Science & Health
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Plague Spreading Rapidly in Madagascar

The World Health Organization warns a highly infectious, deadly form of pneumonic plague is spreading rapidly in Madagascar and quick action is needed to stop it. 

Pneumonic plague, which is transmitted from person to person, has been detected in several cities in Madagascar.  This worries the World Health Organization as the disease is highly contagious and quickly causes death without treatment.

Plague is endemic to Madagascar resulting in around 400 cases annually.  Most are cases of bubonic plague, which is spread by the fleas of rats and other small rodents.  The disease is usually confined to rural areas, but this year it has spread to large urban areas and port cities.

WHO spokesman, Tarik Jasarevic, says cases of bubonic, as well as the human transmissible pneumonic plague have been found in the capital Antananarivo and the port cities of Majunga and Toamasina.

“So far, 104 cases of plague were reported since the first case has been identified that was dating from the 23rd of August,” said Jasarevic. “So, from the 23rd of August to 28th September, 104 cases that have been reported, including 20 deaths.”

Jasarevic notes the fatality rate is more than 19 percent.  He tells VOA this outbreak is very dangerous and must be brought under control quickly.

“The plague epidemic season usually runs from September to April, so we really are at the beginning of the epidemic season of plague,” said Jasarevic. “And, we have already from the 23rd of August until yesterday—so that is like five-weeks-time—we had 104 cases and again half of those cases were pneumonic plague.”

WHO says urgent public health response in terms of surveillance and treatment is required.  The health agency has released $250,000 from its emergency fund to get immediate action underway.  It plans to appeal for $1.5 million to fully respond to the needs.

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Economy & business
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China Manufacturing Expands at Fastest Pace in 5 Years

An official survey released Saturday said that China’s factory activity expanded in September at the fastest pace in five years, as the country’s vital manufacturing sector stepped up production to meet strong demand.

The official manufacturing purchasing managers’ index rose to 52.4 in September, up from 51.7 in the previous month and the highest level since April 2012.

The report by the Federation of Logistics & Purchasing said production, new export orders and overall new orders grew at a faster pace for the month.

“The manufacturing sector continues to maintain a steady development trend and the pace is accelerating,” said Zhao Qinghe, senior statistician at the National Bureau of Statistics, which released the data. Zhao noted that the report found both domestic and global demand have improved.

However, in a separate report, the private Caixin/Markit manufacturing PMI slipped to 51.0 from 51.6, as factories reported that production and new orders expanded at slower rates last month.

Both indexes are based on a 100-point scale with 50 dividing expansion from contraction. But the federation’s report is focused more on large, state-owned enterprises while the Caixin survey is weighted to smaller, private companies.

Another official index covering non-manufacturing activity rebounded after two months of contraction, rising to 55.4 last month from 53.4 in August. That indicates momentum is picking up again in China’s service sector.

The reports come ahead of the ruling Communist Party’s twice-a-decade congress set for next month, where top leaders will be reshuffled and authorities will outline economic policies.

Earlier this month, rating agency Standard & Poor’s downgraded China’s credit rating on government borrowing, citing rising debt levels that raise financial risks and could drag on economic growth.

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Economy & business
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Untangling US Tax System

Nearly all U.S. taxpayers say American tax law, which runs tens of thousands of pages, is an incredibly complicated, annoying mess. And there is no agreement on how to fix the problem. Republicans recently outlined a new effort they say will be clearer, fairer and helpful to the economy. Critics say the Republican plan would cut taxes for the rich and increase the U.S. debt. VOA’s Jim Randle looks at how the system is supposed to work, and what critics say is wrong.

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Silicon Valley & Technology
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Unintended Social Consequences Catching up to Facebook

Years of limited oversight and unchecked growth have turned Facebook into a force with incredible power over the lives of its 2 billion users. But the social network has also given rise to unintended social consequences, and they’re starting to catch up with it:

House and Senate panels investigating Russian interference in the 2016 elections have invited Facebook, along with Google and Twitter, to testify this fall. Facebook just agreed to give congressional investigators 3,000 political ads purchased by Russian-backed entities, and announced new disclosure policies for political advertising
Facebook belatedly acknowledged its role purveying false news to its users during the 2016 campaign and announced new measures to curb it. Founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg even apologized, more than 10 months after the fact, for calling the idea that Facebook might have influenced the election “pretty crazy.”
The company has taken flack for a live video feature that was quickly used to broadcast violent crime and suicides; for removing an iconic Vietnam War photo for “child pornography” and then backtracking; and for allegedly putting its thumb on a feature that ranked trending news stories.

Facebook is behind the curve in understanding that “what happens in their system has profound consequences in the real world,” said Fordham University media-studies professor Paul Levinson. The company’s knee-jerk response has often been “none of your business” when confronted about these consequences, he said.

Moving fast, still breaking things

That response may not work much longer for a company whose original but now-abandoned slogan — “move fast and break things” — sometimes still seems to govern it.

Facebook has, so far, enjoyed seemingly unstoppable growth in users, revenue and its stock price. Along the way, it has also pushed new features on to users even when they protested, targeted ads at them based on a plethora of carefully collected personal details, and engaged in behavioral experiments that seek to influence their mood.

“There’s a general arrogance — they know what’s right, they know what’s best, we know how to make better for you so just let us do it,” said Notre Dame business professor Timothy Carone, who added that this is true of Silicon Valley giants in general. “They need to take a step down and acknowledge that they really don’t have all the answers.”

Hands-off Facebook

Facebook generally points to the fact that its policies prohibit misuse of its platform, and that it is difficult to catch everyone who tries to abuse its platform. When pressed, it tends to acknowledge some problems, offer a few narrowly tailored fixesand move on.

But there is a larger question, which is whether Facebook has taken sufficient care to build policies and systems that are resistant to abuse.

Facebook declined to address the subject on the record, although it pointed to earlier public statements in which Zuckerberg described how he wants Facebook to be a force for good in the world. The company also recently launched a blog called “Hard Questions” that attempts to address its governance issues in more depth.

But Sheryl Sandberg, the company’s No. 2 executive, offered an unexpected perspective on this question in a recent apology. Facebook “never intended or anticipated” how people could use its automated advertising to target ads at users who expressed anti-Semitic views. That, she wrote, “is on us. And we did not find it ourselves — and that is also on us.”

As a result, she said the company will tighten its ad policies to ensure such abuses don’t happen again.

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Arts & Entertainment
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In films ‘Victoria & Abdul’ and ‘American Made,’ Life is Stranger than Fiction

Two films on our radar this week are Stephen Frears’ heartwarming drama Victoria & Abdul about the deep friendship between Queen Victoria and her Indian servant Abdul Karim between 1887 and 1901, and Doug Liman’s American Made about Barry Seal, a 1970s audacious American pilot, who, during the Nicaraguan Crisis worked for the CIA, the DEA and the Colombian cartel. 

As different as these two films are, they are both based on true stories, proving yet again that often life is stranger than fiction. Both films feature intelligent plots and superb acting.

WATCH: Victoria & Abdul, American Made Based on Incredible True Stories

Victoria & Abdul

Stephen Frears’ film Victoria and Abdul, opens in 1887, with the festivities for Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee, celebrating her 50-year reign. 

Abdul Karim, a young Muslim clerk from Agra, India, is sent to the banquet all the way from India to present the queen with a gift from India, a ceremonial coin. To the dismay of Queen Victoria’s courtiers, the Indian servant strikes a deep friendship with the octogenarian Queen Victoria, defying class and racial boundaries.

According to the movie, Abdul Karim impressed the British sovereign with his depth of spirit and good looks. Soon the unlikely friends became inseparable, discussing philosophy, literature, even Indian cuisine. In a span of 14 years, Abdul Karm became the queen’s confidant and munshi, her teacher, in Urdu.

But the queen’s courtesans and her family, sidelined by Abdul, questioned her sanity and considered her removal.

Historian and author Shrabani Basu based her book of the same title on the queen’s journals in Urdu and on Karim’s private diary. Basu discovered Abdul Karim’s personal diary in possession of Karim’s surviving nephew Abdul Rashid in 2010, over a century after the queen’s death. 

This was the only document on the relationship between royal and servant that survived the wrath of Queen Victoria’s children. Immediately after her death in 1901, the royals evicted Queen Victoria’s munshi, burned everything he had received from the queen and swiftly shipped him and his family to India. In 1909 Abdul Karim died in Agra leaving his diary as his only testimonial of his deep friendship with the empress.

Director Frears offers captivating cinematography while Dame Judi Dench portrays a free-spirited Queen Victoria and Indian actor Ali Fazal embodies a charming and loyal Adbul Karim. 

Though the film does not depict a romantic relationship between the two, it does hint to it. Dench describes the queen’s reaction to Karim: 

“She had a ready eye for somebody good-looking, which he is very, so it was easy to imagine a kind of tired, poor person suddenly looking up and seeing this wonderful good-looking young man. How lovely somebody at last beautiful to look at,” Dench said.

But, author Basu says, “At the heart of this book is a story of friendship, a friendship of two different people from two different specters of this world, one is the Empress of India, one is a clerk from Agra jail, and somewhere they have a bond they find this link and a common space.”

​American Made

American Made, by Bourne Identity filmmaker Doug Liman, offers a satirical look at the political crisis in Nicaragua. 

It shows the involvement of the United States in the revolution during the late 1970s and 1980s through the perspective of pilot Barry Seal, who, for the right price, delivers guns to Nicaragua on behalf of the CIA, and cocaine into the U.S. on behalf of the Colombian cartel. Somewhere in between, Seal also works for the DEA.

Tom Cruise offers an engaging interpretation as Barry Seal, piloting the plane and doing all the stunts throughout the film. Cruise explains what drew him to the character:

“He just couldn’t help himself,” Cruise said. “He just had to live this life. He literally when you are talking about someone living on the edge, he didn’t even realize he was on the edge. He was just living life and not really thinking of necessary ramifications and what’s going to happen.”

As in most of his action film projects, Cruise pushes his boundaries. 

“I don’t make a movie just to make a movie,” he said. “It’s not what interests me. What interests me is the passion of cinema, the passion of storytelling. That’s when it gets very exciting, not just a job. I love this too much.”

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Science & Health
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Travel by Rocket From New York to Tokyo in 30 Minutes?

U.S. billionaire innovator Elon Musk has unveiled plans for a new rocket that would allow passengers to travel from one continent to another in about 30 minutes.

At a presentation Friday in Adelaide, Australia, Musk showed a video of images of a rocket taking off in New York and landing in various places around the world, including Tokyo and Shanghai.

He said the New York-Shanghai trip could be done in 39 minutes, while a trip from Bangkok to Dubai would take 27 minutes and Tokyo to Delhi would be 30 minutes.

He added that the cost per seat should be about the same as full fare economy in an aircraft.

Musk noted there is no weather outside the Earth’s atmosphere to interfere with travel times and said that once you are beyond the atmosphere, “it would be as smooth as silk, no turbulence, nothing.”

“If we are building this thing to go to the moon and Mars, then why not go to other places on Earth as well?” Musk said.

Musk, who founded and runs the company SpaceX along with the electric luxury car company Tesla, has long been making plans for rockets to travel to Mars.

Musk said SpaceX plans its first trip to Mars in 2022, carrying only cargo with a key mission to find the best source of water on the Red Planet. That mission would be followed by the first manned mission in 2024. He said the company was aiming to start construction on the first spaceship in the next six to nine months.

Musk said space flights to enable people to travel from one continent to another could help to pay for future missions to Mars.

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