Trump Carbon Plan Attacked by Coastal States, Lauded by Coal Interests

President Donald Trump’s proposal to replace an Obama-era policy to fight climate change with a weaker plan allowing states to write their own rules on emissions from coal-fired power plants was criticized by coastal states, but applauded by coal interests on Wednesday.

Under the proposed Affordable Clean Energy plan that acting Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) chief Andrew Wheeler issued in August, the federal government would set carbon emission guidelines, but states would have the leeway to set less stringent standards on coal plants, taking into account the age and upgrade costs of facilities.

The heads of environmental and energy agencies from 14 mostly coastal states, including California, New York and North Carolina, told the EPA in joint comments on the Trump plan that it would result in minimal reductions of greenhouse gases, and possibly result in increased emissions, relative to having no federal program on the pollution.

“We urge EPA to abandon this proposal and instead to maintain or update the (Obama era) Clean Power Plan,” which the states said would fulfill EPA’s obligations under federal clean air law and support the efforts of states to mitigate the effects of climate change. Some states including New York and Virginia have threatened to sue the EPA if the plan becomes law.

The comment period on the plan ends on Wednesday night and a final rule from the EPA is expected later this year.

Coal and some utility interests lauded the Trump plan.

“The proposed ACE rule is a welcome return to federal restraint after years of punitive overreach,” said Hal Quinn, the president and CEO of the National Mining Association, an industry group.

The coal industry had said President Barack Obama’s climate regulations represented a “war on coal,” but Trump’s promises to reduce regulations have not led to a revival, as the industry struggles with competition from an abundance of cheap natural gas. 

Ongoing closings of coal-fired plants have pushed U.S. coal consumption by utilities this year to the lowest since 1983, according to the Energy Information Administration.

In August, the EPA projected the plan would result in $400 million a year in economic benefits and reduce retail power prices by up to 0.5 percent by 2025. The EPA also forecast that under the rule, coal production would rise by up to 5.8 percent by 2025.

The Obama-era plan, which had been put on hold by the U.S. Supreme Court, set overall carbon-reduction goals for each state.

your ad here

Cuba Says Investor Interest Up Despite US Hostility

Cuba’s foreign trade and investment minister said on Wednesday the country had signed nearly 200 investment projects worth $5.5 billion since it slashed taxes and made other adjustments to its investment law in 2014.

Cuba began a major effort to attract foreign investment as socialist ally Venezuela’s economy went into crisis and has ratcheted it up as export revenues decline and the Trump administration backtracks on a detente begun under then-U.S. President Barack Obama.

“Foreign investment in Cuba is growing despite the recent strengthening of the U.S. economic, trade and financial blockade, though it is below what we want,” the minister, Rodrigo Malmierca, said at an investment forum in Havana.

Even as the forum unfolded, debate on an annual resolution condemning U.S. sanctions got under way at the U.N. General Assembly in New York and the Trump administration said that on Thursday it would announce new sanctions aimed at Cuba’s military and security services.

Malmierca said 40 new projects were signed over the last year valued at $1.5 billion.

Many agreements are in the tourism sector and are often simple management and marketing accords. Others are in manufacturing, oil exploration and, to a lesser extent, areas such as pharmaceuticals, agriculture and logistics.

Cuba says it wants a minimum $2.5 billion per year in direct foreign investment to dig its way out of years of crisis and stagnation.

While $5.5 billion in deals may have been signed since 2014, the government has said only around $500 million has actually been invested annually, including foreign government credits and donations.

Diplomats and business officials report that many projects are hard pressed to obtain financing and the Communist-run country’s bureaucracy also slows deals from getting off the ground.

For example, since 2014 five golf resorts valued at close to $2.5 billion were signed with British, Chinese and Spanish investors, but ground has yet to be broken on any of them, according to foreign business officials and diplomats with knowledge of the projects.

Malmierca said the country was working to overcome numerous obstacles for investors, such as lengthy delays for project approval, lack of experience among Cuban negotiators and Cuba’s dual monetary system with fixed exchange rates.

Under then-leader Fidel Castro, foreign investment was first nationalized, then, after the fall of former benefactor the Soviet Union it was viewed as an unfortunate necessity. Today it is lauded as an integral part of the country’s development strategy.

your ad here

US Supreme Court Divided Over How Google Settled Privacy Case

U.S. Supreme Court justices, in an internet privacy case involving Google, disagreed on Wednesday over whether to rein in a form of settlement in class action lawsuits that awards money to charities and other third parties instead of to people affected by the alleged wrongdoing.

The $8.5 million Google settlement was challenged by an official at a Washington-based conservative think tank, and some of the court’s conservative justices during an hour of arguments in the case shared his concerns about potential abuses in these awards, including excessive fees going to plaintiffs’ lawyers.

Some of the liberal justices emphasized that such settlements can funnel money to good use in instances in which dividing the money among large numbers of plaintiffs would result in negligible per-person payments. Conservatives hold a 5-4 majority on the high court.

The case began when a California resident named Paloma Gaos filed a proposed class action lawsuit in 2010 in San Jose federal court claiming Google’s search protocols violated federal privacy law by disclosing users’ search terms to other websites. Google is part of Alphabet Inc.

A lower court upheld the settlement the company agreed to pay in 2013 to resolve the claims.

Critics have said the settlements, known as “cy pres” [pronounced “see pray”] awards, are unfair and encourage frivolous lawsuits, conflicts of interest and collusion between both sides to minimize damages for defendants while maximizing fees for plaintiffs’ lawyers. Supporters have said these settlements can benefit causes important to victims and support underfunded entities, such as legal aid.

During the arguments, several justices, both liberal and conservative, wondered whether the plaintiffs had suffered harm through the disclosure of their internet searches, sufficient to justify suing in federal court, signaling they may dismiss the case rather than deciding the fate of cy pres settlements.

Liberal Justice Stephen Breyer seemed doubtful that simple searches, of one’s own name for instance, would be enough to sustain a privacy lawsuit.

Conservative Justice Brett Kavanaugh appeared to disagree.

“I don’t think anyone would want … everything they searched for disclosed to other people,” Kavanaugh said. “That seems a harm.”

Google agreed in the settlement to disclose on its website how users’ search terms are shared but was not required to change its behavior. The three main plaintiffs received $5,000 each for representing the class. Their attorneys received about $2.1 million.

Under the settlement, the rest of the money would go to organizations or projects that promote internet privacy, including at Stanford University and AARP, a lobbying group for older Americans, but nothing to the millions of Google users who the plaintiffs were to have represented in the class action.

Cy pres awards, which remain rare, give money that cannot feasibly be distributed to participants in a class action suit to unrelated entities as long as it would be in the plaintiffs’ interests.

‘A sensible system’

While wrestling over the privacy aspects of Google searches, the justices also disagreed about the settlement both sides reached. Conservative Justice Samuel Alito raised concerns that the money would go to groups that some plaintiffs might not like but have no say in opposing.

“How can such a system be regarded as a sensible system?” Alito asked.

Chief Justice John Roberts, another conservative, noted that AARP engages in political activity, an issue that the Google deal’s opponents, led by Ted Frank, director of litigation for the Competitive Enterprise Institute, had raised.

Google has called Frank a “professional objector.”

Roberts also said it was “fishy” that settlement money could be directed to institutions to which Google already was a donor. Some beneficiary institutions also were the alma mater of lawyers involved in the case, Kavanaugh noted.

Liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg told Frank, who argued the case on Wednesday, that at least the plaintiffs get an “indirect benefit” from the settlement.

“It seems like the system is working,” added Justice Sonia Sotomayor, another liberal.

In endorsing the Google settlement last year, the San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said each of the 129 million U.S. Google users who theoretically could have claimed part of it would have received “a paltry 4 cents in recovery.”

your ad here

Fitch Shifts Mexico Debt Outlook From Stable to Negative

Fitch Ratings changed its outlook on Mexico’s long-term foreign-currency debt issues Wednesday from “stable” to “negative,” citing the potential policies of President-elect Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador.

The leftist Lopez Obrador has tried to smooth anxieties in the business community, but upset many on Monday by cancelling a partly built, $13 billion new airport on the outskirts of Mexico City.

The private sector had strongly backed the airport project, but Lopez Obrador called it wasteful. Instead he plans to upgrade existing commercial and military airports. He made the decision based on a public referendum that was poorly organized and drew only about 1 percent of the country’s voters.

 

Alfredo Coutino, Latin America director at Moody’s Analytics, said the decision to cancel the airport project “added not only volatility but also uncertainty to the economy’s future, because it signals that policymaking in the new administration can be based more on such kind of subjective consultation and less on technical or fundamentals consistent with the country’s needs.”

“The cancellation has certainly introduced an element of uncertainty in markets and investors,” Coutino wrote, “which could start affecting confidence and credibility.”

Fitch confirmed its BBB+ investment-grade rating for Mexican government debt, but said Wednesday “there are risks that the follow-through on previously approved reforms, for example in the energy sector, could stall.”

Lopez Obrador has said he will review private concessionary oil exploration contracts granted under current President Enrique Pena Nieto’s energy reform, but won’t cancel them if they were fairly granted. The fear is that future exploration contracts may be delayed or cancelled.

Lopez Obrador won’t take office until December1, but has already announced major policy decisions.

 

Some of his policy announcements – like fiscal restraint, respect for the independence of the central banks and a pledge to avoid new debt – earned praise from investors.

But Fitch noted the decision to cancel the airport “sends a negative signal to investors.”

Lopez Obrador has also pledged to have the state-owned oil company, Pemex, build more refineries to lower imports of gasoline.

Fitch wrote that this type of proposal will “would entail higher borrowing and larger contingent liabilities to the government.”

 

 

your ad here

Thai Junta’s Rap Headache Beats On

The director of a viral rap video that has racked up tens of millions of views on YouTube with lyrics flaying Thailand’s military junta says the artists behind it have no intention of hiding from police. 

Since the junta, led by Prayut Chan-o-cha, seized power in a coup four years ago and banned political gatherings, it has harshly punished any form of dissent, jailing scores of critics and opponents. 

That’s why it was something of a surprise when director Teerawat Rujintham and the collective Rap Against Dictatorship launched a broadside against the military by releasing a profanity laced video called My Country Has It on Oct. 22. 

Teerawat told VOA the public response to the video, which has been viewed more than 23 million times on YouTube, had vastly surpassed the group’s expectations. 

Waiting for reaction

“The project served its purpose, and for now each of the members of the group and I are just waiting for the reaction from those in power and the government to contact us,” he said in an interview conducted partially through a translator. 

He said he and the group were “not going to hide from the police. We’re going to confront them, because I don’t feel that [we] did anything wrong.” 

Teerawat said the video had tapped into brooding resentment that many Thais felt toward the junta “under the surface” but could not express. 

“The country that points a gun at your throat.  Claims to have freedom but no right to choose.  You can’t say [stuff] even though your mouth is full of it. Whatever you do the leader will see you,” one artist raps in the video. 

Police initially threatened to arrest group members after the song’s release, but as online views of the video quickly shot up, they backed down. 

Local media reported Deputy National Police Chief Srivara Ransibrahmanakul had filed a defamation suit against the group and stressed that its members remained under investigation.  Police have not answered VOA requests for comment. 

Prayut reportedly weighed in Tuesday, warning anyone who “shows appreciation for the song must accept responsibility for what happens to the country in future,” according to the Bangkok Post. 

“I do not care if they attack me. But if they do so against the country, I do not think it is appropriate,” he reportedly said. 

Undeterred, anti-junta punk rockers plan to hold a concert Saturday in Bangkok at the site of a notorious 1976 massacre of student protesters opposing military rule. 

The massacre is regarded as a highly sensitive topic for the junta and is graphically depicted in Teerawat’s video when the camera pans to an effigy of a corpse hanging from a tree, representing the lynchings that took place. Teerawat said he chose to use the cover-up of the massacre as a metaphor for the present. 

Thitinan Pongsudhirak, an associate professor of international political economy at Chulalongkorn University, said the artists are helping vent pent-up public frustration as long-delayed elections, expected now by mid-2019, draw closer. 

More expected

“It strikes a chord because they feel that they themselves are fed up and frustrated with no way out, no voices to be heard. So these guys are speaking up for them, and I think we will see more of it going forward,” he said. 

Political figures ranging from former Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva to Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, the young billionaire leader of the progressive new Future Forward party, have come out in support of the rappers’ right to speak out. 

Their support and the huge popularity of the artists means silencing them outright has become a precarious proposition, Thitinan said. 

“The military government will be in a dilemma now because on the one hand they want to suppress it, there’s no doubt. But if they do suppress it they have less chance of winning the election, because these groups are popular,” he said. 

“On the other hand, if they allow it to go on, to take place, then they would invite other groups, other movements to come to the fore against the military government,” he said. 

Meanwhile, street graffiti artist Headache Stencil has gained notice for skewering senior regime leaders, including Prayut, in his satirical works.

Paul Chambers, an expert on Thai politics and lecturer at Naresuan University, said Rap Against Dictatorship’s video has gained strong popularity among urban voters, many of whom had originally supported the military coup. 

“Thus the writing is on the wall: More and more former junta supporters want the military to return to the barracks,” he wrote in an email.  “The surprise is that more and more urban Thais, who tended to remain supportive or apathetic to the junta, have now jumped on the bandwagon of demanding a return to democracy now.”  

Prayut repeatedly has delayed promised elections since staging the 2014 coup, Thailand’s 12th since 1932. He also passed a new constitution that grants him extraordinary power and the military virtually total control of parliament. 

Some steps have been taken to loosen the bans on political activities he implemented after seizing power, though many remain. 

Rangsiya Ratanachai contributed to this report. 

your ad here

Corporate Pledge to Deal With Plastic Draws Mixed Reaction

More than 250 corporate signatories joined together to try and deal with plastic pollution in an announcement timed to coincide with the 5th Annual “Our Ocean Conference” in Bali, Indonesia.

 

Under terms of the agreement, the companies agreed to, among other things, make all of the plastics they produce recyclable by 2025. The signatories, including Coca-Cola, Danone, and Kellogg, also agreed to a 2025 deadline to increase the amount of recycled plastic they use in the production of their various products.

 

Reoccurring problem

 

Environmental groups like Greenpeace cautiously welcomed the announcement as “moving in the right direction,” but say the agreement is way too open-ended to have much of an impact.

 

The facts are that around the world, according to a recent study, a whopping 91 percent of all plastic is never recycled. And all that plastic ends up in landfills, in the ocean, in the food chain and ultimately in us.

Greenpeace also noted that this agreement doesn’t change much because “corporations are not required to set actual targets to reduce the total amount of single-use plastics they are churning out. They can simply continue with business as usual after signing the commitment.”  

Business as usual is also how the group Oceana views the agreement. It put out a stronger statement, denouncing the agreement. “None of these companies have committed to stop using plastic, to stop putting plastic into consumer products, or to even offer consumers alternatives.”

 

Less plastic, more recycling

 

Most environmental groups are urging signatory companies like Coca-Cola and UniLever to stop the flow of plastics at the source.

“Every company that signed the declaration should commit to a meaningful, time-bound and specific percent-reduction of the amount of plastic it is putting into the market,” Oceana said in a statement. “…and to find alternative ways to package and deliver its products.”

 

In fact, Greenpeace officials point out that “11 of the largest consumer goods companies’ current plans allow them to increase their use of single-use plastics and none have set clear elimination or reduction targets.”

 

Despite the best intentions of the agreement, most environmental groups say this won’t do much to slow the amount of plastic building up around the world.

 

The companies that signed on, however, say this agreement will allow them to “eliminate the plastic items we don’t need; innovate so all plastics we do need are designed to be safely reused, recycled, or composted; and circulate everything we use to keep it in the economy and out of the environment.”

 

Since its beginning, the annual Our Ocean Conference has worked with private companies and governments around the world to protect 12.4 million square kilometers of ocean with monetary commitments worth more than $18 billion.

 

your ad here

Rafael Nadal Pulls Out of Paris Masters with Abdominal Pain

Rafael Nadal pulled out of his second-round match at the Paris Masters on Wednesday because of an abdominal problem, meaning Novak Djokovic will reclaim the No. 1 ranking next week.

Nadal was returning from a right knee injury which forced him to retire from the U.S. Open semifinals, but took medical advice not to play against Fernando Verdasco.

 

“The last few days I start to feel a little bit the abdominal, especially when I was serving,” Nadal said. “I was checking with the doctor and the doctor says that is recommended to not play, because if I continue the abdominal maybe can break and can be a major thing, and I really don’t want that.”

 

At last year’s tournament, Nadal reached the quarterfinals but then pulled out against Serbian qualifier Filip Krajinovic. Nadal has dealt with off-and-on knee problems for years and, given his injury record, the 32-year-old Spaniard prefers to be cautious.

 

At the U.S. Open in early September, he dropped the opening two sets against Juan Martin del Potro before retiring. He then skipped the Asia swing to recover, missing tournaments in Beijing and Shanghai.

 

“It has been a tough year for me in terms of injuries so I want to avoid drastic things,” Nadal said. “Maybe I can play today, but the doctor says if I want to play the tournament, I want to try to win the tournament, the abdominal with break for sure.”

 

Nadal did not say whether he will play at the season-ending ATP Finals in London, beginning Nov. 11.

 

“I cannot answer. I just go day by day, as I did all my tennis career,” the 17-time Grand Slam champion said. “I would love to be in London of course. But the most important thing for me is to be healthy, be healthy and have the chance to compete weeks in a row. Something that I was not able to do this year, playing only nine events and retiring in two.”

 

Nadal is optimistic his latest injury will pass, providing he does not rush back.

 

“It would not be fair to say it’s a real injury today but what is sure, if I continue it will be a real injury,” he said. “When you come back after injuries, and you push a little bit, the body at the beginning some issues can happen.”

 

Djokovic, who faces Damir Dzumhur in the third round, will reclaim the top ranking for the first time in two years on Monday.

 

Also, Roger Federer advanced to the third round after big-serving Milos Raonic retired with a right elbow injury.

 

Raonic injured himself during a three-set win against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga on Tuesday.

 

“In the middle of second set, I overextended my elbow and it did some kind of pain,” he said. “I went and I did an ultrasound and MRI, and they found some kind of a lesion in the tricep.”

 

Federer, who won his 99th career title at the Swiss Indoors last Sunday, will face 13th-seeded Fabio Fognini.

 

Defending champion Jack Sock of the United States and fourth-seeded Alexander Zverev reached the third round in straight sets.

 

The 16th-seeded Sock saved all four break points he faced in a 6-3, 6-3 win against Frenchman Richard Gasquet, while Zverev advanced 6-4, 6-4 over American Francis Tiafoe.

 

Seventh-seeded Kevin Anderson, the Wimbledon runner-up, got past Nikoloz Basilashvili 6-3, 6-7 (3), 7-6 (3).

 

No. 8 John Isner, No. 9 Grigor Dimitrov and No. 10 Kei Nishikori also won.

 

Dimitrov had 13 aces in a 7-6 (10), 6-4 win against Roberto Bautista Agut and Nishikori beat Adrian Mannarino of France 7-5, 6-4. Isner had 33 aces in a 6-3, 6-7(2), 7-6 (1) against Mikhail Kukushkin, with the big-serving American saving a break point in the 11th game of the third set.

 

Isner and Nishikori are competing with No. 5 Marin Cilic and No. 6 Dominic Thiem for the last two spots for the ATP finals. Thiem was facing Frenchman Gilles Simon later Wednesday, while No. 11 Borna Coric was playing Daniil Medvedev.

 

 

 

 

your ad here

Birthday Blues for Bitcoin as Investors Face Year-on-Year Loss

Bitcoin was heading towards a year-on-year loss on Wednesday, its 10th birthday, the first loss since last year’s bull market, when the original and biggest digital coin muscled its way to worldwide attention with months of frenzied buying.

By 1300 GMT, bitcoin was trading at $6,263 on the BitStamp exchange, leaving investors who had bought it on Halloween 2017 facing yearly losses of nearly 3 percent.

A year ago, bitcoin closed at $6,443.22 as it tore towards a record high of near $20,000, hit in December.

That run, fueled by frenzied buying by retail investors from South Korea to the United States, pushed bitcoin to calendar-year gains of over 1,300 percent.

Ten years ago, Satoshi Nakamoto, bitcoin’s still-unidentified founder, released a white paper detailing the need for an online currency that could be used for payments without the involvement of a third party, such as a bank.

Traders and market participants said the Halloween milestone was inevitable, given losses of around 70 percent from bitcoin’s peak and the continuing but incomplete shift towards investment by mainstream financial firms.

“The value mechanisms of crypto and bitcoin today are based more on underlying tech than hype and FOMO (fear of missing out),” said Josh Bramley, head trader at crypto wealth management firm Blockstars.

Growing use of blockchain – the distributed ledger technology that underpins bitcoin – is now powering valuations of the digital currency, he said, cautioning that some expectations for widespread use have not yet materialized.

Others said improvements to infrastructure such as custody services may allow mainstream investors who are wary of buying bitcoin to take positions.

“We see behind closed doors financial and non-financial institutions beavering away to create the infrastructure,” said Ben Sebley, head of brokerage at NKB Group, a blockchain advisory and investment firm.

Bitcoin has endured year-on-year losses before, according to data from CryptoCompare, most recently in 2015.

Retail investors still account for a strong proportion of trading, market players said.

Investors who bet early on bitcoin and have stuck with it have faced a roller-coaster ride in its first decade. Many told Reuters they are optimistic that they are still onto a winner.

 

your ad here

Russia Blames Rocket Failure on Technical Malfunction

Russia’s space agency says an investigation has found that a rocket carrying a crew to the International Space Station failed recently because of a technical malfunction of a sensor.

The Soyuz-FG rocket carrying a NASA astronaut and a Roscosmos cosmonaut failed two minutes into the October 11 flight, sending their emergency capsule into a sharp fall back to Earth. They landed safely on Kazakhstan’s steppe, but the aborted mission dealt another blow to the troubled Russian space program that serves as the only way to deliver astronauts to the orbiting outpost.

Roscosmos’ executive director Sergei Krikalyov said Wednesday the probe found that a malfunction of a sensor which signals the jettisoning one of the rocket’s four side boosters caused the booster to collide with the second stage of the rocket.

your ad here

Kanye West Distancing Himself from Politics

Three weeks after a bizarre White House meeting with U.S.

President Donald Trump, rapper Kanye West said on Tuesday he was

distancing himself from politics.

West, Trump’s biggest celebrity supporter, also sought to distance himself from a new campaign that encourages black Americans to quit the Democratic

Party.

your ad here

Hidden Secrets of America’s Ghost Towns

Clues to America’s past can be found in its ghost towns, once bustling communities that have been abandoned.

The deserted communities show us how the Industrial Revolution and two World Wars shaped the history of the United States, according to Geotab, a telematics company (think global positioning and vehicle tracking), which developed an interactive map showcasing more than 3,000 abandoned towns across America.

Ghost towns are often associated with the Wild West and Texas does have the most ghost towns with 511 abandoned communities. California follows with 346, and Kansas with 308.

Most of the Texas towns were established during the frontier era, from the early to mid-1800s. Mining towns sprang up around rich mineral deposits while the Mexican government’s favorable terms — a promised 4,000 acres per family for a small fee — attracted settlers.

“In the end, some Texas towns were destroyed by natural disasters and droughts, while others failed once the railroad and highway system reshaped transportation routes,” Geotab’s Kelly Hall told us via email.

Towns founded around particular mineral resources were abandoned when demand dried up.

“Once the need declined or resources were scarce, it caused the population or entire town to vanish,” said Hall. “Others were economically overpowered by neighboring towns, the Great Depression or frontier settlements that simply died down.”

Sixty structures still survive in Bannack, Montana, which was founded in 1862. The town flourished when thousands descended on the area with hopes of making their fortune in gold. By 1860, the gold was harder to reach and, despite a brief resurgence in the 1890s, the town was abandoned by the 1940s.

Natural disasters could also wipe out a town. That’s what happened to Fort Jefferson in Monroe County, Florida.

Built starting in 1846, the fort once helped defend the state against pirates, became a prison during the Civil War, was once used as a quarantine station, and then a refueling station for the U.S. Navy. But Fort Jefferson was abandoned in 1906 after it was damaged by a hurricane.

“With limited access to technology and without today’s emergency management advancements, a hurricane, a tornado or an earthquake could mean the total devastation of an entire community,” Hall said.

But some of these ghost towns, such as Fort Jefferson, have gotten a second life as tourist attractions. The residents are long gone, but the buildings, and the unique history of each town, remain.

your ad here

S. Korean Voting Machines at Center of DRC Election Dispute

As elections approach in the central African nation the Democratic Republic of Congo, concerns have been raised over the integrity of electronic voting machines being used in the national poll that were made by South Korea’s Miryu Systems. VOA’s Steve Miller reports from Seoul on the risks.

your ad here

Bolsonaro’s Economic Guru Urges Quick Brazil Pension Reform

The future economy minister tapped by Brazilian President-elect Jair Bolsonaro insisted on Tuesday that he wanted to fast-track an unpopular pension reform to help balance government finances despite mounting resistance to getting it done this year.

Paulo Guedes, whom Bolsonaro selected as a “super minister” with a portfolio combining the current ministries of finance, planning and development, has urged Congress to pass an initial version of pension reform before the Jan. 1 inauguration.

“Our pension funds are an airplane with five bombs on board that will explode at any moment,” Guedes said on Tuesday. “We’re already late on pension reform, so the sooner the better.”

He called the reform essential to controlling surging public debt in Latin America’s largest economy and making space for public investments to jump-start a sluggish economy. Markets surged in the weeks ahead of Bolsonaro’s Sunday victory on the expectation that he could pull off the tough fiscal agenda.

Brazil’s benchmark Bovespa stock index rose 3.7 percent on Tuesday, boosted by strong corporate earnings and the resolve shown by Guedes on pension reform.

Yet the University of Chicago-trained economist, who is getting his first taste of public service, met with skepticism from more seasoned politicians.

Rodrigo Maia, the speaker of the lower house of Congress, said on Tuesday that reform is urgent, but cautioned that the conditions to pass it were still far off.

Major Olimpio, a lawmaker from Bolsonaro’s own party who helped run his campaign, agreed the political climate was not ready for reform.

Even Bolsonaro’s future chief of staff, Onyx Lorenzoni, said in a Monday radio interview that he only expects to introduce a reform plan next year.

After a meeting with Lorenzoni, Guedes said the decision on timing was ultimately a political one that the chief of staff would weigh.

“We can’t go from a victory at the ballot box to chaos in Congress,” Guedes told journalists.

On other issues, Guedes made clear he was the final word on economic matters, laying out plans to give the central bank more institutional independence and clarifying comments made by Lorenzoni about exchange-rate policy.

“You are all scared because he is a politician talking about the economy. That’s like me talking about politics. It’s not going to work,” Guedes said.

Hot Button Issues

While advisers work out the details of his economic program, Bolsonaro revisited some of his most contentious campaign promises on Monday night: looser gun laws, a ban on government advertising for media that “lie,” and urging a high-profile

judge to join his government.

In interviews with TV stations and on social media, Bolsonaro, a 63-year-old former Army captain who won 55 percent of Sunday’s vote after running on a law-and-order platform, made clear he would push through his conservative agenda.

Bolsonaro said he wants Sergio Moro, the judge who has overseen the sprawling “Car Wash” corruption trials and convicted former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva of graft, to serve as his justice minister.

Barring that, he said he would nominate Moro to the Supreme Court. The next vacancy on the court is expected in 2020.

Bolsonaro had not formally invited Moro as of Tuesday afternoon, and the judge remained noncommittal on the proposal.

“In case I’m indeed offered a post, it will be subject to a balanced discussion and reflection,” Moro said in a statement.

Media Showdown

Late on Monday, Bolsonaro said in an interview with Globo TV that he would cut government advertising funds that flow to any “lying” media outlets.

During his campaign, the right-winger imitated U.S. President Donald Trump’s strategy of aggressively confronting the media, taking aim at Globo TV and Brazil’s biggest newspaper, the Folha de S.Paulo.

“I am totally in favor of freedom of the press,” Bolsonaro told Globo TV. “But if it’s up to me, press that shamelessly lies will not have any government support.”

Bolsonaro was referring to the hundreds of millions of reais the Brazilian government spends in advertising each year in local media outlets, mainly for promotions of state-run firms.

The UOL news portal, owned by the Grupo Folha, which also controls the Folha de S.Paulo newspaper, used Brazil’s freedom of information act as the basis for a 2015 article that showed Globo received 565 million reais in federal government spending in 2014. Folha got 14.6 million reais that year.

Globo said on Tuesday that federal government advertising represented less than 4 percent of the revenue for its flagship channel, TV Globo, without providing more detailed figures.

Grupo Folha did not reply to requests for comment.

your ad here

Ocean Shock: Lobster’s Great Migration Sets Up Boom and Bust 

This is part of “Ocean Shock,” a Reuters series exploring climate change’s impact on sea creatures and the people who depend on them. 

A lobster tattoo covers Drew Eaton’s left forearm, its pincers snapping at dock lines connecting it to the American flag on his upper arm. The tattoo is about three-quarters done, but the 27-year-old is too busy with his new boat to finish it. 

Eaton knows what people here in Stonington have been saying about how much the boat cost him. 

“I’ve heard rumors all over town. Small town, everyone talks,” he says. “I’ve heard a million, two million.” 

By the time he was in the third grade, Eaton was already lobstering here on Deer Isle in Downeast Maine. By the time he was in the eighth grade, he’d bought his first boat, a 20-footer, from a family friend. The latest one, a 46-footer built over the winter at a nearby boatyard, is his fourth. 

Standing on the seawall after hauling lobster traps for about 12 hours on a foggy day this August, he says he’s making plenty of money to cover the boat loan. He’s unloaded 17 crates, each carrying 90 pounds of lobster, for a total haul of nearly $5,500. It’s a pretty typical day for him. 

Eaton belongs to a new generation of Maine lobstermen that’s riding high, for now, on a sweet spot of climate change. Two generations ago, the entire New England coast had a thriving lobster industry. Today, lobster catches have collapsed in southern New England, and the only state with a significant harvest is north in Maine, where the seafood practically synonymous with the state has exploded. 

The thriving crustaceans have created a kind of nautical gold rush, with some young lobstermen making well into six figures a year. But it’s a boom with a bust already written in its wake, and the lobstermen of the younger generation may well pay the highest price. Not only have they heavily mortgaged themselves with pricey custom boats in the rush for quick profits, they’ll also bear the brunt of climate change — not to mention the possible collapse of the lobstering industry in Maine as the creatures flourish ever northward. 

Shifts by 85 percent of species

In the U.S. North Atlantic, fisheries data show that at least 85 percent of the nearly 70 federally tracked species have shifted north or deeper, or both, in recent years when compared with the norm over the past half-century. And the most dramatic of species shifts have occurred in the last 10 or 15 years. 

Just in the last decade, for example, black sea bass have migrated up the East Coast into southern New England and are caught in the same traps that once caught lobsters. Back in the 1980s and 1990s, only 50 percent of lobster caught in the United States came from Maine. That started to shift in the 2000s, and this decade, nearly 85 percent of all lobster landings are in Maine. 

Pushed out of their traditional habitats by dramatically rising ocean temperatures and other fallout from climate change, the lobsters are part of a global dislocation of marine species that threatens livelihoods and cultures in the lands where they once thrived. 

On this island where two-lane roads twist around cedar-shingled houses and the rocky shore, lobstermen set the rhythm, often rising hours before dawn and resting not long after sunset. 

Although young guns like Eaton are flush with cash now, old-timers know that lobsters no longer thrive in warming waters to the south, and they’ve heard the talk about how fast the Gulf of Maine is warming. They fret that lobsters will start failing here, too, and Stonington will lose its mantle as lobster capital of the world to somewhere in Canada. And these days, there’s not much to fall back on if it does. 

They remember back when fishermen could catch plenty of cod, pollock and halibut if lobsters weren’t filling their traps. 

Until recently, shrimp was a reasonably reliable catch for local fishermen. But in 2014, regulators closed the shrimp fishery entirely. 

“Here you’ve got these coastal fishing communities that are totally based on what comes out of the water,” says Ted Ames, a commercial fisherman who became a scientist and co-founded the Maine Center for Coastal Fisheries. 

He sits in the research center’s main conference room overlooking Stonington harbor, where hundreds of lobster boats bob on their mooring balls and the docks bustle with fishermen and their traps. 

In coastal Maine, he says, there’s little to sustain a community other than lobster and tourism. 

“You eliminate lobsters, and you have an instant Appalachia, right here.” 

 

Lobstering over time 

Unlike kids in most fishing communities around the world, youngsters here in Stonington clamor to get on the water. The gold-rush fever has gotten so bad, the local high school even has a program that encourages students to graduate before heading off to make a living from fishing. 

The skippers program, as it is known, offers the allotment of traps as a reward for staying in school. And when the students graduate, it streamlines the process of getting a full Maine skipper license, gradually increasing the number of traps to the maximum of 800. 

Deer Isle-Stonington High life sciences teacher Seth Laplant sympathizes with the students who chafe at being in school. 

“We have students that, you know, run their own business during the summer and do very well, and then they come back here and they have to ask to go to the bathroom,” he says. “It’s like a completely different world for them, and some of them do struggle with that. They’re used to being their own boss, and they’re respected in the community and in their families as adults.” 

But like many teens, they still play the one-upmanship game. Only with these students, it revolves around the size of their boats or the number of traps they own. 

Colby Schneider tells the class he’s the part-owner of a 30-foot fishing boat. 

Alex Boyce can’t believe it. “Are you serious, you have a 30-foot Novi?” 

“Yes,” Colby shoots back. “Me, my brother and my mom went thirds on it.” 

Alex rolls his eyes. He’s still accumulating traps and owns about a third of the 150 traps that students in the program are permitted to use. And his boat is only 19 feet long. 

Later in the day, Alex gathers with his father and grandfather in his grandparents’ kitchen. 

“Every year he asks: ‘Do I have to go back to school? Can I go fishing?'” says his father, offshore lobsterman Theodore Boyce II. “He went one weekend and made $700 in two days. That’s a tough thing to say no to as a parent. … But if he doesn’t finish school, he doesn’t go fishing.” 

Alex interrupts his father: “I was going to say, you seem to have a pretty easy job saying no.” Theodore’s eyes dart toward his son, and Alex backs down. 

Alex’s grandfather, Theodore “Ted” Boyce, is a fisherman and retired teacher. The 69-year-old, who still fishes part time, hopes his grandson can make a decent living on the water, but he isn’t sure. 

Invasive creature

In the summer of 2017, chatter on the Stonington docks was that lobstering wasn’t going to be as lucrative as it had been in recent years. Lobstermen were pulling fewer lobsters, and the traps often came up coated with layers of slimy sea squirts — an invasive jellyfish-type creature. 

The arrival of the squirts may or may not be related to climate change or the size of the catch, but it seemed to be a harbinger. As autumn moved toward winter, many of the traps piled high near the docks were encrusted with squirt carcasses. 

And when the Maine fisheries released their 2017 landings numbers, the chatter on the docks turned out to be true: Maine lobstermen landed 15 percent less than the record haul in 2016, the lowest catch since the beginning of the decade. 

​Lobster rush 

The waters between the islands of Deer Isle, Isle au Haut and Vinalhaven tell the story of the lobster rush. 

Thousands upon thousands of colorfully painted buoys decorate the surface, marking the point where traps are strung below. Each fisherman has a color pattern: reds and whites, blacks and pinks, and yellows, oranges and greens. Most are striped horizontally, making them easier to identify when floating on their sides. 

Despite Maine’s reputation as a largely undeveloped state, it’s a thoroughly urban world under the water here. At the height of the summer, there are probably traps every 10 to 20 feet in the near-shore waters. 

To describe a lobster pot as a trap, though, is a bit insulting to most other traps. As a practical matter, this is free-range aquaculture. The traps are designed to allow smaller, younger lobsters to come and go as they please, feasting on rotten fish. Even larger lobsters come and go, although with a little more effort. 

The unlucky ones are snacking when the trap’s owner decides to check it. 

Lobster buoys like the ones off Stonington once punctuated waters along the entire New England coast. Between 1960 and 2000, Connecticut and Rhode Island in southern New England accounted for about 15 percent of the lobster harvest. Since 2010, however, lobster catches have collapsed in both states, with a combined haul of less than 2 percent. 

Dramatic drop

Even Massachusetts Bay, which sits on the southwestern edge of the Gulf of Maine, has seen the catch dip dramatically. In the 1980s and 1990s, when lobster’s popularity with U.S. diners exploded, Massachusetts boats accounted for 20 to 30 percent of the harvest. Today, their share hovers around 10 percent. 

Southern New England lobsters once were protected from the warm water temperatures in Long Island Sound by upwelling from the Labrador current that tucked in along the coast of eastern Connecticut, Rhode Island and southern Massachusetts. 

As the waters in the sound became warmer and warmer during the summer months, the cooling current couldn’t keep up, and cold-water species such as lobsters no longer thrived in southern New England. And what remained of the lobster stock was vulnerable to an unsightly shell disease that made them worthless at the market. 

But even as the lobster business boomed in Maine, the waters here were warming faster than almost any other body of water in the world. 

Since 1980, the waters in the Gulf of Maine have steadily heated up, but that warming accelerated in the last decade. In fact, the average sea-surface temperature has been between 1 and 4 degrees Fahrenheit above the norm for most of the 2010s. 

The warming is driven by direct and indirect effects of climate change, says Andrew Pershing, chief science officer of the Gulf of Maine Research Institute. 

He says oceans the world over are absorbing heat from the warming atmosphere. The gulf’s warming, however, is compounded by its position in the North Atlantic, which is close to the weakening Labrador current flowing from the north and a strengthening warm Gulf Stream current flowing from the south. 

“You know,” says Ames, the lobsterman turned scientist, “lobster is the best example of global warming we have.” 

‘Go-getters’ 

Perley Frazier has been working these waters for more than 50 years. And at 70 he still hauls the maximum permitted 800 traps. 

His buoys, black on top, white in the middle and red on the bottom, are usually found a mile or so from town, near islands that once were quarried for granite by Italian immigrants. The stone was used in the construction of the George Washington Bridge in New York and the John F. Kennedy memorial at Arlington National Cemetery. 

No one works in the quarries anymore, he says as he slows his boat, Jericho’s Way. 

The rising sun winks off the peaks of swells and the thousands of buoys ahead of him. Without checking his chart plotter, he picks out a string of his buoys from about 100 yards away. 

Behind Frazier, his daughter, Lindsay Frazier Copeland, and son-in-law, Brad Copeland, prepare to hook a buoy and haul up traps. After a haul of three keepers, Lindsay and Brad shove the traps back into the water. Frazier throttles up and spins the boat a few feet to the next buoy. It’s a well-practiced routine, and not much said is among the crew, called sternmen. 

“It’s hard work, this,” Frazier says during one of their smoke breaks. “It’s hard to find a good sternman who wants to work this hard.” Since this trip, in fact, Brad and Lindsay have moved to Florida, and Frazier has put his boat up for sale. 

On the way to the docks to unload his harvest, Frazier points to a trawler heading into port. It’s one of the few non-lobster boats in the town — a herring trawler that goes offshore to catch the small fish, which are used almost exclusively for bait. 

And they can’t land enough herring to satisfy the local need for lobster bait; it’s trucked in from New Jersey, among other places. There are even stories of frozen fish heads from Asia finding their way into Maine lobster traps. 

These days, Frazier is using cowhide and discarded fish carcasses as bait. Others are using menhaden, or pogies, which migrated north into these waters even as the herring population has dropped off. 

Not much else to catch

The truth is, apart from lobster, there’s not much to catch here. And certainly not in the numbers that fishermen could make a living on. 

Until this century, only about 50 percent of all fishing revenue in Maine came from lobstering, according to U.S. fisheries data. In the 2000s, that started to steadily rise until, in 2016, it topped 82 percent. 

Later, Frazier sits in his armchair at home, after saving the largest five lobsters he caught for dinner. He sips a Canadian whiskey and recalls the days when there were other ways to make a living on the water besides lobster. 

Take shrimp, for instance. “They always said shrimp needs cold water. Well, we haven’t had any cold water,” Frazier says. 

“That’s the biggest thing — my biggest worry is about global warming. I mean, I’ve seen different fish that’s supposed to be down south that’s up here already, right now.  

 

“We got like triggerfish and we’re gettin’ butterfish, and fella told me the other day … that he had a seahorse.” 

He looks at all the new boats being added to the local fishing fleet and isn’t sure lobster can sustain them. 

“These guys, they got three-quarters of a million just in the boat,” he says. “And the gear, another quarter-million dollars. They are a million.” 

Maine’s fishing fleet is the newest in the nation among states with more than 200 U.S. Coast Guard-documented commercial fishing vessels. And it’s not close. Maine’s boats are an average 24 years old. The average age of the next two states, Massachusetts and Louisiana, is 31. Alaskan boats’ average age is 37, Oregon, 45. 

Still, Frazier doesn’t begrudge the money that younger skippers on newer boats are making. 

“I mean, these guys work hard and they go hard and put a lot of time in,” Frazier says. “Young guys, go-getters. And they did it right at the exact right time.” 

Six-figure income 

Back when Drew Eaton was in grade school, it took him two years to buy that first boat, which a family friend’s daughter no longer used. 

“I could buy half the boat and the motor the same year,” he says. He worked for the lobsterman the next summer to pay off the balance. 

Eaton left Stonington after graduating from high school and went to Pennsylvania for a year to study automotive collision repair. He didn’t stay in that field for long. “I worked in a body shop for a year, and I was getting $12 an hour,” he says. 

So he returned to what he knew. 

The young lobsterman’s boat now easily produces a six-figure income before expenses. He doesn’t linger on doubts about the future of lobstering in Maine. He leaves that for others. 

When he bought his last boat, he says, his parents were skeptical. “They thought I was going too quick.”  

Eaton was 22 and it was the same type of boat his father had just bought. 

“And then I started catching more than Dad. And then I wasn’t moving so quick.” 

And besides, he says, “I am young enough that if I fail, I can start over again in something totally different.” 

your ad here

Google Spinoff to Test Truly Driverless Cars in California

The robotic car company created by Google is poised to attempt a major technological leap in California, where its vehicles will hit the roads without a human on hand to take control in emergencies.

The regulatory approval announced Tuesday allows Waymo’s driverless cars to cruise through California at speeds up to 65 miles per hour. 

The self-driving cars have traveled millions of miles on the state’s roads since Waymo began as a secretive project within Google nearly a decade ago. But a backup driver had been required to be behind the wheel until new regulations in April set the stage for the transition to true autonomy. 

Waymo is the first among dozens of companies testing self-driving cars in California to persuade state regulators its technology is safe enough to permit them on the roads without a safety driver in them. An engineer still must monitor the fully autonomous cars from a remote location and be able to steer and stop the vehicles if something goes wrong.

Free rides in Arizona

California, however, won’t be the first state to have Waymo’s fully autonomous cars on its streets. Waymo has been giving rides to a group of volunteer passengers in Arizona in driverless cars since last year. It has pledged to deploy its fleet of fully autonomous vans in Arizona in a ride-hailing service open to all comers in the Phoenix area by the end of this year.

But California has a much larger population and far more congestion than Arizona, making it even more challenging place for robotic cars to get around.

Waymo is moving into its next phase in California cautiously. To start, the fully autonomous cars will only give rides to Waymo’s employees and confine their routes to roads in its home town of Mountain View, California, and four neighboring Silicon Valley cities — Sunnyvale, Los Altos, Los Altos Hills, and Palo Alto.

If all goes well, Waymo will then seek volunteers who want to be transported in fully autonomous vehicles, similar to its early rider program in Arizona . That then could lead to a ride-hailing service like the one Waymo envisions in Arizona.

Can Waymo cars be trusted?

But Waymo’s critics are not convinced there is enough evidence that the fully autonomous cars can be trusted to be driving through neighborhoods without humans behind the wheel. 

“This will allow Waymo to test its robotic cars using people as human guinea pigs,” said John Simpson, privacy and technology project director for Consumer Watchdog, a group that has repeatedly raised doubts about the safety of self-driving cars.

Those concerns escalated in March after fatal collision involving a self-driving car being tested by the leading ride-hailing service, Uber. In that incident, an Uber self-driving car with a human safety driver struck and killed a pedestrian crossing a darkened street in a Phoenix suburb.

Waymo’s cars with safety drivers have been involved in dozens of accidents in California, but those have mostly been minor fender benders at low speeds.

 All told, Waymo says its self-driving cars have collectively logged more than 10 million miles in 25 cities in a handful of states while in autonomous mode, although most of those trips have occurred with safety drivers.

Will Waymo save lives?

Waymo contends its robotic vehicles will save lives because so many crashes are caused by human motorists who are intoxicated, distracted or just bad drivers.

“If a Waymo vehicle comes across a situation it doesn’t understand, it does what any good driver would do: comes to a safe stop until it does understand how to proceed,” the company said Tuesday.

your ad here

Pacific Trade Pact to Start at End of 2018 After Six Members Ratify

A landmark 11-member trade deal aimed at slashing barriers in some of Asia Pacific’s fastest growing economies will come into force at the end of December, the New Zealand government said on Wednesday.

The deal would move forward after Australia informed New Zealand that it had become the sixth nation to formally ratify the deal, alongside Canada, Japan, Mexico and Singapore.

“This triggers the 60 day countdown to entry into force of the Agreement and the first round of tariff cuts,” said New Zealand Trade and Export Growth Minister David Parker. His country is responsible for official tasks such as receiving and circulating notifications made by members of the pact.

The original 12-member deal was thrown into limbo early last year when President Donald Trump withdrew from the agreement to prioritize protecting U.S. jobs.

The 11 remaining nations, led by Japan, finalized a revised trade pact in January, called the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP).

The success of the deal has been touted by officials in Japan and other member countries as an antidote to counter growing U.S. protectionism, and with the hope that Washington would eventually sign back up.

Australia said the agreement will boost agricultural exports, set to be worth more than A$52 billion ($36.91 billion) this year despite a crippling drought across much of the country’s east coast.

“It will give Australian grain farmers a good reason to smile, at a time when drought conditions have played havoc for many, by ensuring improved market access and better grain prices once more favorable seasonal conditions return,” said Luke Mathews, trading and economics manager at industry body, GrainGrowers Australia.

The deal will reduce tariffs in economies that together amount to more than 13 percent of global GDP — a total of $10 trillion. With the United States, it would have represented 40 percent.

The five member countries still to ratify the deal are Brunei, Chile, Malaysia, Peru and Vietnam.

your ad here