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Midler, Gordy Among New Kennedy Center Honorees 

The Kennedy Center Honors will return in December with a class that includes Motown Records creator Berry Gordy, “Saturday Night Live” mastermind Lorne Michaels and actress-singer Bette Midler.Organizers expect to operate at full capacity, after last year’s ceremony was delayed for months and later conducted under COVID-19 restrictions.This 44th class of honorees for lifetime achievement in the creative arts is heavy on musical performers. The honorees also include opera singer Justino Diaz and folk music legend Joni Mitchell.All will be honored on December 5 with a trademark program that includes personalized tributes and performances that are kept secret from the honorees.Deborah Rutter, president of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, said the current plan is to pack the center’s opera house to full capacity and require all attendees to wear masks. But the plans remain fluid and Rutter said they’re ready to adapt to changing circumstances depending on the country’s COVID-19 situation.Time to party”We don’t know for sure what it’s going to be like,” Rutter said in an interview. “But don’t you think we all deserve to have a party?”The 43rd Kennedy Center Honors class was delayed from December 2020 as the center largely shut down its indoor programming. A slimmed-down ceremony was finally held in May of this year, with a series of small socially distanced gatherings and pre-taped video performances replacing the normal gala event.”We know how to do it now. We will make whatever adjustments we need,” Rutter said. “We’re going to be wearing masks right up until we don’t have to.”Midler, 75, has won four Grammy Awards, three Emmys and two Tony Awards, along with two Oscar nominations. Her albums have sold over 30 million copies. In a statement, Midler said she was “stunned and grateful beyond words. For many years I have watched this broadcast celebrating the best talent in the performing arts that America has to offer, and I truly never imagined that I would find myself among these swans.”FILE – Joni Mitchell arrives at the Hammer Museum’s “Gala In The Garden,” in Los Angeles, Oct. 11, 2014.Mitchell, 77, emerged from the Canadian coffee shop circuit to become one of the standard-bearers for multiple generations of singer-songwriters. In 2020, Rolling Stone magazine declared her 1971 album “Blue” to be the third-best album of all time. In a brief statement, Mitchell, said, “I wish my mother and father were alive to see this. It’s a long way from Saskatoon.”The December 5 ceremony will be the centerpiece of the Kennedy Center’s 50th anniversary of cultural programing. The center opened in 1971 and a young Diaz, now 81, actually performed at the grand opening of the opera house.”It’s a very special thing,” said Diaz, a bass-baritone from San Juan, Puerto Rico. “It’s such a great privilege to be able to say I shared this space with all these geniuses.”Gordy, 91, founded Motown Records — the Detroit-based hit factory that spawned what became known as the Motown Sound and launched the careers of a huge list of artists, including Smokey Robinson, Diana Ross, Stevie Wonder, Lionel Ritchie, Marvin Gaye and Martha and the Vandellas.FILE – Berry Gordy attends the the 48th Annual Songwriters Hall of Fame Induction and Awards Gala at the New York Marriott Marquis Hotel in New York, June 15, 2017.Gordy said in an interview that he always held President John Kennedy as one of the greatest leaders in American history.”So to be honored in his name just means the world to me,” he said.Michaels, 76, is a comedy institution unto himself — creating and producing “Saturday Night Live” since 1975 and producing dozens of movies and television shows, including “Wayne’s World,” “Kids in the Hall” and “Mean Girls.” He received the Kennedy Center’s Mark Twain Award for lifetime achievement in comedy in 2004.Not normally an on-stage performer, Michaels recalls the Mark Twain evening as “mostly nerve-racking” because he spent the evening dreading the traditional end-of-night speech he had to deliver.FILE – Producer Lorne Michaels attends the American Museum of Natural History’s 2019 Museum Gala in New York, Nov. 21, 2019.But the Kennedy Center Honors bring no such pressures, and Michaels said he intends to sit back in the special honorees box at the opera house and see what surprises the organizers have in store.”You don’t have to give a speech at the end, which is huge,” he said. “You’re just there with your friends.”

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California Utility to Bury 16,000 Kilometers of Power Lines to Prevent Wildfires

California power company Pacific Gas and Electric, whose equipment has caused multiple destructive wildfires over several years, said Wednesday that it would bury 16,000 kilometers of power lines in high-risk fire zones as a safety measure.

The utility, which called the project a multiyear initiative, said it maintains more than 40,000 kilometers of overhead distribution power lines in zones at highest risk for fires, or more than 30% of its total distribution overhead system.

The move by PG&E came days after it said its equipment might have been involved in the start of a recent wildfire in Sierra Nevada, according to a filing by the utility to regulators, published on the internet by a San Francisco Chronicle journalist.

The company emerged from bankruptcy last year. It had sought protection from creditors after wildfires sparked by its equipment in 2017 and 2018 drove the utility’s potential liabilities into tens of billions of dollars.

“Following the devastating October 2017 Northern California wildfires and the 2018 Camp Fire, PG&E began to evaluate placing overhead power lines underground as a wildfire safety measure,” the company said Wednesday.

As part of PG&E’s exit from bankruptcy, California officials established a six-step oversight process to hold the utility accountable if it was deemed to be falling short on safety measures.

Failure on tree trimming

In April, however, the officials voted to toughen oversight of PG&E, saying the utility had largely failed to perform required tree-trimming work near power lines in areas with the highest risk of wildfires.

PG&E, which announced the new safety initiative in Butte County, serves more than 16 million people across more than 180,000 square kilometers in Northern and Central California.

Burying power lines lessens the need for public safety power shutoffs, which are a last resort during dry, windy conditions to reduce the risk of trees touching live power lines and sparking a wildfire.

In 2020, California suffered its most damaging wildfire season on record in terms of acreage burned. As of May, California authorities documented over 1,000 more wildfires across the state this year than had erupted by the same time last year.

U.S. President Joe Biden said last month that the country was behind in preparing for what could be a record number of forest fires this year because of drought and high temperatures.

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Olympic Games an Afterthought for Some Americans

Barring another postponement, Friday’s opening ceremony of the Tokyo Olympics will launch competitions overshadowed by a pandemic that has already forced a major delay, has interfered with the pageantry ahead of the Games, and will keep spectators from the stands and prevent some athletes from competing at all.For casual observers in the United States, excitement and anticipation are hard to find as the Olympic Games vie for attention with dire domestic and international headlines.”We’ve hardly heard much about it,” Kevin Watson of Alexandria, Virginia, told VOA. “It’s already been a letdown, with few interviews with the athletes or TV commercials to promote the sports.”Even before the pandemic, primetime ratings for the Summer Olympics had been declining.Surfer Carissa Moore of the United States heads into the water for a practice run at Tsurigasaki beach at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, in Ichinomiya, Japan, July 21, 2021.Data compiled by Zeta Global in New York indicated that 60% of Americans were not interested or excited about the Tokyo Games. And at least 45% were not even looking forward to them.No spectatorsAccording to the Zeta Global website, the reasons included last year’s postponement of the Games, less desire to sit in front of the TV after a year of lockdown, and the barring of spectators at the events.”Since there won’t be spectators to watch, cheer, jeer and shout in the stands behind the competitors, that makes the coverage boring,” Alex Willman in Carlsbad, California, said in a VOA interview. “The best part of any sporting event with a large audience is to watch their reaction to the scores.”Eliot Greenwald said he hadn’t paid much attention to the run-up to the Olympics. The avid sailor from Bethesda, Maryland, said he’d probably get more interested in the events once they began, especially watersports like sailing and diving.FILE – Katie Ledecky participates in the women’s 800-meter freestyle during wave 2 of the U.S. Olympic Swim Trials, June 19, 2021, in Omaha, Neb.With some of the athletes testing positive for the coronavirus in Tokyo, some people think the Games should be postponed again.”I love the Olympic Games, but I don’t think they should be happening now,” Barry Hunter, a boxing trainer at Headbangers Gym in Washington, told VOA by phone. He added that because of the pandemic, “the average person in the U.S. is not as excited about them as they normally would be.””They seem less important when there’s a pandemic going on around the world,” said Louise Korver, who lives in Huntersville, North Carolina.However, Jeff Shell, the chief executive of NBCUniversal, the major U.S. television network that is broadcasting most of the Olympics, thinks the time is right for the Games to begin.NBC is airing 7,000 hours of coverage across its multiple television networks. Shell told a virtual conference this week that the Tokyo Games could be the most profitable Olympics in NBC’s history.Some fans are eagerThe lack of enthusiasm is far from universal. Some Americans can’t wait to watch their favorite sports.Luisa Handem Piette in Londonderry, New Hampshire, said she would be among those glued to the TV watching the Olympics. “The U.S. audience will be much larger than anticipated,” she said in a phone interview with VOA.FILE – Signs from the Belgian and Austrian teams hang on the apartment building hosting Olympics participants at the Athletes Village, in Tokyo, July 18, 2021.Bob Mandau, in Chesterland, Ohio, said he “welcomes the Olympics as a much-needed break from the negative politics on TV.”Meanwhile, Rick Kinney from Wellesley, Massachusetts, said Americans like him would watch the Olympics because “people like a feel-good story about how hard the athletes worked to get to the Games.”Sam Doering is on the swim team at Hendrix College in Conway, Arkansas. She will be following American Katie Ledecky, one of the world’s top swimmers and a favorite for top medals at the Games.”I think it’s going to be fantastic watching Ledecky, and hopefully other U.S. swimmers, do well in the swimming competitions,” she said. “And hearing the national anthem being played after they’ve won the medals is really cool.”Of all the events, women’s gymnastics is projected to be the most popular with American viewers. Zeta Global predicted 33% of the people interested in the Olympics would be focusing on that competition.Ashley Umberger, owner and head coach at North Stars Gymnastics Academy in Boonton, New Jersey, said she thought the U.S. women’s team “is going to be the one to watch” as Americans tune in to watch Simone Biles, the top-ranked female gymnast, “who is really breaking barriers.”
 

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Pfizer, BioNTech Agree to Produce COVID-19 Vaccine for Africa

Pfizer and BioNTech have reached an agreement with a South African company to produce their COVID-19 vaccine for distribution in Africa, the biotechnology companies said Wednesday.The Biovac Institute in Cape Town will manufacture 100 million doses of the vaccine annually starting in 2022. The company will mix vaccine ingredients it receives from Europe, place them in vials and package them for distribution to the 54 countries in Africa.The agreement may eventually help alleviate vaccine shortages on a continent where the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says less than 2% of its population of 1.3 billion has received at least one dose. Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla said the company’s goal is to provide people throughout Africa with the vaccine, a departure from previous bilateral agreements that saw most doses being sold to wealthy countries.The Johnson & Johnson vaccine is already being manufactured in South Africa in a similar “fill and finish” process that has the capacity to produce more than 200 million doses annually. The vaccines are also being distributed across the African continent.

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Many Tanzanians Still Resisting COVID-19 Preventive Measures

Tanzanian President Samia Suluhu Hassan has moved away from her predecessor’s pandemic denial to urge social distancing, handwashing and mask-wearing.  But as the third wave of coronavirus sweeps across Africa, it seems the measures are being ignored by most of the public. Charles Kombe reports from Dar es Salaam.Camera: Rajabu Hassan    

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Fossil Reveals Burrowing Lifestyle of Tiny Dino

A finger-sized fossil from 308 million years ago unearthed in the United States gives tantalizing clues to the habits of tiny dinosaurlike creatures that may be the forerunners of reptiles, researchers revealed Wednesday. The new species is a microsaur — small lizardlike animals that roamed the Earth well before proper dinosaurs made their appearance.The find sheds important light on the evolution of different animal groups, including amphibians and reptiles, scientists wrote in the journal Royal Society Open Science. Microsaurs lived during the Carboniferous period, when the forebears of modern mammals and reptiles, called amniotes, first appeared.”Many details of that transition aren’t well known,” study co-author Arjan Mann, a postdoctoral research fellow at the Smithsonian Institution, told AFP.”Microsaurs have recently become important in understanding the origins of amniotes,” he said. “A lot of these microsaurs have been thought to be either ancestors of amphibians or ancestors of reptiles.”Encased in a bog in what is today the central United States, the specimen’s serpentlike body measures about 5 centimeters (2 inches). The animals had four short, plump legs.In deference to its tiny size, researchers dubbed the new species Joermungandr bolti, after a giant sea serpent from Norse mythology who did battle with Thor.Scientists were astonished to discover the fossil also contained the animal’s skin.”Areas of the skin had only been known from fragmentary fossils before,” Mann said.”This microsaur is the whole shebang. … That’s very rare for these fossils. It’s very rare for anything 300 million years old to have skin with it!”Contrary to previous ideas about microsaurs, which had been classed as amphibians, Mann and his team discovered that Joermungandr had scales.”Modern amphibians … are soft and slimy things, this was not a soft and slimy thing,” said Mann. “This animal really had a reptilelike look to it.” Mann said the research suggests not only that microsaurs might be early relatives of reptiles but also that the ability to burrow may have played a bigger role in the origin of amniotes than originally thought.The researchers used a highly sensitive imaging technique called scanning electron microscopy (SEM) to get an up-close look at the nearly perfect fossil.They discovered a pattern of ridges similar to those found on the scales of modern reptiles that dig into the ground.Along with other features such as a robust skull and elongated body, the scale shape led researchers to hypothesize that Joermungandr burrowed as well.”It would probably have been a head-first burrower, using its head to smack itself into the soil,” said Mann.”Its limbs were probably not very functional. It may have used them to stabilize itself as it was wobbling around. But its primary mode of movement would have been side winding like a snake.”The SEM imaging technique is now being applied to many other ancient fossils, Mann said.”We plan to do a lot of SEM and also 3D printing the scales at larger sizes,” he added. “And some biomechanics to see how they interacted with things like dirt and water.”

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Brisbane Picked to Host 2032 Olympics Without Rival Bid

Brisbane was picked Wednesday to host the 2032 Olympics, the inevitable winner of a one-city race steered by the IOC to avoid rival bids.The Games will go back to Australia 32 years after the popular 2000 Sydney Olympics. Melbourne hosted in 1956.“We know what it takes to deliver a successful Games in Australia,” Prime Minister Scott Morrison told International Olympic Committee voters in an 11-minute live video link from his office.When the award was later confirmed, winning the vote 72-5, Morrison raised both arms in the air and gave two thumbs up.The victory led to a fireworks display in Brisbane that was broadcast to IOC members in their five-star hotel in Tokyo.Brisbane follows 2028 host Los Angeles in getting 11 years to prepare for hosting the Games. Paris will host in 2024.The 2032 deal looked done months before the formal decision at the IOC meeting, which was held ahead of Friday’s opening ceremony of the Tokyo Games.The IOC gave Brisbane exclusive negotiating rights in February. That decision left Olympic officials in Qatar, Hungary and Germany looking blindsided with their own stalled bidding plans.Though the result was expected, a high-level Australian delegation went to Tokyo amid the COVID-19 pandemic to present speeches, films and promises on stage.The city of Brisbane sent Mayor Adrian Schrinner, the state of Queensland sent Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk and Australia’s federal government sent sports minister Richard Colbeck to woo Olympic voters.They were joined by long-time Australian Olympic official John Coates, now an IOC vice president who shaped the fast-track selection process two years ago.The first-time format, designed to cut campaign costs, gives the IOC more control and removes the risk of vote-buying.The project will see events staged across Queensland, including in Gold Coast, which hosted the 2018 Commonwealth Games.Brisbane’s renowned cricket stadium, known as the Gabba, will be upgraded and may host the sport at the Games. Cricket was played once at the Olympics, at the 1900 Paris Games.The next three Summer Games hosts — starting with Paris in 2024 — are now secured in wealthy and traditional Olympic host nations without any of the trio facing a contested vote.The IOC and its hands-on president, Thomas Bach, have torn up the template of traditional bidding campaigns and hosting votes to lock down preferred cities with the minimum risk.The future hosts offer stability for the IOC, which was stung by the two previous Summer Games contests being tainted by allegations of vote-buying when multiple cities were on the ballot.The 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics and the postponed 2020 Tokyo Olympics are still under investigation by French prosecutors. They have implicated officials who then lost their place in the IOC family as active or honorary members.A low-risk future beckons for the IOC following the often-troubled Tokyo Olympics and the 2022 Beijing Winter Games in February, which will throw scrutiny on China’s human rights record. Key partners have also been secured through 2032. The IOC’s signature broadcasting deal with NBC and top-tier sponsors Coca-Cola, Visa and Omega are tied down for the decade ahead.

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Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 Vaccine Shown Less Effective Against Variants

A study suggests Johnson & Johnson’s one-shot COVID-19 vaccine may be less effective against the emerging variants of the coronavirus.Researchers at New York University’s Grossman School of Medicine reached the conclusion after conducting laboratory testing of blood samples from volunteers.Nathaniel Landau, the lead researcher, said the Johnson & Johnson vaccine does not provide the same protection against the variants as either the two-dose Pfizer or Moderna vaccines, which were developed differently, using the messenger RNA method.The study, posted online Tuesday, has not been peer-reviewed nor published in a scientific journal, and does not reflect the real-world effects of the vaccine. But the findings are similar to other studies that show single-dose vaccines such as Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca do not produce enough antibodies to fight the delta and lambda coronavirus variants.The delta variant, which was first detected in India, reportedly spreads more easily than other iterations of the virus. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said delta now accounts for 83% of new cases in the nation.Johnson & Johnson recently published a study that shows a single dose of its vaccine is effective against the delta variant for up to eight months.But Landau says the results of the NYU study bolster the growing theory that a follow-up shot of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is necessary.The Johnson & Johnson vaccine has been plagued with problems since it was approved by the Food and Drug Administration. The vaccine has been linked to a rare but serious blood-clotting disorder, plus a rare neurological condition. Millions of doses were ruined earlier this year when a Baltimore-based manufacturing plant mixed the Johnson & Johnson vaccine with ingredients from the AstraZeneca vaccine.The Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center reported that there are 191.4 million total confirmed COVID-19 infections in the world, including 4.1 million global fatalities as of Wednesday.South Korean health officials reported a new single-day record of 1,784 new COVID-19 infections Wednesday as the country struggles to contain a wave of infections linked to the delta variant, with more than 1,000 new cases recorded each day for the past two weeks.The surge has been centered mainly in the capital, Seoul, which has been put under a variety of restrictions and more cases have been reported outside the city.South Korea has recorded 182,265 total coronavirus cases, including 2,060 deaths.  Only 32% of the country’s 52 million people have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, with 6.6 million fully vaccinated.Health officials are also dealing with an outbreak on a naval warship that has been patrolling the waters off the coast of Africa that has sickened at least 270 crewmen.(Some information for this report came from The Associated Press and Reuters.)
 

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