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Salt Lake Temple Closing for Four-Year Renovation

An iconic temple central to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints faith will close for four years for a major renovation to help it withstand earthquakes and be more welcoming to visitors, leaders said Friday. 

Authorities are also keeping a careful eye on construction plans after a devastating fire this week at Notre Dame cathedral in Paris.

The Salt Lake Temple will close Dec. 29 to update the stately granite building and surrounding square, including elements that emphasize the life of Jesus Christ, church President Russell M. Nelson said. 

“We promise that you will love the results,” he said.

​Like The Vatican, Jerusalem

The building and square at the heart of Utah’s capital city is one of the state’s top tourist destinations, though only church members in good standing can go inside the building used for marriages and other religious ceremonies. 

When the project is done in 2024, the faith widely known as the Mormon church will host an open house to give outsiders the first glimpse of the 126-year-old temple’s interior in more than a century. 

A new visitors’ center and removal of a wall around the square in favor of a fence will also visually open up the flower-lined space to visitors walking by. 

 

“We want to them to think of Salt Lake just as easily as they think of Jerusalem or The Vatican as a place where Christianity really has its heart,” Bishop Dean M. Davies said.

Increased risk of fire

The work that will bring scaffolding, cranes and occasional road closures to downtown Salt Lake City also carries increased fire risk. Authorities are taking extra caution in light of the damage to Norte Dame by crafting a plan that includes a 24-hour fire watch, limiting welding and grinding to certain areas, and plenty of fire extinguishers. 

Investigators are still determining the exact cause of the fire at Notre Dame, which was under renovation when the blaze started on Monday. 

The Salt Lake Temple’s earthquake-mitigation project will be a major undertaking, and involve excavating underneath the temple to install a base-isolation system that will prevent damage by largely decoupling the building from the earth. 

The area sees seismic activity, including a series of small quakes that have occurred in recent months. Plans for this project, though, stretch back more than a decade.

Much of the square will remain open during the construction, including the building where the faith’s famed Tabernacle Choir sings.

​Serving 86 languages

In a nod to the 16-million-member church’s increasingly global membership, the project will also allow the temple to serve people in over 86 languages, rather than only English. 

Leaders declined to say how much the project will cost.

Temples aren’t used for regular Sunday services, but thousands of church members visit every year. It is one of the most popular destinations for weddings. While it’s closed, local members will go to a number of other nearby Utah temples. 

More colorful palette

After it reopens, changes will include a return to a more colorful Victorian-era palette rather than the mostly white style adopted during another extensive renovation in the 1960s.

The faith’s temples have rooms where couples are “sealed” in marriage, chambers for ceremonies on theology and morality and celestial rooms used for prayer and reflection. 

They also have ornate baptismal fonts designed for use in ceremonies to baptize dead relatives, though there’s been occasional controversy over members posthumously baptizing public figures against church policy. The faith teaches proxy baptisms give the deceased the choice to join the faith in the afterlife. 

New temples are typically open to the public for a brief time before being dedicated, after which they’re reserved for members only. 

Republican Gov. Gary Herbert said the renovation will likely bring more congestion downtown, but he’s hoping curious tourists will keep visiting during construction.

“People think of The Church of Jesus Latter-day Saints and most people think of this temple,” said Herbert, who is a member of the faith. The renovation “shows the vitality of Salt Lake City. We’re not closing things down. We’re expanding and growing.”

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Attackers Kill Doctor at Hospital in Congo’s Ebola Epicenter

Attackers stormed a hospital at the epicenter of Congo’s Ebola outbreak and killed “a dear colleague,” the head of the World Health Organization said Friday as he condemned the latest violence against health workers trying to contain the virus.

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in a Twitter post others were injured in the attack Friday in Butembo, a city in eastern Congo.

The world’s response to the second-deadliest Ebola outbreak in history has been hampered by a series of deadly attacks on health centers in Butembo and elsewhere that have disrupted medical care and vaccination efforts, leading to a rise in new Ebola cases in the sprawling African nation.

Butembo’s deputy mayor, Patrick Kambale Tsiko, identified the slain WHO staffer as a doctor from Cameroon and blamed a militia group for the attack. He said the militiamen erroneously believed that foreigners had brought the disease with them to Congo.

“According to witnesses at the scene, these militiamen wanted all the expatriates to go home because according to them, Ebola does not exist in Butembo,” Tsiko said. “They said they will continue if these expatriates do not return as soon as possible.”

Police were pursuing the attackers, Tsiko said.

Congo’s health ministry confirmed the assault on the Catholic University of Graben hospital. One aid group, the International Rescue Committee, said the hospital held only non-Ebola patients and many of them fled during the attack.

Dozens of rebel groups are active in eastern Congo. There also has been some community resistance to Ebola containment efforts in a traumatized, wary region that had never faced an outbreak of the virus before.

Ebola can spread quickly and can be fatal in up to 90% of cases. The hemorrhagic fever is most often spread by close contact with the bodily fluids of people exhibiting symptoms or with objects such as sheets that have been contaminated.

Health Minister Dr. Oly Ilunga said in a tweet that local and international health workers are courageously combating the virus, “sometimes at the cost of their lives.”

The attack came three days after President Felix Tshisekedi visited the Ebola outbreak zone, pledging more military and police protection for health workers and asking residents for their cooperation. The president hoped to see the outbreak contained in less than three months, although some health experts estimate it could take much longer.

Robert Kitchen, senior vice president for emergencies with the International Rescue Committee, predicted it could take at least another year to contain the Ebola outbreak without a significant change in “community engagement and understanding.” He said such attacks on health workers are increasingly common.

This month could see the highest rate of Ebola transmission yet, Kitchen said, adding “the trajectory of this outbreak is alarming.”

Since the Ebola outbreak in Congo was declared in August, there have been more than 1,300 confirmed and probable cases, including 843 deaths, the health ministry said Thursday.

More than 102,000 people have received an experimental but effective Ebola vaccine.

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Silicon Valley & Technology
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China’s Political System Helps Advance Its Artificial Intelligence

Recent technological advances demonstrated by China have started an intense debate on whether it is set to take a lead in the field of artificial intelligence, or AI, which has extensive business and military applications.

U.S. concerns about China’s AI advances have also influenced, in part, the ongoing trade negotiations between Washington and Beijing. Both the United States and European Union are taking measures to stop information leaks that are reportedly helping Chinese companies at the expense of Western business.

But many analysts are saying that Chinese corporate and defense-related research in areas like AI and 5G wireless technologies can thrive on their own even if information from the Western world is shut off. China is already reportedly leading in several segments of businesses like autonomous vehicles, facial recognition and certain kinds of drones.

The U.S.-based Allen Institute of Artificial Intelligence recently captured attention when it reported that China is a close second after the United States when it comes to producing frequently-cited research papers on artificial intelligence. The U.S. contribution is 29%, and China accounts for 26% of such papers.

“The U.S. still is ahead in AI development capabilities, but the gap between the U.S. and China is closing rapidly because of the significant new AI investments in China,” Bart Selman, president-elect of the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence, a professional organization, told VOA.

Political advantage

Chinese President Xi Jinping has in recent months encouraged Communist leaders to “ensure that our country marches in the front ranks when it comes to theoretical research in this important area of AI, and occupies the high ground in critical and AI core technologies.” He also asked them to “ensure that critical and core AI technologies are firmly grasped in our own hands.”

Analysts said China’s political system and its government’s eagerness to support the technological advancement were key reasons it could build infrastructure such as cloud computing and a software engineering workforce, and become a big player in artificial intelligence.

Chinese companies enjoy special advantages in deploying new technology like facial recognition, which is often difficult in democratic countries like the U.S., said William Carter, deputy director and fellow in the Technology Policy Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“China does have strengths in terms of application development and deployment, and has the potential to take the lead in the deployment of some technologies like autonomous vehicles and facial recognition where ethical, social and policy hurdles may impede deployment in the U.S. and other parts of the world,” Carter said.

China’s capabilities in image and facial recognition are possibly the best in the world, partly because government controls have made it easier to generate data from a wide range of sources like banks, mobile phone companies and social media.

“These capabilities arise out of the use of deep learning on very large data sets. In general, China has the advantage of having more real world data to train AI systems on … than any other country,” Selman said.

Other areas where China has shown significant advances are natural language processing (in Chinese only) and drone (unmanned aerial vehicle) swarming.

“China also has unique capabilities that are not found in the U.S. or Europe. I’m thinking of electronic payment platforms [e.g. AliPay] and the super app WeChat that provide an advanced platform for the rapid introduction of further AI technologies,” Selman said.

U.S. role

Last February, U.S. President Donald Trump signed an executive order asking government agencies to do more with AI.

“Continued American leadership in artificial intelligence is of paramount importance to maintaining the economic and national security of the United States,” Trump was quoted as saying in an official press release accompanying the order.

Critics have said that Trump’s order does not suggest enhanced government investment and plans for attracting fresh talent in AI research and development, which is essential for growth and industry competition.

Gregory Allen is an adjunct senior fellow with the research group Center for a New American Security. He was recently quoted as saying that the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is spending the most on research and development at $2 billion over five years. In contrast, the Chinese province of Shanghai, which is a city government, is planning to spend $15 billion on AI over 10 years.

“So literally, we have the U.S. federal government at present at risk of being outspent by a provincial government of China,” Allen said.

China’s AI capabilities have limits. They suffer from major weaknesses in areas like advanced semiconductors to support machine learning applications.

“At the end of the day, when it comes to most major AI fields, China is not the technological leader and is not the source of most foundational innovations,” Carter said. 

The U.S. still dominates in the overall market for self-driving car technology, machine translation, natural language understanding, and web search. China has gained a strong presence in a few segments of these businesses, largely because of its vast domestic market.

Despite the competition, collaboration and exchange of ideas occur between the two countries in the AI field, although this aspect is less discussed, Carter added.

“Politically, the dynamic is more competitive; economically and scientifically, it is more collaborative,” he said.

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Silicon Valley & Technology
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NASA Launches Chicago Planetarium’s Student Project into Space

College student Fatima Guerra, 19, will be the first to admit, she’s into some really nerdy stuff.

“Like, up there nerdy.”

“Way up there nerdy,” she says. “All the way up into space.”

Guerra is an astronomer in training, involved since a high school internship with a small project at the Adler Planetarium, with big goals.

“Our main goal was to see if the ozone layer is getting thinner and by how much, and if there is different parts of the Earth’s atmosphere getting thinner because of the pollution and greenhouse gases,” she told VOA from the laboratory at the Adler where she often works.

​Coding ThinSat

Data that sheds light on those circumstances is gathered by a small electronic device called “ThinSat” designed to orbit the Earth. It is developed not by high-paid engineers and software programmers, but by Chicago-area students like Guerra.

“We focused on coding the different parts of the sensors that the ThinSat is composed of. So, we coded so that it can measure light intensity, pressure.”

“This stuff is very nerdy,” Jesus Garcia admits with a chuckle.

“What we hope to accomplish is look at Earth from space as if it was the very first exoplanet that we have. So, imagine that we are looking at the very first images from a very distant planet.”

As a systems engineer, Garcia oversees the work of the students developing ThinSat for the Adler’s Far Horizon’s Project, which he outlines “bring all types of students, volunteers and our staff to develop projects, engineering projects, that allow us to answer scientific questions.”

Garcia says the students he works with on the project cross national, racial and cultural divides to work toward a common goal.

“Here at the Adler, we have students who are minorities who have been faced with challenges of not having opportunities presented to them,” he said. “And here we are presenting a mission where they are collaborating with us scientists and engineers on our first mission that is going into space.”

Rocket carries project into space

As the NASA-owned, Northrop Grumann-developed Antares rocket successfully blasted off from the coast of Virginia on April 17, it wasn’t just making a resupply mission to the International Space Station.

On board was ThinSat, the culmination of work by many at the Adler, including Guerra, who joined the Far Horizons team as a high school requirement that ended up becoming much more.

“A requirement can become a life-changing opportunity, and you don’t even know it,” she told VOA. “It’s really exciting to see, or to know, especially, that my work is going to go up into space and help in the scientific world.”

Daughter of immigrants

It is also exciting for her parents, immigrants from Guatemala, who can boast that their daughter is one of the few who can claim to have built a satellite orbiting the Earth.

“I told them it might become a worldwide type of news, and I’m going to be a part of it. And they were really proud. And they were calling my family over there and saying, ‘She might be on TV.’ And it’s something they really feel a part of me about,” Guerra said.

Long after the data compiled by ThinSat is complete, Guerro will still have a place in history as a member of a team that put the first satellite developed by a private planetarium into space.

She says her friends don’t think that’s nerdy at all.

“It’s cool, because it’s interesting to see that something so nerdy is actually going to work, and is going to go up into something so important,” she said.

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NASA Rocket Carries Adler Planetarium Student Project into Space

For some, the launch of a rocket into space to resupply the International Space Station is a routine mission. But for a group of students working with the Adler Planetarium in Chicago, it is a historic moment marking the achievement of a lifetime. VOA’s Kane Farabaugh has more from Chicago.

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Ghanian Rapper Turned Director Taps Traditional Themes in First Film

A new film called “The Burial of Kojo” is a tale of family tensions with an overlay of magical realism. Set in Ghana, it is the first feature from Blitz Bazawule, a Ghana-born rapper and director. As Mike O’Sullivan reports from Los Angeles, the film got its start as a crowd-funded project and is being widely distributed on Netflix.

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Ghanaian Rapper-Turned-Director Taps Traditional Themes in 1st Film

A new film called “The Burial of Kojo” is a tale of family tensions with an overlay of magical realism. Set in Ghana, it is first feature from Samuel “Blitz” Bazawule, an Ghana-born musician and director who wanted to avoid the cliches of many films set in Africa, themes of war and famine. 

Bazawule maintained creative control of the project by using the crowd-funding site Kickstarter, and he hired a Ghanaian cast and local crew. The Burial of Kojo is now reaching a global audience on Netflix.

Bazawule lives in Brooklyn but says the story is reminiscent of the tales that he heard as a child in Ghana. It concerns a girl, Esi, her father, Kojo, and his brother, Kwabena.

“One of the brothers goes missing on a mining expedition,” Bazawule explains, “and his daughter has to go on the magical journey to rescue him.” The quest lands Esi in a dreamlike world.

Rapper and filmmaker

Bazawule, known as Blitz from his days as a rapper, wanted to move from musical to visual storytelling, and this film includes both. He wrote its script and composed the film’s soundtrack. With several short films already under his belt, this was his feature debut.

The project was initially self-funded, and he completed the film by raising $78,000 through the website Kickstarter. That “gave us the autonomy that we needed,” Bazawule said. “We didn’t have anyone looking over our shoulder, we didn’t have anyone telling us what to do, what not to do. It was always us deciding with ourselves, does this make sense for this narrative?”

Showing on Netflix

The film is being shown on the streaming service Netflix as part of a distribution deal with ARRAY, a Hollywood company founded by filmmaker Ava DuVernay, that highlights the work of filmmakers of color and women directors.

“Netflix is in 190 countries, so that’s a lot of places where you can find beautiful work,” said ARRAY’s Tilane Jones.

It’s good for movie lovers, Bazawule added, and international filmmakers are also finding an audience. 

“You build credibility for the stories that you’re telling,” he said, with fresh faces and new voices bringing art from countries like Ghana to the screen.

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Official: Taliban, IS Deprive Afghan Kids of Polio Vaccine 

Some information in this report came from Reuters. 

More than 1 million Afghan children, particularly in conflict-stricken regions of the country, were deprived of polio vaccinations in 2018 because of actions taken by Taliban and Islamic State militants, Afghanistan health officials tell VOA.

“Overall, 1.2 million children were deprived of vaccinations in the country,” Dr. Gula Khan Ayoubi, public affairs director of the mass immunization program at the Afghan Ministry of Public Health, told VOA. “And the hope this year is to bring down the number to about 200,000 children. The remaining 200,000 children are living in areas where the Islamic State terror group has a strong presence and does not allow any vaccinations.” 

 

“To a large extent, the southern provinces of Zabul, Kandahar, Helmand, Uruzgan, and in the east, Kunar, have been affected the most due to the Taliban’s opposition,” Ayoubi added.  

 

Afghanistan, Pakistan and Nigeria are the only three countries in the world where polio is still not eliminated and continues to threaten the lives of millions of children. 

 

In 2018, Afghanistan had the most cases of polio among the three, with 21 cases reported across the country. 

 

Afghan officials charge that contentious fighting, unrest, and the Taliban, IS and other armed groups are the main obstacles in the hard-to-reach areas in southern, southeastern and eastern Afghanistan.  

​Immunization ban 

 

The Afghan Taliban last week told Reuters the group had banned the activities of World Health Organization and the International Committee of the Red Cross in areas under their influence until further notice. 

 

“They [vaccinators] have not stuck to the commitments they had with Islamic emirates, and they are acting suspiciously during vaccination campaigns,” Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said.  

 

Polio vaccinators often go house to house to vaccinate children, and they mark the doors of houses where members are not present at the time to ensure the residents are vaccinated at a later date.  

 

The Taliban consider these vaccinators spies for the government and foreign forces, and are sensitive to their presence in areas under their influence. 

 

Conditional agreement 

 

Afghan health officials told VOA this month that they had reached a conditional agreement with the Taliban to continue their vaccination campaign in Taliban-controlled areas. 

 

“With the help of religious leaders and local influential elders, local Taliban commanders have agreed to allow the children under their controlled areas to be vaccinated,” Ayoubi said at the time. “Their condition, however, is that the mass vaccinations take place at a mosque or a similar place. Our vaccinators would not be allowed to go house by house and mark the doors.” 

 

WHO reaction 

 

In a statement issued last week, WHO said the Taliban’s ban would negatively affect its operations across the war-torn country. 

 

“We are deeply concerned that the temporary ban will negatively impact delivery of health services to affected populations,” the organization said. “WHO has been supporting health activities in all parts of Afghanistan, including primary health care, response to health emergencies, vaccination and polio eradication.”  

Sanela Bajrambasic, spokesperson for the International Committee of the Red Cross in Geneva, also said her organization was seeking clarification from the Taliban and that it would work with the group to find a solution to the issue.  

 

“What we can say at this point is that we have seen the same statement on their website, and we will be seeking to engage bilaterally with the Taliban on it,” she told Reuters. 

 

Negative campaign 

 

Some experts charge that in addition to militant groups, negative campaigns and rumors that swine are used to prepare the polio vaccine or that it has dangerous side effects have also made it difficult for vaccination campaigns to succeed in rural areas, which contribute to the spread of polio.  

 

“The groups that spread these rumors are those opposing the mass immunization programs,” said Dr. Najib Safi, WHO program manager of health system development. “These groups have always been trying to confuse people. In 2016, Afghan religious scholars decreed that it is permissible to use the polio vaccine. In addition to that, there are Islamic decrees from Egypt’s al-Azhar University, [Saudi Arabia’s] Jeddah and India’s Deobandi Islamic school that the polio vaccine is permissible to administer.”  

 

“Polio, and all other immunizing vaccines that are being administered to children, have no side effects. There are no links between the polio vaccine and impotency,” Safi added.  

 

Dr. Alam Shinwari, a medical expert who follows health-related developments, including polio in Afghanistan, charges that public awareness is the key to overcoming this issue.  

 

“Polio is mainly endemic in areas around the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan, where traditional conservative religious tribes are residing, who have been influenced by their local religious scholars and local traditions beliefs that have negatively impacted their perceptions toward polio vaccination,” Shinwari said.  

 

“To overcome such barriers, we need to increase the level of public awareness by involving local religious scholars and imams, local educational experts, and finally, local leaders and elders. They have significant influence among people in tribal areas between Afghanistan and Pakistan and can help overcome this problem,” he said. 

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