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Offline Darja

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« on: Jun 14, 2021, 02:43 AM »
This thread will now continue from the old message board

« Last Edit: Jun 21, 2021, 03:31 AM by Rad »


Offline Darja

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« Reply #1 on: Jul 20, 2021, 02:35 AM »
Just how “human” are we? At most, 7% of your DNA is uniquely human, study finds

This type of finding is making researchers think that Neanderthals and Denisovans weren't all that different from us.

Mihai Andrei   
July 20, 2021

A landmark study found that only 1.5% to 7% of the human genome contains uniquely (modern) human DNA. The rest is shared with relatives such as Neanderthals and Denisovans.

However, the DNA that is unique to us is pretty important, as it’s related to brain development and function.

Researchers used DNA from fossils of our close relatives (Neanderthals and Denisovans) dating from around 40,000-50,000 years ago and compared them with the genome of 279 modern people from around the world. They used a new computational method that allowed them to disentangle the similarities and differences between different DNA with greater detail.

Many people around the world (all non-African populations) still contain genes from Neanderthals, a testament to past interbreeding between the two species. But the importance of this interbreeding may have been understated. The new study found that just 1.5% of humans’ genome is both unique and shared among all people living now, and up to 7% of the human genome is more closely related to that of humans than to that of Neanderthals or Denisovans.

This doesn’t mean that we’re 93% Neanderthal. In fact, just 20% of Neanderthal DNA survives in modern humans, and non-African humans contain just around 1.5-2% Neanderthal DNA. But if you look at different people, they have bits of Neanderthal DNA in different places. So if you add all the parts where someone has Neanderthal DNA, that ends up covering most of the human genome, although it’s not the same for everyone. This 1.5% to 7% uniquely human DNA refers to human-specific tweaks to DNA that are not present in any other species and are strictly unique to Homo sapiens.

In addition, this doesn’t take into account the places where humans gained or lost DNA through other means such as duplication, which could have also played an important role in helping us evolve the way we are today.

What makes us human

The research team was surprised to see just how little DNA is ours and ours alone. But those small areas that make us unique may be crucial.

    “We can tell those regions of the genome are highly enriched for genes that have to do with neural development and brain function,” University of California, Santa Cruz computational biologist Richard Green, a co-author of the paper, told AP.

The exact biological function of those bits of DNA remains a major problem to disentangle. Our cells are filled with “junk DNA“, which we don’t really use (or we just don’t understand how our bodies use it yet) — but we still seem to need it. We’re not even sure what the the non-junk DNA bits do. Understanding the full instructions and role that genes have is another massive challenge that’s not yet solved.

What this study seems to suggest is that interbreeding played a much bigger role in our evolutionary history than we thought. Previous archaeological studies also suggest this: humans interbred with Neanderthals, Denisovans, and at least one other mysterious species we haven’t discovered yet (but we carry its DNA). Researchers are finding more and more evidence that these interbreeding events weren’t necessarily isolated exceptions but could have happened multiple times and over a longer period than initially thought. It’s up for future studies to reconcile the archaeological and anthropological evidence with the genetic one.

The study also found that the human-specific mutations seemed to emerge in two distinct bursts: 600,000 years ago and 200,000 years ago, respectively. It’s not clear what triggered these bursts; it could have been an environmental challenge or some other event, which at this point is unknown.

Researchers say that studying this 1.5-7% of our genome could help us better understand Neanderthals and other ancient populations, but it could also help us understand what truly makes us human. For instance, you could set up a laboratory dish experiment where you’d edit out the human-specific genes and revert them back to their Neanderthal function, and compare the molecular results of this change. It wouldn’t exactly be like bringing back a Neanderthal, but it could help us deduct how Neanderthals would have been different from modern humans — or, in counterpart, what makes humans stand out from our closest relatives.

The study “An ancestral recombination graph of human, Neanderthal, and Denisovan genomes” has been published in Science.


Offline Darja

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« Reply #2 on: Jul 20, 2021, 02:39 AM »
How a powerful US lobby group helps big oil to block climate action

Chris McGreal
20 Jul 2021 11.00 BST

When Royal Dutch Shell published its annual environmental report in April, it boasted that it was investing heavily in renewable energy. The oil giant committed to installing hundreds of thousands of charging stations for electric vehicles around the world to help offset the harm caused by burning fossil fuels.

On the same day, Shell issued a separate report revealing that its single largest donation to political lobby groups last year was made to the American Petroleum Institute, one of the US’s most powerful trade organizations, which drives the oil industry’s relationship with Congress.

Contrary to Shell’s public statements in support of electric vehicles, API’s chief executive, Mike Sommers, has pledged to resist a raft of Joe Biden’s environmental measures, including proposals to fund new charging points in the US. He claims a “rushed transition” to electric vehicles is part of “government action to limit Americans’ transportation choice”.

Shell donated more than $10m to API last year alone.

And it’s not just Shell. Most other oil conglomerates are also major funders, including ExxonMobil, Chevron and BP, although they have not made their contributions public.

The deep financial ties underscore API’s power and influence across the oil and gas industry, and what politicians describe as the trade group’s defining role in setting major obstacles to new climate policies and legislation.

Critics accuse Shell and other major oil firms of using API as cover for the industry. While companies run publicity campaigns claiming to take the climate emergency seriously, the trade group works behind the scenes in Congress to stall or weaken environmental legislation.

Earlier this year, an Exxon lobbyist in Washington was secretly recorded by Greenpeace describing API as the industry’s “whipping boy” to direct public and political criticism away from individual companies.

Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, a Rhode Island Democrat and strident critic of big oil’s public relations tactics, accused API of “lying on a massive industrial scale” about the climate crisis in order to stall legislation to combat global heating.

“The major oil companies and API move very much together,” he said.

Whitehouse said the oil and gas industry now recognizes it is no longer “socially acceptable” to outright deny climate change, and that companies are under pressure to claim they support new energy solutions that are less harmful to the environment. But that does not mean their claims should be taken at face value.

“The question as to whether they’re even sincere about that, or whether this is just ‘Climate is a hoax 2.0’, is an unknown at this point,” he added.

Shell has defended its funding by saying that while it is “misaligned” with some of API’s policies, the company continues to sit on the group’s board and executive committee in order to have “a greater positive impact” from within. The petroleum firm claims that its influence helped manoeuvre API, which represents about 600 drilling companies, refiners and other interests such as plastics makers, toward finally supporting a tax on carbon earlier this year.

With Biden in the White House and growing public awareness of global heating, there are signs API’s influence may be weakening as its own members become divided on how to respond.

    The major oil companies and API move very much together

Sheldon Whitehouse

The French oil company Total quit the group earlier this year over its climate policies. Shareholder rebellions are pressing Exxon and Chevron to move away from dependence on oil. Top clean energy executives at Shell quit in December over the pace of change by the company.

API is also fighting a growing number of lawsuits, led by the state of Minnesota, alleging that the trade group was at the heart of a decades-long “disinformation campaign” on behalf of big oil to deny the threat from fossil fuels.

But despite threats to API’s lasting influence, Whitehouse argues the trade organization represents the true face of the industry. Instead of using its considerable power to push for environmentally friendly energy laws, API is still lobbying to stall progress with the oil industry’s blessing.

“Their political effort at this point is purely negative, purely against serious climate legislation. And many of them continue to fund the fraudulent climate denialists that have been their mouthpieces for a decade or more,” Whitehouse said.

Since API was founded in 1919 out of an oil industry cooperation with the government during the first world war, it has evolved into a major political force with nearly $240m in annual revenue.

Its board has been dominated by heavyweights from big oil, such as Rex Tillerson, the Exxon chief who went on to become Donald Trump’s secretary of state, and Tofiq Al Gabsani, the chief of Saudi Refining, a subsidiary of the giant state-owned Aramco oil giant. Al Gabsani was also registered as a lobbyist for the Saudi government.

API also hired professional lobbyists, including Philip Cooney, who went on to serve under George W Bush as chief of staff of the Council on Environmental Quality until he was forced to resign in 2005 after tampering with government climate assessments to downplay scientific evidence of global heating and to emphasise doubts. Shortly afterward, Cooney was hired by Exxon.

API came into its own as the realities of the climate crisis crept into public and political discourse, and the industry found itself on the defensive. The trade group, which claimed to represent companies supporting 10m jobs and nearly 8% of the US economy, played a central role in efforts to combat new environmental regulations.

In many cases, API was prepared to carry out the dirty work that individual companies did not want to be held responsible for. In 1998, after countries signed the Kyoto Protocol to help curb carbon emissions, API drew up a multimillion-dollar disinformation campaign to ensure that “climate change becomes a non-issue”. The plan said “victory will be achieved” when “recognition of uncertainties become part of the ‘conventional wisdom’”.

Much of this is the basis of several lawsuits against API. The first was filed last year by the Minnesota attorney general, Keith Ellison, who accuses the group of working alongside ExxonMobil and Koch Industries to lie about the scale of the climate crisis. The suit alleges that “previously unknown internal documents” show that API and the others well understood the dangers for decades but “engaged in a public-relations campaign that was not only false, but also highly effective” to undermine climate science.

The city of Hoboken in New Jersey is also suing API, claiming that it engaged in a conspiracy by joining and funding “front groups” that ran “deceptive advertising and communications campaigns that promote climate disinformation and denialism”.

The lawsuits allege that API funded scientists known to deny or underplay climate changes, and gave millions of dollars to ostensibly independent organisations, such as the Cato Institute and the George C Marshall Institute, which denied or downplayed the growing environmental crisis.

“API has been a member of at least five organizations that have promoted disinformation about fossil-fuel products to consumers,” Ellison alleges in Minnesota’s lawsuit. “These front groups were formed to provide climate disinformation and advocacy from a seemingly objective source, when, in fact, they were financed and controlled by ExxonMobil and other sellers of fossil-fuel products.”

It wasn’t always this way.

When Terry Yosie joined API in 1988 as vice-president for health and environment, the trade group had spent years funding scientists to research climate issues after hearing repeated warnings. In 1979, API and its members formed the Climate and Energy Task Force of oil and gas company scientists to share research.

Yosie, who moved to API from the Environmental Protection Agency, controlled a $15m budget, part of which he used to give workshops on climate change by EPA officials and other specialists.

“I brought them together in front of oil industry senior level executives for the sole purpose of making sure this industry had some understanding as to what other significant stakeholders thought about climate change, where they saw the issue evolving, what information they were relying on,” he said.

When Yosie left API in 1992, he believed oil the lobby group was still serious about addressing the growing evidence of climate change. But a year later, it disbanded the task force at the same time that Exxon abandoned one of the industry’s biggest research programmes to measure climate change.

Yosie believes that confronted with the true extent of the looming disaster, API and the oil companies ran scared, choosing instead to pursue an agenda informed by climate denialism.

“As the climate issue began to move from the periphery to the centre stage, I think there was a collective loss of confidence in the entire industry, a fear that this was not a debate that was winnable,” he said.

API and its financial backers founded a front organisation, the deceptively named Global Climate Coalition, to drum up purported evidence that the climate crisis was a hoax. In the late 1990s, the GCC’s chairman, William O’Keefe, was also API’s executive vice-president, a man who falsely claimed that “climate scientists don’t say that burning oil, gas and coal is steadily warming the earth”.

API and the GCC led attacks on Bill Clinton’s support for the Kyoto protocol with a “global climate science communications plan” that misrepresented the facts about global heating.

The relationship between API and big oil remained exceptionally close throughout. Exxon’s chief executive served on the lobby group’s executive committee for most of the past three decades, and the two worked together in promoting denialism over the climate crisis.

The focus of API’s efforts were on Congress, where it led the industry’s opposition to policies, such as the 2009 cap-and-trade legislation to control carbon emissions.

“Most of the funding for the Republican party, and probably a very considerable amount of the big dark money funding behind the Republican party, comes out of the fossil fuel industry,” said Whitehouse. Last year, API indirectly gave $5m to the conservative Senate Leadership Fund to back Republican election candidates (many of whom question climate science), and to the campaigns of members of the energy committees in both houses of Congress.
Marty Hoffert, Professor Emeritus of Physics at New York University, poses for a portrait in his garage, surrounded by his RC planes, in Ocala, Florida on Sunday afternoon, June 27, 2021. (Zack Wittman for The Guardian)

Growing public disquiet, and the departure of oil-friendly Donald Trump from the White House, shifted the ground for API. In March it launched a Climate Action Framework, which for the first time endorsed policies such as carbon pricing. It also stated its support for the Paris climate agreement.

API called the plan “robust” but others noted the lack of specifics and its sincerity was called into question when an Exxon lobbyist was caught on camera earlier this year saying that a carbon tax will never happen and that support for the measure was a public relations ploy intended to stall more serious measures.

And between API’s lost support from Total, and the Shell executives who resigned in December over what they regarded as the company’s foot-dragging on greener fuels, there are signs of shifting attitudes within the industry itself.

Shell and BP have said they will continue to review their support for API. Shell said that where it disagrees with API’s position, the company “will pursue advocacy separately”.

However, Peter Frumhoff, director of science and policy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, is sceptical that there has been any significant change in direction.

“I think it’s fair to say that API and its prominent member companies have have a broadly shared goal, which is to keep the social licence of the oil and gas industry operating, and therefore enabling them to continue to extract oil and gas for as long as possible, as profitably as possible,” he said.

This story is published as part of Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of news outlets strengthening coverage of the climate story


Offline Darja

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« Reply #3 on: Jul 20, 2021, 02:42 AM »
‘Sustainable isn’t a thing’: why regenerative agriculture is food’s latest buzzword

Everyone from small farms to McDonald’s is getting involved in regenerative agriculture. Could it point the way to a better future for farming?

Tim Lewis
19 Jul 2021 08.00 BST

A pheasant struts around the Garden of Eden. The pheasant is, well, a pheasant, a male, with those long, jaunty tail feathers; the Garden of Eden is the semi-serious name given by Dan Cox, a 39-year-old chef turned farmer, to a patch of land about half the size of a football pitch on his farm in south-east Cornwall. Cox began working on it in 2017 and it is his experiment to create a growing space in complete harmony with nature, but also productive and bountiful with some of the most delicious vegetables you will ever taste.

Cox looks at the pheasant, which is picking at his seeds and shoots, and squints. “They’re like colourful Chinese chickens that have been bred for stupidity and flying upwards,” he says. “There’s nothing good about them. They don’t taste nice. They’re not supposed to be here. They’re very aggressive. You’re going about your business in your garden and the cocks are coming and attacking you. Crazy! Something’s gone wrong, something’s been removed from the system somewhere to allow that thing to flourish in the first place.”

    Conventional farming is a travesty. You want to develop and evolve, make it as good as it can be

Dan Cox

Combative pheasants are just one of the challenges Cox has faced since becoming a farmer. But, he admits cheerfully, he could name hundreds. In his 20s, Cox seemed to be on a comparatively straightforward path to becoming one of Britain’s most celebrated chefs: a Kerridge, a Smyth, a Bains. In 2008, aged 26, he won the Roux scholarship. Three years later, Simon Rogan recruited Cox to head up L’Enclume’s test kitchen. But two months after Cox arrived in the Lake District, the couple who ran the restaurant’s two-acre farm decided to retire.

“L’Enclume without a farm at that point wasn’t a thing: that’s where the story was and having access to that incredible produce,” says Cox, who grew up in urban north London and whose experience of growing was limited to herbs and microgreens in his back garden. “So we were like: ‘How hard can it be? Let’s just do it ourselves.’”

A rueful laugh: so far, so Clarkson’s Farm. But Cox has an obsessive streak and a wandering, irrepressible curiosity. He began reading everything he could find on farming and soil (sample: Darwin’s lesser-selling The Formation of Vegetable Mould Through the Action of Worms), visiting suppliers and asking endless questions. “My thinking was: we’re a two-Michelin-star restaurant up in the Lake District – that’s where we are,” he explains, putting his hand above his head: a high bar. “So who’s the equivalent to us in farming? And I couldn’t really see anyone in the UK that was doing that.”

Cox’s farm, Melilot, the name taken from sweet clover, is his attempt to create this arcadia. In May, he gave me a tour: the rain lashed us, the wind was unseasonably mean and the ground was struggling to recover from the cataclysmic spring: too dry, too wet, then too cold. But the promise of this fertile, temperate spot is unmistakable: there are more than 70 different plants being grown for sale over 80 acres and 260 rare-breed sheep loll around. Cox is tall and strapping and he takes giant strides, stopping every so often to cut an asparagus spear or an artichoke globe with his Niwaki hunting knife, or pick a sprig of mint that tastes like an After Eight.

It is what’s happening below ground level, though, that really excites Cox. All food, he believes, is only as good as the soil in which it is grown. The magic here is harder to see – around 20,000km of hyphae, or fungal filaments, snake through every square metre of healthy soil – and it is less sexy to talk about than an heirloom variety of pink celery. But Cox is adamant that if we care about what we eat, and the survival of the planet beyond that, we need to make soil a priority. He practises no tilling on the land at Melilot, which minimises soil disturbance and in turn prevents erosion and allows the ecosystem to thrive. He also uses no pesticides or chemical fertilisers. “Improve soil health, improve nutrition,” he says. “Improve nutrition, improve flavour.”

Cox’s operation is tiny in the context of farming in the UK, where almost three-quarters of the land is used for agriculture. But he hopes his work can plant a seed for how to do things differently. “Conventional farming is a travesty, it’s so fucked,” he says. “Everyone’s talking about sustainability, but why would you sustain something that’s wrong? It’s like sustaining a marriage, sustaining a relationship with your child. Dude, that’s not what you want to do. You want to develop and evolve, make it as good as it can be. Sustainable isn’t a thing, it’s about regeneration.”

Regeneration is a buzzword in farming these days. It is the subject of Ted talks: Allan Savory, a farmer originally from Zimbabwe and a leader in the movement, claimed in a 2013 lecture watched online at least 7.5m times that following its principles could “reverse” climate change. It has a Netflix documentary, Kiss the Ground, a 2020 film narrated by Woody Harrelson, which jumps off from the UN’s projection that unless we find a way to repair our soil, we have only 60 harvests left before our topsoil is gone (though this claim is contested by recent research from Oxford University, which called it “overblown”). Gabe Brown’s 2018 book, Dirt to Soil: One Family’s Journey into Regenerative Agriculture, is the movement’s holy text. Brown, a North Dakota rancher and farmer, landed on regenerative methods in the 1990s after four years of freak storms led to huge crop failures and cattle deaths. He argues there are numerous benefits for farmers who focus on the health of their soil, not least the money they will save on fertiliser and other treatments. Healthy soils also absorb water and carbon dioxide, and Brown’s land has been shown to have up to three times as much soil carbon as that of his neighbours. It’s argued that, if emulated on a large scale, this could have a significant impact on global heating.

There is no set definition of regenerative agriculture or “regen ag” as it gets called. But stripped back, it is any form of farming – that is, the production of food or fibre – which at the same time improves the environment. Regenerative farmers typically try to disturb the soil as little as possible: forgoing tilling, which disturbs the complex network of worm-holes, fungal hyphae and a labyrinth of microscopic air pockets, and avoiding heavy doses of fertiliser or sprays. Most advocates grow a diverse range of crops, often at the same time, and believe that grazing animals are essential for improving soil health.

The most elegant expression of why regenerative agriculture should be at the heart of British farming is James Rebanks’s 2020 book, English Pastoral. Rebanks, whose family have farmed in the Lake District for 600 years, avoids easy scapegoating for the hole that many farmers now find themselves in. But he’s clear that to protect our food system and our landscape, we need to change – or regenerate.

    When we left some longer grass to grow we had barn owls return to the farm within about three months

James Rebanks

For most of his life the 46-year-old Rebanks admits that he considered advocates of regenerative agriculture to be “cranks”. They had to be: British farmers effectively tripled their per-acre yields of wheat, oats and barley, and doubled milk production between 1935 and 1998. New chemicals and more powerful machinery were at the heart of this boom. But by the time that Rebanks’s father died in 2015, leaving him with a loss-making farm with around 500 Herdwick and Swaledale sheep, the picture had changed. The cranks had a point. “The evidence started to mount across my lifetime that actually their scepticism is bang on the money, really,” says Rebanks on a video call.

In the years since his father’s death, Rebanks has set about remodelling the farm. He has not used artificial fertiliser since taking it over. He has planted trees and, at great effort and expense, moved a stream that passed through his best hay meadow to a more natural channel nearby, which created new ponds and wetlands. (The construction company was bemused why someone would make their field “worse”: “The kind of lunacy only college-educated people could come up with,” he writes in English Pastoral). The changes have not made Rebanks rich, but the farm does now turn a profit. And, just as important to him, the ecosystem is more vibrant than it has been in decades.

“I had a vague idea that if you did the right things for nature you might then wait another 20 years until things came back,” says Rebanks. “But when we left some longer grass to grow we had barn owls return to the farm within about three months. The feedback loop is exhilarating. You do a thing, then a good thing happens. And it’s clearly because you’ve done something better or you stopped doing something bad.”

The message is a heartening one and Rebanks reaches a large audience through his books and his 150,000-strong Twitter following. But he remains conflicted and concerned. “Oh my God, we work incredibly hard for almost no money,” he says. “I don’t expect anybody to shed tears for us not making a fortune, but that worries me because if doing the right thing ultimately doesn’t pay enough to persuade my neighbours, I’m not sure they’re all going to do it. There’s almost a public interest in making the right thing pay better than this.”

Rebanks knows that government ministers have read English Pastoral, but he thinks there is a cognitive dissonance between politicians who talk about protecting British farmers and our countryside while negotiating trade deals with Australia and expecting British farmers in “small, crooked fields” to compete with North American levels of productivity. “Everything about our food farming and land management system is brewing up to be worse, not better,” says Rebanks. “I know bad news is boring, but we’re at a tipping point where we could make really good, profoundly countryside-changing decisions, and we’re not making them.”

In late June 2021, more than 3,500 regenerative farmers came together for a two-day festival in Hertfordshire called Groundswell. Because of the loose definitions, it’s hard to say how many UK farmers are following regenerative practices, but put it this way: previous editions of Groundswell have taken place in one, admittedly quite large room; this year, the festival had seven stages and sprawled over multiple fields. You could – and people actually did – call it the “Glastonbury of farming”.

One of the biggest and most boisterous crowds was for the talk given by George Eustice, the secretary of state for environment, food and rural affairs. “Everyone recognises the need to change our approach to tackle the environmental challenges, both on climate change, but also on biodiversity,” said Eustice. “And leaving the European Union gives us, as a country, a great opportunity to show the world how we can do this: an opportunity through this seven-year transition to completely reorder the incentives in our system, so that we support a regenerative agriculture. And that is precisely what we want our future policy to do.”

Eustice followed this up in July with the sustainable farming incentive, which promises to pay farmers up to £70 per hectare for actions they take to improve the health of their soil. These measures, which will roll out from spring 2022, are encouraging for the regenerative movement, even if many farmers, including Rebanks, still believe the government’s message is either contradictory or disingenuous.

Elsewhere at Groundswell, there was much discussion about how to bring the public along with the movement. “We are unashamedly in the orgasm business,” said Peter Greig of Pipers Farm, who has been farming in north Devon for 30 years and now works with 40 local, small-scale farmers to bring regenerative products to market. “Our job as food producers is to give people pleasure. Number one, if they eat something, and they think ‘Bloody hell,’ and they remember it, they will come back and buy it again. And it’s very obvious that the way to produce food that is absolutely fabulous to eat is to revert to nature.”

    There’s a lot to be said for trying to grow things that have that competitive edge on the market

Calixta Killander

One of the most invigorating talks at Groundswell came from Calixta Killander, a 31-year-old farmer from Cambridgeshire. She grew up on a large-scale arable farm, but had little interest in the land until she studied sustainable agriculture in North Carolina when she was 21. This led to a spell on an Amish farm, Sugar Creek in Ohio, and a conviction that she wanted to try horse-powered farming in the UK. She was gifted a pair of Comtois heavy horses, Bill and Ben, and started her business, Flourish Produce, on four acres just off a busy A-road.

When Killander began, she was, she tells me, “the laughing stock of the local farming community”. But horses weren’t the only unusual aspect of Flourish. Killander decided that she would have the greatest impact by growing for chefs and that in doing so she could stick most closely to regenerative principles. To do that, she chose to specialise in “niche” vegetables and lots of them. Five years on, Flourish spreads over 50 acres and grows more than 800 varieties. “Which is absolutely crazy for the spreadsheet we need to run the farm,” she admits. “I can barely keep it all together, but so far we’re managing.”

Flourish sells vegetables, fruits, herbs and flowers direct to restaurants including London’s Brat, Orasay and Ikoyi. Many of these varieties are difficult or impossible to get anywhere else, such as robin’s koginut squash, which are individually hand-washed, hand-polished and cured for months before being sold. “Which might make it sound like it’s definitely not economically viable to do them,” laughs Killander, “but we found that there’s such a huge demand we often sell out of the squash within just a few hours of opening them up to our chefs. So there’s a lot to be said for trying to grow things that have that competitive edge on the market.”

It is unlikely that you will find robin’s koginut squash in your Tesco Metro in the foreseeable, but that’s not exactly the point. Chefs and produce obsessives always exist in a rarefied space. Their power comes from influencing people who eat their food and read their cookbooks, and the messaging trickling down from there into better, more flavourful food for a mass market. There’s evidence that is starting to happen: McDonald’s UK is two years into a four-year project to produce beef farmed under regenerative guidelines. The chain’s stated goal is to restore soil quality, boost diversity and draw more carbon into the earth than it produces.

There are even signs that some of the farmers around Killander who were dubious when she arrived are becoming more open-minded. “My neighbour is a conventional farmer, and I was amazed when earlier this year he mentioned having read Gabe Brown’s book and was interested in growing peas and rotating his cattle on the land,” she says. “It just shows that there is change happening.”

There is an appealing zealousness to the regenerative farmers I meet, and a shared belief that – despite the odds – the bleak projections for food production and global agriculture are reversible. But no one is finding it easy and no one is getting rich quick. Killander had her biggest single day of sales in March 2020, only for the government to order the shutdown of UK restaurants. “The van went to London and all that produce came back and was wasted,” she recalls. After the erratic weather this spring, Flourish lost 60% of its crops and had to temporarily close the farm down and tell its restaurants it couldn’t supply them.

Soaked through and mud-caked in Cornwall, it’s hard not to wonder if Dan Cox regrets, at least for now, leaving life in the kitchen. He insists he doesn’t, but he has no doubt that what he’s trying to do now is much harder. “In a restaurant, if you are not happy with a dish at lunchtime, it’s different for dinner,” he says. “You just ring up your supplier and get a second delivery. But with farming, everything takes at least six months or a year to see the results and to make the change. To come into a situation where you have almost no control is quite hard.”

If you’re thinking you would like to support regenerative farmers, there’s one obvious way: buy their products when you see them, seek them out. In 2020, Cox partnered with Natoora, which supplies unique and “radically” seasonal produce from the UK and Europe to chefs and home customers direct and through Ocado. In lockdown, Flourish began selling vegetable boxes and flowers, with pick-ups in Cambridge and London, and Killander is now taking orders for autumn.

But all of the farmers make an unexpected, counterintuitive plea. “It may surprise you,” says Rebanks, “but I think as many people as possible should try – to whatever extent is possible for them in their situation – to grow something that they eat.” You’ll quickly learn, Rebanks believes, how difficult (and maddening!) it can be, but also that the prices we pay in supermarkets are often unsustainably meagre. “We’re all of us, and it’s true of me for the plants that I eat, way too disconnected,” he continues. “We forget what this is all about and how hard it is.”

English Pastoral - An Inheritance by James Rebanks (Allen Lane) is published in paperback on 2 September


Offline Darja

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« Reply #4 on: Jul 20, 2021, 02:45 AM »
How data could save Earth from climate change

Using a name inspired by Indonesian farmers, Subak will share information and fund hi-tech solutions to fight global heating

Robin McKie
19 Jul 2021 13.00 BST

As monikers go, Subak may seem an odd choice for a new organisation that aims to accelerate hi-tech efforts to combat the climate crisis. The name is Indonesian, it transpires, and refers to an ancient agricultural system that allows farmers to co-ordinate their efforts when irrigating and growing crops.

“Subak allows farmers to carefully synchronise their use of water and so maximise rice production,” said Bryony Worthington, founder and board member of the new, not-for-profit climate action group. “And that is exactly what we are going to do – with data. By sharing and channelling data, we can maximise our efforts to combat carbon emissions and global warming. Data is going to be the new water, in other words.”

Subak will be officially launched on Monday and will select and fund non-profit groups, working around the world, to combat the climate crisis. Early start-ups already helped by Subak include one group that is assisting UK local authorities to boost electric car use, while another is using accurate weather forecasts to make best use of solar power across Britain and limit fossil fuel burning to generate electricity.

These efforts are being launched after a week of headlines that have highlighted how perilous life on Earth is becoming as global heating grips the planet. Floods in Germany and Belgium left more than 150 dead; scientists revealed that the Brazilian rainforest now emits more carbon dioxide than it absorbs; and fires devastated vast tracts of Californian forests. In each case, scientists warned that rising temperatures – triggered by increasing levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere – are likely to have played a key role in bringing about these catastrophes.

Urgent action is clearly needed, says Lady Worthington, a noted climate activist and lead author of the team which drafted the UK’s 2008 Climate Change Act, legislation that required the UK to reduce its carbon emissions by at least 80% of their 1990 levels. At the time, Worthington was working with Friends of the Earth but was seconded to government to help design the legislation. For her efforts, she was made a peer in 2010.

Since then, Worthington has continued in the battle against the climate crisis, and in 2019 she read Harvard academic Shoshana Zuboff’s book The Age of Surveillance Capitalism ,which focuses – disapprovingly – on hi-tech companies’ growing use of personal data to make money.

“It woke me up to the fact a whole new world of digital tools was being deployed to generate profits,” says Worthington. “I realised it would be better if those tools could be used to save the planet – to protect the global commons – and not merely to boost share value.”

Worthington contacted Gi Fernando, a tech entrepreneur, and the pair hatched the idea of Subak, which has since been given funding by the Quadrature Climate Foundation (QCF) that was recently set up by the London investment management company, Quadrature Capital. Its aim is to provide initial funding to help groups establish themselves but also to give expert guidance over legal, management and other issues.

“When you start up a company or group, you are quite alone,” says Fernando. “So if you have a community around you that can offer help – HR, finance, tools – that is incredibly helpful. And then, once that group gets on their feet, they can then start to help other startup entrepreneurs wanting to open new avenues in order to help fight climate change.”

Fernando’s words are echoed by several of the groups that Subak has already helped to set up, such as Open Climate Fix. This aims to reduce carbon emissions by improving weather forecasts to make the best use of solar power plants – whose effectiveness is reduced when the weather is cloudy.

“If we get very good data about forthcoming cloud cover, we will know exactly how much solar-generated electricity can be provided in the UK on a given day,” said Open Climate Fix’s co-founder, Jack Kelly. “That will mean we will not need to generate unnecessary electricity from other sources – in particular fossil fuel sources such as gas – because we have underestimated the solar power we will get that day. That will help to reduce carbon emissions.”

Subak’s provision of engineers and software experts who have turned weather satellite images into cloud cover forecasts was a critical piece of assistance, added Kelly.

A similar tale is told by Richard Allan of New AutoMotive, which is monitoring how electric cars are being taken up in communities across the UK. Factors include vehicle use, sales patterns and favourite types of cars and trucks. That data can be fed to local authorities to ensure charging stations, battery replacement services and other resources are provided to maximise take-up of electric cars.

“Replacing petrol and diesel vehicles with electric versions as quickly as possible is going to be extremely important in reducing carbon emissions,” says Allan. “And data about take-up rates in communities will be vital in achieving that goal.”

This view is endorsed by Worthington. “Just as a major corporation has lots of different companies under its control, Subak is going to help set up lots of new outfits, each aimed at boosting efforts to control climate change.

“We are going to be the Diageo of climate protection, though we will not be co-ordinating drink production. We will be generating precious data about the climate.”

Climate crisis in numbers

415: The number of parts per million of carbon dioxide that make up the atmosphere. Before the Industrial Revolution in the mid-1700s, the global average amount of carbon dioxide was about 280ppm. Burning fossil fuels has since added a further 135ppm and if global energy demand continues to grow and is met mostly with fossil fuels, that figure could exceed 900ppm by 2100.

3.6mm: The estimated increase each year in sea level, according to measurements of tide gauges and satellite data. This is a result of human-induced warming of the planet. It is projected that the sea level will rise a further 40 to 80cm by 2100, although future ice sheet melt could make these values considerably higher.

43.1 billion: In 2019 that was the number of tons of carbon dioxide from human activities that were emitted into the atmosphere. Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas that absorbs heat and release it gradually over time, like bricks in a fireplace after the fire goes out. Current increases in greenhouse gases have tipped the Earth’s energy budget out of balance, trapping additional heat and raising Earth’s average temperature.

28 trillion: The estimated numbers of tons of ice that our planet has lost between 1994 and 2017. Global warming has a particularly severe impact at higher latitudes and this has been most noticeable in the Arctic. Scientists worry that as ice melts, less solar radiation will be reflected back into space and temperatures will rise even faster. Ice loss will become increasingly severe as a result.

Sources: Royal Society; US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration; Scientific American


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« Reply #5 on: Jul 20, 2021, 02:48 AM »
Rights and freedom: ‘Now I’ve a purpose’: why more Kurdish women are choosing to fight

All-female militias in Syria have again swelled in numbers in recent years with many women joining the call to arms despite the risks

by Elizabeth Flock
20 Jul 2021 06.00 BST

Zeynab Serekaniye, a Kurdish woman with a gap-toothed smile and a warm demeanor, never imagined she’d join a militia.

The 26-year-old grew up in Ras al-Ayn, a town in north-east Syria. The only girl in a family of five, she liked to fight and wear boys’ clothing. But when her brothers got to attend school and she did not, Serekaniye did not challenge the decision. She knew it was the reality for girls in the region. Ras al-Ayn, Arabic for “head of the spring”, was a green and placid place, so Serekaniye settled down to a life of farming vegetables with her mother.

That changed on 9 October 2019, days after former US president Donald Trump announced that US troops would pull out of north-east Syria, where they had allied with Kurdish-led forces for years. A newly empowered Turkey, which sees the stateless Kurds as an existential threat, and whose affiliated groups it has been at war with for decades, immediately launched an offensive on border towns held by Kurdish forces in north-east Syria, including Ras al-Ayn.
Smoke billows from targets in Ras al-Ayn, Syria, during a bombardment by Turkish forces in October 2019.

    Smoke billows from the town of Ras al-Ayn, Syria, during the bombardment by Turkish forces in October 2019

Just after 4pm that day, Serekaniye says, the bombs began to fall, followed by the dull plink and thud of mortar fire. By evening, Serekaniye and her family had fled to the desert, where they watched their town go up in smoke. “We didn’t take anything with us,” she says. “We had a small car, so how can we take our stuff and leave the people?” As they fled, she saw dead bodies in the street. She soon learned that an uncle and cousin were among them. Their house would become rubble.

After Serekaniye’s family was forced to resettle farther south, she surprised her mother in late 2020 by saying she wanted to join the Women’s Protection Units (YPJ). The all-female, Kurdish-led militia was established in 2013 not long after their male counterparts, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), ostensibly to defend their territory against numerous groups, which would come to include the Islamic State (Isis). The YPG have also been linked to systematic human rights abuses including the use of child soliders, forced displacements and looting.

    If these people come here, they will do the same to us. We will not accept that, so we will stand against them

Viyan Rojava

Serekaniye’s mother argued against her decision, because two of her brothers were already risking their lives in the YPG.

But Serekaniye was unmoved. “We’ve been pushed outside of our land, so now we should go and defend our land,” she says. “Before, I was not thinking like this. But now I have a purpose – and a target.”

Serekaniye is one of approximately 1,000 women across Syria to have enlisted in the militia in the past two years. Many joined in anger over Turkey’s incursions, but ended up staying.

“In discussions [growing up], it was always, ‘if something happens, a man will solve it, not a woman’,” says Serekaniye. “Now women can fight and protect her society . This, I like.”
YPJ fighters at a military parade

    YPJ fighters at a military parade on 27 March 2019, to celebrate the elimination of Islamic State’s last bastion in eastern Syria

According to the YPG, a surge in recruitment has also been aided by growing pushback against and awareness of entrenched gender inequality and violence over recent years. In 2019 the Kurds’ Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria passed a series of laws to protect women, including banning polygamy, child marriages, forced marriages and so-called “honour” killings, although many of these practices continue. About a third of Asayish officers in the Kurdish security services in the region are now women and 40% female representation is required in the autonomous government. A village of only women, where female residents can live safe from violence, was built, evacuated after nearby bombings, and resettled again
The Kurdish enclave of Afrin in January 2018

    The Kurdish enclave of Afrin in January 2018, when Turkey and Free Syrian Army rebels it backed launched Operation Olive Branch

Yet evidence of the widespread violence that women continue to face is abundant at the local Mala Jin, or “women’s house”, which provide a refuge and also a form of local arbitration for women in need across Syria. Since 2014, 69 of these houses have opened, with staff helping any woman or man who come in with problems they’re facing including issues of domestic violence, sexual harassment and rape, and so-called “honour” crimes, often liaising with local courts and the female units of the Asayish intelligence agency to solve cases.

On a sun-scorched day in May, three distraught women arrive in quick succession at a Mala Jin centre in the north-eastern city of Qamishli. The first woman, who wears a heavy green abaya, tells staff that her husband has barely come home since she’s given birth. The second woman arrives with her husband in tow, demanding a divorce; her long ponytail and hands shake as she describes how he’d once beaten her until she had to get an abortion.

The third woman shuffles in pale-faced and in a loose dress, with rags wrapped around her hands. Her skin is raw pink and black from burns that cover much of her face and body. The woman describes to staff how her husband has beaten her for years and threatened to kill a member of her family if she left him. After he poured paraffin on her one day, she says, she fled his house; he then hired men to kill her brother. After her brother’s murder, she set herself on fire. “I got tired,” she says.

The Mala Jin staff, all women, tut in disapproval as she speaks. They carefully write down the details of her account, tell her they need to take photographs, and explain they plan to send the documents to the court to help secure his arrest. The woman nods then lies down on a couch in exhaustion.

Behia Murad, the director of the Qamishli Mala Jin, an older, kind-eyed woman in a pink hijab, said says the Mala Jin centres have handled thousands of cases since they started, and, though both men and women come in with complaints, “always the woman is the victim”.

A growing number of women visit the Mala Jin centres. Staff say that this doesn’t represent increased violence against women in the region, but that more women are demanding equality and justice. 

The YPJ is very aware of this shift and its potential as a recruitment tool. “Our aim is not to just have her hold her gun, but to be aware,” says Newroz Ahmed, general commander of the YPJ.

For Serekaniye it was not just that she got to fight, it was also the way of life the YPJ seemed to offer. Instead of working in the fields, or getting married and having children, women who join the YPJ talk about women’s rights while training to use a rocket-?propelled grenade. They are discouraged, though not banned, from using phones or dating and instead are told that comradeship with other women is now the focus of their day to day lives.

Commander Ahmed, soft-spoken but with an imposing stare, estimates the female militia’s current size is about 5,000. This is the same size the YPJ was at the height of its battle against Isis in 2014 (though the media have previously reported an inflated number). If the YPJ’s continued strength is any indication, she adds, the Kurdish-led experiment is still blooming.

The number remains high despite the fact that the YPJ has lost hundreds, if not more, of its members in battle and no longer accepts married women (the pressure to both fight and raise a family is too intense, Ahmed says). The YPJ also claim it no longer accepts women under 18 after intense pressure from the UN and human rights groups to stop the use of child soldiers; although many of the women I met had joined below that age, though years ago.

Driving through north-east Syria, it is no wonder that so many women continue to join, given the ubiquitous images of smiling female shahids, or martyrs. Fallen female fighters are commemorated on colourful billboards or with statues standing proudly at roundabouts. Sprawling cemeteries are filled with shahids, lush plants and roses growing from their graves.

The fight against Turkey is one reason to maintain the YPJ, says Ahmed, who spoke from a military base in al-Hasakah, the north-east governorate where US troops returned after Joe Biden was elected. She claims that gender equality is the other. “We continue to see a lot of breaches [of law] and violations against women” in the region, she says. “We still have the battle against the mentality, and this is even harder than the military one.”

Tal Tamr, the YPJ base where Serekaniye is stationed, is a historically Christian and somewhat sleepy town. Bedouins herd sheep through fields, children walk arm-in-arm through village lanes, and slow, gathering dust storms are a regular afternoon occurrence. Yet Kurdish, US and Russian interests are all present here. Sosin Birhat, Serekaniye’s commander, says that before 2019 the YPJ base in Tal Tamr was tiny; now, with more women joining, she describes it as a full regiment.

The base is a one-storey, tan-coloured stucco building once occupied by the Syrian regime. The women grow flowers and vegetables in the rugged land at the back. They do not have a signal for their phones or power to use a fan, even in the sweltering heat, so they pass the time on their days off, away from the frontline, having water fights, chain smoking and drinking sugary coffee and tea.

Yet battle is always on their minds. Viyan Rojava, a more seasoned fighter than Serekaniye, talks of taking back Afrin. In March 2018, Turkey and the Free Syrian Army rebels it backed, launched Operation Olive Branch to capture the north-eastern district beloved for its fields of olive trees.

Since the Turkish occupation of Afrin, tens of thousands of people have been displaced – Rojava’s family among them – and more than 135 women remain missing, according to media reports and human rights groups. “If these people come here, they will do the same to us,” says Rojava, as other female fighters nod in agreement. “We will not accept that, so we will hold our weapons and stand against them.”

Serekaniye listens intently as Rojava speaks. In the five months since she joined the YPJ, Serekaniye has transformed. During military training in January, she broke a leg trying to scale a wall; now, she can easily handle her gun.

As Rojava speaks, the walkie-talkie sitting beside her crackles. The women at the base were being called to the frontline, not far from Ras al-Ayn. There is little active fighting these days, yet they maintain their positions in case of a surprise attack. Serekaniye dons her flak jacket, grabs her Kalashnikov and a belt of bullets. Then she gets into an SUV headed north, and speeds away.

Additional reporting by Kamiran Sadoun and Solin Mohamed Amin


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« Reply #6 on: Jul 20, 2021, 03:06 AM »
Rising Covid cases spark fears of resurgent pandemic in US

Biden implores Americans to get vaccinated and stocks fall amid outbreaks in areas with low inoculation rates

Dominic Rushe, Vivian Ho and agencies
20 Jul 2021 23.58 BST

A rapid increase in coronavirus cases in the US and abroad is fueling fears of a pandemic resurgence and on Monday sent shockwaves through the stock market as the highly contagious Delta variant takes hold – and Joe Biden urged Americans to “please, please get vaccinated”.

The number of new cases, hospitalizations and deaths due to Covid-19 have been rising worryingly in recent days, largely driven by outbreaks in parts of the country with low vaccination rates, as officials have been warning of a “pandemic of the unvaccinated”.

US stock indexes plunged as investors worried about the impact of the coronavirus on the economic recovery, and the president begged more people to get the shot even as he gave a speech on the economy that more broadly dismissed predictions of “doom and gloom” that electing him to office would bring about depression and the death of capitalism.

Biden said capitalism was alive and “very well”.

He noted that: “Six months into my administration, the US economy has experienced the highest economic growth rate in almost 40 years … Forecasters have doubled their projections for growth to 7% or higher … The US is the only developed country where growth projections today are stronger than they were before the pandemic hit.”

But Monday’s stock market selloff came as the Delta variant of the coronavirus continued to spread across the US and around the world.

Covid cases are now rising in all 50 US states and some cities are once again considering or already imposing mask mandates.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average closed down 725 points, or 2.1%, after losing 946 points earlier in the day. The S&P 500 index lost 1.6% and the technology-heavy Nasdaq Composite declined 1.1%.

The available vaccines work against the Delta variant, but lab tests have shown them to be less effective than they were against the original form of coronavirus.

And Biden warned that the US recovery hinged on getting the pandemic under control, noting that four states with low vaccination rates accounted for 40% of all new coronavirus infections last week.

“So please, please get vaccinated,” Biden said. “Get vaccinated now.“

The average number of new Covid-19 cases per day has tripled in the past 30 days in the United States, according to an analysis of Reuters data. In the month from June 18 to Sunday, it climbed from 12,004 to 32,136.

And the average number of people hospitalized with Covid-19 has gone up 21% over the past 30 days to over 19,000, up from 16,000.

Deaths, which can lag weeks behind a rise in cases, rose 25% last week from the previous seven days with an average of 250 people dying a day.

Meanwhile, with the situation in the UK deteriorating, US citizens were warned against travel there.

The UK was placed on the highest level of the United States travel guidance – “Level 4: Very High” – on Monday, warning that even fully vaccinated travelers could be at risk.

The US federal agency the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued the update on the day British prime minster Boris Johnson ended mask-wearing and social distancing laws, while reopening nightclubs.

The move will be a blow to Johnson after he sought to broker a way to reopen UK-US travel with Biden.

Americans were told to “avoid travel to the United Kingdom” but advised to make sure they are fully vaccinated if travel was essential.

“Because of the current situation in the United Kingdom, even fully vaccinated travelers may be at risk for getting and spreading Covid-19 variants,” the US guidance added.

The UK joins countries including Brazil, South Africa and the Netherlands on Level 4.
India, Iran and Italy are among countries that have been badly hit by coronavirus but are a level lower on the US’s rating.

In Canada, officials announced that the US-Canadian border will begin reopening from 9 August to fully vaccinated American citizens and permanent residents, for the first time since the pandemic hit.

There was no word on when the US might admit Canadians for nonessential travel.


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« Reply #7 on: Jul 20, 2021, 03:08 AM »
Pedro Castillo makes unity plea after finally being named Peru’s next president

One-time teacher asks for ‘effort and sacrifice’ in first remarks after being confirmed as president-elect

Staff and agencies
Tue 20 Jul 2021 03.24 BST

Pedro Castillo, a rural teacher turned political novice, has become the winner of Peru’s presidential election after the country’s longest electoral count in 40 years.

In his first comments as president-elect, he called for national unity. “I ask for effort and sacrifice in the struggle to make this a just and sovereign country,” he said.

Castillo, whose supporters included Peru’s poor and rural citizens, defeated right-wing politician Keiko Fujimori by just 44,000 votes. Electoral authorities released the final official result on Monday in a televised ceremony, more than a month after the runoff election took place in the South American nation.

On Monday night, TV images showed Castillo’s supporters pouring out on to the streets, chanting, “Yes, we could.”

Castillo is set to take office on 28 July for a five-year term as leader of the world’s second largest copper-producing nation.

A 51-year-old former school teacher and the son of peasant farmers, Castillo has pledged to redraft the constitution and raise taxes on mining firms, but has in recent weeks softened his rhetoric and hinted at a more moderate, market-friendly approach.

Wielding a pencil the size of a cane, symbol of his Peru Libre party, Castillo popularised the phrase “No more poor in a rich country.” The economy of Peru has been crushed by the coronavirus pandemic, increasing the poverty level to almost one-third of the population and eliminating the gains of a decade.

The shortfalls of the public health services have contributed to the country’s pandemic crisis, leaving it with the highest global per capita death rate. Castillo has promised to use the revenues from the mining sector to improve public services, including education and health, whose inadequacies were highlighted by the pandemic.

“Those who do not have a car should have at least one bicycle,” Castillo, 51, told the Associated Press in mid-April at his house in Anguía, Peru’s third poorest district.

Historians say he is the first peasant to become president of Peru, where until now, Indigenous people almost always have received the worst of the deficient public services even though the nation boasted of being the economic star of Latin America in the first two decades of the century.

“There are no cases of a person unrelated to the professional, military or economic elites who reaches the presidency,” Cecilia Méndez, a Peruvian historian and professor at the University of California-Santa Barbara, said.

Hundreds of people from various regions camped out for more than a month in front of the Electoral Tribunal in the capital, Lima, to await Castillo’s proclamation. Many do not belong to Castillo’s party, but they trust him because “he will not be like the other politicians who have not kept their promises and do not defend the poor”, said Maruja Inquilla, an environmental activist who arrived from a town near Titicaca.

Earlier, right-wing presidential candidate Fujimori admitted she was headed for defeat in last month’s election, but accused Castillo of winning in an “illegitimate” manner and pledged to mobilise her supporters.

Fujimori said on Monday she was bound by law to recognise the official election result. “I am going to recognise the results because it is what the law and the constitution that I have sworn to defend, mandates. The truth is going to come out anyway,” she said.

The official result had been delayed by appeals from Fujimori aimed at annulling some ballots over fraud accusations, despite little evidence. Peru’s electoral authority has tossed out the last appeals by Fujimori, a conservative who is the daughter of jailed former president Alberto Fujimori.

“They have stolen thousands of votes from us,” Fujimori alleged at a news conference. The Organization of American States, European Union and Britain have all said the election was fair. The US called the election a “model of democracy” for the region.

Faced with the imminent naming of Castillo as president-elect, Fujimori called on her followers to protest peacefully. “We have the right to mobilise … but in a peaceful manner and within the framework of the law,” she said.

With Associated Press and Reuters


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« Reply #8 on: Jul 20, 2021, 03:10 AM »
German flood alert system criticised for ‘monumental failure’

Questions raised over lack of warning as death toll passes 150 and villages are left without drinking water, power or gas

Philip Oltermann in Berlin
20 Jul 2021 17.50 BST

Germany is asking itself how one of the world’s richest countries managed to be taken by surprise by last week’s extreme weather events, as more details emerge of how early warnings about record rainfall and expected floods did not make their way to the communities most at risk.

In Erftstadt, south of Cologne, where a flooded gravel quarry swallowed up cars, houses and parts of a historic castle, residents who had installed the federal government’s weather warning app were advised on Wednesday to stay inside their house.

By Thursday, they were informed that a nearby dam was at risk of breaking, putting them in “extreme danger”.

Yet in the Ahrweiler district in the state of Rhineland-Palatinate, where at least 117 people died after torrents of rainwater collected in the surrounding Eifel mountains and then tore through several villages last Wednesday, the Nina warning app had not sent out a comparable warning, the German news agency DPA reported on Monday.

Even though the European Flood Awareness System (Efas) sent out specific warnings for the worst-hit German regions four days before the start of the downpour, the ensuing flash floods still appeared to have taken the majority of residents by surprise.

Prof Hannah Cloke, a hydrologist at the University of Reading who set up and advises Efas, told Politico the death toll was “a monumental failure of the system”.

The interior minister, Horst Seehofer, dismissed suggestions that federal officials had made mistakes and said warnings were passed to local authorities “who make decisions on disaster protection”.

The interior minister of the western state of North-Rhine Westphalia, Herbert Reul, where 47 people died, conceded that the early warning system had not worked as efficiently as it could have, but said he did not see any fundamental problems with the system.

A spokesperson for Reul’s ministry on Monday said it had passed on warnings to the local municipalities concerned.

The head of Germany’s federal office of civil protection and disaster assistance appeared to shift the blame to local authorities. “The warning infrastructure as such wasn’t our problem, but the question of how sensitive the public authorities and the population are in their response”, said the agency’s president, Armin Schuster.

Schuster told broadcaster Deutschlandfunk that digital warnings, such as through warning apps, text messages or emails, did not always reach all those at risk. Instead, he called for an investment programme to increase the number of flood-warning sirens in areas that could see more floods in the coming years.

The disaster assistance agency has been facing scrutiny since last year’s “nationwide emergency warning day”, the first test run of the country’s warning infrastructure since reunification in 1991. Slated to run for 20 minutes, the event on 10 September 2020 was meant to demonstrate the functionality of everything from sirens to push notifications on smartphones.

Instead, the warning day demonstrated the current system’s gaps, with many receiving push alerts with a delay or not at all, after the nationwide push overloaded the system.

Annalena Baerbock, the Green party’s candidate for chancellor at elections this September, told Der Spiegel that the appropriate response to the catastrophic floods was a “tripartite national effort of strength”, involving a more centralised disaster management system, readjusting the design of cities and rivers for the event of more extreme weather events, and increased efforts on climate protection.

“We need to reshape disaster management,” Baerbock said. “And the federal government needs to take more responsibility for it.”

As receding water levels laid bare the full extent of the damage in towns and villages in western Germany, residents feared they could be left without access to power and drinking water for months.

In Ahrweiler, about 30,000 are currently without power, drinking water and gas, after Wednesday’s flash floods broke up sewage systems, tore through a major gas pipeline and brought a purification plant to a standstill.

“It looks like the infrastructure is destroyed so badly that some places won’t have drinking water for weeks or months,” the mayor of the town of Altenahr, Cornelia Weigand, told the newspaper Bild.

“It is clear that our community will end up looking very different, because those buildings that defined the area for more than 50, 100 or 150 years will have to be torn down.”

Even water towers in parts of the area that were spared the worst of the floods had run dry and had to be refilled either through tank lorries or by reviving disused wells and setting up mobile water treatment units, local media reported on Monday.

Germany’s Red Cross has transported two 7,000-litre (1,500 gallon) and four 3,800-litre tanks of drinking water into the region.

The Koblenz-based energy provider EVM said it was still in the process of establishing exactly how many households in Ahrweiler were without gas, which is used to heat water and homes in the region, but that the damage to its supply system was “dramatic”.


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« Reply #9 on: Jul 20, 2021, 03:12 AM »
Colombia under fire for backing Cuba protests while stifling dissent at home

Government calls for freedom of expression in Cuba as police mount brutal response to local activists

Joe Parkin Daniels in Bogotá
Tue 20 Jul 2021 10.00 BST

Colombia’s government has been accused of hypocrisy after calling for solidarity with protesters in Cuba even as it cracks down harshly on mass demonstrations against economic inequity and human rights abuses.

Colombia is bracing for another round of anti-poverty demonstrations and unrest, with large marches planned for Tuesday 20 July, Colombia’s independence day, after taking a monthlong hiatus during a surge in Covid-19 cases.

Colombia’s rightwing government, led by President Iván Duque, has said the marches are the result of “terrorist” agitators and are supported by illegal armed groups.

But the Colombian government’s tone towards dissent at home jars with its support for mass marches in Cuba, with Colombia’s foreign ministry calling on communist rulers there to “guarantee the freedom of expression” and “respect the right” to peaceful protest.
Elizabeth Alfonso, Tata Pedro Velasco and Isabela Morales.

Protests in Colombia began in late April in response to an unpopular and since-axed tax reform, and they quickly spread across the country, morphing into a wider howl of outrage against deepening economic disparity and human rights abuses.

In the unrest, police kiosks and bus stations were vandalized and protesters threw up roadblocks around the country.

The police response was brutal, with officers routinely using teargas and billy clubs to quell disturbances. In some cases, authorities fired on demonstrators with live rounds. At least 44 protesters have been killed by police and dozens are still missing, according to local watchdogs.

A recent human rights commission to Colombia made up of delegates from 13 countries found that authorities used counter-insurgency tactics against protesters.

“The Duque government has zero credibility commenting on the Cuban protests,” said Gimena Sánchez-Garzoli, Andes director at the Washington Office on Latin America, a thinktank. “Its unwillingness to address the systemic abuses that took place in the context of the protests shows that it only considers human rights when it benefits its political agenda.”

Duque announced on Monday some reforms to the national police, including new uniforms and human rights training for anti-riot officers. Critics say the changes are cosmetic rather than practical.

And ahead of Tuesday’s planned demonstrations, police ramped up a crackdown on protesters, arresting 12 members of the so-called “frontline”, an amorphous group of mostly young protesters who have skirmished with police at marches in cities nationwide.

Celebrating the arrests as though they were a huge drug seizure, Colombia’s defense minister, Diego Molano, tweeted images of the suspected agitators and their seized equipment, including hard hats, respirators and what appeared to be homemade grenades, photographed next to a bandana emblazoned with the words “SOS Colombia, they are killing us”.

Nearly 3,000 soldiers have been dispatched to Bogotá, the capital, where they will monitor bus stations and protest hotspots on the edges of the city. In Cali, a major city in Colombia’s south-west that quickly became the center of unrest in April, a curfew and ban on liquor sales has been announced, while the surrounding Valle del Cauca province is under lockdown. Police have announced that they’ll confiscate any “shields, helmets, goggles and respirators” from protesters.

But those sympathetic to protesters say the government is fearmongering, as part of a campaign of repression against protesters.

“They’re trying to whip up fear, they’re detaining people arbitrarily. The police don’t come out to control crowds, they come out with rifles raised – they’re preparing for large-scale repression,” said Laura Guerrero, whose son Nicolás Guerrero was killed at a protest in Cali. “The right to protest exists but the police don’t respect it.”


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Biden administration, workers grapple with health threats posed by climate change and heat

The Labor Department is looking at new regulations while workers, particularly in the West, suffer through a brutal summer

WA Post
July 20, 2021

Surging temperatures across the West Coast this summer are exposing another way that the changing climate threatens the country’s future: the danger it poses to workers, particularly those who work outside and in warehouses.

The issue has become such a concern that the Labor Department’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration has put a new heat illness rule on a list of agenda items for the Biden administration to consider, calling it a top priority. Right now, there is no specific federal policy that governs heat-related workplace safety, leaving states to set their own approach.

Amid nearly 200 deaths in Washington and Oregon during the recent record-shattering heat wave, which saw temperatures climb as high as 116 degrees, at least two workers died suddenly: a 51-year-old man who collapsed outside an Oregon Walmart distribution center where he worked, and a 38-year-old farmworker who died while working in a field on a 104-degree day near the Willamette Valley.

Those deaths, whose causes are still being investigated, have drawn attention to the risks faced by many workers and to government policies that often have not been tailored to contemporary weather extremes.

“We have to deal with these waves of higher temperatures — sometimes it’s low or high — and also the wildfires now,” said Luis Magaña, coordinator of the farmworker advocacy group Organization of Migrant Workers, based in Stockton, in California’s San Joaquin Valley. “It’s a system of the natural environment running against a system of laws that no longer works.”

Magaña, who worked in the fields for more than 40 years, said that the temperatures, always a consideration for farmworkers in places such as California, have climbed higher in recent years.

“The harvests have changed,” he said. “The temperature, in the last few years, has advanced to be quite severe. And you can feel the force of the sun, it is much stronger.”

After a series of deaths in the fields, California instituted what were then the country’s most stringent protections for farmworkers, in 2005, and has updated those laws since.

But Magaña says workers are still succumbing to the heat: He hears about three to five who die prematurely, from such things as strokes or heart attacks, every harvest season. Magaña attributes the stresses of working in high temperatures to these deaths, even if they don’t occur in the physical workplace.

“It’s always the same story — whatever the risk is, whether it’s a heat wave, air quality or covid,” said Elizabeth Strater, a director at United Farm Workers. “All of these things are going to cause more harm disproportionally to the people who are more vulnerable.”

Veronica Mota, 46, has been working in the fields for 20 years, harvesting such produce as blueberries, strawberries, oranges, onions, garlic, almonds and asparagus in the San Joaquin Valley.

The heat is a double-edged sword, she said: Growers shift their schedules earlier to avoid the worst heat of the day, but when it’s too hot, workdays get cut short, reducing paychecks.

Still, she is more concerned about getting heat stroke at work, saying she does not have health insurance.

She says she witnessed a fellow picker last year suffering on a hot day, with what she said she thought were signs of illness from the heat. The co-worker was picked up by an ambulance and recovered.

Oregon this month announced emergency rules mandating that employers provide cool water, adequate shade and rest breaks every two hours when the temperature in work areas, indoors or outdoors, exceeds 90 degrees.

But those rules are temporary, leaving just three states with permanent heat-related rules: Washington, California and Minnesota. And even those are patchy, according to Teni Adewumi-Gunn, a climate change and worker health fellow at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

California, which mandates such protections as providing water, breaks and shade for outdoor workers, has specific provisions for workers in agriculture, construction, landscaping, and oil and gas extraction.

And there is a growing push to establish national heat protection standards.

Legislation introduced in Congress in March would require OSHA to establish similar federal rules to protect workers in extreme heat conditions across the country. The agency is looking at other steps it can take.

“OSHA understands that heat is a growing problem and that workplace exposure to heat is a significant hazard and will become more critical as the impacts of climate change progress over time,” the agency said in a statement. “Climate change isn’t limited to a single job site, industry or geographic area, and the agency is aware of the effects of changing climate and extreme weather patterns on workers.”

OSHA said it is enforcing worker safety violations related to heat issues under its general duty clause, a broad mandate that requires companies to provide safe workplaces.

Marc Freedman, a vice president at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said that the organization wouldn’t have an official position on the regulation until it is drafted but that he was skeptical of what it could mean for business owners.

“It’s very difficult to regulate something like heat exposure,” he said. “We can all say there’s a hazard there, but reducing that to a question of a standard and when an employee is going to be in trouble and what that threshold of exposure is going to be for an employer to protect against is very vexing.”

California’s stringent rules do not apply to workers indoors — such as warehouse employees, whose ranks have grown significantly during the pandemic at companies such as Amazon, among others. (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post).

The heat has become so obtrusive — even during the overnight shift — at an Amazon warehouse in Southern California that at least one worker has started taking migraine pills to work to stave off the inevitable heat-related headaches.

“This summer has been substantially hotter than the last,” said the worker, who spoke on the condition of anonymity out of fear of losing her job. “You see people trying to cool down by fanning themselves with a piece of cardboard. It hits you as soon as you get on the higher floors.”

Maria Boschetti, a spokeswoman for Amazon, said the company monitors building temperatures and has safety teams on each floor to track heat levels.

“In an unprecedented heat wave like this, we’re glad that we installed climate control in our fulfillment centers many years ago,” she said in a statement. “We’re also making sure that everyone has easy access to water and can take time off if they choose to.”

Sage Vinson worked in a warehouse run by a different company in Boise, Idaho, which does not have a heat standard. Inside temperatures routinely topped 100 degrees during the three summers he spent there.

On multiple occasions, he vomited and nearly passed out from the heat. And on the most sweltering days, the green dye from his beard dripped onto his clothes.

“I’d walk into the bathroom and see people passed out on the floor,” the 29-year-old said. “People would be throwing up or get sent home from work — and management would make sure to shame them by telling everybody they couldn’t handle the heat.”

Employees, he said, had to meet strict packaging quotas, even during heat waves.

Those who complained were told to cool off by the toilet, one of two places in the building with air conditioning. (The other was a management office that remained locked, he said.)

He left the $13-an-hour job in December and recently moved to Eugene, Ore., where he works at a cannabis packaging facility that has air conditioning. The job is still physically taxing, he said, but is much more manageable without the extreme heat he dealt with at the last warehouse.

“It was a really gross ‘survival of the fittest,’ ” he said. “I would come home and literally sit on top of the vent for an hour because it felt like my body was falling apart, every single day. I couldn’t move.”

Sage Vinson used to work at a distribution warehouse in Boise, Idaho, that had no heating or cooling. Temperatures frequently reached 100 degrees, and Vinson said many employees would pass out. (Leah Nash for The Washington Post)

The latest heat waves come as the warehouse industry undergoes explosive growth, adding some 100,000 workers a year to keep up with a boom in online shopping. Amazon alone has hired more than 430,000 employees in the past year, expanding its workforce by 51 percent to nearly 1.3 million worldwide.

Since 1992, heat-related complications have killed roughly 900 U.S. workers and sickened tens of thousands, according to federal data. Deaths from the heat rose to an average of about 40 a year between 2015 and 2019, up from about 30 a year the four years prior.

“Heat is not just an inconvenience; it kills people,” said Adewumi-Gunn, adding that researchers believe those figures are likely much higher because of a lack of reporting and inconsistent record-keeping.

Public health experts say the dangers of working in extreme temperatures are often undercounted. In addition to heat stroke, dehydration and exhaustion, long-term exposure to sunlight and heat can lead to skin cancer, eye damage and chronic kidney disease and exacerbate a number of existing conditions, including asthma and diabetes.

A 2018 study of workers in California’s San Joaquin and Imperial valleys by researchers at the University of California at Davis found that workload and pace were also large factors in illnesses when the temperatures were high. The heat and hard work caused 45 percent of the roughly 300 workers to see body temperatures rise to 100.4 degrees or more for at least three minutes during the course of a day in the study.

The United Farm Workers asked 2,176 farmworkers in Washington recently about the heat, finding that 55 percent had experienced at least one symptom associated with a heat illness while at work. A quarter said they did not have enough cool drinking water, and 97 percent said they thought work protections for heat should be improved in the state.

It’s unclear how soon the Biden administration might advance a new policy, and some companies are working on their own measures. Scott Pope, a spokesman for Walmart, which lost the employee in Oregon recently, said the company was “taking preventive measures to help ensure our associates stay healthy and are stressing the importance of heat-related safety in all our facilities.”

“The health and safety of our associates is a critical priority, and the safety policies and protocols we have in place are particularly important in light of record high temperatures across the U.S.,” Pope said.


Senators and Biden Aides Struggle to Save Bipartisan Infrastructure Deal

A looming deadline and a last-minute need for a new revenue source are complicating a deal that was announced nearly a month ago.

By Jim Tankersley and Emily Cochrane
NY Times
July 20, 2021

WASHINGTON — Congressional negotiators and the Biden administration tried on Monday to salvage a nearly $600 billion bipartisan agreement to invest in roads, water pipes and other physical infrastructure, after Republicans rejected a key component to pay for the plan and resisted Democratic plans for an initial procedural vote on Wednesday.

Senators and administration officials are still working to hammer out the details of the deal, including how to ensure that a plan to finance it will secure 60 votes for Senate passage. White House officials expressed confidence on Monday that the agreement could be finalized. But its fate was uncertain.

Mr. Biden is pushing his economic agenda in parts. The bipartisan agreement is meant to be Step 1 — with a much larger, Democratic bill to follow. But weeks after their announcement of a deal, the bipartisan group has not released legislative text or received external confirmation that it is fully financed. A top negotiator said over the weekend that the group jettisoned a key plan included in the deal that would have raised revenue by giving the I.R.S. more power to catch tax cheats.

Republicans have come under pressure to oppose that funding method from conservative anti-tax groups, who say it would empower auditors to harass business owners and political targets. Democrats say the increased enforcement would target large corporations and people who earn more than $400,000 — and note that improved tax enforcement has been a bipartisan goal of administrations dating back decades.

Still, on Monday evening Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the majority leader, set up a procedural vote to begin moving toward debate on the bipartisan deal, even without the text of the plan, on Wednesday. Mr. Schumer said that if senators agreed to consider infrastructure legislation, he would move to bring up either the bipartisan deal, should one materialize this week, or a series of individual infrastructure bills that have been approved on a bipartisan basis by Senate committees.

The plan was an effort to force negotiators to move toward finalizing details and a critical mass of Republicans to commit to advancing the deal, with Democrats eager to advance the legislation before the Senate leaves for its August recess. Mr. Schumer said he had support from the five main Democratic negotiators involved in talks.
“It is not a deadline to determine every final detail of the bill,” he said. A vote of support on Wednesday, he added, would signal that “the Senate is ready to begin debating and amending a bipartisan infrastructure bill.”

On Monday, Mr. Biden pushed for passage of the agreement during remarks at the White House, where he promoted his administration’s economic progress. But administration officials made clear later in the day that their patience for the finalization of the bipartisan agreement was running thin.

“We believe it’s time to move forward with this vote — with congressional action,” Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, said at a news briefing. Asked what the administration’s backup plan was if the plan failed to clear the test vote, Ms. Psaki demurred.

“We’re not quite there yet,” she said. “There is a lot of good work that’s happened. Two days is a lifetime in Washington, so I don’t think we’re going to make predictions of the death of the infrastructure package.”

Republican leaders said they wanted to see legislative text before voting on a deal.

“We need to see the bill before voting to go to it. I think that’s pretty easily understood,” Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader, told reporters on Monday. “I think we need to see the bill before we decide whether or not to vote for it.”

Democrats have argued that negotiators have had nearly a month to iron out the details and that the Senate has previously taken procedural votes without finalized bill text — including when Mr. McConnell led his caucus in a failed attempt to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act in 2017.

The biggest sticking point remains how to pay for the plan. The I.R.S. plan was estimated to bring in more than $100 billion in new tax revenue over a decade.

It is unclear what the group will turn to as a substitute. White House officials and the 10 core Senate negotiators — five Democrats and five Republicans — were working on Monday to find a new revenue source.

Senator Rob Portman, Republican of Ohio and a key negotiator, floated the prospect on Sunday of undoing a Trump-era rule that changes the way drug companies can offer discounts to health plans for Medicare patients as an option. The Congressional Budget Office estimated in 2019 that it would cost $177 billion over 10 years, and the rule has not yet been implemented.

Ms. Psaki told reporters that the administration is “open to alternatives, very open to alternatives from this end.”

“But we’ll let those conversations happen privately and be supportive of them from our end,” she said.

Senators were expected to virtually meet Monday evening as they continued to haggle over the details. The group met for more than two hours Sunday evening.

Mr. Biden continued to push on Monday for legislative action, casting his economic policies, along with vaccination efforts, as a critical driver of accelerating growth. He promised that his remaining agenda items would help Americans work more and earn more money while restraining price increases, pushing back on a critique from Republicans.

Administration officials and Mr. Biden say the Democrats’ $3.5 trillion plan — the larger bill that would follow the bipartisan infrastructure bill — will dampen price pressures by increasing productivity. The president said the proposals would free up Americans to work more through subsidized child care, national paid leave and other measures, as well as improve the efficiency of the economy.

The spending “won’t increase inflation,” Mr. Biden said. “It will take the pressure off inflation.”

He also said he had faith in the independent Federal Reserve and its chair, Jerome H. Powell, to manage the situation. The Fed is responsible for maintaining both price stability and maximum employment.

“As I made clear to Chairman Powell of the Federal Reserve when we met recently, the Fed is independent. It should take whatever steps it deems necessary to support a strong, durable economic recovery,” Mr. Biden said. “But whatever different views some might have on current price increases, we should be united on one thing: passage of the bipartisan infrastructure framework, which we shook hands on — we shook hands on.”

Mr. Biden used more of the speech to push for the $3.5 trillion plan, which Democrats aim to pursue without Republican support through a process known as budget reconciliation, which bypasses a Senate filibuster.

In describing the varied social and environmental initiatives he hopes to include in the plan, the president repeatedly stressed the need for government action as a means to raising living standards and creating jobs.

That plan contains the bulk of Mr. Biden’s $4 trillion economic agenda that is not included in the bipartisan bill, like expanding educational access, building more affordable and energy-efficient housing, incentivizing low-carbon energy through tax credits and a wide range of other social programs meant to invest in workers.

Republicans have also amplified concerns about inflation since Democrats pushed through a $1.9 trillion pandemic relief bill in March. In a letter to his conference this week, Representative Kevin McCarthy of California, the Republican leader, said that “prices on everything from gas to groceries are skyrocketing,” and he vowed that “we will continue to hold Democrats to account for their reckless handling of the economy.”

Mr. Biden’s economic team has said repeatedly that inflation increases are largely a product of the pandemic and will fade in the months or years to come.

Mr. Biden dismissed a question from a reporter after the speech about the potential for unchecked inflation, which he said no serious economist foresaw.


Mask mandates make a return — along with controversy

A growing number of experts call for a resumption of measures, citing hyper-transmissable delta variant

By Dan Diamond
WA Post
July 20, 2021
Two months after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said vaccinated individuals didn’t need to wear masks in most settings, a growing number of experts are warning it’s time to put them back on.

First, there was Los Angeles County, where the rising menace posed by the delta variant of the coronavirus prompted health officials to reimpose a mask mandate. Then, Bay Area health officers on Friday recommended that residents of seven counties and the city of Berkeley, Calif., resume wearing masks indoors. Mask mandates are being discussed, too, in coronavirus hot spots such as Arkansas and Missouri, where cases have sharply increased in recent weeks and many residents remain unvaccinated.

“Universal masking indoors is a way of taking care of each other while we get more people vaccinated,” said Barbara Ferrer, director of the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health, which last week moved to reinstate an indoor mask mandate. “It really doesn’t disrupt any business practices. It allows us to remain fully open — while we acknowledge that the delta variant [is] spreading like wildfire here.”

And the nation’s current and former surgeon generals warned the nation should brace for a broader return to mask-wearing.

“We need to prepare the public for what could be, again, a return to some of these mitigation measures,” former surgeon general Jerome Adams told Indianapolis TV station WISH-TV on Sunday, highlighting a resurgence of the virus across the Midwest. Adams, an appointee of former president Donald Trump, called on the CDC to “hit the reset button” and once again recommend widespread mask-wearing as coronavirus cases spike.

But the growing calls to reinstate mask mandates — echoed by the American Academy of Pediatrics, which Monday called for everyone over the age of 2 to wear masks, regardless of vaccination status — renewed a cultural and health flash point a year and a half after the virus landed in the United States.

“We need to be reopening our state, not reimposing unnecessary restrictions,” Kevin Faulconer, the Republican former San Diego mayor now running for California governor, wrote on Twitter last week. The Los Angeles County sheriff last week said he would refuse to enforce the local masking mandate, and Republicans nationally took aim at existing protections.

“In a free [country] people will evaluate their personal risk factors and are smart enough to ultimately make medical decisions like wearing a mask themselves,” Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) said in a statement last week, introducing legislation that would ban mask mandates on planes and public transportation.

The daily average of confirmed U.S. coronavirus cases has nearly tripled in the past month, from fewer than 12,000 on June 19 to almost 35,000 on Monday, according to The Washington Post’s seven-day average of coronavirus cases. Experts on coronavirus transmission say masks remain a crucial tool to protect tens of millions of unvaccinated Americans — and even vaccinated people, with growing evidence of breakthrough infections in some fully immunized adults, although health officials have said most people who have died or been hospitalized with covid-19 in recent weeks were unvaccinated.

“The best protection everybody has is masks,” said Kimberly Prather, a professor at the University of California at San Diego who has studied airborne virus transmission and said she “absolutely” supports the resumption of indoor mask mandates. Prather said she has also grown wary of going without a mask in some settings outside, warning that the delta variant is hyper-transmissable.

“While delta numbers are going up — and if I’m in a crowded outdoor location with lots of people yelling — I would be wearing a mask,” Prather said.

But many Americans say they have stopped wearing face coverings, and experts acknowledge it will be difficult to persuade them to resume.

“I think people will be disappointed that folks were having some hope and seeing the light at the end of the tunnel — and this would be a suggestion that we’re taking a step back,” said Marcus Plescia, chief medical officer at the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials.

Just 55 percent of respondents to an Axios/Ipsos poll in late June said they were wearing masks “sometimes” or “at all times” in public, down from 68 percent who said the same in early June and nearly 90 percent in February, March and early April.

Plescia said he supports the resumption of local mask mandates, given the rise in cases and the growing evidence about the threat of the delta variant.

“You know, recovery from just about anything comes in cycles — things get better, and they get worse, and they get better, and they get worse. It’s rare that it’s linear. And I think that’s what’s going on here,” Plescia said.

Some physicians who embraced mask mandates last year said they’re concerned the moment has passed.

Former Louisiana health commissioner Rebekah Gee, who is CEO of Health Care Services for LSU Health, wrote last year that she favored the use of mask mandates to protect public health. But “at this point, I’m not convinced that requiring masks in every aspect of society is effective,” Gee said Monday, warning that many Americans had tuned out public health officials’ calls to wear masks and take other steps to guard against the coronavirus.

Gee instead said she favors targeted mask requirements, such as mandating use in close quarters or when interacting with vulnerable populations such as children younger than 12, who have yet to get vaccinated. Gee also said she supports private-sector requirements for masks.

“The point now is how do you save lives and get people on the team of science, the team of truth?” Gee said. “Forcing people to do things is not the best way to get them to agree with you.”

The CDC on May 13 initially moved to relax its mask guidance, saying vaccinated Americans could go without masks in many cases. Federal officials also suggested the move would provide an incentive for unvaccinated Americans to get immunized.

But the CDC’s recommendation did not appear to spur a rise in vaccinations.

In a Kaiser Family Foundation survey of unvaccinated Americans following the CDC’s recommendation, 85 percent of respondents said the agency’s new guidance did not affect their decision on vaccination. The pace of vaccinations has steadily declined from about 2 million shots per day in mid-May to fewer than 550,000 shots a day. Health officials’ goal of ensuring that at least 70 percent of adults receive one shot of a vaccine, which President Biden initially targeted for July 4, is unlikely to be reached before Aug. 10, according to The Post’s projections.

Federal officials have defended the CDC’s earlier decision on mask-wearing. In a Washington Post Live interview Monday, National Institutes of Health Director Francis S. Collins said the CDC’s recommendations for fully vaccinated people to remove their masks were issued before the delta variant began broadly circulating — and before it was clear how much vaccine hesitancy would exist in some parts of the country.

“I know people are tired of masks, but it’s not so awful to consider having to put a cloth mask on your face when you’re inside if it’s going to potentially stop what is, right now, looking like a pretty significant surge of infections, especially in places where vaccination rates are low,” Collins said.

Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy said the federal government supports local mask mandates in places where cases are surging or many residents are unvaccinated.

“It’s very reasonable for counties to take more mitigation measures, like the mask rules that you see coming out in L.A.,” Murthy said Sunday on ABC News’s “This Week.” “I anticipate that will happen in other parts of the country, too.”

The latest debate over masks comes after months of battle over their benefits, including a now-retracted study in JAMA Pediatrics that claimed masks could harm children by forcing them to breathe high carbon dioxide levels. The study was retracted Friday amid “numerous scientific issues,” the journal’s editors wrote.

“The science is settled that masks do work, though mask performance can vary widely,” said Linsey Marr, a Virginia Tech engineer who has studied airborne-disease transmission. “The kind of studies that are trying to just debunk masks, so far they’ve all been shown to be completely flawed.”

Meanwhile, society continues to steadily reopen, as businesses and entertainment venues increasingly welcome back customers. The Transportation Security Administration said it tracked 2.23 million travelers through its checkpoints Sunday, the highest number of travelers since the onset of the pandemic last year, and movie theater chains have reported millions of patrons this month after a year when cinemas often sat empty.

The highest-rated television program in recent weeks has been the National Basketball Association Finals, featuring thousands of often mask-free fans crowding indoor arenas in Phoenix and Milwaukee to cheer on the teams — a visual that induced complicated emotions in at least one expert.

“I cringe every time I see it,” said Shad Marvasti, a family medicine physician and director of Public Health and Prevention at the University of Arizona College of Medicine at Phoenix, who added he’s rooting for Phoenix to win the NBA Finals — but wishes fans were required to wear masks. “You can’t leave this one to the honor system. It just doesn’t work that way.”


In this summer of covid freedom, disease experts warn: ‘The world needs a reality check’

By Joel Achenbach
July 20, 2021

Maria Van Kerkhove, a World Health Organization epidemiologist, was in her Geneva office last weekend preparing for a keynote address when a simple phrase came to mind. She had been pondering the dismaying rise in coronavirus infections globally during the previous three weeks, a reversal of promising trends in late spring. The surge came as people across much of the Northern Hemisphere were moving around again in a suddenly freewheeling summer — as if the pandemic were over.

She wrote in her notebook: “The world needs a reality check.”

Van Kerkhove’s subsequent comments on Twitter pointing out the lack of social distancing drew predictable flak from the social media trolls, something she has gotten used to in the past year and a half. But she is not an outlier. Around the world, scientists and public health officials fear that the world’s protracted battle against the coronavirus is at a delicate and dangerous moment.

Reality checks abound. Coronavirus infections are surging in places with low vaccination rates. SARS-CoV-2 is continuing to mutate. Researchers have confirmed the delta variant is far more transmissible than earlier strains. Although the vaccines remain remarkably effective, the virus has bountiful opportunities to find new ways to evade immunity. Most of the world remains unvaccinated.

And so the end of the pandemic remains somewhere over the horizon.

“We’re getting further away from the end than we should be. We’re in a bad place right now globally,” Van Kerkhove said.

Similarly dismayed is Francis S. Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health. Last summer, he watched cases in the United States spike, particularly in the Sun Belt, after what he felt was a premature end to spring restrictions. This summer, he is not surprised by the rise in infections across a country where many people haven’t gotten their shots and have returned to pre-pandemic behavior.

“It’s like we’ve been to this movie several times in the last year and a half, and it doesn’t end well. Somehow, we’re running the tape again. It’s all predictable,” Collins said.

Coronavirus infections in the United States rose nearly 70 percent in a single week, officials reported Friday, and hospitalizations and deaths rose 36 percent and 26 percent, respectively. Almost every state has experienced a rise in cases. Florida, populous and not highly vaccinated, is seeing a surge in cases. In hot spots such as Arkansas and Missouri, covid wards are opening up again in hospitals.

Los Angeles County this past week announced that it had to reinstate indoor mask requirements for everyone, regardless of vaccination status. Breakthrough infections among vaccinated people provide another reality check. Thursday night’s prime-time baseball game between the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox was canceled when six Yankees players — most of them vaccinated — tested positive for the virus.

Many breakthrough infections will produce no symptoms. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention decided in May to track only breakthrough infections leading to hospitalization.

The vaccines, though marvels of basic and applied science, do not form an impenetrable shield against SARS-CoV-2. They work as advertised, meaning they usually prevent severe illness and death, but they do not deliver what is known as “sterilizing immunity.”

The CDC issued a statement Friday saying the agency has multiple programs, working with state and local partners, to track vaccine effectiveness.

“COVID-19 vaccines are effective and are a critical tool to help bring the pandemic under control. However, no vaccines are 100% effective at preventing illness in vaccinated people. There will be a small percentage of fully vaccinated people who still get sick, are hospitalized, or die from COVID-19. As with other vaccines, this is expected. As the number of people who are vaccinated goes up, the number of breakthrough cases is also expected to increase,” the CDC said.

The next reality check comes from the virus itself. The delta variant has mutations that significantly enhance transmissibility, and it is responsible for a majority of new infections in the United States as it outcompetes other strains. Mutations in the virus are inevitable and complicate forecasts of how the pandemic will play out. The world is in the midst of a global experiment in which a single virus is turning into a full Greek alphabet of distinct strains, each with its own suite of mutations.

“They’re evolving. Even the delta variant, we have two sublineages we are monitoring,” Van Kerkhove said. “Everyone is fixated on the delta, but we should be prepared for more.”

Amid these concerns are positive signs of long-term progress against covid-19, the illness caused by the virus. That’s a reality check on the positive side of the ledger. This isn’t 2020. The increase in hospitalizations has been less dramatic than the increase in reported infections. That’s because the vaccines — a tool the world lacked a year ago — usually prevent severe illness.

“The game changer is if and when we see large numbers of vaccinated individuals returning to hospitals. But we are not seeing that,” said David Rubin, director of PolicyLab at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.

This hints at how the pandemic may eventually play out: The virus would become endemic. It would not be eradicated — and would still cause occasional clusters of infection — but it would not ignite runaway outbreaks nor be nearly as lethal as when it emerged into the human population. That drop in lethality will be driven less by changes in the virus itself than by the changed immunological landscape.

For people with at least partial immunity, covid-19 could become more like influenza or even a cold, which are caused by viruses that are at least somewhat familiar to our immune systems. Four other coronaviruses are endemic in humans and are responsible for a significant fraction of colds.

This scenario — call it Scenario A — has been the general assumption or hope of many infectious-disease experts since the start of the pandemic. The dialing down of the lethality of the disease would be an example of history repeating itself: The 1918 influenza pandemic was caused by a virus that never vanished, but instead became the cause of the seasonal flu.

SARS-CoV-2 and covid-19 are often referred to as if they were interchangeable. But the trajectory of the virus increasingly is distinct from the trajectory of the disease. As time goes on, more people will have immunity from a previous natural infection or from vaccination, and SARS-CoV-2 will pose less of a threat to them than it will to people unvaccinated or never previously infected.

“We’re really teasing apart SARS-CoV-2 the virus from covid-19, the disease,” said Jennie Lavine, an Emory University researcher and lead author of a paper in Science earlier this year showing how the virus may become endemic. There won’t be a single moment when the virus becomes endemic, she said. It will happen gradually, as the virus loses its virulence. In Scenario A, the pandemic as we know it comes to an end.

“That’s not saying you won’t get infected again, it’s saying that you won’t get really sick from it,” she said.

Janis Orlowski, chief health-care officer of the Association of American Medical Colleges, offers one version of Scenario B: “Delta goes on to epsilon which goes on to lambda, and that becomes another ugly virus.?.?.?. The virus mutates to a strain that we are not effectively vaccinated against — and that leads us into another ugly year.”

(For the record: There already is an epsilon and a lambda.)

Orlowski adds, “I think Scenario B is less likely, but is still a concern because we are not vaccinated at the rate we should be.”

New scientific research, including two reports highlighted by Collins on his NIH blog, indicates that important elements of immunity appear to remain durable against the virus even when antibodies begin to wane. And although Pfizer-BioNTech — the companies behind one of the three authorized vaccines in the United States — put the idea of boosters into play with a recent news release saying people may need them six to 12 months after being fully vaccinated, many experts, including Collins, regarded the announcement as premature.

Some people who are immunocompromised — for example, from taking powerful drugs to reduce chances of organ rejection after undergoing a transplant — may need another vaccine dose in the near term, especially if tests show they have not mounted any immune response to the vaccines. But Collins doesn’t consider that a “booster” so much as another attempt to get people to the initial stage of immunity.

The bigger question for public health officials is whether they can persuade millions more people to get jabbed in the arm for the first time. Roughly one-third of adults in the United States remain unvaccinated. Vaccine uptake is lowest among younger age groups that are also at lower risk of severe illness from covid-19, but they represent a growing percentage of cases in hospitals.

Misinformation has run rampant. The vaccines are not, contrary to one rumor, “gene therapy.” They do not implant microchips. They are not part of a plot. And although they can cause side-effects — and on rare occasions, dangerous ones — the vaccines have passed rigorous safety reviews.

Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy released a report Thursday decrying the epidemic of misinformation. On Friday, he called out “technology companies” that he said enabled misinformation “to poison our information environment with little accountability to their users.” President Biden doubled down on that Friday as he boarded the Marine One helicopter for a trip to Camp David: “They’re killing people,” he said of the social media platforms that spread misinformation.

Even if, through vaccination and prudent behavior, the virus is brought under control, the rattling psychological effects of the pandemic could persist.

As Lavine points out, people have been told repeatedly for a year and a half that this virus is a potential killer. For many of those people, it will be difficult to let go of covid-19 fears. The many unknowns about covid-19 will make risk tolerance calculations difficult. This remains a new virus and a new disease, and scientists and doctors are still trying to understand what they’re looking at.

“Nobody has had covid for 10 years. So there’s an unknown factor, and that is going to make it scary for a while because people are scared of the unknown,” said David W. Dowdy, an epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
People eager to celebrate watched July Fourth fireworks cascade over the Las Vegas Strip. (John Locher/AP)

Meanwhile, many people are not scared at all, don’t feel vulnerable, or simply are done — done, done, done — with the pandemic. Van Kerkhove, the WHO epidemiologist, was upset last Sunday at the sight of unmasked people across Europe crowding into bars to watch the European championship soccer match between Italy and England.

“It’s really disheartening, and it’s really devastating to see situations where we can facilitate spread,” she said. “I want to go to those football matches, too. I want to go to the bar and have a drink. I want to go out to dinner.”

But she’s not ready. She knows too much.

“The situation globally is so dynamic, it’s so uncertain, and is so fragile,” she said.


Opinion: Biden’s child tax credit should be obvious. Yet the result is revolutionary

Opinion by Christine Emba
WA Post
July 20, 2021

Last Thursday, the Biden administration’s expanded child tax credit went into effect. Most parents in the United States will begin to receive monthly checks of up to $300 per child, for a total of up to $3,600 per child per year under the age of 6 or $3,000 for children ages 6 to 17. The White House estimates that $15 billion in payments have already been sent out to the families of nearly 60 million children.

This policy is a revolutionary shift in how government aid is disbursed: It’s all cash, in most cases goes directly into people’s bank accounts and comes with no strings attached. If it reaches all the families it’s supposed to, the plan will cut child poverty by 45 percent, according to analysts at Columbia University’s Center on Poverty and Social Policy, and translate into major improvements in nutrition, educational achievement and mental health. It is long overdue.

It’s almost too obvious to point out that the best way to lower poverty is to give money to people who need it. But in an America with a raging skepticism of government, a policy like this takes finesse to sell and some real magic to maintain. The Biden administration clearly understands the curious psychology some Americans have about entitlements: Some people who benefit from them often resent their existence. The White House should build on those insights and push for more.

The first smart move was universalizing the benefit. One of the reasons Social Security and Medicare remain so popular is that Americans don’t consider either “welfare,” relief sent to the needy at others’ expense. The child credit is designed to work the same way: The poorest Americans are eligible, but so is most of the middle class. It’s a strategy that produces buy-in up and down the income ladder.

The second smart move? Taking credit. President Biden is literally putting his name on this benefit. American families all received a letter announcing the new policy, addressed to “My fellow American” and signed by the president. For once, Biden has behaved more like his self-aggrandizing predecessor than his former partner, President Barack Obama, who in 2009 buried what could have been a politically beneficial $116 billion tax cut by implementing it through an obscure decrease in payroll tax withholding.

The thing is, President Donald Trump was on to something. A lack of modesty sometimes builds goodwill and reminds people of something basic: The government is helping you! In this case, so are Democrats! (The fact that zero Republicans voted for the relief bill that included the new money goes too often unmentioned.)

And finally, this benefit is for the kids. That’s an indispensable step in selling it to lawmakers and voters. Kids are costly and come with all sorts of unexpected needs, and giving parents money for such things lifts a lot of boats. It is not surprising that more cities and states are moving in that direction. But for years, doing so without demanding work alongside the cash has been seen as a road to dependence, grift and ruin. You can’t accuse children of that! In a country that professes to love its kids (even if the evidence remains mixed), they’re the perfect shield for a radical policy change.

Plus, though the new expanded child tax credit is set to expire at the end of 2021, it makes its own case for renewal. After this year is out, Democrats will ask: “Do you want to plunge all of those children we helped back into poverty?” Conservatives especially talk a big game about caring for children. They should get held to it.

The expanded child tax credit isn’t perfect. It is underpublicized, and it’s likely that a good number of beneficiaries aren’t aware of its availability. As recently as June 1, more than half of likely voters knew little or nothing about the upcoming credit, according to polling by Data for Progress.

And our government’s steam-powered technology makes getting the benefit harder. If families filed their taxes in 2020, they’re already getting their checks in the mail or through direct deposit. But if they didn’t (as is the case for many of the poorest families, who had minimal taxable income), they must apply through the Internal Revenue Service’s creaky “non-filer portal.” And that website is available only in English, does not work on cellphones and is the opposite of intuitive — all significant obstacles, especially for those who could use the benefit most. Some estimates suggest the digital shortcomings of the IRS — an agency kept on a strict gruel-and-water budget by Republicans for years — mean that 90 percent of children whose parents don’t regularly file taxes may not be set up to receive their benefits. Memo to the White House: Get this fixed.

There were sure to be fumbles in a rollout of this size, but the expanded child tax credit is a watershed movement in how we think about helping others — and a template for effective anti-poverty policy in the future. “You’ve come a long way, baby,” the slogan for a very different product once boasted. If the Biden administration continues to play things wisely, it has the chance to go even further.


Republicans Have Their Own Private Autocracy

By Paul Krugman
Opinion Columnist
NY Times

I’m a huge believer in the usefulness of social science, especially studies that use comparisons across time and space to shed light on our current situation. So when the political scientist Henry Farrell suggested that I look at his field’s literature on cults of personality, I followed his advice. He recommended one paper in particular, by the New Zealand-based researcher Xavier Márquez; I found it revelatory.

“The Mechanisms of Cult Production” compares the behavior of political elites across a wide range of dictatorial regimes, from Caligula’s Rome to the Kim family’s North Korea, and finds striking similarities. Despite vast differences in culture and material circumstances, elites in all such regimes engage in pretty much the same behavior, especially what the paper dubs “loyalty signaling” and “flattery inflation.”

Signaling is a concept originally drawn from economics; it says that people sometimes engage in costly, seemingly pointless behavior as a way to prove that they have attributes others value. For example, new hires at investment banks may work insanely long hours, not because the extra hours are actually productive, but to demonstrate their commitment to feeding the money machine.

In the context of dictatorial regimes, signaling typically involves making absurd claims on behalf of the Leader and his agenda, often including “nauseating displays of loyalty.” If the claims are obvious nonsense and destructive in their effects, if making those claims humiliates the person who makes them, these are features, not bugs. I mean, how does the Leader know if you’re truly loyal unless you’re willing to demonstrate your loyalty by inflicting harm both on others and on your own reputation?

And once this kind of signaling becomes the norm, those trying to prove their loyalty have to go to ever greater extremes to differentiate themselves from the pack. Hence “flattery inflation”: The Leader isn’t just brave and wise, he’s a perfect physical specimen, a brilliant health expert, a Nobel-level economic analyst, and more. The fact that he’s obviously none of these things only enhances the effectiveness of the flattery as a demonstration of loyalty.

Does all of this sound familiar? Of course it does, at least to anyone who has been tracking Fox News or the utterances of political figures like Lindsey Graham or Kevin McCarthy.

Many people, myself included, have declared for years that the G.O.P. is no longer a normal political party. It doesn’t look anything like, say, Dwight Eisenhower’s Republican Party or Germany’s Christian Democrats. But it bears a growing resemblance to the ruling parties of autocratic regimes.

The only unusual thing about the G.O.P.’s wholesale adoption of the Leader Principle is that the party doesn’t have a monopoly on power; in fact, it controls neither Congress nor the White House. Politicians suspected of insufficient loyalty to Donald Trump and Trumpism in general aren’t sent to the gulag. At most, they stand to lose intraparty offices and, possibly, future primaries. Yet such is the timidity of Republican politicians that these mild threats are apparently enough to make many of them behave like Caligula’s courtiers.

Unfortunately, all this loyalty signaling is putting the whole nation at risk. In fact, it will almost surely kill large numbers of Americans in the next few months.

The stalling of America’s initially successful vaccination drive isn’t entirely driven by partisanship — some people, especially members of minority groups, are failing to get vaccinated for reasons having little to do with current politics.

But politics is nonetheless clearly a key factor: Republican politicians and Republican-oriented influencers have driven much of the opposition to Covid-19 vaccines, in some cases engaging in what amounts to outright sabotage. And there is a stunning negative correlation between Trump’s share of a county’s vote in 2020 and its current vaccination rate.

How did lifesaving vaccines become politicized? As Bloomberg’s Jonathan Bernstein suggests, today’s Republicans are always looking for ways to show that they’re more committed to the cause than their colleagues are — and given how far down the rabbit hole the party has already gone, the only way to do that is “nonsense and nihilism,” advocating crazy and destructive policies, like opposing vaccines.

That is, hostility to vaccines has become a form of loyalty signaling.

None of this should be taken to imply that Republicans are the root of all evil or that their opponents are saints; Democrats are by no means immune to the power of special interests or the lure of the revolving door.

But the G.O.P. has become something different, with, as far as I know, no precedent in American history although with many precedents abroad. Republicans have created for themselves a political realm in which costly demonstrations of loyalty transcend considerations of good policy or even basic logic. And all of us may pay the price.


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« Reply #11 on: Jul 21, 2021, 01:56 AM »

New AI training approach could finally allow computers to have imaginations

Just you wait until we figure out how to code ADHD.

Alexandru Micu   
July 21, 2021

Researchers at the University of Southern California (USC) are trying to teach a computer not how to love, but how to imagine.

People generally don’t have any issue imagining things. We’re pretty good at starting from scratch, and we’re even better at using our experience to imagine completely new things. For example, all of you reading this could probably imagine the Great Wall of China but made from spaghetti and meatballs, or a cat in a pirate hat.

Computers, however, are notoriously bad at this. It’s not their fault, we’ve built them to be fast, accurate, and precise, not to waste their time daydreaming; that’s our job. But giving computers the ability to imagine — to envision an object with different attributes, or to create concepts from scratch — could definitely be useful. Although machine learning experts have dealt with this issue up to now, we’ve made precious little progress.

However, a new AI developed at the USC mimics the same processes that our brains use to fuel our imagination, being able to create entirely new objects with a wide range of attributes.
Creative computing

    “We were inspired by human visual generalization capabilities to try to simulate human imagination in machines,” said lead author Yunhao Ge, a computer science PhD student working under the supervision of Laurent Itti, a computer science professor.

    “Humans can separate their learned knowledge by attributes — for instance, shape, pose, position, color — and then recombine them to imagine a new object. Our paper attempts to simulate this process using neural networks.”

In other words, as humans, it’s easy to envision an object with different attributes. But, despite advances in deep neural networks that match or surpass human performance in certain tasks, computers still struggle with the very human skill of “imagination.”

One of the largest hurdles we’ve faced in teaching computers how to imagine is that, generally speaking, they’re quite limited in what they recognize.

Let’s say we want to make an AI that can design buildings. We train such systems today by feeding them a lot of data. In our case, this would be a bunch of pictures of buildings. By looking at them, the theory goes, the AI can understand what makes a building a building, and the proper way to design one. In other words, it understands its attributes, which can then be replicated or checked against. With these in hand, it should be able to extrapolate — create virtually endless examples of new buildings.

The issue is that our AIs are still trained to understand features for the most part, not attributes. This means stuff like certain patterns of pixel layouts, which words a certain word is most likely to be encountered after. A simple but imperfect way to describe this is that a properly-trained AI today can recognize a building as a building, but it has no idea what a building actually is, what it’s used for, or how. It can check if a picture looks like a picture of a wall, and that’s about it. For our practical purposes today, this type of training is sufficient.

Still, in order to push beyond this point, the team used a process called disentanglement. This is the sort of process is used to create deepfakes, for example, by ‘disentangling’ or separating a person’s face movements and identity. Using this process, one person’s appearance can be replaced with another’s, while maintaining the former’s movements and speech.

The team took groups of sample images and fed them into the AI, instead of using one picture at a time as traditional training approaches do. They then tasked the program with identifying the similarities between them, a step called “controllable disentangled representation learning”. Information gleaned here was them recombined in a “controllable novel image synthesis,” which is programmer speak for ‘imagining things’.

It’s still much more crude than what we’re able to do using our brains, but as far as the mechanisms that underpin them, the processes aren’t very different at all.

    “For instance, take the Transformer movie as an example” said Ge. “It can take the shape of Megatron car, the color and pose of a yellow Bumblebee car, and the background of New York’s Times Square. The result will be a Bumblebee-colored Megatron car driving in Times Square, even if this sample was not witnessed during the training session.”

The AI generated a dataset of 1.56 million images from the data used to train it, the team adds.

Artificial imagination would be a huge boon especially in research, for example in efforts to discover new drugs. We often get the idea from movies that once a computer becomes smart enough, it can take over the world and the human race effortlessly. Definitely thrilling stuff. But the fact of the matter remains that all the processing power in the world won’t be able to devise new medicine, for example, without the ability to first imagine something. The processing power can check (with the right code) how some molecules interact. But in order to do that, you have to first think of interacting those molecules — and that’s handled by imagination.

    “Deep learning has already demonstrated unsurpassed performance and promise in many domains, but all too often this has happened through shallow mimicry, and without a deeper understanding of the separate attributes that make each object unique,” said Itti,

    “This new disentanglement approach, for the first time, truly unleashes a new sense of imagination in A.I. systems, bringing them closer to humans’ understanding of the world.”


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« Reply #12 on: Jul 21, 2021, 01:59 AM »
John Kerry: world leaders must step up to avoid worst impacts of climate crisis

US envoy uses landmark speech in London to make impassioned plea for unified global effort

Fiona Harvey Environment correspondent
21 Jul 2021 15.00 BST

The world still has a chance of staving off the worst impacts of climate breakdown but only if governments step up in the next few months with stronger commitments on cutting greenhouse gas emissions, the US envoy for climate change has said.

John Kerry, appointed by Joe Biden to spearhead the US’s international efforts to tackle the crisis, urged all large economies to come forward with new plans to cut emissions before the Cop26 UN climate talks in Glasgow this November.

“The climate crisis is the test of our own times and, while it may be unfolding in slow motion to some, this test is as acute and as existential as any previous one. Time is running out,” he said.

He called Cop26 “a pivotal moment” and 2021 “a decisive year”, as the world must get to grips with the climate crisis and rapidly slash emissions in the 2020s to have a chance of a safe future.

Speaking as floods have devastated parts of Europe and heatwaves and wildfires swept North America, Kerry drew a parallel between the ruins of Europe after the second world war and the ravages of the climate crisis.

“The world order that exists today didn’t just emerge on a whim. It was built by leaders and nations determined to makes sure that never – never – again would we come so close to the edge of the abyss,” he said.

Kerry said his earliest memory, aged four, was of the ruined skeleton of a burned-out building in Europe, where he had been taken by his mother, who fled the Nazis. “That journey has always given me the bedrock confidence that we can solve humanity’s biggest threats together.”

Staying within 1.5C of global heating, the aspirational goal of the 2015 Paris climate agreement, was still possible, he insisted.

“There is still time to put a safer 1.5C future back within reach. But only if every major economy commits to meaningful absolute reductions in emissions by 2030. That is the only way to put the world on a credible track to global net zero by mid-century,” he said.

The Paris agreement targets an upper limit of holding global temperature rises to well below 2C above pre-industrial levels, with an aspirational lower limit of 1.5C.

Kerry made it clear that the Cop26 summit must aim for the lower threshold, and warned that current government pledges on emission cuts would lead to 2.5C or 3C rises.

“We’re already seeing dramatic consequences with 1.2C of warming. To contemplate doubling that is to invite catastrophe,” he said.

Kerry used his landmark speech at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, in London, with just over 100 days to go before Cop26, to make an impassioned plea for a unified global effort. “We can’t afford a world so divided in its response to climate change when the evidence for compelling action is so strong.”

He singled out China, the world’s biggest emitter and second largest economy, which has yet to submit to the UN a national plan for emissions cuts before 2030. “It’s imperative that we and China, and the rest of the world, are pulling in the same direction on this critical effort,” he said.

Kerry told the Guardian in an interview after his speech that he was hopeful China would realise the need to act quickly. “When China has set targets before, it has outperformed them, so that is very hopeful,” he said.

But he made it clear he also had other countries in his sights. He said the US was working with “allies, partners, competitors and even adversaries all too aware that some things happening today threaten to erase the very progress so many are struggling to advance”.

UN climate summits proceed by consensus so recalcitrant counties can thwart agreement. For Cop26 to be a success, countries such as Russia, Brazil and Saudi Arabia will need to acquiesce at least – Kerry’s remarks will be seen as warning them not to disrupt the process.

Climate experts and campaigners told the Guardian the US was still lagging behind in providing finance for poor countries, to help them cut emissions and cope with the impacts of extreme weather. Rich countries promised a decade ago to provide at least $100bn a year in climate finance by 2020, a pledge that has not been met.

“The US is not pulling its weight – it’s the only country holding up the $100bn pledge,” said John Sauven, executive director of Greenpeace UK. “If the US does not put its hands in its pockets and make up the shortfall, Glasgow will be in jeopardy.”

Kerry told the Guardian in response that the Biden administration was “working hard” on finding more financial assistance for poor countries. “It’s very important that the US should provide finance. Our internal process on this is not complete yet.”

He added: “We are very conscious of the sensitivities around this. The US obviously plays a key role, and our absence in the last four years [from climate action] heightens that sense of responsibility and the imperative to find a way.”

Ed Miliband, the shadow business secretary, who was at the speech – which no government ministers attended – said Kerry had shown the US was determined to lead the way on climate action. “He made it clear he is focused on 1.5C – and he’s absolutely right, that’s ambitious but essential,” he said.

Kerry also called on governments to invest in clean energy, holding out the prospect of a clean energy boom worth $4tn a year by 2030, and said new technologies such as hydrogen and carbon capture and storage would also be needed.


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« Reply #13 on: Jul 21, 2021, 02:02 AM »
Biden to Restore Protections for Tongass National Forest in Alaska

Former President Donald J. Trump invited mining and logging to a vast wilderness of bald eagles, black bears and 800-year-old trees. President Biden is reversing course.

By Coral Davenport
NY Times
July 21, 2021

WASHINGTON — The Biden administration is moving to restore full environmental protections for Tongass National Forest in Alaska, reversing an attempt by former President Donald J. Trump to introduce logging and mining in pristine sections of one of the world’s largest intact temperate rain forests.

The move, announced Thursday by the Agriculture Department, comes a month after the administration gave notice it would “repeal or replace” a rule promulgated under Mr. Trump to open about nine million acres, or more than half of the forest, to development. That rule had stripped away protections that had been in place since 2001.

The Biden administration’s Tongass strategy includes a new safeguard: an end to large scale logging of old growth timber across the forest’s entire 16 million acres.

Alaskan lawmakers hoped that the administration might restore protections to some parts of the fragile forest but leave a portion open to logging and other activities.

But in a statement Thursday morning, the Agriculture Department, which houses the United States Forest Service, wrote that it is restoring the full protections to return “stability and certainty” to the fragile forest.

The vast wilderness, in southeastern Alaska, is home to more than 400 species of wildlife, fish and shellfish, including nesting bald eagles, moose and the world’s greatest concentration of black bears. Tucked between its snowy peaks, fjords and rushing rivers are stands of red and yellow cedar and Western hemlock, as well as Sitka spruce trees that are at least 800 years old.

The Biden administration’s Tongass plan also includes $25 million in federal spending on local sustainable development in Alaska, for projects to improve the health of the forest.

That money appears designed in part to appease Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski, of Alaska, who is now playing a key role in negotiating the bipartisan $579 billion infrastructure bill that President Biden sees as crucial to his economic agenda. She had personally asked senior administration officials to leave open portions of the Tongass for economic development.

“Obviously, my strong, strong preference has been, for an exemption, that this roadless rule should not be for the whole nine million acres,” Ms. Murkowski said in an interview last month. “We feel like we’re kind of beating our heads against the wall from the policy perspective, from the people that live there in these small communities that are trying to figure out what their economic opportunities might be.”

Alaska’s other Senator, Dan Sullivan, also a Republican, called the $25 million “a pay-off for killing sustained economic development opportunities in Southeast” by “further starving our timber industry of supply.”

Mr. Biden is seeking to enact the most ambitious climate agenda envisioned by an American president. As record drought, wildfires and heat waves hobble Western states, Mr. Biden is aiming to revive and strengthen protections rolled back by Mr. Trump and cut the pollution that is driving climate change.

This fall, Mr. Biden plans to attend a United Nations conference of world leaders in Scotland to argue that after four years in which the American president mocked climate science, the United States is a leader in the fight against global warming.

Environmentalists said the move to fully restore protections to the Tongass could be one step in making that case.

“This is the Biden administration putting itself squarely on the road to reclaiming climate leadership, as it heads to the Glasgow summit this fall,” said Niel Lawrence, Alaska director of the Natural Resources Defense Council, an advocacy group.

The forest plays an important role in protecting the climate. Scientists point out that the Tongass benefits billions of people across the planet who are unlikely to ever set foot there: It is one of the world’s largest carbon sinks, storing the equivalent of about 8 percent of the carbon stored in all the forests of the lower 48 states combined.

Much of that carbon is locked away in five million acres of old-growth trees, spread across the forest. Many of those trees have been absorbing atmospheric carbon for more than 1,000 years.

For that reason, scientists also praised the administration’s new move to end large scale logging of old-growth timber in the Tongass, even in sections that are not subject to the new protections limiting road construction and other development.

“Under the Trump plan to log that old-growth forest, we would have been emitting the carbon equivalent of putting 50,000 new vehicles on the road per year,” said Dominick DellaSala, a scientist with the Earth Island Institute, a nonprofit environmental organization. “So now the forest is doing its best role, which is to protect the climate. The Tongass is North America’s lungs.”

Native American tribes that claim the forest as an ancestral homeland applauded the restoration of protections.

“This is one of the first steps that we have seen towards the racial equity that was promised toward our Indigenous communities from the Biden administration,” said Marina Anderson, administrator of the Organized Village of Kasaan, in Ketchikan, Alaska.

“We have a lot on the table — the forest is everything to us,” she said. “Everything that we’ve ever used or created comes from the forest: our methods of transportation, our tools, our weapons.”

Republicans and Democrats have fought over the Tongass for 20 years. The forest was heavily logged in the 1960s and the 1970s, but in 2001 President Bill Clinton enacted the “roadless rule” that blocked road construction necessary for logging and mining in much of the forest.

Just three months before leaving office, Mr. Trump exempted the entire forest from the “roadless rule,” handing a victory to Alaska’s Republican leaders who argued that the southeastern part of their state needed the economic boost that logging and other development would bring. The move was assailed by environmentalists and the majority of commenters who formally registered opinions with the government.

However, no new logging or construction has taken place in the forest in the interim. That is in part, experts have said, because it was widely expected that Mr. Biden would restore the protections soon after he took office.

It remains possible that a future Republican administration could lift the protections once again.

Ms. Murkowski said the yo-yo aspect of policy regarding Tongass is difficult for Alaskans.

“This is hard on the communities, it’s hard to plan,” she said. “There’s a local bank that’s based down there that’s catch as catch can, you know. How do you know where you’re going to go for investment when you have such uncertainty that’s been going on for so long? We’ve got to try to put a stop to this.”


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« Reply #14 on: Jul 21, 2021, 02:06 AM »
Deadly floods hit central China, killing 12 and forcing thousands to flee homes

Torrential rainfall and burst rivers swamp Henan cities, with commuters trapped in underground trains in the capital Zhengzhou

Vincent Ni China affairs correspondent, and Helen Davidson in Taipei
Wed 21 Jul 2021 05.57 BST

Days of torrential rain and massive flooding have hit China’s Henan province, bursting the banks of rivers, overwhelming dams and the public transport system and forcing thousands of people to evacuate their homes.

At least 12 people have been killed in the provincial capital, Zhengzhou. A year’s worth of rain – 640mm – fell in just three days. The city’s weather bureau said more than 552mm of rain had fallen between 7pm Monday and 7pm Tuesday, including 202mm between 4 and 5pm on Tuesday.

About 200,000 people have been moved to shelters, state media Xinhua reported on Wednesday, citing local government. The rainfall flooded the city’s subway system, collapsed roads, and prompted the suspension of inbound flights.

Across social media, videos showed the severity of the flooding, with hundreds of cars floating down main streets, and crowds of people forming human chains to rescue each other from roads and flooded buildings.

In the subway system where many of the confirmed deaths are thought to have occurred, waist-high water gushed through the tunnels, submerging platforms and filling carriages. Other videos showed commuters trapped inside carriages holding on to handrails with water up to their chests. At least five lifeless bodies were visible in one clip, filmed at an unidentified Zhengzhou station.

“The water reached my chest,” a survivor wrote on social media. “I was really scared, but the most terrifying thing was not the water, but the diminishing air supply in the carriage.”

The death toll was expected to rise, with numerous social media posts by loved ones of people missing. In the nearby city of GongYi at least one person was reportedly killed and two reported missing.

Zhengzhou’s flood control headquarters said that water storage at the Guojiazui reservoir was at “major risk” of dam failure and the local government was ordering evacuations.

In the city of Luoyang, local authorities said the rainfall had caused a 20-metre breach in the Yihetan dam “could collapse at any time”. Early on Wednesday a division of China’s military were sent out to the site to carry out emergency blasting and flood diversion.

Other divisions were sent out across the province to fight the floods and carry out rescues, authorities said.

The heavy rain across Henan began on 17 July. On Tuesday, weather agencies issued the highest warning level for the province and Chinese weather forecasts expected further severe downpours.

From Saturday to Tuesday, 3,535 weather stations in Henan, one of China’s most populous provinces with 94 million people, reported rainfall exceeding 5cm. Among the stations 1,614 registered levels above 10cm and 151 above 25cm, the authorities said.

Footage on China’s social media showed the world-renowned Shaolin Temple, known for martial arts, as well as other cultural sites, badly affected. Hundreds of trapped residents in Henan called for help online as flooding cut electricity to their homes.   

Floods are common in China’s rainy season, but their impact has worsened over the decades, due in part to China’s rapid urbanisation and the global climate crisis.

Extreme weather events have occurred in many parts of China this summer. Hundreds of thousands of residents in Sichuan province had to be relocated this month due to floods and landslides.

In June, Hotan city, in the far-west region of Xinjiang, had record-breaking rainfall, causing one resident to comment on social media that “the rainfall [this month] is equivalent to the combined rainfall of the past two years”.

Greenpeace said the risk of extreme weather was now highest in China in the densely populated city centres but that it was also growing fast for the outskirts of large cities because of rapid urbanisation.

Liu Junyan, of Greenpeace International, told Chinese media: “Because of the highly concentrated population, infrastructure and economic activity, the exposure and vulnerability of climate hazards are higher in urban areas. Cities are an important sector of global greenhouse gas emissions, which account for about 70% of the total emissions.”