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Mars Rover’s Mission Finally Over, NASA Says

“I declare the Opportunity mission is complete,” NASA official Thomas Zurbuchen said Wednesday of the U.S. Mars rover mission that outlasted its projected life span by more than 14 years.  

 

The Opportunity rover succumbed to a Martian dust storm and lost contact with Earth nearly eight months ago. NASA finally gave up on it after more than 800 attempts to re-establish contact. 

Zurbuchen, associate administrator for science at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, said at a news conference at the space agency’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., that he shared the news “with a deep sense of appreciation and gratitude.”

Opportunity was launched in 2003 and reached Mars a year later, close on the heels of its “twin,” a rover named Spirit. Both rovers, roughly the size of golf carts, were tasked with activities that would last about 90 days, but both far outlasted their original missions, spending years exploring the planet’s rocky terrain while using solar panels for engine power.

First to fall silent

Spirit got stuck in 2009 and stopped communicating with NASA a year later. It is believed to have shut down for good during the harsh Martian winter.

Opportunity continued to explore until last year when a dust storm consumed the entire planet and blocked communication with Earth.

NASA scientists said they had hoped the wind would eventually clear debris off Opportunity’s solar panels and allow it to power up and re-establish contact. But repeated attempts to reach the rover failed.

Late Tuesday, NASA scientists made one last try to reach it. By Wednesday, the agency announced the long mission was finally over.

“It was an incredibly somber moment,” NASA scientist Tanya Harrison told The New York Times.  

At the end, the rover had covered a distance of 45.16 kilometers (28.06 miles) — a little longer than a marathon. 

But NASA’s work on Mars continues. The rover Curiosity has been exploring another part of the planet since 2012.

Next year, two more rovers — one from China and one from a combined effort by Russia and the European Union — are expected to begin their own voyages to the Red Planet.  

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Economy & business
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US Taxpayers Face Bitter Surprise After Trump’s Tax Cuts

Some taxpayers are getting a bitter surprise this year as their usual annual tax refunds have shrunk — or turned into tax bills — even though President Donald Trump loudly promised them largest tax cut “in American history.”

And with tax season under way, thousands of unhappy taxpayers have been venting their displeasure on Twitter, using hashtags like #GOPTaxscam, and some threatened not to vote for Trump again.

“Lowest refund I have ever had and I am 50 yrs old. No wall and now this tax reform sucks too!!” a woman going by “Speziale-Matheny” wrote from the crucial political swing state of Florida. “Starting to doubt Trump. I voted for him and trusted him too.”

During the year, American wage earners see a portion of each paycheck withheld as income tax, and many then receive a refund the following year if they have overpaid the federal government. That cash boost is eagerly awaited each year, and used to help pay off debt or make large purchases.

But the 2017 tax overhaul — which Republicans promoted as a boon to the middle class — meant many workers paid less in taxes during the year reducing the amount withheld, a change which may have gone unnoticed.

And the reform also cut some popular deductions, sometimes resulting in thinner refunds or even unexpected tax bills.

Early data from the U.S. Internal Revenue Service show that refunds so far this year are 8.4 percent lower than 2018 payouts on average, falling to $1,865 from $2,035.

However, many millions more taxpayers will be filing tax returns by the annual April 15 deadline, meaning this figure could change.

Mark Mazur, assistant Treasury secretary for tax policy under former President Barack Obama, told AFP the negative reaction was “understandable.”

“People focused on the amount of the refund but that’s not the same as their tax liability, the amount of tax they pay for the year,” he said.

Because of lower withholding during the year, some taxpayers have in effect already seen the benefit of the tax cut in their higher paychecks, said Mazur, who is vice president at the Urban Institute.

About five percent of taxpayers — 7.5 million people — will in fact see a tax increase, while about 80 percent should pay less, he said.

‘Angry, disappointed and betrayed’

The IRS on Wednesday said taxpayers who suddenly found they owe taxes could pay their bill in installments and apply for a waiver of penalties normally imposed for failing to pay by the deadline.

“The IRS understands there were many changes that affected people last year, and the new penalty waiver will help taxpayers who inadvertently had too little tax withheld,” IRS Commissioner Chuck Rettig said in a statement.

A key change of the 2017 tax reform is it limited federal deductions for certain state and local taxes like real estate taxes. As a result, many homeowners in states with higher property taxes will owe more to the federal government.

Neil Frankel, a New York accountant, told AFP people were feeling “angry, disappointed and betrayed.”

“I sympathize with them. The new tax law’s withholding tables were incorrect and misleading. A complete shenanigan,” he added.

“Since my clients are mostly professionals, I don’t really hear any screaming,” he said. “However, I do hear long diatribes on hatred for the U.S. government.”

Last year, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin invited taxpayers to use an online calculator to estimate their tax payments, to determine if they should modify their withholding amount.

‘Misleading’ reports

This week, the Treasury Department said media reports on the lower refunds were “misleading.”

“Refunds are consistent with 2017 levels and down slightly from 2018 based on a small, initial sample from only a few days of data,” the department said on Twitter.

But, Mazur said, perception is key: When the administration of former President George W. Bush cut taxes in 2001, it mailed out checks directly.

“Taxpayers remembered that they got that check,” he said.

Under Obama, however, a tax cut showed up as smaller withholdings and fatter checks during each pay cycle.

“Most Americans when they were surveyed didn’t think they got a tax cut from Obama,” he said.

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Silicon Valley & Technology
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China’s Huawei Soft Power Push Raises Hard Questions

As a nasty diplomatic feud deepens between the two countries over the tech company, involving arrests and execution orders, it hasn’t gone unnoticed that Huawei’s bright red fan-shaped logo is plastered prominently on the set of “Hockey Night in Canada.” TV hosts regularly remind the 1.8 million weekly viewers that program segments are “presented by Huawei smartphones.”

The cheery corporate message contrasts with the standoff over the arrest of Huawei Chief Financial Officer Meng Wanzhou on a U.S. warrant. In what looks like retaliation, China detained two Canadians and plans to execute a third — heavy-handed tactics that, because they leave some Canadians with the impression the privately owned company is an arm of the Chinese government, give its sponsorship a surreal quality.

The TV deal is one of many examples of how Huawei, the world’s biggest telecom gear producer and one of the top smartphone makers, has embarked on a global push to win consumers and burnish its brand. It sponsors Australian rugby, funds research at universities around the world, and brings foreign students to China for technical training. It has promoted classical music concerts in Europe and donated pianos to New Zealand schools .

Its efforts are now threatened by the dispute with Canada and U.S. accusations that it could help China’s authoritarian government spy on people around the world.

“Huawei’s marketing plan up until Dec. 1 (when Meng was arrested) was working very well,” said Guy Saint-Jacques, a former Canadian ambassador to China. Now, “public opinion is changing toward China and Huawei.”

At stake for Huawei are lucrative contracts to provide new superfast mobile networks called 5G. The U.S. says Meng helped break sanctions and accuses Huawei of stealing trade secrets. It also says the company could let the Chinese government tap its networks, which in the case of 5G would cover massive amounts of consumer data worldwide. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo pressed that point to European allies on a tour this week.

Huawei, which did not respond to requests for comment for this story, has previously rejected the allegations. The Chinese government says Huawei’s critics were fabricating threats.

Still, the headlines have been relentlessly negative.

“At some point there could be a majority of Canadians that will say `We don’t think the government should do business with Huawei,”’ said Saint-Jacques.

There’s no evidence of sinister intentions behind Huawei’s marketing, which isn’t unlike that of Western multinationals, although its efforts have been unusually strong for a company from China, where brands have struggled to capture global attention.

Rogers Communications, which broadcasts “Hockey in Night in Canada” and also sells Huawei smartphones, said it has no plans to change its sponsorship deal, which started in 2017 and runs to the end of 2020.

In Australia, the Canberra Raiders rugby team indicated it would renew a Huawei sponsorship deal this year despite a government ban on using its equipment in 5G networks.

Huawei has also ventured into high culture by using its smartphone artificial intelligence to complete the remaining movements in German composer Franz Schubert’s “Symphony No. 8,” known as the “Unfinished Symphony.” It held a symphony orchestra concert in London this month to perform the completed score.

And Huawei has a vast network of relationships with universities around the world through research partnerships and scholarships. It has helped fund a 25 million pound ($32 million) joint research project at Britain’s Cambridge University.

Some universities have begun to rethink their collaborations, although there’s no allegation of wrongdoing by Huawei. Universities point out that companies that fund research don’t automatically own any resulting patents.

Britain’s Oxford University stopped accepting Huawei’s money last month. Stanford University followed suit after U.S. prosecutors unsealed nearly two dozen charges against the company, as did the University of California at Berkeley, which also removed an off-campus videoconferencing set-up donated by Huawei based on guidance from the Department of Defense.

Faced with these setbacks, Huawei has responded by stepping up its public relations efforts.

Its normally reclusive chairman, Ren Zhengfei, last month held three media briefings, fielding questions from Western, Japanese and Chinese journalists.

The company will be out in force this month at the Mobile World Congress, a major telecom industry gathering in Barcelona, Spain. It’s expected to unveil its latest smartphone, a 5G device with a folding screen. Company executives are scheduled to brief analysts and give presentations on 5G technology.

Huawei is a corporate sponsor of the show and Ren is expected to attend to help win business deals, though U.S. officials are reportedly expected to turn out in force to lobby against Huawei.

The company last week hosted a Lunar New Year reception in Brussels for the European Union diplomatic community, in a ballroom commissioned by Belgium’s King Leopold II. There was a piano concert, a jazz performance, a bubble tea bar, and a speech by Huawei’s chief EU representative, Abraham Liu.

“We are shocked or sometimes feel amused by those ungrounded and senseless allegations,” Liu told the reception guests, adding that the company is “willing to accept the supervision” from governments in Europe, Huawei’s biggest market after China. Huawei plans to open a cybersecurity center in Brussels next month, he said.

To attract top talent, Huawei runs a program called “Seeds for the Future,” under which it sends students from more than 100 countries to China to study Mandarin and get technical training at its headquarters.

Shanthi Kalathil, director of the National Endowment for Democracy’s International Forum for Democratic Studies, sees Huawei’s charm offensive dovetailing with broader efforts by China to influence the global debate on the government’s surveillance and censorship it uses.

“It’s not like an afterthought. That is the foundation of the entire system,” she said.

Whether or not Huawei is linked to the Chinese government or merely defended as a corporate champion, the fight over the company shows how world powers see technology as the front line in the fight for economic supremacy.

“Today’s innovation economy is based on IP (intellectual property) and data,” said Jim Balsillie, the former chairman and co-CEO of BlackBerry-maker Research in Motion. “So soft power is the best tool for advancing national interests because the battle is not about armies and tanks.”

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Arts & Entertainment
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Donald Glover Gets 5 Nominations for NAACP Image Awards

Coming off a big night at the Grammys, Donald Glover and his alter-ego Childish Gambino have been nominated for five NAACP Image Awards.

Glover is nominated for his acting and directing on “Atlanta,” and Childish Gambino got three nominations on the music side. Glover won four Grammy Awards including record and song of the year on Sunday night.

The nominees were announced Wednesday at the Television Critics Association winter meeting in Pasadena, Calif.

“Black Panther” was nominated for 14 awards, with star Chadwick Boseman and director Ryan Coogler nominated for entertainer of the year along with Beyonce, LeBron James and Regina King.

The 50th NAACP Image Awards honoring entertainers and writers of color will be held March 30 at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood and aired live on TV One.

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Silicon Valley & Technology
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Google, Apple Face Calls to Pull Saudi App Allowing Men to Monitor Wives

A Saudi Arabian government app that allows men in the country to monitor and control their female relatives’ travel at the click of a button should be removed from Google and Apple’s online stores, a U.S. politician and activists said on Wednesday.

Human rights campaigners argued the tech giants are enabling abuses against women and girls in the ultra-conservative kingdom by hosting the app.

The free Absher app, created by the Saudi interior ministry, allows men to update or withdraw permissions for their wives and female relatives to travel internationally and get SMS updates if their passports are used, said human rights researchers.

The app is available in the Saudi version of the Google and Apple online stores.

“Part of the app’s design is to discriminate against women,” said Rothna Begum, an expert in women’s rights in the Middle East at Human Rights Watch.

“The complete control that a male guardian has is now facilitated with the use of modern technology and makes the lives of men ultimately easier and restricts women’s lives that much more.”

Begum said a few women had turned the app to their advantage by gaining access to their guardian’s phone and changing the settings to grant themselves freedom, but such cases were rare.

Neither Apple nor Google were immediately available for comment.

Apple CEO Tim Cook told U.S. public radio NPR yesterday that he had not heard of Absher but pledged to “take a look at it”.

Saudi women must have permission from a male relative to work, marry, and travel under the country’s strict guardianship system, which human rights groups have criticized as abusive.

U.S. Senator Ron Wyden has publicly called on both Apple and Google to remove it from their stores, arguing it promotes “abusive practices against women” in a Twitter post.

However, Suad Abu-Dayyeh, a spokesman on the Middle East for women’s rights group Equality Now, raised doubts over whether the companies would take action.

“Power and money talks, unfortunately, without giving any attention to the violations of human rights,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“I really hope they take a concrete stand towards removing these apps but I am not really hopeful.”

Saudi Arabia, one of the world’s most gender-segregated nations, is ranked 138 of 144 states in the 2017 Global Gender Gap, a World Economic Forum study on how women fare in economic and political participation, health and education.

Its guardianship system came under fresh scrutiny after Saudi teenager Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun fled from her family and was granted asylum in Canada in January.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman indicated last year he favored ending the guardianship system but stopped short of backing its annulment.

But any moves toward gender equality have been accompanied by a crackdown on dissent, including the arrest and alleged torture of women’s rights activists as well as Muslim clerics.

 

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Economy & business
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Somalia Readies for Oil Exploration, Still Working on Petroleum Law

The Somali government says it will award exploration licenses to foreign oil companies later this year, despite calls from the opposition to wait until laws and regulations governing the oil sector are in place.

Seismic surveys conducted by two British companies, Soma Oil & Gas and Spectrum Geo, suggest that Somalia has promising oil reserves along the Indian Ocean coast, between the cities of Garad and Kismayo. Total offshore deposits could be as high as 100 billion barrels.

The government says it will accept bids for exploration licenses on November 7, and the winners will be informed immediately. It says production-sharing agreements will be signed on December 9, with the agreements going into effect on January 1, 2020.

“We have presented our wealth and resources to the companies,” Petroleum Minister Abdirashid Mohamed Ahmed told the VOA Somali program Investigative Dossier. “We held a roadshow in London [last week], and we will hold two more in two major cities so that we turn the eyes of the world to contest Somalia.”

But several lawmakers have expressed concern the government is moving too quickly. Last week, the head of the National Resource committee in the Upper House of Parliament accused President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed’s government of a “lack of due diligence” and violating the constitution.

Barnaby Pace, an investigator for the NGO Global Witness, which exposes corruption and environmental abuses, says Somalia, after decades of internal conflict, does not have the legal and regulatory framework to handle oil deals and the problems they can cause, such as environmental abuses, corruption, and political fights over revenue.

“There is not a clear consensus about how the oil sector could be managed in Somalia,” he said. “And once Somalia makes deals like the one it’s proposing, it may be locked in for many years and find it difficult to renegotiate or change them to best protect itself.”

Former oil officials speak out

Somalia’s parliament passed a Petroleum Law to govern oil sector in 2008 when the country operated under a transitional charter. But constitutional experts say that law was nullified after a constitution was ratified in 2012.

A proposed new law is now before parliament for debate. The bill says negotiations for oil-related contracts will be the responsibility of the Somali Petroleum Agency, which would not be formed until the law is passed.

Ahmed said government’s timetable for awarding licenses is just “tentative,” though he believes the government can keep to its schedule.

But Somali lawmakers and opposition leaders are worried the government is in a needless rush.

Jamal Kassim Mursal was permanent secretary of the Somali Petroleum Ministry until last month when he resigned.

He says when the government came to power in 2017, the ministry was informed that bids for oil exploration licenses would not be considered until the Petroleum Law was passed and “we are ready with the knowledge and skills.”

Since then, he told VOA, “Nothing has changed — petroleum law is not passed, tax law is not ready, capacity has not changed, institutions have not been built.”

Abdirizak Omar Mohamed is the former petroleum minister who signed the 2013 seismic study agreement with Soma Oil & Gas.

Mohamed said the country needs political consensus and stability before oil drilling. He notes that a resource-sharing agreement between the federal government and Somali federal states has yet to be endorsed by the parliament.

“No company is going to start drilling without agreement with regions,” says Mohamed. “So why rush? It’s not good for the reputation of the country.”

Soma and Spectrum’s advantage

Mursal also objects to an agreement that gives first choice of oil exploration blocks to Soma Oil & Gas, one of the companies that conducted the seismic studies.

According to the agreement, Soma Oil & Gas will choose 12 blocks or 60,000 square kilometers to conduct oil exploration. Among these are two blocks believed to contain large oil reserves near the town of Barawe.

He says the government needs to renegotiate and offer just two blocks instead.

“This is the one that is causing the alarm,” he said. He predicts that if Soma Oil & Gas gets to choose 12 blocks, the company will “flip” some of the blocks to the highest bidder.

In 2015, Soma Oil & Gas was caught up in controversy after allegations of quid pro quo payments to the Somali Ministry of Petroleum. The payments were termed as “capacity building.” The following year, Britain’s Serious Fraud Office closed the case because it could not prove that corruption took place.

 

Somalia’s current prime minister, Hassan Ali Khaire, was working for Soma Oil & Gas at time. Somali officials say that since taking office, Khaire has “relinquished” his stake in the company, said to be more than 2 million shares.

The other company that conducted seismic surveys, Spectrum, also made payments to the Somali Ministry of Finance, according to Mursal.

Mursal told Investigative Dossier that between 2015 and 2017, Spectrum paid $450,000 every six months to the ministry.

A senior official who previously was involved in the Ministry of Petroleum told VOA that Spectrum paid $1.35 million in all. He said the payment was “consistent,” though, with the advice of the Financial Governance Committee, a body consisting on Somali and donors which gives financial advice to Somalia.

Spectrum has not yet responded to Investigative Dossier requests for an interview.

Current Petroleum Minister Ahmed said the government will do what is best for Somalia, but needs to have a law governing the oil sector in place.

“The parliament has the petroleum law,” he said. “Without it being passed, we can’t touch anything.”

 

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Arts & Entertainment
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Michelle Obama’s Grammy Appearance Did Not Impress Mom

It appears Michelle Obama received a reality check from her mom following her appearance at the Grammys.

The former first lady took to Instagram Wednesday to share a text exchange with mom Marian Robinson. Obama had received a standing ovation opening Sunday’s awards show with Alicia Keys, Lady Gaga, Jennifer Lopez and Jada Pinkett Smith.

Robinson wrote: “I guess you were a hit at the Grammys.” Her daughter asked mom if she had watched. Mom replied she saw it and then asked if her daughter had met “any of the real stars.”

Mother and daughter then quibbled over whether Obama had told her she would be on.

Obama ended the exchange by writing “And I AM A real star…by the way…”

Her mother replied, “Yeah.”

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