, shape, or form,” said assistant professor Gang Wang. “What this study shows undeniably with real-world evidence over and over again is that app behavior, whether it is intentional or not, can pose a security breach depending on the kinds of apps you have on your phone.”

The researchers say the most leaky apps were the “least utilitarian” such as ringtones and emojis.

Researchers said that among the apps tested, they found “thousands of pairs of apps that could potentially leak sensitive phone or personal information and allow unauthorized apps to gain access to privileged data.”

“App security is a little like the Wild West right now with few regulations,” said Wang. “We hope this paper will be a source for the industry to consider re-examining their software development practices and incorporate safeguards on the front end. While we can’t quantify what the intention is for app developers in the non-malware cases we can at least raise awareness of this security problem with mobile apps for consumers who previously may not have thought much about what they were downloading onto their phones.”

The results of the study, which was funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency as part of its Automated Program Analysis for Cybersecurity initiative, were presented Monday in Dubai at the Association for Computing Machinery Asia Computer and Communications Security Conference.

Arts & Entertainment

Energetic Backstreet Boys Bring Nostalgia to ACM Awards

While Justin Timberlake had a show-stopping moment alongside Chris Stapleton at the 2015 Country Music Association Awards, it was the Backstreet Boys who shined brightly at the 2017 Academy of Country Music Awards.


The boy band had the night’s liveliest moment Sunday in Las Vegas: the fivesome brought the party vibe to life while singing their classic “Everybody (Backstreet Back)” along with duo Florida Georgia Line.


Carrie Underwood and Nicole Kidman were just a few of the audience members at the T-Mobile Arena who felt the nostalgia, sang along and danced excitedly.


The performance hit a new height when Brian Kelley and Tyler Hubbard of FGL joined the Backstreet Boys during their memorable dance routine, earning louder cheers from the crowd.


Before that moment, FGL sang their duet with the boy band, “God, Your Mama and Me.” It was the duo’s third performance at three-hour show, which aired live on CBS.


Though they won two awards, FGL lost the top prize – entertainer of the year – to Jason Aldean, who also won the honor last year.


“Man, one of the Eagles just gave me an award,” he said, looking to Joe Walsh. “I am so thankful. You guys don’t know how much I love getting up and doing what I do every day.”


FGL, Aldean and Walsh were part of the six separate performances that kicked off the high-energy ACM Awards.


Walsh and co-hosts Luke Bryan and Dierks Bentley performed “Johnny B. Goode” in tribute to Chuck Berry, who died last month.


“For the man that influenced every form of music, including country,” Bryan said.


Keith Urban, who had success with his genre-bending, Grammy-nominated album “Ripcord,” was the top nominee with seven, though he walked away empty-handed.


But he shined onstage when he sang the soulful “Blue Ain’t Your Color” with a throwback, black-and-white vibe, while the back of the stage was smoky and bright blue. As he switched to the upbeat, disco-flavored “The Fighter” – where he was joined by Underwood – the camera focused on his actress-wife, who sang and danced along.


Miranda Lambert also had a top-notch performance: She earned a standing ovation after she sang the slow, acoustic-sounding “Tin Man” as the crowd watched along seriously while she hit all the right notes and strummed her guitar.


She won album of the year for her double disc, “The Weight of These Wings,” and female vocalist of the year, besting Reba McEntire’s record for most wins in the category.


“I am really so thrilled that I can still lead the charge for women in this business, on any level of this business, singer-songwriters, anybody behind-the-scenes, managers, whatever it is,” Lambert said backstage, winning her eighth consecutive female vocalist trophy. “I am just so thrilled that I can keep pushing forward and making way for other women to do the same thing.”


Thomas Rhett was a multiple winner too. Before he took home song of the year for “Die a Happy Man,” the presenters earned laughs from the audience for mocking the infamous mishap at the recent Academy Awards.


“This is odd. David?” asked “Entertainment Tonight” host Nancy O’Dell, who had the winner’s card in her hand.


“Emma Stone, `La La Land,’” magician David Copperfield announced.


Rhett also won male vocalist of the year, beating out Urban, Aldean, Bentley and Chris Stapleton. In his seat, he shook his head after his name was announced.


“I don’t have a whole lot of words except for: Everyone in this category are my idols,” said Rhett, who was teary-eyed and paused throughout his speech. “This is the most amazing award that I’ve ever received in my whole existence.”

Rhett also sang his new collaboration with Maren Morris, who won new female vocalist of the year.


Sam Hunt performed his No. 1 hit, “Body Like a Back Road,” and he went into the audience to sit next to his fiancé to sing the song. Other performers included Rascal Flatts, Little Big Town, Kelsea Ballerini as well as Faith Hill and Tim McGraw, who sang a new duet.


The music video for “Forever Country,” the medley celebrating the Country Music Association Awards’ 50th anniversary featuring Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton and others, won video of the year. Brothers Osborne were double winners, while Jon Pardi and songwriter Lori McKenna also picked up trophies.


Little Big Town won vocal group of the year, beating out Lady Antebellum.


“I just wanna be in Lady Antebellum’s band,” Little Big Town’s Kimberly Schlapman yelled.

Arts & Entertainment

Chicago Blues Musician Lonnie Brooks Dies at 83

Chicago blues musician Lonnie Brooks, whose relationship with his adopted hometown was cemented by his hit recording of Robert Johnson’s Sweet Home Chicago, has died at age 83.

A prolific musician known for his intense guitar solos and raspy but strong voice, Brooks died Saturday night, his son Ronnie Baker Brooks said Sunday.

Brooks came to the blues by a circuitous route.

Born Lee Baker Jr. in Louisiana, he was focused on playing the guitar when he was noticed and invited to Chicago by soul singer Sam Cooke more than 50 years ago. He stayed and changed his name to Lonnie Brooks.

He recorded a number of albums for Chicago-based Alligator Records’ Living Chicago Blues series, including classics such as Bayou Lightning, Hot Shot, and Lone Star Shootout. He appeared in Dan Aykroyd’s film Blues Brothers 2000.

In an interview with the Chicago Tribune in 1992, Brooks said the blues did not come naturally to him at first.

“Then one night, I saw Magic Sam [Maghett] in a little blues club on the South Side. He went on stage right after he’d gotten into a big fight with his girlfriend, and it was like he was taking it out on his guitar. I seen how it came from the heart, so I went home to the basement, and got into that mood that Magic Sam had been in, and the blues came to me,” Brooks said.

He toured for many years with his sons Wayne and Ronnie, who are both guitar players.

“He was a great family man and a great musician and did a hell of a job with both,” Ronnie Baker Brooks said.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel called him a blues legend “with a towering talent and soulful style that won him legions of fans across the country and around the world.”