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Studying Black Holes in a Bathtub

Mysterious black holes, thought to reside in the center of every galaxy, are difficult to study because even the closest one, in the center of our own Milky Way, is still some 27,000 light years away. But researchers at the University of Nottingham’s Quantum Gravity Laboratory have found that some of the physical phenomena linked to black holes can be studied in an ordinary bathtub. VOA’s George Putic has more.

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Trump’s Immigrant Crackdown Could Slow Houston Rebuilding

In the coming weeks, as Houston turns its attention to rebuilding areas devastated by Tropical Storm Harvey, people like Jay De Leon are likely to play an outsized role — if they stay around.

De Leon, 47, owns a small construction business in Houston, and he and his 10 employees do exactly the kind of demolition and refurbishing the city will need. But like a large number of construction workers in Texas, De Leon and most of his workers live in the United States illegally, and that could make things complicated.

The Pew Research Center estimated last year that 28 percent of Texas’s construction workforce is undocumented, while other studies have put the number as high as 50 percent. Construction employed 23 percent of working undocumented adults in Texas at the end of 2014, higher than any other sector, according to the Migration Policy Institute.

Undocumented immigrants nervous

However, undocumented immigrants are growing increasingly nervous in Texas because of an immigration crackdown by the Trump administration that has cast a wide net.

In addition, a new Texas law that would have taken effect later this week bars cities from embracing so-called sanctuary policies, where they offer safe harbor to illegal immigrants, and allows local police to inquire about a person’s immigration status. A federal judge Wednesday temporarily blocked most of the law from taking effect.

De Leon, who has lived in the country for 20 years and has two citizen children, says the changes have spooked the city’s migrant workforce. In recent weeks, he said, one of his employees left the state and another returned to Mexico. Both feared that if they stayed they risked arrest.

Departing workers, he says, pose a problem for Houston in the wake of Harvey, which has caused flood damage to commercial buildings, houses, roads and bridges expected to run into tens of billions of dollars.

“The situation that Houston is going through now with the hurricane is going to be the trial by fire for the Republicans and the governor that approved these radical laws,” De Leon said. “They will need our migrant labor to rebuild the city. I believe that without us it will be impossible.”

Undocumented workers perform a wide range of construction jobs, from framing and dry-walling to plumbing and wiring.

Shortage of U.S. trained workers

Stan Marek, chief executive of Marek Construction in Texas, said his company doesn’t hire undocumented immigrants and has long had difficulty finding enough trained U.S. workers.

“It’s a crisis,” Marek said. “We are looking at several thousand homes that have flood damage. There is no way the existing (legal) workforce can make a dent in it.”

Marek would like to see the federal government grant emergency work authorization for undocumented workers in the rebuilding effort, he said. Otherwise, those immigrants are likely to be hired by firms that do not pay payroll taxes or provide benefits like workers’ compensation and legally mandated overtime.

It isn’t yet possible to estimate how many construction jobs will be added in Texas as it rebuilds, but in the 12 months after Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, Louisiana added 14,800 jobs in the sector, U.S. government data shows.

About 25 percent of the construction workers involved in the cleanup of New Orleans were undocumented, according to a study by researchers at Tulane and UC Berkeley universities. Those without papers were “especially at risk of exploitation,” the study found.

Worker exodus

The labor shortages are likely to grow worse, many builders warn. Earlier this year, a group of Hispanic contractors sent a letter to Texas Governor Greg Abbott warning that the pending ban on sanctuary city policies would make it “difficult to find and retain experienced workers.”

Javier Arrias, chairman of the Hispanic Contractors Association de Tejas and one of the letter’s signers, told Reuters that “many construction workers are already moving to other states.”

Abbott’s office did not respond to a request for comment about the role undocumented workers might play in the recovery.

Elizabeth Theiss, president of Houston-based anti-immigration group Stop the Magnet, sees another option besides looking to workers in the country illegally. She says the rebuilding effort should be used to help train U.S. veterans and other citizens who need jobs.

Theiss acknowledged that reconstruction might proceed more slowly, at least initially, if immigrants without work documents are not part of the effort, but she noted that rebuilding would be slow under any scenario.

Personal hardships

Whatever role undocumented people play in rebuilding Houston, they could face hardships rebuilding their own lives.

While the Federal Emergency Management Agency provides emergency food, water and medicine to anyone, regardless of immigration status, cash assistance and other longer term aid is only available to citizens and immigrants in households where at least one family member has legal status.

Immigrant advocates are launching private fundraising drives to help fill the void.

“It is deeply tragic and un-American that so many of those working men and women who will be rebuilding Houston and the rest of the state will be doing so while facing tragedy in their own lives,” said Jose Garza, executive director of the Workers Defense Project.

De Leon said his family was lucky and did not suffer flood damage. He is now busy rounding up supplies for immigrant families stuck at shelters who are afraid to seek out more help from authorities.

In the end, he says, President Donald Trump has to know “it’s going to be impossible to rebuild Houston without the labor force of immigrants. It is illogical, what he says with his words and what really has to happen.”

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Michigan, North Dakota Among States Likely to be Hurt by NAFTA Changes

Michigan is likely to be the state most hurt by changes to the NAFTA trade agreement, according to a Fitch Ratings report released Wednesday, as U.S. President Donald Trump renewed threats to scrap the deal.

Trump has threatened three times in the past week to abandon the North American Free Trade Agreement, revisiting his view that the United States would probably have to start the process of exiting the accord to reach a fair deal for his country.

A second round of talks starts Friday in Mexico City to renegotiate the 1994 accord binding the United States, Mexico and Canada.

Business groups have largely praised NAFTA and hope to persuade all three governments to make minimal changes to the pact. U.S.-Canada-Mexico trade has quadrupled since NAFTA took effect in 1994, surpassing $1 trillion in 2015.

Michigan’s auto sector

While several other states export a significant amount of products to Canada and Mexico, Michigan is an outlier in Fitch’s analysis because of the state’s global role in the automotive sector and proximity to Canada, the report said.

Sixty-five percent of the Michigan’s exports went to Canada and Mexico in 2016, totaling 7.4 percent of its gross state product, it said.

“Any state that is particularly export dependent or exposed to trade, if there’s a falloff in trade it’s going to hit income and sales taxes and that’s going to weaken state revenues,” said Michael D’Arcy, a director of U.S. public finance at Fitch. “Cuts would have to be made.”

Anna Heaton, a spokeswoman for Republican Michigan Governor Rick Snyder, said in a statement to Reuters that Canada, Michigan’s No.1 trading partner, has been important to the state’s economic recovery but he understands that sometimes policies need to change.

11 states trade heavily with Canada

According to the report, 11 U.S. states send at least 30 percent of their exports to Canada. By merchandise value, 82 percent of North Dakota’s exports went to Canada in 2016. Forty-three percent of New Mexico’s exports were sent to Mexico.

Several states also import a substantial amount of Canadian goods.

“A unilateral U.S. withdrawal from NAFTA would sharply increase import tariffs overnight, entailing potentially substantial costs for U.S. importers and consumers,” the report said.

Major metropolitan areas could also be affected by U.S. trade policy changes, with Texas’s El Paso MSA, or metropolitan statistical area, left vulnerable to NAFTA changes, the report said. Exports to Canada and Mexico accounted for 91 percent of the MSA’s exports.

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US-funded Ethiopian Abattoir Hopes to Help Herders During Drought

An abattoir located among herding communities in Ethiopia’s eastern Somali region, known more for droughts and famine than business opportunities, is an unusual stop for a U.S. aid administrator.

But USAID chief Mark Green stopped at the Jijiga Export Slaughter House (JESH) during a visit to the town of Jijiga on Wednesday to see the effects of a crippling drought that has pushed some areas to the south to the brink of famine.

The abattoir buys goats, sheep, cows and camels for slaughter from herders for export to the Middle East, giving families cash to buy food during the drought.

A $1.5-million loan from Feed the Future, a $1 billion-a-year agricultural program launched during U.S. President Barack Obama’s presidency in 2010, helped purchase refrigerators and trucks for the facility, which employs 100 people from local villages.

To Green, the slaughterhouse represents what USAID can do to help attract private-sector money into investments that boost the productivity of small farmers in developing countries.

While at the abattoir, Green announced 12 countries that will benefit from Feed The Future investments in 2017, signaling that the program will survive proposed deep cuts to USAID’s budget this year.

The 12 countries are Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Ghana, Guatemala, Honduras, Kenya, Mali, Nepal, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal and Uganda.

Green said investments like the Jijinga slaughterhouse not only created markets for American businesses but helped communities out of poverty. Herders can earn as much as $80 per goat when they sell to the slaughterhouse.

“I’m under no illusions; the development journey in many places in the world is a long one, but I want us to always be thinking what we can do that nudges something towards a day when people get to take care of themselves,” he said.

“This is a place where we see some of the benefits and the potential for Feed the Future,” Green added.

JESH Chief Executive Faisal Guhad said the abattoir had been open for a year but was forced to close for three months last year because of the drought.

The facility currently processes about 10,000 animals a month. Guhad said he hoped to quadruple that in the second year of operation.

Demand for Ethiopian goat meat was currently high because of the annual haj pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca, said Guhad.

“We opened at the wrong time. El Nino happened to us and we started again after it rained,” said Guhad. “We’re now in the second month of starting again.”

The facility employs about 108 people from the community and plans to increase hiring to 200, said Guhad.

In the Jijinga area, planting for the March to May rains, known as the belg, is already delayed, and aid workers say they have seen a growing number of women and children at food distribution centers. The hunger crisis is predicted to worsen until the harvest begins in September.

Many parts of the Ethiopian highlands are still recovering from the 2016 drought, which was attributed to the El Niño weather phenomenon in the Pacific Ocean.

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Growing Commerce With India Gives Vietnam New Defense Against China

A flood of Indian business in fast-growing Vietnam has solidified commercial ties to help Hanoi upgrade an alliance with a powerful Asian neighbor and offset dependence on its historic rival, the more massive China.

Indian investment in Vietnam has reached $2 billion and bilateral trade hit $10 billion over the year ending in March on its way to $15 billion by 2020, said Radha Krishnan, vice chairman of the Indian Business Chamber of Vietnam.

“As of now that is very easily achievable,” Krishnan said. “The last three … years exports from Vietnam to India have picked up momentum.”

Vietnam has many trade partners

Last year the two countries agreed to upgrade a “strategic partnership,” giving Vietnam more Indian market access, and they will drop import tariffs in 2022 as part of a trade deal with a bloc of Southeast Asian countries.

Those totals hardly match those of Vietnam’s long-time investment sources such as Taiwan, South Korea and China. But their growth offers Vietnam a line to the world’s second-largest country, helping to reduce dependence on China, which is the world’s second-largest economy and Vietnam’s biggest trading partner.

China-Vietnam set a trade target of $100 billion in 2016, but the pair disputes a swathe of the South China Sea. Their dispute sparked clashes in 1974, 1988 and 2014.

“The Vietnamese government, they don’t want to get an unbalanced investment portfolio where any particular country or region is dominant, because then it just unbalances everything else — foreign policy, domestic politics and everything,” said Frederick Burke, partner with the international law firm Baker McKenzie in Ho Chi Minh City.

“As far as people who think about strategic issues are concerned, they would like the Indians to be probably more present in the market, because they’re probably behind mainland China in particular,” he said. “Everybody wants to balance the two out, be friends with both. That’s the ideal situation.”

Robust trade but also continuing disputes with China

Vietnam depends on China for cheap mass market goods, as well as raw materials for export manufacturing. The two Communist countries fought a border war in the 1970s shortly after what was then South Vietnam lost the Paracel Islands to China. That archipelago is part of the South China Sea.

In 2014, the placement of a Chinese oil rig in the South China Sea east of Vietnam touched off a boat-ramming incident and deadly anti-China riots on land. In June, a Chinese military official cut short his Vietnam visit as the host drilled for oil offshore.

Over the past two decades, Indian farming, garment and pharmaceutical investment have reached Vietnam because of its eager partners, Krishnan said. Low-cost but advanced Indian technology has helped Vietnam farm in dry weather, produce sugar and process cashews, he said. Tata Power of India runs a $1.8 billion thermal power plant in Vietnam.

For the past three years, the overseas subsidiary of India’s government-run ONGC has worked with PetroVietnam Exploration Production Corporation to search for oil and gas in the South China Sea.

About 80,000 Indians visit Vietnam every year, often as tourists looking for business opportunities, and 20,000 go the other way, sometimes as travelers to Buddhist landmarks, Krishnan said.

India has its own reasons for strengthening trade with Vietnam

India, for its part, is keen to resist China’s expansion in Asia. The two Asian powers are easing just this week a more than two-month-old military standoff in Bhutan. China claims the area in question, and Bhutan called on India to help when the Chinese came to work on a highway project.

Countries that build trade, investment and economic ties do not always become political allies, but in the India-Vietnam case, that fate is “natural,” said Alexander Huang, strategic studies professor at Tamkang University in Taiwan. China, he added, is unlikely to flinch at India because Vietnam is chasing stronger ties with other powerful countries, as well.

“You don’t need to be a grand strategist to think of diversifying your market,” Huang said. “Of course it will have some kind of impact, but so far I do not see one to the degree that will fundamentally change the Chinese perception over Vietnam, because the United States is improving relationships with Vietnam, Japan is improving relationships with Vietnam.”

A need to resist continued Chinese expansion

Beijing’s “belligerence” and escalation of territorial disputes in the seas to the Bhutan border have “served to bring a coalition of China-wary states closer,” said Mohan Malik,professor at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Honolulu.

Elsewhere in Asia, Indonesia, Myanmar and the Philippines have also tried to balance foreign policies between China and the West, often through trade and investment.

China is expected to keep a special eye out for India’s maritime ties with Vietnam. The Indian oil company could work again in the waters off Vietnam, Krishnan said. Officials in Hanoi, he said, would try to protect that investment and others.

“I don’t think it’s going to be a big problem per se,” said Krishnan. “We are very, very positive that both governments will be able to handle that very, very positively. I don’t think investments made in Vietnam by a foreign country or company will be at risk.”

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‘Reprogrammed’ Stem Cells Fight Parkinson’s Disease in Monkeys

Scientists have successfully used “reprogrammed” stem cells to restore functioning brain cells in monkeys, raising hopes the technique could be used in the future to help patients with Parkinson’s disease.

Since Parkinson’s is caused by a lack of dopamine made by brain cells, researchers have long hoped to use stem cells to restore normal production of the neurotransmitter chemical.

Now, for the first time, Japanese researchers have shown that human induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS) can be administered safely and effectively to treat primates with symptoms of the debilitating disease.

So-called iPS cells are made by removing mature cells from an individual — often from the skin — and reprogramming them to behave like embryonic stem cells. They can then be coaxed into dopamine-producing brain cells.

The scientists from Kyoto University, a world-leader in iPS technology, said their experiment indicated that this approach could potentially be used for the clinical treatment of human patients with Parkinson’s.

In addition to boosting dopamine production, the tests showed improved movement in affected monkeys and no tumors in their brains for at least two years.

The human iPS cells used in the experiment worked whether they came from healthy individuals or Parkinson’s disease patients, the Japanese team reported in the journal Nature on Wednesday.

“This is extremely promising research demonstrating that a safe and highly effective cell therapy for Parkinson’s can be produced in the lab,” said Tilo Kunath of the MRC Center for Regenerative Medicine, University of Edinburgh, who was not involved in the research.

The next step will be to test the treatment in a first-in-human clinical trial, which Jun Takahashi of Kyoto University told Reuters he hoped to start by the end of 2018.

Any widespread use of the new therapy is still many years away, but the research has significantly reduced previous uncertainties about iPS-derived cell grafts.

The fact that this research uses iPS cells rather human embryonic stem cells means the treatment would be acceptable in countries such as Ireland and much of Latin America, where embryonic cells are banned.

Excitement about the promise of stem cells has led to hundreds of medical centers springing up around the world claiming to be able to repair damaged tissue in conditions such as multiple sclerosis and Parkinson’s.

While some treatments for cancer and skin grafts have been approved by regulators, many other potential therapies are only in early-stage development, prompting a warning last month by health experts about the dangers of “stem-cell tourism.”

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Change in US Policy Makes It Harder to Rebuild for Future Floods

Two weeks before Harvey’s floodwaters engulfed much of Houston, President Donald Trump quietly rolled back an order by his predecessor that would have made it easier for storm-ravaged communities to use federal emergency aid to rebuild bridges, roads and other structures so they can better withstand future disasters.

Now, with much of the nation’s fourth-largest city under water, Trump’s move has new resonance. Critics note the president’s order could force Houston and other cities to rebuild hospitals and highways in the same way and in the same flood-prone areas.

“Rebuilding while ignoring future flood events is like treating someone for lung cancer and then giving him a carton of cigarettes on the way out the door,” said Michael Gerrard, a professor of environmental and climate change law at Columbia University. “If you’re going to rebuild after a bad event, you don’t want to expose yourself to the same thing all over again.”

Trump’s action is one of several ways the president, who has called climate change a hoax, has tried to wipe away former President Barack Obama’s efforts to make the United States more resilient to threats posed by the changing climate.

Consideration of climate predictions

The order Trump revoked would have permitted the rebuilding to take into account climate scientists’ predictions of stronger storms and more frequent flooding.

Bridges and highways, for example, could be rebuilt higher, or with better drainage. The foundation of a new fire station or hospital might be elevated an extra 3 feet (1 meter).

While scientists caution against blaming specific weather events like Harvey on climate change, warmer air and warmer water linked to global warming have long been projected to make such storms wetter and more intense. Houston, for example, has experienced three floods in three years that statistically were once considered 1-in-500-year events.

The government was still in the process of implementing Obama’s 2015 order when it was rescinded. That means the old standard — rebuilding storm-ravaged facilities in the same way they had been built before — is still in place.

Trump revoked Obama’s order as part of an executive order of his own that he touted at an August 15 news conference at Trump Tower. That news conference was supposed to focus on infrastructure, but it was dominated by Trump’s comments on the previous weekend’s violence in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Trump didn’t specifically mention the revocation, but he said he was making the federal permitting process for the construction of transportation and other infrastructure projects faster and more cost-efficient without harming the environment.

“It’s going to be quick, it’s going to be a very streamlined process,” Trump said.

Asked about the revocation, the White House said in a statement that Obama’s order didn’t consider potential impacts on the economy and was “applied broadly to the whole country, leaving little room or flexibility for designers to exercise professional judgment or incorporate the particular context” of a project’s location.

Construction curbs

Obama’s now-defunct order also revamped Federal Flood Risk Management Standards, calling for tighter restrictions on new construction in flood-prone areas. Republicans, including Senator John Cornyn of Texas, opposed the measure, saying it would impede land development and economic growth.

Revoking that order was only the latest step by Trump to undo Obama’s actions on climate change.

In March, Trump rescinded a 2013 order that directed federal agencies to encourage states and local communities to build new infrastructure and facilities “smarter and stronger” in anticipation of more frequent extreme weather.

Trump revoked a 2015 Obama memo directing agencies developing national security policies to consider the potential impact of climate change.

The president also disbanded two advisory groups created by Obama: the interagency Council on Climate Preparedness and Resilience and the State, Local and Tribal Leaders Task Force on Climate Preparedness and Resilience.

Obama’s 2015 order was prompted in part by concerns raised by Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper after severe flooding in his state two years earlier. Hickenlooper was dismayed to learn that federal disaster aid rules were preventing state officials from rebuilding “better and smarter than what we had built before.”

The “requirements essentially said you had to build it back exactly the way it was, that you couldn’t take into consideration improvements in resiliency,” Hickenlooper, a Democrat, said Tuesday. “We want to be more prepared for the next event, not less prepared.”

Bud Wright, the Federal Highway Administration’s executive director during George W. Bush’s administration, said this has long been a concern of federal officials.

He recalled a South Dakota road that was “almost perpetually flooded” but was repeatedly rebuilt to the same standard using federal aid because the state didn’t have the extra money to pay for enhancements.

“It seemed a little ridiculous that we kept doing that,” said Wright, now the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials’ executive director.

Big federal ‘checkbook’

But Kirk Steudle, director of Michigan’s Department of Transportation, said states can build more resilient infrastructure than what they had before a disaster by using state or nonemergency federal funds to make up the cost difference.

“That makes sense, otherwise FEMA would be the big checkbook,” he said, referring to the Federal Emergency Management Agency. “Everybody would be hoping for some disaster so FEMA could come in and build them a brand-new road to the 2020 standard instead of the 1970 standard.”

Even though Obama’s order has been revoked, federal officials have some wiggle room that might allow them to rebuild to higher standards, said Jessica Grannis, who manages the adaptation program at the Georgetown Climate Center.

If local building codes in place before the storm call for new construction to be more resilient to flooding, then federal money can still be used to pay the additional costs.

For example, in Houston regulations require structures to be rebuilt 1 foot (30 centimeters) above the level designated for a 1-in-100-year storm. And in the wake of prior disasters, FEMA has moved to remap floodplains, setting the line for the 1-in-100-year flood higher than it was before.

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